Everything You Need to Know about Cheating and Plagiarism
Robert Oscar López
1. How the cheating epidemic affects you, even if you don’t cheat.
“How dare you accuse me of cheating?” are seven words you should hope never to say. If you have been cheating, then those seven words sound immediately like proof of your guilt, because your voice will reveal your fear of getting caught. If you have not been cheating, then to be accused of doing so feels like insult and injury; it is a sudden realization that an authority figure thought you were unskilled and unethical. There is no way for a teacher-student relationship to recover from the shock of an accusation of academic dishonesty, even when the accusation proves incorrect.
The good news is that you will probably never have to speak those seven words, because the vast majority of college students are never accused of cheating.
The bad news is that a professor’s reluctance to confront suspicious students won’t cure his suspicions that they’ve cheated. Sometimes instructors will still operate with the unconfirmed assumption that the students have been cheating; but rather than starting an ugly scene, teachers will find ways to penalize the students indirectly, by scrutinizing their work much more closely and assigning low grades on subjective areas.
Teachers are reluctant to reveal their suspicions, not because cheating is rare, but rather, because it is so incredibly common, and most instructors know that if they start chasing down every known cheater, they will be caught in an eternal cycle of confrontation, panic, outrage, and hurt feelings.
Since I do not like subterfuge and I prefer the direct approach, I will be honest and straightforward about my views on cheating and plagiarism below.
The idea of cheating can only be described as disgusting. I think that nothing is as lowly and repulsive as a person who lies to get something he or she doesn’t deserve.
On the other hand, I don’t think that people are born cheaters. They turn into cheaters because of less damning flaws. In all likelihood, a cheater has not been realistic about his or her workload and took too many difficult courses. Often cheaters start out wanting to please too many people, such as their parents, their teachers, or their peers. When they face the prospects of a catastrophically low grade, they can’t live with the consequences and are ashamed to speak honestly with a teacher whose work they’ve blown off. So to save themselves, they seek a quick fix. In lots of cases, people who cheat promise themselves not to do it again. But like drugs and alcohol, a quick fix becomes addictive.
The fact that I can understand what turns people into cheaters doesn’t lead me to hate cheating any less. Other students under the same circumstances do not make such a self-destructive choice.
I know that I am incapable of knowing which of my students have cheated in other classes. Therefore every student who walks into my classroom gets to come with a clean slate.
Because I feel so strongly about cheating, I structure all papers and exams so they are almost impossible to cheat on. My topics are unusual and highly specific. When I pass out exams, I have a secret seating chart and I pass out several versions so that nobody can copy from people sitting in his/her vicinity. I collect exams at the end so that my questions won’t be floating around and getting sold to people taking the same course later on. While these tactics may seem obsessive, because of them I can relate to my students without having to wonder if they’ve done anything dishonest.
I do not get involved in rules stipulating how many times you can cheat before you flunk. I prefer to discuss frankly the underlying problems that make cheating such a harmful behavior, without delving into the emotional cycle of accusation and alarm. Nonetheless, in cases where I see unmistakable cheating or plagiarism, I will bring charges through the appropriate channels on campus.
2. Red Flags to Avoid
Below are things that lead professors to suspect that students are not doing their own work, and may be cheating. Notice that whether the suspicion of cheating is correct or not, the behavior that caused suspicion is itself a serious problem that justifies a large drop in the participation grade:
- The student comes to class without the book and/or does not take notes.
- The student often goes on tangents but can’t connect the tangent to anything in the reading that hasn’t been discussed in class.
- Despite having high grades on major assignments like long papers or important exams, the student has zeroes or very low grades for regular small assignments, such as homework, short quizzes, cold-call questions in class, or impromptu writing exercises.
- The student avoids supervised testing conditions and cannot meet stringent deadlines, and has various excuses to explain his or her avoidance. A student who will make up a patently absurd story to explain why his homework isn’t finished is probably capable of greater dishonesty.
- The student often criticizes the teacher or complains about class conditions, shortly before or after an assignment that is deliberately structured to prevent cheating. This is an age-old tactic; when people are about to get caught, they deflect attention to the teacher and try to camouflage their lack of preparation by characterizing the class itself as flawed.
- The student turns in a wonderfully worded paper that does not answer the question or fulfill the subject goals of the assignment. Often professors word paper/essay questions to prevent easy plagiarism, and students who write well but dodge the questions are usually suspect. Such students have probably cobbled Internet sources together to finish the paper.
- The student is chronically absent or late. To pass a class without being there to hear what’s going on, almost anybody would have to resort to cheating.
