Students plagiarize, professor publicizes.

... and the university, in turn, fires the professor.
You've probably already seen this story. Loye Young, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, warned his students (as we all do) against plagiarism. Indeed, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, he included this statement in his fall course syllabus for his management information systems course:

No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty.

While grading an assignment, Young discovered (at least) six students taking the course had committed plagiarism. Then he followed through on what he had promised in his course syllabus and publicized the names of the six on his (public) blog for the course.


The administration at the university decided that publicizing the names of the students in this way violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), or at least came close enough to violating it to expose the university to Bad Stuff. So, they suspended the failing grades assigned to the six students and they fired Young.
Let the record reflect that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a lawyer.
As such, I'm not qualified to get into whether a grade assigned by a professor but not yet officially submitted to the university registrar counts as an "educational record" of the sort whose release FERPA bars without permission of the student. Nor can I say with any certainty whether the syllabus statement is an enforceable contract into which the students entered by remaining in the course. Nor, for that matter, do I have the legal chops to dig into the various entangled issues of due process here -- for the failing grades, for honor code sanctions over and above the failing grades, or for Young as an instructor fired by the university.
I do want to think just a little about the larger question, though: How can we better discourage plagiarism?
Clearly, warning students that plagiarism will earn them failing grades does not stop them from plagiarizing. Nor, sadly, does devoting lots of class time to explaining proper citation of sources, nor does requiring students to complete plagiarism tutorials.
If students have no shame when (privately) presenting work that is plagiarized to those teaching them as if it is their own work -- if they're just counting on us being too stupid or overworked to detect it -- what other options do we have?
To the extent that plagiarism is breaking trust not just with the professor but with the learning community, does that learning community have an interest in flagging the bad actors? If you know there are plagiarists but you don't know who they are, does this create a situation where you can't trust anyone?
In the Daily Texan article about the case, a faculty member from the University of Texas opines that Young's response to plagiarism was too draconian:

Renita Coleman, a UT assistant professor who taught a journalism course on ethics in the spring, said there are better ways to handle plagiarism.
"I don't think that it serves anybody well to publicly humiliate them," she said. "It doesn't teach anybody that it's wrong."
Coleman said each university has specific guidelines for dealing with cheating, and situational factors should be taken into account. She said she has dealt with repentant plagiarists who weren't punished severely since they said they learned a lesson.
"Admitting your mistake and making an effort to fix it goes a long way," she said. "Motivations matter."
Coleman added that privacy should be considered in the instance of plagiarism.
"It's not the same violation as, say, robbing a house," she said. "It's not something that's an illegal act."

Let me suggest here that there is a relevant difference between saying you have learned a lesson and actually learning that lesson.
Indeed, one of the reasons that my university's office of judicial affairs asks instructors to report all cases of plagiarism and cheating no matter what sanctions we apply to them (including no sanctions) is so there will be a record of whether a particular offense is really the first offense. Students who plagiarize may also lie about whether they have a record of doing so and being caught doing it. If the offenses are spread around -- in different classes with different professors in different departments -- you might be able to score first-time leniency half a dozen times.
Does that sound cynical? From where I sit, it's just realistic. But this "realistic" point of view (which others in the teaching trenches share) is bound to make us tougher on the students who actually do make a single bad decision, suspecting that they might be committed cheaters too.
Keeping the information about plagiarists secret, in other words, hurts students who could be helped.
Now, I'm not sure that full-on internet-wide public shaming is the optimal solution to this problem. But for offenses that amount to breaking trust within a community -- offenses that have significant negative impacts on the community -- I think we need to figure out reasonable ways to get the community involved in punishment and in rehabilitation.
Ideas for how to do that are welcome.

Comments are off for this post

  • Becca says:

    Well, if we're just worried about punishing them severely enough to make sure it doesn't happen, forget this "flagging" plagarizers. Let's go with "flogging". Or better yet, just kill them. No repeat offenses.
    The question isn't how to discourage plagarism. The question is how to foster a reasonable and respectful community. Then you wouldn't see students behaving badly (plagarizing) nor their professors (quite possibly breaking the law [arguably, violating constitutional right to privacy], and creating an atmosphere of distrust and fear by putting that warning in his syllabus).

