The Plagiarism Problem: One Adjunct’s Experience

Last week I gave an overview of the issues involved in the plagiarism question. This week I’m going to share a personal narrative of one adjunct’s experience dealing with plagiarism.

Like many adjuncts, I teach for more than one school. Like many adjuncts, I do so for money, which is to say, less greed than making enough to cover bills and pay my own health insurance.

I currently teach for four schools, all online. (I can’t imagine what it would be like to teach for more than one school in the traditional classroom, what with variable commuting time and parking situations. Those of you who do have my profound sympathy.) So that I don’t get fired, let’s call these schools College A, College B, College C, and College D, and follow plagiarized papers through the processing loop.

A student paper comes in, and before I even read it, I can tell it is plagiarized by the shift in font size and color midway through the paper. Reading it makes the plagiarism even clearer. The writing shifts quality, style, and vocabulary at the place where the font color changed. That’s plagiarism. I’m sure.

To be certain, I run the paper through Turnitin. I get a colorful report indicating substantial plagiarism. However, it doesn’t tag some of the sections I had spotted on my own, so I copy and paste them into Google. Sure enough, they are plagiarized too. I note the URLs and insert comments into Word indicating where each plagiarized section comes from.

But what happens next depends on the school.

Imagine the paper is written for College A. College A’s administration takes a hard line on plagiarism. The plagiarized paper gets an F. We’re done.

Imagine the paper is written for College B. College B sees its role as guiding students to a better understanding of the research and citation process, so students must be asked to explain the apparent similarities between their work and work found online. Even if there’s a 100% match, they must be asked and given a chance to answer. No guidance is given on what constitutes a sufficient answer beyond “use your own judgment.” No guidance is given on how long to wait for an answer. When plagiarism charges are filed, I’m asked if I’m sure, and if I really want to do this for just X % of a paper. (Different numbers have floated around. I’ve heard numbers as low as 15%, and as high as 30%.)

All students always have reasons they cheated. (No one ever plagiarizes, even on papers that are 100% plagiarized.) This means the discussion continues for an indefinite time.

Imagine the paper is written for College C. College C holds to a strict honor code, and reviews each code violation independently. That’s great, but that review takes weeks, and until it is done, those students get incompletes on those assignments. That too is fine, but the school requires midterm notifications regarding students who are failing, and incompletes for pending honor code violations are not to be taken into account.

Imagine the paper is written for College D. College D says it holds to a strict honor code, and even provides its own plagiarism checker for student and faculty use. However, of all the schools, plagiarism is most common at College D. What’s more, due to combination of faulty understanding of what plagiarism is and a weak plagiarism checker, students regularly respond to accusations of plagiarism not with “But this is completely my own work” but rather “But the plagiarism checker said this was okay.”

When I explain that a paper can receive a 0% plagiarism report and still be 100% plagiarized by using materials not in the database, students get angry. Some file complaints.

It gets worse. College A’s plagiarism report form is simple. Neither College B or C have formal forms; I just write up the offense and send it in. College D, however, has a web form with very specific boxes to complete. If incorrectly completed, it is rejected. (I’ve had a plagiarism charge rejected because I used Word’s comments feature to note the plagiarized sections instead of the highlighting feature. I was allowed, however, to re-file the complaint. Whew! There’s another 30 minutes of time spent on the same task!)

It gets worse. College D gives students roughly two weeks to respond to each plagiarism charge. During that time before the response, any plagiarism counts as the first charge. (I can fail students, but students aren’t punished for those offenses by the school.)

 

Plagiarism is embarrassing at any school, and it’s freaking tedious. I hate filing paperwork instead of teaching. But functionally, what plagiarism means for me varies incredibly according to which school it happens at.

At College A? At College A I make darn sure students know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, since the penalties are clear. Then, when it happens, there’s a spike of pain and pity for the students, and it’s over.

Time penalty to me of student plagiarism? 5 minutes.

At College B? At College B, a plagiarized paper plunges me into a morass of despair. Why do I have to ask these going through the motions questions? Why encourage lying? (When truth telling is penalized, lying is markedly more likely.)

Time penalty to me? Unknown and unknowable, but usually about an hour per plagiarized paper.

At College C? At College C, dealing with the plagiarism is straightforward on my end, but I feel dishonest. I can’t tell students who plagiarize they’re doing badly in the class because the report’s not back? Why?

Time penalty? About 10 minutes to write things up and explain the incomplete.

At College D? At College D, the mass of despair becomes some putrid abyss. I resent College B’s approach for the squishy dishonesty, but at this point in the process, I loath College D’s approach.

Time penalty? Unknown and unknowable, but it starts at an hour per plagiarized paper and may go to several and drag out over weeks or months, depending on student complaints.

For me, then, what plagiarism means depends on where it happens. And tracking these different approaches means juggling standards, and remembering what the rules and processes are where. And that means plagiarism determines how much time and mental energy I have left for my own writing.

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