The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Responding to Plagiarism

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Question: I have a research paper assignment in an introductory course and I received two submissions that were plagiarized.  While I do not think the students involved purposively copied to deceive, I could be wrong.  My institution requires that I report all cases of plagiarism and while I hate to jeopardize their academic careers, this is a serious offense and a justice issue for the students who wrote their own papers.  What is the best way to handle these cases?


Tziporah Kasachkoff

I think it is important to go over with students at the beginning of the term (and to remind them before each research paper is assigned) of the policy on plagiarism, by which I mean not merely that you have to report it, but what plagiarism is, namely, presenting others work without attribution. If we view plagiarism this way, we don’t have to get into the question of whether the intention of the student was or was not to deceive. What counts is not attributing others’ ideas to them and not whether there was an intention to deceive.

I suggest that you ask the students whose work you believed plagiarized,  what material they used but did not cite, and why. And proceed from there.

David W. Concepción

Without context that is not present, I can’t offer a definitive response. But perhaps we can make some progress. First, is there a preponderance of evidence that the alleged plagiarism is intentional? Second, is the extra-course level process for handling alleged plagiarism fair?

If one takes an “intent is irrelevant” approach, where the absence of (complete) documentation of quoted (or sometimes even paraphrased) material is considered plagiarism in every case, then I would argue that one is an unreasonable rule-monger. If plagiarism is passing off the work of others as one’s own, then plagiarism necessarily has an intentional element; “passing off” implies intent. Many instances of improper or missing documentation absent intention to deceive are not instances of plagiarism at all.

Students may fail to document sources in many ways, and it is appropriate for teachers to not assign top grades to any student who does not abide the highest standards of documentation in their scholarly work, especially if the teacher has instructed students in how to properly document. If there is not a preponderance of evidence that the failure to document is intentional, then a grade deduction appropriate to the degree of failure to properly document, and not an accusation of plagiarism, seems appropriate. Many cases of potential plagiarism are properly handled with grade deductions because they are nothing more than non-intentional failures to meet the standards of the assignment.

On the other hand, plagiarism – intentionally passing off the work of others as one’s own in an attempt to earn credit for learning when no learning took place – is a bad thing indeed. It is an attack on the institution of higher education, a disrespecting of self, and an injustice to classmates. Whether we like it or not, instructors of record have accepted a role responsibility to defend the accuracy of transcripts. We have this duty even though there are times when a particular individual act of plagiarism isn’t very wrong all things considered.

I condone the institutional requirement that confirmed plagiarizers be reported to a central office when the aim of such required reporting is to identify serial plagiarizers so that an extra-course-level sanction may be considered. Each university has an institutional interest in protecting the integrity of its transcripts. It may be appropriate to expel a student who is guilty of multiple instances of plagiarism. Without centralized reporting, serial plagiarizers will likely not be identified and serial plagiarizing is insufficiently disincentivized.

But notice that I have emphasized that alleged plagiarism must be “confirmed,” and it bears repeating that, according to my definition, “plagiarism” necessarily involves intent to deceive. Students have rights. If a student denies a professor’s accusation of plagiarism, there must be a fair process for the student to grieve the case regarding their intention. The student must lose the case before a confirmed case of plagiarism is recorded and acted upon. If the process is fair, then the result should be respected. If there isn’t a fair process, then each professor has a serious conundrum. Turning even a likely plagiarizer over to an unjust process is something I’m not sure I could do, even if I made my hands feel clean by rule-mongering and claiming that intent did not matter.

Additional Resources:

  • Brook J. Sadler, “The Wrongs of Plagiarism: Ten Quick Arguments.” This article does as the title implies: it goes over ten quick arguments for the wrongness of plagiarism. Some of these arguments are obvious, and some of them will be familiar. Each, however, offers a valuable opportunity for reflection.  More valuable than just the listed arguments on their own, however, is the overarching picture Sadler draws throughout the paper as a whole.  Sadler develops a broad analysis of the value and purpose of an education, and how one’s approach to plagiarism can and should reflect that value.
  • D. Kay Johnston, “Cheating: Limits of Individual Integrity.” Johnston quotes and thus gives voice to students who describe how an instance of plagiarism affects them, their experience in the classroom, and their relationships to their classmates. Johnston then uses the distinction between justice and care to consider the role of academic honesty (and dishonesty) in the classroom. Johnston’s analysis ultimately emphasizes the emotional education involved in teaching students how and why not to cheat.

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