  • phisrow says:

    I am not in a position to comment on the exact legalities of the situation; but the professor's response looks to me like exactly the right thing to do. Plagiarism is a violation of the mores of the academic community which has a negative effect on everybody else. That is exactly the sort of thing where public exposure is both fitting and likely to be effective. Arguably, privacy would be less justified in plagiarism cases than in cases involving individual crimes(though I wouldn't say that it is justified there, either). Now, if the plagiarism appears to be an error, then publicity is unlikely to be educational; but with the amount of instruction on the subject that one receives these days, I can't imagine that plagiarism in error cases are the bulk of the problem.
    Also, the idea that "I don't think that it serves anybody well to publicly humiliate them," she said. "It doesn't teach anybody that it's wrong." just seems stupid. Whatever our position on ethics as a philosophical construct, exposure to approval and disapproval of those around them is exactly how people acquire moral norms.

  • J-Dog says:

    WTF????!!! I would fire the university admins that made this decision. It seems to me that the people running the university are perfectly qualified to also run out Big Three Auto Companies too.
    It also seems that they are taking the kind of stand that is anti-good student, and pro- scumbag student.
    Ugh. Glad I do not know anyone going there, and kids, if you are there, please transfer ASAP!

  • Becca, I'm with you that the larger question is how to foster a reasonable and respectful community in which students wouldn't think of committing plagiarism, etc., etc.
    How, from where we are right now, do we do that?
    I've tried coming in with, and clearly articulating, the expectation that the students in my courses are serious about their own education and thus will not cheat. Students cheated nonetheless. I've tried the angle of actively fostering the learning community within the classroom. Students cheated nonetheless. I've had students plagiarize their responses to case studies on plagiarism in an ethics class.
    The problem, clearly, is bigger than the factors I can tweak in my own courses.
    I want to end up in the place you describe. But I need something like a map to get there from where we are now.

  • Alex says:

    I've had students plagiarize their responses to case studies on plagiarism in an ethics class.
    That's some prime, grade-A irony right there.

  • Kevin says:

    I fully support the public announcement of plagarism. Students are taught over and over again (in most classes of their university education) about the correct way to deal with writing and citing sources. It is not the university's fault that they fail to acknowledge that they have learned time and time again how to write without plagarizing.
    I think that every incoming student to every university should be required to take an academic ethics course which teaches proper sourcing of references, and then no professor would need to spend time teaching basic skills and they could focus on their area of expertise. That way, the university would know that students were taught proper methods of writing and then could punish (publicly or otherwise) people who fail to meet academic ethical standards. I have seen too many cases where plagarizing students were not punished because it was 'not clear' that the students were taught the right way to cite references. So make it official. Again - every student should have to take an academic ethics course (covering plagarism and other issues that all professional people need).

  • I'm inclined to say that the university did exactly the right thing; allowing this sort of behavior on the part of professors leaves students entirely too vulnerable. If a public flagging punishment is allowed it should be reached through due process within the university system, not through a professor's personal judgment, however correct in a given case. Public exposure can't be called back; and before any punishment is applied, students must be allowed the opportunity to show, if they can, that the professor's judgment is in error.
    I do like the idea of a university record (shielded from public view), so that students who repeatedly plagiarize can be held accountable for repeated violation. But I don't think adding sanctions, as such, will do much. Supposing that they don't understand that what they are doing is plagiarism, sanctions won't cure their ignorance. Supposing that they do understand, they already know that they're taking a pretty seriously gamble.

  • Angel says:

    When I was teaching it seemed there was always a segment of any given class looking for the "easy way out" sometimes even putting more effort in to the cheating that the actual learning would have taken. That said there is a difference between accidental plagiarizing (Working too closely with classmates on an individual assignment, citations that go missing in bad edit job) where learning to do better next time can take place and copying a paper in full or outright no holds barred cheating. Students in the latter case in my experience rarely change their ways and there are rarely good backups in admin to deal with them with TEETH. I understand that prof's impulse to do what he did. More and more we see where risk taking, dishonesty, and getting caught is followed by talk show visits and bailouts rather than real applogies and change in behavior. And students know, especially in "the student as a consumer" framework, that there will be no real consequences and will tell YOU to "grow up this is how the real world works"! It will be interesting to see how this washes out.

