Sunday, September 20, 2009


The start of a new school year always seems to raise some ethical issues for teachers, myself included.

One such teacher is a reader of mine from Pittsburgh, who is starting a new teaching job at a college. Like most colleges, his takes a strong stance against plagiarism. Its written policy makes clear, among other things, that stealing words from the Internet will not be tolerated.

That policy is one which my reader has no problem supporting, but he's troubled by some advice he's been receiving from colleagues.

"I have been encouraged not to tell my students that I'll be checking their written work through an online program that detects plagiarism," he writes.

These programs highlight portions of a student's writing and automatically search published databases to see if the student has "borrowed" too aggressively and without attribution from another source. My reader has little problem with the use of such programs, but feels that many of his colleagues seem "too excited" about the prospect of catching unsuspecting plagiarists.

He wonders if "we should be out to `catch' people in such instances where, instead, we might be able to pre-empt their poor choices by more clearly showing them that they're unlikely to get away with it."

In other words, why not tell your students ahead of time that you will be using the anti-plagiarism software, giving them a disincentive to cheat?

Ultimately, my reader writes, it's up to him whether or not to disclose the truth. But he wonders if it's inappropriate to be more interested in catching someone doing something wrong than in guiding them to do what's right.

Are my reader's colleagues wrong not to disclose to their students that they will be using plagiarism-detection software? No.

The existence of a written policy against plagiarism implies enforcement of that policy, so students should expect their professors to use any reasonable means at their disposal to detect violations. The use of anti-plagiarism software in no way violates students' privacy or other rights, so it's a perfectly legitimate tool for the college to use to ensure the authenticity of its students' work.

All the same, that it isn't wrong doesn't make it the right choice. I believe my reader's concerns are legitimate, not because using undisclosed software is unethical but because it's not the best way for the college to educate its students and promote their welfare.

The college's primary interest is not in collecting the "scalps" of plagiarists, but in preventing plagiarism. It also presumably aims to help students learn to make critical decisions for themselves, and both interests are better served by advance disclosure of the use of the anti-plagiarism software.

With the consequences of getting caught made clear to them, students have everything they need to make a choice about plagiarism. Hopefully most of them will make the right choice and the anti-plagiarism software will work well ... and bag few plagiarists.

A recurring theme in my column, through the years, has been that it isn't the stark right-and-wrong ethical choices that are difficult to make. Not everything that passes the "ethical or unethical" test is equally desirable, however, and the real challenge comes when we face a situation that presents us with a number of right choices.

Our goal should be not simply to avoid the wrong choices, but to choose the best of the right choices. The way to that choice involves weighing the potential consequences of our actions.

In this case, the right thing for my colleague to do is to focus on teaching his students the reasons not to plagiarize, rather than to work to catch them in the act. He's right in thinking that the goal is to teach a lesson through teaching, rather than through punishing.

If his colleagues are on the ball, they'll follow his example.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Jeffrey Seglin's concerns about the right or wrong of using anti-plagiarism software, my own feeling is that (a) it is tough beans if the students who thereby may be caught plagiarizing will learn it is thievery to plagiarize and (b) why is the professor so worried about what his colleagues think? It is my feeling that too many of today's students have lost their way about honesty in writing their papers and "borrowing" someone else's work without attribution and too many of today's liberal-minded professors have way too much time on their hands worrying about a colleague using anti-plagiarism software to catch the little crooks (students). It's about time someone reigned in these leaders of tomorrow using illegal writing methods.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

IIO don't understand the reluctance of professors to discuss openly the issue of plagiarim. It is rampant in the graduate program in which I have taught over 30 classes.

I am not boasting when I say that I have about a 75% "hit rate" on suspected plagiarized text in student term papers (required in all oft courses). Despite this (a fact disclosed to students BEFORE they even begin their papers), about 15% of papers I receive have plagiarized text in them.

It must be made clear to students that plagiarm is not only illegal, but that it could result in a failing grade on the paper and in the overall course grade. This may sound harsh to some, but educators who ignore the importance of this ethical/legal issue are not taking their responsibility seriously.

Jan Bohren
Croton-on-Hudson, NY