Why punish plagiarists?

A recent post at the great philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake had a reader asking the audience whether, by not automatically giving a student an F for the course after plagiarizing a one-page assignment, he had “gone soft”. Simultaneously, I empathize with the instructor and I am baffled by why I empathize.

In the past I have taken hard stances against plagiarizers, stances which at the time made a lot of sense to me. Like the author and commenters at the ISW post, it seemed to me that plagiarism is the worst kind of crime and deserves the worst kind of punishment. In retrospect, this attitude seems ludicrous. There is a broad spectrum of actions one could reasonably take in reaction to a cheater, ranging from expulsion to doing absolutely nothing. Why is the transition from “hard” to “soft” to be found between failing the course and not failing the course, a consequence that seems to be pretty far toward the severe end of the spectrum?

To shed light on that question, it might help to think about this one: Why should students be punished for plagiarism at all?

Before thinking carefully about this question, it’s really crucial to remember that there are different kinds of plagiarism, and treating them all alike is like claiming that a candy-bar thief should be punished like Bernie Madoff. I want to know whether there is any justification for plagiarism being punished so harshly, so it makes sense to consider the most serious kind of violation. I take it that this would be a student who copies (buys, whatever) an entire paper and passes it off as his own. If any kind of plagiarism is going to warrant harsh treatment, presumably this will be it. Unless otherwise mentioned, then, this is the kind of plagiarism I’m talking about.

That said, let’s consider a few arguments one might give for why plagiarism is a punishable offense.

  1. Plagiarism is cheating, and cheating is unfair to the other players. I take ‘cheating’ to mean ‘breaking the rules’, which is unfair because everyone else has to abide by the rules. But different kinds of cheating are immoral in different ways. Cheating in golf, for instance, is wrong at least partly because my actions have immediate negative ramifications for the other players of the game: I take a stroke off of my game, and you are that much more likely to lose. In golf, what’s good for one person is necessarily bad for the other players (assuming they’re opponents – in fact, this might be a functional definition of what it means to be opponents). The same is not true of plagiarism. Unless you grade on a curve (a practice that a philosopher who is concerned with “fairness” would be hard-pressed to defend, by the way), one student’s cheating his way to an A when he otherwise would have gotten a D does not have a negative effect on other students in the class. You might maintain that students are obligated not do things that their classmates are forbidden to do out of abstract principle, a position that I can imagine various sorts of arguments for. But if the only thing wrong with plagiarism were that it was a violation of an abstract moral principle, it would take a very warped theory of retributive justice to justify such draconian punishment.
  2. Stealing is unfair to the person stolen from. Like in the previous case, “fairness” could be judged along two metrics: the practical and the theoretical. Stealing is often bad in a practical sense. If you steal my Charleston Chew, I no longer get to enjoy it myself. Therefore, :'( . Intellectual “theft” works differently, since the person stolen from hasn’t lost the use of the ideas. Of course, intellectual theft sometimes amounts to material theft, as when a breach of patent costs an inventor lots of money. And a parallel consideration might be at work when we talk about plagiarism in the academic community at large. If Dr X writes a great draft, and Dr Y steals it and publishes it, it could mean that Dr Y beats Dr X out for that Ivy League faculty position. Generally speaking, though, this is not a relevant consideration for student papers. Students – especially undergraduates – are neither publishing their term papers (much less their one-page, low-stakes assignments) nor using their papers to compete with others for jobs. The only situation where I can imagine real harm to the victim of classroom plagiarism is where the victim writes a paper with a great, novel idea or argument, the professor reads two or three plagiarized versions of the same argument before getting to the original, and as a result the professor is less impressed with the argument and gives a lower grade to the originator of the idea.