- The student has notes from the class, but seems to have gotten them habitually from someone else. While “fraud” is a strong word, I apply it to the act of arranging for another person to take notes for you, in order to avoid having to keep track of lectures. A student who is capable of sidestepping the little things will probably also sidestep her larger obligations in the course.
- The document formatting in a paper appears erratic, with bizarre changes in text color, margins, indentations, or font size. It looks like the student may have taken passages from an Internet source and pasted them into a Word document, then found it difficult to unify the formatting.
- The essay quotes parts of a course text that were not assigned, or it summarizes the work of an author included in the syllabus, yet that work was not the particular text that was addressed in the course. The student probably bought a paper addressing a general course topic, from a local paper-peddler or a site like “My Term Papers,” but he couldn’t find one that dealt specifically with material covered in class. The student probably did not do most of the assigned reading and barely paid attention during lectures, so he didn’t even realize that he quoted something we never covered.
- After turning in an essay, the student cannot answer a few basic questions about its content, and does not seem to know the meaning of her own vocabulary.
- The student has drastically different performance on tests, depending on where he is sitting, and depending on the level of supervision.
- The student turns in written work with a drastically different tone and syntax from the tone of her in-class essays.
- The student turns in work that looks remarkably similar to the sentence structure, word choice, and general approach of another student in the same class.
- The student does not know the material.
3. Tips on Avoiding Suspicion and Conflict
Below are things that you can do to avoid the appearance of cheating or misconduct. Notice that all these things are simultaneously what guarantees you a high participation grade:
- KNOW THE MATERIAL.
- Don’t cheat.
- Do the work.
- Follow the directions.
- Come to all the classes, be on time, and pay attention to announcements. In the working world, people who miss days, come late, or disregard their boss’s instructions get fired. In the academic world, they are supposed to fail. If you try to pass without attending class or without keeping up with the work, you are probably going to have to resort to some kind of tactic that will border on, or fall into, cheating.
- Take your own notes, very carefully, during class. Treat your notebook for the class like another course textbook, and organize it effectively.
- Ask questions or express concerns throughout the duration of a class, rather than waiting to complain until something difficult is due. If you wait until a week before a big test or a due date, your tone will often be filled with panic, and the teacher will probably assume that you’re getting nervous because you haven’t done the work.
- Be a visible worker. Stay awake during class, ask engaging questions, and come to office hours once in a while.
- If you study in groups or help classmates with work, make sure that you’re always sharing equally and “brainstorming.” If you are getting information from other classmates who are doing more work than you, you are not only being inconsiderate. You may be crossing the line between legitimate work and cheating.
- Sharpen your speaking skills. If you are articulate in person and can express ideas clearly, then nobody will suspect you of cheating.
- Start papers very early. Write up your ideas for the essay before you do research and bring in outside sources. That way, the flow of ideas will be your own, even if you quote other sources here and there. Even if you change your mind based on things that you find in research, you are more likely to be in control of the material if you began with an outline.
- Follow citation and works-cited rules extremely carefully. If you must err, err on the side of citing too much. Teachers are justified in making drastic deductions on a paper grade, simply based on incorrect citation practices, without opening an actual cheating charge and proceeding to a hearing.
- Treat all tests and quizzes with extreme seriousness. Go to the bathroom beforehand, so that you don’t have to be excused during the test. Any unsupervised time during a test will raise a red flag and will draw greater scrutiny to you.
- For closed-book exams, do not bring a lot of things with you to the test. You will have to put them away, and if you have bulky bags that take up a lot of space, you take the risk of having papers or materials protruding into visible space around you.
- If you are taking an open-book exam, be extremely careful about flipping through your notes. Do not let your eyes wander and don’t write down anything on your notebook, since it may look like you are passing answers to neighbors on papers that don’t have anything to do with the test. Professors know that students view open-book exams as easy ways to cheat, so they will often be more vigilant than they would be for a closed-book exam.
- Weigh friendships against the importance of performing well in a class. If you sit close to people who are chatty, rude, or disruptive and you appear to be encouraging them, then you will unfortunately be tainted. Don’t sit next to them. Don’t respond to them if they try to chat during class. It is common for students who are disruptive and obnoxious during lecture time to be cheaters as well as troublemakers. Their bad behavior will usually interfere with their ability to learn the material, and they will often have to resort to cheating to overcome the gaps in their knowledge. The less that you find yourself entangled with them, the better off you will be.
