Monday, January 17, 2011

What punishment for plagiarism?

Many people, including me, at third-level education find that Plagiarism is a plague that defies all efforts to stamp it out. Plagiarism, according to, is defined as:

Image from
"Five Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism"
"the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work"

Basically - it is a fancy word for "cheating". Every single student knows that copying and pasting material from the Internet into an essay/assignment/project is not the right thing to do. They know what they are doing, and they know that they are taking a chance. Now - for me it is this "chance" factor that is the most important thing. As log as there is a "chance" of being caught, there is of course a "chance" of not being caught - and many are prepared to take a gamble. Unfortunately I have detected plagiarism in many essays, assignments, and projects over the years. I have mostly used Google as my detective - simply type in a fews words from a suspicious passage, and Google will find it. Nowadays we have tools such as Turnitin which makes being a plagiarism detective a lot easier. Despite the presence of this tool - a few students continue to take a chance. Whether it is a deliberate gamble, laziness, panic (approaching a submission deadline), an effort to beat-the-system, or an effort to put one over on a Lecturer - the few will continue to plagiarize other people's work.

But... how do we deal with minor incidences of plagiarism. An incorrect citation, poor scholarship, an accidental omission of a few references - these do not constitute a deliberate attempt to cheat. The first question I ask myself when reading a suspicious passage - "is this a deliberate attempt to cheat"? I am also mindful that first year (or younger) students may not have a full understanding of what plagiarism is. You tell them that it is OK to copy material from the web or other resources as long as they cite the source (and use italics, etc). Some interpret this as simply "it's OK to copy material from the web" - it can be a confusing message. For students reading this blog post, here are five tips for avoiding plagiarism from a Path to Information Literacy Online Tutorial (PILOT) online course from the Los Rios Community College in Sacramento:
  1. First, use your own ideas. It should be your paper and your ideas that should be the focus.
  2. Use the ideas of others sparingly--only to support or reinforce your own argument.
  3. When taking notes, include complete citation information for each item you use.
  4. Use quotation marks when directly stating another person's words.
  5. A good strategy is to take 30 minutes and write a short draft of your paper without using any notes. It will help you think through what you want to say and help prevent your being too dependent upon your sources.
The whole course is worth viewing. The National College of Ireland has also got an excellent on-line resource - A Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism produced by the Norma Smurfit Library.

Todd Pettigrew writing on the 13th December 2010 in the On Campus on-line magazine asks the question: "What punishment for plagiarism?". For a first offence, Pettigrew suggests that "a plagiarized assignment should receive a grade of zero, recognizing that the student has violated a basic principle of academic discourse" and that such "cases of plagiarism must be reported to the administration" to be tracked. For a second offence, he suggests that a "student should get a zero in the course in question" - this is on the basis that a second offence is "worthy of a harsher punishment than the first because the offender should have known better and should have reformed after the first time". A third offence should "result in some kind of suspension or expulsion". This more severe penalty would serve as a "deterrent to students who might adopt cheating as a general strategy, would assure the wider community that the university values academic integrity, and would remove chronic offenders (who take up valuable time from teachers and staff) from the system". While these measures are harsh - I agree with Pettigrew that "most students would see such a regime as fair and reasonable". 

Most colleges will have some form of policy and procedures for dealing with plagiarism - if they don't, they should. Faculty and college administration also have a major responsibility to ensure that all students are not just aware that a policy exists, but that they understand what it is and what the consequences are. Pettigrew has a message for faculty: "I have heard more than one faculty member say, “I didn’t become a professor to be the plagiarism police.” Well, actually, you did".


  1. Hi Eugene, in the UK published a "plagiarism reference tariff" as a guide to determining appropriate penalties for student plagiarism in HE. You can find it at:

    The tariff came out of the third phase of the AMBeR project, looking at the range of penalties awarded for plagiarism in UK HE, as well as the criteria used. It is not a "recommended" tariff, but rather an amalgamation of current practice in the UK.

    NUIG is currently involved in a further piece of research to measure actual penalties awarded against the tariff. Contact me if you'd like any information.

    Sharon Flynn (NUIG)

  2. Its quite amusing that in the first two paragraphs of this post you both lament and exemplify the act of plagiarism.

    You copy directly from and then go on to lament on the evils of students copying directly from the Internet, I can see why they would be so confused as to think that plagiarism is O.K. has terms of service which you, yourself do not adhere to. In paragraph 2.1 of the terms of service, you may not distribute its content for commercial purposes. This blog is connected directly to NCI, a commercial institution and as such breaking the terms of service. This is furthered by latter parts in the TOS, including 3.1, 11. etc.

    My point is this: You can find that anyone, good meaning or not, to have broken some rule or other without much effort at all. Instead of incentivising the punishment of students, you should be spending your time on finding other methods to qualify students attendance and comprehension of material and/or better educate them on what is plagiarism.

  3. Hi Solanexus,

    Very good points - thanks again for reading my posts.

    In my defense (again!)...

    You will note that I cite and use the correct form of quotation (italics and inverted commas), which is acceptable.

    This is a private/personal blog (I am writing now during my lunch break!) and is not connected, endorsed, or even approved by NCI. My Blog has no revenue at all and is not commercial in any way. (But you are right - I may need to be more careful and separate my personal thoughts from NCI to make this clearer).

    NCI is a registered charity.

    I agree 100% with your last point. The ideal would be that there would be no plagiarism at all and I would not have to spend any time detecting, reporting, and analyzing suspected cases (which unfortunately I have to do as part of my job).

    I welcome your comments (even though they are critical of my writings) - this is an important debate and it is great to have NCI student input. Many thanks again!


  4. Hi Eugene,

    I would contest the commercial nature of this blog, but in any case I appreciate you tackling my points, critical as they are.

    I may be critical of those with authority, but only because they have the power to make things better.


  5. Hi Solarnexus,

    Criticism and comment is welcome on this Blog.