  • Coriolis says:

    I have a hard time understanding how the texas AM admins could respond in such a way.
    If it was clear plagiarism (i.e. they literally copied something and presented it as their own work), than I think the professor was perfectly correct to publicly expose them. Or should have been, I am also not a lawyer after all and perhaps there is an idiotic law that could prevent that.
    Now if it is arguable whether they plagiarized or not, that's another story. I.e. work that's very close to another student's because of working together in class, or something else that could be a mistake. But if it was clear and inarguable, then he should have acted the way he said he would. If he was wrong, and the students could prove that to the satisfaction of the administrators, than I can see the prof being in trouble.
    The research community is largely based on trust, and obviously falsifying your data or otherwise cheating is usually a career-ender, and rightfully so. I think this is a pretty tame measure that would perhaps make these students rethink their actions.

  • John H. McDonald says:

    I expect an American professor to know the FERPA rules against disclosing student information, just as I expect students to know the rules against plagiarism. What that professor did was such a clear violation of FERPA that he deserved to be punished.
    When I catch students plagiarizing, the punishment can range from a 0 on the assignment to an F for the course. If it were really egregious, I could go through the student judicial system and give them an FX, which would have a footnote on their transcript indicating it was an F for academic dishonesty. I've had spring semester seniors get an F in a required class due to plagiarism, so they either have to come back for another semester to take one class, or they fail to graduate. This seems like it should be sufficient to teach them a lesson; I really don't think public humiliation is necessary.

  • In fairness, it should be pointed out that although Young was an adjunct professor, this has to be put into perspective: he's not an academic, and this seems to have been his first and only course ever. He's a qualified local professional who was asked by the department to teach this course in particular, and was therefore given an adjunct professorship in order to do so. So I don't think we can reasonably expect him to know FERPA regulations automatically; he should have been properly briefed in his orientation, and doesn't seem to have been. I don't think FERPA violations can seriously be overlooked by universities, whatever the circumstances, but part of the problem here seems to have been that he was put in an unfortunate position from the beginning.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If I cannot post grades, does it not follow that I cannot publically announce that a student has committed plagerism? A colleague and I, team teaching, reported to the dean of students that, because we had caught two students using a stolen copy of the final exam, the two students had received failing grades. We were told that we should have gone through some sort of administrative procedure rather than giving out F's. We, being tenured Full Professors, replied that the grades stood, and that was that.

  • Unlearned Hand says:

    When a guilt culture won't operate, perhaps a shame culture is necessary.
    If the institution will track reports, no matter the outcome, that might help, but I severely doubt many institutions have the stomach for that. I TA-ed for one of the institutions mentioned in the post, and the administration had absolutely zero interest in holding students to the honor code. I automatically discount their undergraduate degrees as a result.
    If breaking the rules has no consequences, it establishes a set of alternate and worse consequences. Education and classroom engagement suffer. Undeserving students suck up resources, including scholarship money. And an atmosphere is fostered that prepares people to work in the Department of Justice.

  • lilly says:

    University is about educating the students. Part of that is to TEACH them not plagiarize etc. What's the best way to teach? Is it hardball punishing for errors (including plagiarism) or is it going through the errors pointing out better ways?
    I think (as a teacher myself) a better way is to take up in class those incidents and point out the real problems in doing your studies that way.
    You can't avoid dishonesty for some students but you can teach the majority of your students the honor and pride in doing honest research. This, in my view, is far better better taught with respect than with defamation.
    I very much agree that teachers like this one be fired.