- If a teacher approaches you and tells you that he/she suspects you of cheating or plagiarism, DO NOT GET DEFENSIVE. Remain calm. Offer to take a quiz or to explain the ideas of the paper in question. Take a deep breath and fall back on your knowledge. If you have been doing the work, you probably know more than you think you do. It will come through when you talk to the teacher or take an unscheduled quiz of some kind. Do not respond by trying to “get the teacher in trouble,” which will only reflect badly on you and will deepen the paper trail. First prove to the teacher that you know the material. Only get involved in an administrative battle if you have cooperated with the teacher’s investigation and still feel that you have been wrongly accused.
- If you have been cheating, the first step is to admit you have a problem and stop. Ask yourself if you’ve taken on more than you can handle. Are you dying to be able to say, “I worked 35 hours a week to put myself through college, got a BA in four years, and still carried a 4.0”? It may sound nice, but it’s almost impossible. Maybe you need to slow down. Find more realistic standards for yourself. Become more independent and stop basing your self-worth on superficial markers like grades and praise from teachers. Don’t worry so much about pleasing your parents or impressing your friends. And if you find your work hours interfering with your performance in class, research possible educational loans or consider taking longer than four years to finish your degree. Don’t expect teachers to lessen your work load because you are overextended.
- If you’ve been cheating and someone caught you, don’t try to lie your way out of it. First, you have to understand your professor’s anger at you. As a teacher who puts a lot of effort into my lesson plans, I react to a student cheating the same way I would react to a wife having an affair behind my back. Second, your best bet is to accept a penalty gracefully; most likely, an F on a major assignment or a flunking grade in the course. It is rare for students to be kicked out of school for one case of cheating. But if you lie and squirm your way out of one cheating case, unfortunately, you may get tempted to cheat again, and if you get caught a second time, the penalties will be far worse and may involve dismissal from school. The best course of action is to take your punishment up front and let the life lesson sink in so you won’t be tempted to cheat next time. Third, offer to make some amends after apologizing and admitting that what you did was wrong. Express to the teacher that you were simply unable to master the material and what you most regret is that your cheating has caused you not to learn something that you want to know. You are at the teacher’s mercy, but if present your remorse as the desire to remedy a gap in your knowledge, rather than your humiliation at having been caught, you are more likely to find a healthy response to a bad experience.
- Do the work. Everything that entails doing the work and knowing the material, will also miraculously immunize you from looking like a cheater.
- KNOW THE MATERIAL.
4. The Importance of My "Roll Call"
One of the easiest ways to avoid plagiarism scares is simply to follow the instructions when it comes to B level sources, which are distinguished from other kinds of sources on my "Schema of Appropriate Research Sources" Link.
In almost all of my classes, I have instituted a weekly assignment system, which I usually call the "journal entries." In these short, weekly writing assignments -- which I do grade and mark off for errors -- I ask students to relate the weekly reading and discussion to something that's buzzing in current events. I have provided a list called "101 Places to Look for Ideas", which provides hyperlinks to 101 publications that I deem legitimate B-level sources.
Almost always when I assign journal entries, I tell students they have to find a photo or story from the "101 Sources List" as part of their reflective short essay. If you pick a story or photo in one of the 101 sources, and the publication date is within the last week, I know for certain you didn't plagiarize and I can go to reading your journal entry without stress on my part or yours.
Then, for longer papers, I usually ask you to expand one of the journal entries I have already corrected. I can function with the safe assumption that your longer essay isn't plagiarized since it is based on shorter prose that you obviously wrote yourself -- as evidenced by the fact that your B-level source is a current article in a respectable news outlet. It would be impossible for you to buy or copy an essay on the topic relevant to our course syllabus, with the B-level source included in it. And besides -- the legwork of the low-stakes journal essay has already given you the chance to rehearse your ideas and get feedback on them, so you don't need to plagiarize because you won't be panicking. You just need to expand what you've already done.
So this stress-free, painless way of building a good grade sans fear of plagiarism accusations comes simply by following the weekly instructions. The links to the 101 sources are provided to the right of this webpage, but if you want an alphabetical roll call, here they are:
Air Force Times
Al Jazeera (English)
Better Homes and Gardens
Broadcasting and Cable
Christian Science Monitor
Chronicle of Higher Education (Ticker)
Diario de México
Field and Stream
Guns and Ammo
Inside China Today
Inside Higher Education
IOL South Africa
Jornada -- Bolivia
Los Angeles Times
Marine Corps Times
National Public Radio
New York Post
New York Times
People’s Daily Online (China)
San Francisco Gate
Sol de México
Stars and Stripes
Sydney Morning Herald
Times of India
Universal, El (Caracas)
Universal, El (Cartagena)
Universal, El (Mexico City)
Wall Street Journal