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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cheating and Plagiarism By Students

The current issue of the Journal of Legal Education has a nice piece entitled Student Cheats and Those Who Harbor Them by Sue D. Naim (get it?).  "Sue" recounts a particularly trying episode in which she (or he) took official action against a student for cheating on an exam.  The main theme of the piece is the difficult decision one faces when such a situation arises as to whether to handle the matter informally or instead take some official action.

I had one particularly egregious instance of cheating -- and plagiarism to boot -- some years back when a student not only consulted off-limits internet sources on a take-home exam but plagiarized those sources as well.  It was not hard to figure out why, in Part I of the exam, the student had trouble stringing together a coherent sentence in the English language while in Part II, the student was writing like William Safire.  It was because Part II was actually writtten by William Safire.  I brought formal proceedings but the student was forced to withdraw from the school because of low grades before proceedings could commence.

That was the only instance of cheating I have ever discovered.  Plagiarism, however, is more common.  Much of it is what I would call "good faith" plagiarism, where the student obviously forgot to include quotation marks and/or a citation but did not intend to mislead.  Other times students take a portion of another work --sometimes only one or two sentences, but sometimes whole chunks -- verbatim or nearly verbatim with no quotes and no attribution.  I have found that such students often do not even realize they have done anything wrong.  I tend to handle plagiarism cases informally, either by requiring a re-write or, in more serious cases, by giving no credit for the portion of the assignment that was plagiarized.

Have you ever had to deal with cheating or plagiarism by students?  How have you done so?  And how on earth do some people get to law school with no understanding what plagiarism is?

P.S.  I am not Sue.

Posted by Michael J.Z. Mannheimer on May 11, 2011 at 09:42 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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There's something...not quite hypocritical, but at the very least odd about writing a story on plagiarism under a fake name. Academic honesty is about giving credit where credit is due, and publishing under your own name is about taking responsibility for your words.

I realize that there's no direct inconsistency between opposing plagiarism and writing under an assumed name, but they still strike me as, at some deeper level, incompatible positions. Pseudonyms allow the author to speak her mind without appropriate repercussions, while plagiarism is an attempt to avoid the consequences of not knowing what to say.

Maybe I should just stop trying to explain my discomfort, and just leave it with this: I'm not comfortable with a story like this being published without a name attached.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | May 11, 2011 10:36:09 PM

When I teach seminars, I state very clearly in my syllabus that lack of originality is grounds for a failing grade. Then I have a session, with handouts, on plagiarism. I once thought that students were lying when they said they didn't understand what plagiarism is, but I have learned that a number of them are telling the truth. By making it clear to them what plagiarism is, I hope to minimize the number of students committing it and leave those students who still choose to engage in it with absolutely no plausible defense.

Posted by: Lyrissa | May 11, 2011 11:39:00 PM

I had one student who plagiarized two assignments. Rather, I thought it was plagiarism, but the honors review board disagreed. In the first assignment, the student quoted extensively (probably 1/3 of his paper) from a handout that had accompanied the assignment without any quotation marks or citations. For the second assignment, he was writing a response brief in which 4/5 of his paper copied the opening brief verbatim without any quotation marks or citations.

Three interesting lessons for me:

(1) The review board disagreed with my assessment that this was plagiarism making me hesitant about bringing charges against other students (although I am no longer at that institution).

(2) I was not clear with my students about what I viewed as acceptable in terms of citation and plagiarism. This is especially difficult where students are writing papers that respond to others (like briefs or response papers). [Lyrissa -- I'd love to see your handouts and hear what you do in your class on plagiarism.]

(3) Some level of plagiarism seems acceptable in legal writing. (I don't mean academic writing.) Lawyers often cut and paste from other briefs or from opinions when writing briefs and other documents. It is often acceptable and, at times, encouraged. Students coming from summer jobs at law offices may have been instructed to write this way, and I am not sure how much to discourage it.

BTW, the student I referred to above did not do well on the assignments in the end not because of the plagiarism problem but because students who are just cutting and pasting from elsewhere often misunderstand the issues or leave out analyses of the issues.

When I was a TA in grad school plagiarism seemed more widespread (or at least easier to catch). I have never used a plagiarism checker for law students or grad students. Do any of you?

Posted by: Jessica Owley | May 12, 2011 9:17:31 AM

On the plagiarism front, I include a lot of info in my syllabus for courses in which students will draft rearch papers. I'm happy to share it with anyone. (I need to give credit to Phil Sparkes for providing the language. He gave me permission to use the language without citing him!) We probably could update it with more current sources, but the principles have not changed. I'd really like to know more about what Larissa distributes and discusses with the students on this score. I think they could use the help.

For practice-oriented drafting assignments, I discuss how to use forms. For fill-in-the-blank work (for which attorneys really shouldn't be charging much if they are actually doing such work themselves), copying is expected and normal. Examples include Articles of Incorporation and a Notice of Motion. In contrast, for everything else forms are just a very minimal guide, even though the documents produced are "routine." I explain that I expect a work product custom tailored for the "client's" problem. Examples include a Complaint, a Motion to Compel, an LLC Operating Agreement. I use completely different fact patterns each time so that students could not possibly cross the line and provide a work product for which they'd receive credit.

I hear that the plagiarism-checking software if quite good but not cheap.

Mike, we may have spoken about the one time I filed formal charges against a student. That student did not graduate. I can't disclose much, but the decision to pursue formal charges was a simple one in light of the seriousness of the infractions. I've dealt with other things less formally in accordance with flexible language in my syllabus (late assignments, attendance issues). I used to have firmer language (x # of absences results in an F) b/c I didn't want to evaluate excuses, but I decided I wanted some equitable discretion for real hardships (and the absentees never seemed to pass anyway). I'm happy to share any of that but I won't get into it here. Nonetheless, my point is that one can develop strict or more flexible syllabus policies related to plagiarism, too.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | May 12, 2011 11:49:19 AM

I had a situation about 7 years back in which a student's prose vacillated from pitiful to amazing. In reviewing the footnotes, I came across one that said something like "see supra notes 242-265 and accompanying text", in a paper that contained less than 50 footnotes. I did a Westlaw search on "242-265" and presto -- the article my student had copied from, word-for-word, paragraphs at at time. The student, in the last semester of her third year, did not graduate.

Posted by: Rick Bales | May 12, 2011 8:14:25 PM

At my undergraduate college, I sat on the Academic Integrity Review Board, which had appellate jurisdiction over the Dean's dispositions for first-time offenders and original jurisdiction over claims for second-time and later offenders. Our board was made up of a mix of students, professors, and non-teaching staff. I tended to find that students were harsher on cheaters than the professors and staff; there was a feeling that "/we/ can get through the stresses of college without cheating; we expect that you can, too."

Posted by: Sean M. | May 13, 2011 1:14:54 AM

I enjoyed your post, Michael. I have posted some thoughts on the article at http://www.theconglomerate.org/2011/05/how-tough-should-we-be-on-student-cheats.html

Posted by: Usha Rodrigues | May 13, 2011 4:44:08 PM

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