  3. Plagiarism devalues a degree, which is unfair to classmates. A bit different from the first consideration above, which is concerned more with a single game. This argument has more to do with iteration. If you cheat once and get away with it, other people will realize that cheating is possible; thus more people will cheat; and thus, somehow, everyone’s degree will be worth less; decreasing the value of a non-cheater’s degree through your own cheating is morally wrong; therefore cheating is wrong. (Andy Cullison lays out this argument here.) There are a couple things to notice about this argument. First, the mechanism by which the actual devaluing of the degree come about are not specified, and presumably they’d have to be abstracted away from in order to count out obvious counterexamples where the student could cheat, get away with it, and never let anyone else know about the cheating. Second, this justification for the punishment of plagiarism is less a moral indictment of cheating than of harming other people’s degrees. In the end, this might amount to the same thing, but it does not justify the kind of snooty self-righteousness that tints some instructors’ lectures on plagiarism, which suggests that plagiarism is akin to a mortal sin. As for punishment, you might argue in this case (as Mill does in his wonky “sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity” argument near the end of Chapter 2 in Utilitarianism) that a harsh punishment fits this crime even though the actual consequences of this particular action are relatively small (or non-existent) because the action has the potential to contribute to the weakening of a larger feeling of trust that is so manifestly important. It strikes me that this is the best reason considered so far for punishing plagiarists.
  4. Plagiarism is bad for scholarship/academia/the university. I’ve heard this sort of argument before: if everyone plagiarizes from everyone else, how will any new things be discovered? In one sense this rhetorical question is clearly overblown. Taken more seriously, you might grant that the posting of falsified or plagiarized material in, say, a journal of medicine could end up distracting scientists for several years, thereby diverting valuable research resources. But this argument does not extent to students, who are generally not doing original research, are not publishing, and are not in a position to affect the discipline either positively or negatively.
  5. Plagiarism is so frowned upon in graduate school and the professional world that students must be trained as undergraduates not to plagiarize. In other words, you might grant many of the points I’ve made above, which suggest that plagiarism at the undergraduate level is really not worth punishing in itself, but still think that punishment is prudent so that students are trained not to plagiarize when it really counts. I think there are a couple of limitations on this justification, though. First, it’s not obvious that plagiarism really is all that frowned upon in most of the careers that our students are going to end up in. If I crib the opening paragraph of an earnings statement I’m preparing, who cares as long as it gets the job done? I suspect that relatively few of our students end up in careers – academics, journalism, writing – where plagiarism really is so disdained. Second, I am highly dubious that scaring students shitless is a good way to train them not to plagiarize. If you want to train a dog not to jump on a couch, you use a rolled-up newspaper instead of reason; the same should not be true of students. Even if punishment – in the form of failed assignments, failed courses, or grade deductions – is part of the instructor’s arsenal, it should be proportionate with other, more humane teaching methods.