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    You've been linked in a Cracked article. I suspect a traffic spike is forthcoming :)
    This is one of those problems that is so filled with externalities and conflicts of agenda that it's hard to properly align the responsibilities to the appropriate parties.
    The university is forced to comply with regulations, public perception, and the student population. The students are engaged in behavior that is difficult to track and therefore hard to audit properly. The faculty members have a responsibility to teach their students and enforce academic community standards, but have only limited ability to do this (even for full tenured professors, although less so in that case).
    Most importantly, all of those roles are ill-defined.
    FWIW, (standard disclaimer, not a lawyer) I don't think publicly shaming people who have committed academic treason is something that is covered by FERPA. Publishing that they've failed the course or the assignment would be.
    At the "professor" level, I personally would regard the first offense as a teaching moment. Return the assignment with no grade, and give everyone in the class a suitable replacement assignment. Inform the class that several members have violated academic standards, and as a result you're going to require the entire class to redo the assignment... but that you will allow those who did not "cheat" to take the better of two grades (so they can do the assignment again, shooting for a better result, or take a zero and their original grade). Dedicate a lecture to showing the offending bits (unattributed), explaining how they violate the rules, showing the source material. Don't state baldly that the students *were* cheating, assume for the sake of the lecture that there is a legitimate reason for the "accidental" copying... but make it obvious that this represents a giant waste of your time, and you will not accept a repeat performance.
    The students will find out among themselves who got caught, just like Marines in boot camp find out (or already know) which grunt screwed up and got the group in trouble. The social network pressure will be applied without public declaration :)
    From an institute perspective, it should not be the responsibility of the faculty or departments to decide on cheating policies; this is something that should be clearly laid out by the institute (for just this reason, adjunct professors can get boilerplate cheating policies and not shoot themselves in the foot).
    Of course, this requires everyone involved to admit that cheating is a problem, and agree as an institute what qualifies an appropriate response. Personally, I think that anyone that willfully and repeatedly (ie, more than once) cheats should be ejected from the academic institution and the reason for the ejection should indeed be public. But taking that position requires the university to get political and push for a clear amendment to FERPA that absolves the university from trouble.

  • Brian Duddy says:

    I agree with Brandon Watson, and possibly others, above: public exposure is a good idea, but only if it is applied after the entire due process has been gone through. If the professor posts his own suspicions online, even if he later takes them down, there are archives online, and this info will remain with the student for his entire life: it could affect job opportunities, grad school applications, etc. Also, I don't think this should be applied for a first offense. The atmosphere of a university means desperation can sometimes set in for any student, even those that can be later taught proper protocol. However, I have no problem with naming and shaming repeat offenders.

  • Theo Bromine says:

    I'd be very wary of using social pressure tactics as suggested by Pat Calahan. This is likely to get unpopular kids picked on, even if they are not guilty, and slicker liars and cheaters get even better at their favourite deceptions.
    Similarly, the idea of teachers unilaterally publishing names of people they have identified as plagiarizing is subject to abuse by unethical teachers who might simply dislike one of their students; however, I think it would be acceptable if an actual policy of this was implemented, with support and oversight by the administration.

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    > This is likely to get unpopular kids picked on,
    > even if they are not guilty, and slicker liars
    > and cheaters get even better at their favourite
    > deceptions.
    This depends upon how you execute it.
    For example, let's say you have a 10 question essay exam, taken by 30 students, and four of them plagiarize the answer to number 4.
    You return the 30 exams, with the appropriate zero scores on the offending four, and announce as above... giving the responses in class as described.
    How can someone slick themselves out of this? If you falsely accuse the "unpopular" kid, all they have to do is show their paper to prove their innocence.
    For the most part, you've eliminated the "mob rule" aspect since the honorable students actually get an advantage (they get a free do-over if they want), so there isn't the immediate "find the perpetrator and make them pay" aspect :)

  • Sean Walker says:

    The problem is that they never get caught for cheating. Even if the punishment is severe, it will not matter if no one gets caught. This is why when things like turnitin.com are implemented the amount of plagiarism declines.
    With regard to public shaming while it might be effective I'm pretty sure it is against the law based on FERPA. Lastly, even though I can't stand cheaters and want to them to receive appropriate punishment doing so without students having access to any kind of due process is wrong.

  • Debbie says:

    Template for a Plagiarism Policy (a whole-school process)
    A comprehensive ethics policy is a living document developed by the entire community or institution - it is sustainable because it emerges from common values, principles and practices.

