plagiarism, ignorance and responsibility

Here’s the third post in a series on cheating/academic dishonesty in college (first post, second post).

A year and a half ago, I taught an introduction to philosophy course independently. The lectures were in person, but the tests were online because the class only met once per week and I didn’t want to use up a whole week’s worth of lecture for each test. The students were repeatedly instructed, both in class and on the test itself, not to use any sources other than their notes and textbooks.

Upon grading the first test, I discovered that a few students had copied and pasted answers or parts of answers directly from Wikipedia and Yahoo! answers. This was very disappointing, and I dreaded having to deal with the situation. I arranged times to speak with the students, planning to deal with them pretty harshly.

However, when I spoke to them, I was surprised by what I heard. At least two of them seemed kind of baffled that what they had done was wrong, as if they didn’t know that it constituted plagiarism and/or as if they had done the copying and pasting totally unthinkingly. This fit with the fact that the rest of their tests were quite good – there was no need for these students to cheat out of fear of failing. It seems that, in today’s internet culture, it didn’t even occur to them that there could be anything wrong with the casual, undocumented use of online sources.

I was, and continue to be, torn about what to do in these cases. On the one hand, I did plainly forbid the use of other sources in the test’s instructions. Taking a test constitutes tacit consent to its terms, and I would have been well within my rights to give the students a zero on the test, or worse.

On the other hand, though, I’m sympathetic to these students on account of the fact that they appear not ever to have had a respect for academic honesty and a crippling fear of accidental plagiarism instilled into them. Babies don’t pop out knowing about plagiarism, after all. Given the sorry state of education, many of my students probably never learned about plagiarism – what counts as plagiarism, how to cite things properly, what the consequences of committing it can be. And if they didn’t have the relevant knowledge, then there is a case to be made that they are less than fully responsible for their acts of plagiarism.

On the other hand (you have three hands, right?), a lack of knowledge concerning plagiarism doesn’t immediately imply that these students have no responsibility for their acts. They could be responsible for not taking the initiative to learn about plagiarism on their own, such as by reading the whole student handbook or the materials made available on the school’s library’s website. This is a kind of second-order responsibility; failing to take these steps reveals a blameworthy deficit of concern for the academic terms to which one has agreed and amounts to a form of negligence.

Furthermore, a lack of knowledge concerning plagiarism also doesn’t immediately imply that the students ought not to be punished for acts of plagiarism. Punishments, blameworthiness, and responsibility are interrelated in complicated and controversial ways. Sometimes there are prudential or moral reasons not to punish someone who is responsible for a bad act and blameworthy for it (punishment would be too expensive, or the person is now old and sickly, or not punishing the person would somehow or other maximize utility). And sometimes there are prudential or moral reasons to punish someone who was not fully responsible for a bad act, and/or who is not properly blameworthy for it. In the plagiarism case, it’s very difficult to tell who did or didn’t know what constitutes plagiarism or that plagiarism is wrong. Maybe it is better to send a message that there is “zero tolerance” for plagiarism of any kind – willful, ignorant, or willfully ignorant. This has the added benefit of saving teachers all the time and trouble of deliberating endlessly about the particulars of a plagiarism incident.

Yet, I remain undecided on this kind of case. Plagiarism is obviously unacceptable, but the circumstances surrounding can differ widely and seem to matter. I hope that in the future, I either never encounter plagiarism again (fat chance) or that it is so egregious that I can punish it without qualms (but isn’t that kind of a weird thing to hope for?)

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