I take away from these considerations that there are both moral and prudential reasons that justify the punishment of plagiarism. But the assumption that harsher is better that I so often see in instructors appears to me to be far off of the mark. Few would say that you should teach philosophy, or chemistry, or poliical science, or mathematics, by threatening and slapping students. Why teach intellectual honesty that way?

11 thoughts on “Why punish plagiarists?

  1. Andrew Cullison

    Nice post.

    Here’s a reason to have harsh, but not over-the-top harsh punishments. It discourages professors from pursuing plagiarism, and it discourages administrators from treating it with the seriousness it deserves.

    Plagiarism penalties are so severe, that there are massive tribunals/kangaroo court hearings that place substantial burdens on the professor. It is not uncommon for the court to side in favor of the student because of some weird external pressure (political, financial, bad-PR)

    I’ve seen several cases at different universities where a professor has gone to great lengths to establish plagiarism, but the person in charge of the tribunal.

    Super harsh penalties don’t solve the problem if they are so harsh that administrators and professors start judging that the offense in question wasn’t *really* plagiarism.

    (It’s like when cops look the other way on crimes because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that they think are too harsh)

  2. Lewis Powell

    Here is another reason to take punitive measures towards plagiarism (I do not take failure on the individual plagiarized assignment to be ‘punitive’ but simply a reflection of the grade earned on that assignment):

    Plagiarizing wastes the time and energy of the grader. My purpose in grading is to help give informative feedback to students about how well the understand the material and how well they are able to convey that understanding within the boundaries of the assignment. It is often an unpleasant activity, but, an instructor can accomplish the goal on any assignment that was written so as to honestly present the student’s understanding of the material. Plagiarized work does not serve this end, and, as a result, any time spent evaluating plagiarized work is time wasted. And time spent dealing with plagiarized work is time not spent dealing with honestly generated work. So, given that I hate wasting my time, and that plagiarism wastes my time on a pretty unpleasant activity at the expense of allowing me to spend that time actually accomplishing my main goals in grading, it seems permissible to take punitive measures against plagiarism to deter future plagiarism.

  3. Boone Post author

    Andrew – That’s a good practical consideration. I’ve adjuncted in departments where both the rules and the culture strongly encourage every “academic integrity” violation to be reported to an independent council. I definitely see the appeal in theory: potentially fairer treatment for students, and decreased responsibility for the faculty. But in practice there’s something wrong with the whole system. Even if it’s supposed to make for an even playing field, the very act of reporting an incident to an outside committee has the appearance of making it Very Serious (can you think of any other circumstances when teaching where you’re forced to turn to outsiders in a systematic way?).

    Lewis – I’m very glad you wrote this, as I have mixed feelings about this particular justification. If the point is to teach a general point about courtesy or respect (ie it’s wrong to waste other people’s time), I agree that there is at least some responsibility for the teacher to teach such a thing (to whatever extent instructors are responsible for the general moral development of their students, which in my view is non-negligible).

    However, there is a thin line between concern for the student’s knowledge of social customs on the one hand and hurt feelings or anger on behalf of the instructor. I do not think that “I don’t like to have my time wasted” is a legitimate reason for punishing the student. That’s not because feelings never justify action – if you and the student had a dinner date (after the semester was over, of course!!) and the student left you waiting for thirty minutes, you would arguably be justified in punishing the student due to your anger (giving them the cold shoulder or whatever). But the classroom dynamic is fundamentally different. The instructor does not cease to have personal feelings or to be a human being, of course, but by accepting certain powers (the power to give grades, etc) he thereby forfeits some of the spoils of regular human interaction, such as the right to punish someone for conduct they find personally offensive. In the same way, a cop isn’t justified in giving you a bigger fine if you don’t call him “sir”.

    Great point about failure on the individual assignment, though – I think you’re precisely right that it’s not punitive at all to fail someone on a specific assignment, at least if they failed to do it in a complete way (ex hypothesi the student copied the entire thing).

  4. Andrew Cullison

    The time wasting reason from Lewis can be framed as an injudicious use of university resources.

    The university pays the professor for n hours of work a week. Time spent grading a plagiarized paper wastes a chunk of those n hours, and those hours are not cheap.

    The University has an interest in preventing waste of university resources.

  5. Lewis Powell

    I think Andy explained one way of taking what I mean. However, my thought was presuming something more like a deterrent theory of punishment. Since my aim as an instructor is to teach, and I measure my success in large part by the work students present to me, I can best appreciate how well I am accomplishing my aim (and thereby serving the students as a whole), by seeing and grading work that has been honestly produced rather than plagiarized. This is why it is important to deter plagiarism, and thus why it is important to set things up so that getting caught plagiarizing is substantially worse than simply not doing the assignment well. This requires measures that are “punitive” insofar as they go beyond a simply evaluation of the performance on the assignment (as I noted, I don’t think giving a plagiarized paper a 0 is punitive, since it is an accurate reflection of the student’s performance on the assignment, punitive treatment of plagiarism occurs when the negative consequences for plagiarism are worse than simply not doing the assignment).

  6. Boone Post author

    Lewis, I totally agree that in the right kinds of scenarios, disproportionate penalties are justified as a deterrent. Handicapped parking fines might be an example: any given actual incident probably doesn’t have much (if any) negative utility, but the cause is important enough (remember the episode of Seinfeld?) that punishment is justified to keep people from doing it.