  • Becca says:

    Dr. Freeride- my preferred solution would necessitate doing away with all this grading nonsense.
    Short of that- the bar for treating students decently really isn't very high.
    You must understand that what rubs me the wrong way about this debate has to do with how I was treated as a student. You have a new generation of students coming through. They will not be unacustomed to being viewed with suspicion (no one who was a teenager during Columbine could be). But that doesn't mean they will enjoy it.
    I came to grad school and the first thing they did was send us off to learn rules. HIPAA training, radioisotope safety, Animal Welfare... it was all terribly dull, but ocassionally useful.
    They instructors assumed ignorance, but no malice on our part. We didn't sit down in HIPAA training and have the instructor assume we were all identity thieves or spies for health insurance companies just waiting to get people's personal medical records. We didn't have the folks from health physics yell at us to not make dirty bombs. When they told us how IUCAC worked, they didn't look at us like we were barely-concealed psychopaths who had majored in biology just so we could skin rats alive for the pleasure of watching them suffer.
    But then we got to "ethics bootcamp" for "academic integrity". And we were all assumed to be "reprehensible bits of human slime", otherwise known as filthy plagarists. We were told that all decisions for attributing ideas were cases of BLACK and WHITE (Wrong and Right!) ethics. That there was NO EXCUSE for ever getting a citation wrong. That the onus was on us to prove everything was original- any and all work could be sent to turnitin.com, based on any glimmer of suspision, or instructor whim (and obviously they didn't care about the fact this itself can be construed as theft of intellectual property).
    Why is it only the issue of plagarism that turns lovely, brillant, wonderful academics into batshit paranoid whackaloons?
    Setting the tone for a respectful culture is simple. Assume ignorance, not malice (or even laziness!). Train people. Don't give credit for work people don't do, but don't obsess over punishing them beyond that.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    "Why is it only the issue of plagarism that turns lovely, brillant, wonderful academics into batshit paranoid whackaloons?"
    There's also the fact that as soon as students get their degrees and come to industry for work they will be expected to self-plagiarize and company-plagiarize for purposes of efficiency.
    A statutory authority doesn't expect you to reword your required statements every 6 months; it knows the company owns the words, and the goal is to get the legally required information on paper with minimal effort.

  • Leah says:

    When I was attending uni, I had to take a FERPA class for my work study job. We were told that we couldn't even confirm that students attended our university, and professors needed permission to put our names on their websites (say, for example, when we do research with the profs).
    I definitely think plagiarism should be punished, and I see what the professor was doing, but it also seems that the university was in the right in protecting their butt.
    In terms of plagiarism, my response was always to fail the students on the assignment, discuss the issue with them, and make sure the school is aware of the conflict so that there's a paper trail established.

  • Samy says:

    Consider the following situation? Who is the author?
    Alyssa says: Ben is a professor of health sciences. He is serving as program chair for a conference with refereed publications. Ben suggests to his graduate student Alyssa that she submit a paper to the conference because, even though he cannot support her trip to the conference (being held abroad), he will be there and can present her paper. Alyssa writes the paper and gives several drafts to Ben, who does not comment on any of them. All the research is original work done by Alyssa while she was funded by an external fellowship. She submits the paper listing herself as the sole author.
    Alyssa's paper gets accepted. The conference informs her that she is required to attend to present her paper. Surprised, she asks Ben about this policy, seeing as he had made no prior mention of it. Ben replies curtly that Alyssa will have to make him a co-author on her paper. Alyssa finds this unreasonable, particularly since Ben did not provide her with any feedback on the submission. Alyssa cannot afford to attend the conference on her own?
    Describe the possible actions that Alyssa may take? Then consider Ben?s actions and answer if you think they are reasonable. Finally, discuss your conclusion on what Alyssa and/or Ben should do.

  • Max Berg says:

    The customer is always right in academia now. Customers can get away with cheating. If they fail or are suspended, then how is the institution going to get money? When a professor is challenged for actually doing his or her job, that professor is fired. Maintaining the federal dollar flow is all that matters now. Customers--I mean students--with worthless pieces of paper where they have learned nothing and graduate and contribute to society with more cheating.