Thursday, May 1, 2008

If you go looking, you will find.

I shared a concern that I had with a student this week that his exercise was a plagiarism. It consisted of two parts, one part was barely in coherent English with many misspelled words, the second (set in a different typeface) was nicely written with only the occasional misspelling.

I couldn't find anything with a search machine, but I suspect it was borrowed from a previous year's course. I tried to confer with the teacher of that course, but she is on vacation this week, so I attempted to communicate with the student.

He erupted into anger - was I calling him a criminal? No, I was curious as to the explanation for the surprising differences. He berated me, insisted there was no difference. This made me analyze the parts: part 1 was half a page and had 18 spelling errors and badly structured sentences. Part 2 was a page and a half, had correctly structured sentences and only 12 errors in total, or 4 per half a page. That's a power of 10 difference.

I asked the student for patience and told him that if the other teacher does not recognize the paper, he will get the normal amount of points for the exercise.

He threw back an email (the question of how reasonable it is to fight with a teacher in a tone like this is beside the point) saying that if I look hard enough I will find plagiarism everywhere I want to. He said it rather nastily, but he does have a point: If you find a lot of plagiarism, do you start (wrongly) thinking that most students are plagiarists and seeing plagiarism everywhere?

Or is plagiarism just so rampart that we absolutely must suspect it everywhere?


  1. Maybe he was just drunk the first half, then went to bed and wrote the other pages at a later date. He even wouldn't notice his first mistakes later, since he reads what he thinks he wrote.

    There are many options to explain such differences, not only plagiarism - I remember one case back at school, where one teacher believed my classmate paid (or convinced) someone else to write half his homework. It took some time to persuade the teacher that my classmate just switched his blotting pad while writing (there's a noticeable font difference between a hard and a soft blotting pad)...

    It's also just homework, no thesis, no dissertation. So, why not relax a bit?

  2. Well, even if it is "just homework" - it gives points to pass a course that is necessary to get a degree. And students must learn from the beginning what we expect from them. If we don't insist on proper citations from the beginning, we can never get them to make the switch.

    The point with being drunk for the first half is well taken and is for this student an extremely plausible reason. He showed up for the first day of class after an all-nighter still drunk and with his shirt unbuttoned (no, no undershirt on).

    As I said, if the other teacher has never heard this strange story before, I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Still leaves a strange taste when you say that you are suspicious. How better can one do this?

  3. If he was drunk when he wrote the first part, then it should be no problem for him to re-write it to match the cleaner prose of the second part. And in fact, and sensible student ould have done exactly that. Why should you "relax" because one part of a student paper was very poorly written? It's a teacher's job to help students write better.

    Have you any other examples of his writing to compare? It would be interesting to see if his typical level of error more closely matches the first or second sample.