    A similar explanation will have to be given for your justification, then. You say that your aim is to teach, which is certainly a valuable goal, both for the students and for you. But when you fail a student for a course, you produce effects that go beyond the scope of what it means to teach (at least if teaching is construed narrowly enough): a student might have to fork out more money for extra semesters, a student might not be able to get a job because of blemishes on his record, whatever. So the question is whether the benefit of punishment in a given case (upholding a system that deters students from wasting your time, which in turn leads to better teaching) outweighs those negative effects. My sense is that in most cases the answer is no.

    That said, I don’t have any ready ideas for what a suitable deterrent might be. Once you’ve given someone a zero on the specific assignment that was plagiarized (which I agree does not constitute punishment if the work was indeed wholly plagiarized), it seems as if there aren’t many more punishments in the control of the professor beyond failure for the course. Docking points from a different assignment doesn’t seem fair somehow (though I’m not sure why it seems that way, given that failure for the entire course seems at least legitimate but it ultimately devalues every assignment). Maybe negative points? Additional assignments (a paper on why cheating is bad might be appropriate in a philosophy class, at least) isn’t a bad idea, but I don’t like pitching writing as a punishment.

  7. Lewis Powell

    I think there is a good contrast between the possible repercussions of a student failing a paper for poor work (which has, or can have, the same sorts of consequences you mentioned), and the case of plagiarism.

    For instance, I might favor a system that allows students who perform poorly in a class to withdraw the class entirely from their transcript, insofar as the consequences of a bad grade in the class go well beyond simply signaling failure in that particular course. And I might be okay with this system applying to students who receive poor marks for honest work as well as for students who cheat. I am fine thinking that, qua considerations about that course itself, the student should be disproportionately punished for cheating.

  8. Lewis Powell

    I’m not sure why I said that was a good contrast and then went on to say I’d be okay with treating the cases symmetrically. I think I was leaving unstated that I am okay with treating them differently, given that there is a negative mark on their records, but I might be okay the situation I described above as well.

  9. Jeremy Boggs

    You say that your aim is to teach, which is certainly a valuable goal, both for the students and for you. But when you fail a student for a course, you produce effects that go beyond the scope of what it means to teach (at least if teaching is construed narrowly enough): a student might have to fork out more money for extra semesters, a student might not be able to get a job because of blemishes on his record, whatever.

    I don’t think it goes beyond the scope at all. You’re in effect teaching them a lesson, that plagiarism is unacceptable in your class, and can hopefully iterate the reasons why. They may not get credit for that lesson, but it is a lesson to learn. Whether they learn that lesson or not is a different matter.

    For me, plagiarizing comes down to this: It fails to show that the student has demonstrated competency in a specific area of the class, or for a specific assignment. For students who have plagiarized in my classes, I’ve sent the assignment in question to the Dean, with a recommended punishment (I’ve always recommended failure for the assignment). That seems like a reasonable punishment to me. Sometimes the Dean tacks on something else, sometimes the student reviewers tack on even more. I’ve found the student ethics committee is far harsher on fellow students, which I actually like. A “policing of their own,” so to speak.

  10. Boone Post author

    Jeremy, in that quote I don’t think I was being as clear as I should have been. I don’t mean that the lesson “don’t plagiarize” is not within the scope of teaching – it most certainly is. I mean that certain kinds of punishments, while strictly speaking within the rights of the professor, have repercussions far beyond what is normally the scope of the instructor’s powers. Few would claim, I’d guess, that a $1000 fine would be an appropriate punishment for plagiarism, not necessarily because it’s disproportionate but because it’s not relevant to the offense. Yet failing a student in the class, while apparently more relevant, can have just such irrelevant consequences for the student. I’m not saying that students should therefore never be failed for classes because of plagiarism. I’m just saying that these consequences should be part of the judgment of whether failure is justified in a given case. In particular, it seems unacceptable to shrug and say “Well, you were warned” – “fair warning” does not justify unjust punishment.

    Your point about the plagiarist’s failing to demonstrate competency is right in line with what Lewis says above about its not being punishment at all, and I totally agree, as long as the plagiarism in question is the wholesale type I assume in my post.


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