Plagiarism and other Honor Code violations

Let me start with the simplest fact about plagiarism and other honor code violations, at least as regards this class: If you violate the Honor Code in this class, you will get an “F” for the whole class. I’ll then report you, and let the Honor Council do its work. This means–kind of obviously–that if you cheat on anything, and I catch you, you have 0 chance of passing this class. You’re done. 

That suggests that at a minimum, you need to go back and read or re-read the Felician College Honor Code. If you have any questions about it, please ask. But I’m going to take for granted that you know what it is. Every newly-matriculated Felician student covers the Honor Code in FYE. Given that, ignorance of its contents or procedures is no excuse. If you’re a transfer student who’s skipped FYE, it’s your responsibility to understand what the Honor Code says and how it works. After all, you were allowed to skip FYE on the assumption that you understand how College life works. If you don’t know how the Honor Code works, then you don’t understand how College life works. In that case, shouldn’t you be in FYE? (Is that what you want?)

It doesn’t matter how large or small the violation is. If you cheat on 100% of the material in this class, you’ll get an F in the class. But if you cheat on one point in the class, you’ll still get an F in the class. For purposes of this class, every violation is a violation, and gets treated the same way.

It doesn’t matter what excuse you have. The “excuse” could be that you left things to the last minute, then realized you couldn’t afford to fail the class, then decided to plagiarize a paper. Sorry. You shouldn’t have left things to the last minute. The “excuse” could even be that your whole family died in a tragic fire, that you had to deal with that occurrence, and that dealing with it left you no time to write an assignment or study for a test. Sorry. There are other ways of dealing with events like that. Finally, the “excuse” might be that you work, that your work schedule doesn’t allow you to attend class, that you’re lost in the class, and that you had no other option. Sorry. In that case, you needed a different schedule. It doesn’t matter whether the “F” will jeopardize your financial aid package, your athletic eligibility, or your chances of getting into grad school or law school. If you violate the Honor Code, there is no reason why you should be receiving financial aid, playing on a college sports team, or going to grad school or law school. If the “F” screws you up in that case, it was designed to do so.

In case you didn’t get my point: If you plagiarize, I want you to fail. If you plagiarize, I want to hold up your graduation. If you plagiarize, I want you to waste money re-taking classes you’ve already taken. If you plagiarize, I want to make life as hard for you as I possibly can. I want to make you miserable, I want to make you cry, I want you to wish you’d never thought of doing it in the first place. I don’t know how much clearer I can get. I also know that no matter how clear I am, I won’t be clear enough for some people.

The only relevant consideration in case of a suspected violation is whether or not you are really guilty of the violation. Mere suspicion on my part is not necessarily air-tight proof that you violated the Honor Code; I could suspect you and be wrong. And sometimes, students make non-culpable mistakes that don’t quite measure up to violations of the Honor Code (which require culpability). But once I come to the conclusion that you are guilty, I will put the Honor Code violation procedure into effect.

I know it all sounds so draconian and negative. But if so, it’s worth asking: why is it that despite giving an anti-Honor-Code violation speech in every class at the beginning of each semester, I still get students who violate it? What is one to make of students who plagiarize papers that they then send to turnitin.com, where the detection rate is close to 100%? Doesn’t that suggest that there are students out there (granted, a small minority) who will plagiarize on an assignment even if the odds of success are less than 1 in 100?

It’s also disturbing that when students talk about turnitin.com, they often equate a submission’s Similarity score (expressed as a percentage) with the percentage of the paper that has been “plagiarized.” Thus they’ll equate a paper with a 10% turnitin.com Similarity score with a paper that has been “10% plagiarized.” The implication would seem to be that “similarity” and “plagiarism” are the same thing, and that because they are, “a little bit” of plagiarism (say, under 10% or under 20%) is acceptable. A related implication is that plagiarism only becomes a problem once it crosses some numerical threshold (like 51%). This is a gigantic confusion, and suggests to me that many students have no idea what the concept of “plagiarism” really means. If you fall into this category–in other words, if you have no idea what I said in this paragraph–you need to get clear as soon as possible.

The bottom line is that there is no direct relationship between a Similarity score and a finding of plagiarism. The relationship is indirect. A submission can have a low Similarity score and involve plagiarism, or have a high Similarity score and not involve it. The Similarity score just indicates how similar the paper is to other papers in the database. A high Similarity score tends to indicate plagiarism, and a low score tends not to. But those are just rough tendencies. Plagiarism is misappropriation of the intellectual work of others. Misappropriation is a qualitative, not a numerical concept. So you can’t reduce plagiarism to a number, or equate it with one.

Ultimately, there’s no way to remedy the plagiarism/Honor Code violation problem, except to do so head-on, which is what I’ve tried to do here. And if you think that the issue has no real-world consequences, you might want to read a bit about the career of Senator John Walsh, among many, many others. If you ever wonder why the world is full of frauds and fraudulent people (if you doubt this, just look at your email filters), his career provides a nice microcosm of the process by which dishonesty is excused and becomes institutionalized. My attitude toward the Honor Code is dictated by the thought that it shouldn’t happen to you, at least if I can help it.

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