Proving a Learner’s Plagiarism

A two-week old post on the Texas Community College Teachers Association blog caught my attention this morning: Charge of Plagiarism Upheld in Court.  My initial reaction was that I do not understand how it’s “a good thing” that accusations of learner plagiarism not be supported by identification of a plagiarized document.  Reading the court opinion, however, adds critical information not mentioned by the TCCTA blog; considering the additional information, the issue is a great deal more complex.

In this instance, a student procrastinated on a paper and turned in a draft that relied entirely on complex primary historical documents; the paper presented advanced analysis of those documents requiring, arguably, the proficiency of a graduate student or professional historian.  When confronted by the professor, who “voiced concerns about the integrity of the document,” the student was unable to adequately defend or discuss the contents of the paper.  A failing grade was assigned, and a seemingly thorough institutional appeals process was followed resulting in the student’s degree being delayed given the “blatant nature” of the plagiarism.

Ultimately, however,

College authorities were unable “to identify additional sources from which [the student]  material used in [his] paper, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that other parts of the paper are not [his] work,”

. . .

[The Student] was never “confronted with the source from which he was charged with plagiarizing.”

For me, that’s a significant concern.  As I commented on the TCCTA blog, if the integrity of a faculty member were challenged, a significant burden of proof would be required by an institutional review process before rendering a decision that would tarnish a professor’s academic reputation and jeopardize their future, and that burden of proof would almost absolutely require that a plagiarized document be identified for comparison.  However, as the court’s decision in this case noted,

the College’s Student Academic Honesty Code (hereinafter the Code) does not define plagiarism to require that the source of the plagiarism be specifically identified. While the faculty handbook suggests that any plagiarism charge be accompanied by “a comparison of the source document with the plagiarized document,” such a submission is not mandated by the College’s rules and regulations…

The court ruled that “compelling circumstantial evidence exists,” and as it is described in paragraph 6 of the decision, I would agree. However, I have grave concerns with having two standards for defining plagiarism in scholarly work; I believe the proficiency and academic experience of the scholar is immaterial.  I don’t want students to plagiarize, and if I believe they are, I certainly want to pursue the issue.  But, should we not value student scholarship enough that we require a significant burden of proof to support accusations of plagiarism – that we should at least require a plagiarized document be produced as we would if challenging any other scholar?  How firm is the ground on which we choose to stand if we judge a student to have plagiarized based on the judgement of faculty?

Certainly, as faculty, I value the professional judgement of faculty, but I personally would not challenge the integrity of a student unless I had a source document in hand.  I will not challenge a student’s integrity based on suspicions and circumstantial evidence – no matter how compelling; by doing so, I feel I am placing my own integrity and professionalism at risk.

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