Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Disincentivizing Discipline

We should want to catch and hold students accountable for acts of academic dishonesty -- plagiarism, copying exam answers, etc. However, at my university at least (I don't know how common this is) reporting any such incident entails a significant burden for the instructor. To begin with, there's the several hours of work involved in filing a formal incident report, with multiple copies of the suspected sources attached and the plagiarised sections highlighted, etc. Then one must put aside another afternoon to attend an official "hearing", present a statement, hear the student's defense, and - if they are found guilty - see them suspended from the university for a year (as seems to be the minimum punishment for such infractions).

Hearing of this (and seeing how burdensome the whole process feels for those who are forced to go through it), I can't help but feel extremely relieved that I haven't detected any such academic dishonesty in the work of my own students. When the process is burdensome, it makes instructors want very much not to go through it. That is, it makes instructors want not to discover any evidence of academic dishonesty in their students' work (whether it exists or not). So, in all likelihood, they won't look too hard, and their wish will be granted.

This is obviously a stupid and counterproductive system. Even if minor violations are suspected, there are strong disincentives against pursuing the matter further. (Imagine: the formal procedures are dreaded by the instructor, and the promised punishment seems unreasonably disproportionate anyhow, for what may be a first time offense. So the instructor reasonably decides to do nothing. As does the next one, and the next. And so a serial offender can get away with cheating their way through college.)

If we actually want to prevent cheating, we need to make it easier to enforce discipline. Here's one possibility: let departments deal with it mostly "in house", with an 'F' grade and a simple explanatory note for administrators to attach to the student's internal academic record. Only bring out the big guns -- the 'hearings', etc. -- if (i) the student wishes to appeal, or (ii) prior notes on their internal record reveal that they have become a serial offender. Indeed, even the latter might be dealt with by the appropriate administrative committee unilaterally imposing some punishment (say 1 year suspension for a third minor offense), with instructors only being called to the hearing if necessary -- e.g. if the student wishes to appeal. In short: we need more plea bargains, fewer trials.


  1. Tutoring a class last year, I had a few plagiarism cases, and they were all dealt with in house - the student was effectively marked for the work they had done themselves (which was often not very much at all).

    I was discouraged from pursuing the students through the academic senate by more senior academics; apparently a year ago the academic senate people had thrown an open-and-shut case out because they were scared of the parents of the plagiarising student suing them.

    Thus, it's an unofficial policy to deal with plagiarism in-house rather than through official channels. Which is kind of depressing.

  2. Worse than if the official policies accommodated this. But better, perhaps, than having no "in house" options at all.

  3. Our official procedures are essentially those you suggest: first offences are dealt with in the department, usually by a zero mark, a stern talking-to, and a note on the student's permanent file. For repeat offenders, we have various escalation options, to faculty or university-level boards which can suspend or exclude the student. Your institution's system sounds pretty unwieldy by comparison.

  4. I would have thought the usual response to such cumbersome procedures is to just give a plagiarist the "F", since grading is always so completely at the professor's discretion. The procedures are in case the student complains about the grade. Ideally, the student will be deterred by the thought that the procedures could lead to expulsion instead of just an F, but if the student is not deterred by such considerations, then the procedures have to be pretty thorough. That sort of student is the kind who might well proceed to a lawsuit if the procedures don't give them the result they want, so the procedures need to make prospects for the lawsuit look as dim as possible, by producing lots of evidence which could be used against the student were it to get to that extremity.

  5. That would make sense. Unfortunately, I've heard (though haven't confirmed) that at my institution it's obligatory to formally report any detected cheaters, and that failure to do so renders one liable oneself. Again, I need to confirm that. But at least in the two instances of detection I've heard of, both grad student instructors were told by their professor that they had to go through the formal procedures.


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