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A Tale of Two Cheaters

Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013
The best student comment on "A Tale of Two Cheaters" wins a $100 Amazon gift certificate. Entries must be received by midnight, Sunday, May 5th, 2013. Subscribe to the blog (by RSS or by e-mail in the right hand column) for updates. 
**DISCLAIMER: All characters and scenarios in this post are fictional.**
Rebecca is a freshman this year, and the transition from high school to college has been pretty academically difficult for her. She has always been an excellent student, however, so she takes the challenge in stride.
After turning in a final paper for one of her English classes, Rebecca receives an e-mail from her professor informing her that she has failed the class. Rebecca can’t believe it—perhaps she put less effort into this paper than her others, but she certainly didn’t produce F-quality work! She immediately responds and asks why. Her professor informs Rebecca that she had included a paragraph in her paper that was copied and pasted verbatim from an online source, and that Rebecca had failed to provide a citation. The professor then refers Rebecca to the section on academic integrity in the course syllabus, which clearly states that any student found plagiarizing will fail the course.
At the same university that week, Nick wraps up his first round of sophomore year exams. He’s thrilled to be heading home for break after an extremely tough quarter, and is pretty happy with his grades as they begin showing up online. However, he notices he received a C in a class that he was expecting a solid A in, and e-mails his professor to ask why. His professor responds that she found several instances of plagiarism in his final paper, so he failed his final assignment, and that affected his final grade. She also notes that this is consistent with her policy on academic integrity as stated in her syllabus.
Ultimately, for similar acts of plagiarism at the same school, Rebecca and Nick suffer very different consequences. Rebecca fails a course, while Nick fails a final paper. Is this fair?  Should schools force faculty to have the same policy about plagiarism across the board, or should it be up to the faculty’s discretion?  What would be a fair punishment?
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Comments Comments

Jeremy said on Apr 24, 2013
I feel that failing an assignment for plagiarism instead of an entire course would better allow a student to get their act together and learn what they can from the course. If there is still hope of a passing grade, there is still a reason to study. That said, because each class is structured differently, I feel that punishment severity should be decided by the professor instead of being a school-wide decision. If Nick, for example, was in a class that had both a final paper and a final exam, putting more emphasis on the exam, then it would make sense to be judged less severely than Rebecca's English paper. - Like - 2 people like this.
Ben Awhyle said on Apr 28, 2013
In a way, this is similar to the notion of state law vs. federal law. And in this instance, I believe that the consequences for cheating should be treated federally. One of the reasons that cheating is so rampant across campuses results from a lack of unified punishment. Imagine that when someone was robbed, he or she got to determine the criminal?s sentence. Clearly, that would incur a host of problems, yet essentially we are doing the same thing when we allow teachers to individually determine the consequences. Punishment, as both Rawls and St. Aquinas note, can only be effective as it is applied in a procedure. However, if each teacher is able to dictate her own rules about cheating, there is no procedure, only arbitrary consequences. While teachers certainly have the right to determine their grading policies, something as severe as the punishment for cheating needs to be treated equally. All other school infractions are relegated to procedural justice, why shouldn't cheating fall under that category, too? - Like
KFuelling said on May 1, 2013
While receiving such an email would be quite a shock, we have been taught and reminded continuously about academic integrity. In fact, each professor has started his or her class by introducing the syllabus and acknowledging the importance of academic integrity. Rebecca may be a freshman, but should have been aware of the information regarding academic integrity. Overall, our university is consistent with its rules and regulations and professors try to adhere to such rules. However, professors have the ability to decide what works best for their course and syllabus, as evidenced above. Because cheating is a very serious offense, it should be treated the same across campus. It would be worthwhile to create an honor court or honor code that touches upon such information and provides recommendations to professors. At this point, the professors were both consistent with their syllabi and took the necessary actions. I think it would actually be wrong to go back and change the decision, but would hope that professors would take better care to make similar policies, emphasize its importance in the syllabus and that students would consider the consequences before submitting any assignment. It may be upsetting for Rebecca, but would certainly teach her a lesson for the future and make her a stronger individual. - Like
The Big Q said on May 7, 2013
Thank you to everyone who commented for your thoughtful responses! However, no prize will be handed out this week because the comments came from individuals that are either previous winners or not current college students (meaning that they are ineligible to win the $100 prize). Please check out our new bi-weekly cases for more chances to win! - Like - 1 person likes this.
AdrianLangfeldtTOKLeysinAmericanSchool said on Jan 29, 2014
I would say that this ethical implication is quite simple. Rebecca and Nick have both committed the same "crime", so they should of course get the same consequence. As a professor it should not be accepted if one treats it's students differently. In her syllabus it says that plagiarism is punished with failure of the course, so she is not living up to her own rules if she treats it differently. One might say that if a couple of sentences is different than a whole paragraph, but plagiarism is plagiarism. If one takes this to the extreme we can connect it to the famous trolly cart story, if one pushes the button to kill a person or pushes a guy of a bridge, you are still killing someone. I think that if the professor wants to give different consequences then she has to specify what is the limit of plagiarism before one fails the course. - Like - 3 people like this.
Kolo Rath said on Jan 30, 2014
Though AdrianLangfeldtToKLeysinAmericanSchool raises some valid arguements I find his point of view to be rather deontological, almost too strongly, preventing him from seeing this issue from a different perspective. If one considers Adrian?s way of thought then any act one performs would be the maxim for universal law. In this case if lying is considered acceptable (as it is almost inevitable) then all acts of lying would be ethical. Yet there is no doubt that certain lies are far more consequential (negatively) than others. I find this is a similar case and hence a deontological approach would be rather limited. If one examines the style of cheating that occurred (though they were both accidental) one was definitely more severe, plagiarism of a whole paragraph vs. some small acts of plagiarism here and there. Nevertheless the punishment does seem to be excessive, especially when regarding the ?crime? and so I find that it would be far more appropriate for both to be disciplined in the less harsh manner (simply failing the paper rather than the whole course) as it would do greater good to both of the students (Consequentialist theory). - Like - 2 people like this.
A said on Jan 31, 2014
The fair punishment for both of these students should be exactly the same. I personally do not see a problem with failing the whole course due to plagiarising on the final paper in the class but there have to be set rules, so that everybody gets the same punishment. The ethical dilemma here is not what kind of punishment the students will receive, the ethical dilemma is why both students who committed the same 'crime' but both received different punishments and in this case it is ethically wrong to give two students different punishments for the same crime. - Like
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Tags: academic integrity, cheating, fail, grades, plagiarism