Thursday, September 4, 2014
Plagiarism: An Ethical Dilemma
Years ago, when I was taking graduate French classes, there was a student in my class, a young French teacher, who was caught by one of our professors for plagiarizing his paper. The professor had called him up after class and was visibly angry. I couldn’t hear the verbal exchange, but word soon spread as to what it was all about. Plagiarism is very serious ethical charge against a student at a university and it places the professor in a very uncomfortable position. I distinctly recall that this professor made a point of emphasizing that plagiarism would not be tolerated and it was also boldly stated in the syllabus she handed out the first day of class. It’s no wonder she was angry.
The student’s case was still pending when I met up with him again the following semester, in another French class, with a different professor. We were assigned papers once again and also had to present them orally in class. I couldn’t help but be curious if he had learned his lesson or had once again plagiarized someone else's work. Who would be so arrogant to even think of trying it again and jeopardizing their education and job? On a whim I used one of the tools that is designed to find plagiarized work online. Within a few minutes I had found that he had taken an article and claimed it as his own. The article was several pages long and fairly dated, so it wouldn’t readily appear on the top of a Google search. However, I searched for the specific words that he had read in class and was astonished to find a paper that was identical to his. He hadn’t just taken a few paragraphs or ideas, he had taken the whole paper in it’s entirety, word for word. The only things he changed were the name of the author and the date. There I sat, in front of the computer, overwhelmed by a moral and ethical dilemma. I wished I had never done the search because now it placed me in a bind and I was torn about what to do. I knew what he did was wrong, but he needed this degree to continue teaching. I also knew that a second blatant act of plagiarism, with the first still pending, would certainly be cause for expulsion from graduate school and the French Master’s Program.
I agonized over what to do for a while. I didn’t know where to go for advice. Then I thought about Googling “What to do if you discover a student is plagiarizing.” That search turned up a professor’s blog on plagiarism, and he had included his email address for readers. I decided to write to him about my dilemma in detail and ask his advice. I needed an objective opinion from someone who understood all the ramifications any action on my part would have and, at the same time I knew I didn‘t have to take the advice if it didn‘t feel right about it. I received a compassionate reply to my email not long after. He said it was evident that I was struggling with this issue and explained to me how plagiarism affects education and how serious a violation it was etc. He advised me not to get personally involved as the “whistle blower.” Instead, he suggested that I create an anonymous account in order to email the professor the link to the plagiarized work and leave the rest up to him. In the end, after some careful consideration, that is what I decided to do.
I still feel bad about exposing this student’s academic crime and the consequences that likely followed. At the time I felt that he had more than likely been using other people’s work to get through college and that these two incidents were probably not the only times he had done so. Sometimes doing the right thing for the right reasons doesn’t always make you feel good. However, thinking back on it, I feel it was the only thing I could do.