In 2012 Harvard University went public with the news that some 125 of its students were being investigated for suspected plagiarism in an Introduction to Congress class. When it was all said and done, around 70 students were forced to leave the school.
The story drew an enormous amount of mainstream attention not only because it was a significant academic integrity scandal at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, but it was also a rare public glimpse at the often very secretive world of academic integrity enforcement.
Unfortunately, the tendency of schools isn’t always to be open and transparent about their issues with plagiarism. For many reasons, schools are tempted to underreport, bury, or hide incidents of plagiarism.
Whether it is to protect the school, the student, or to just avoid the headache that can come with dealing with such incidents, the temptation is almost always there to not fully report violations of academic integrity.
To that end, here are five reasons why schools may be tempted to underreport plagiarism, and why they shouldn’t.
Reason 1: To Protect the School
Plagiarism is, in general, seen as a negative thing. When a school is seen as having a plagiarism problem, that is harmful to the school’s reputation. It can become known as a “cheater’s haven” of sorts.
Of course, an uptick in detected plagiarism may not represent an actual increase in plagiarism. Often times such shifts are attributed, in part or in whole, to better and more thorough detection.
Still, the perception of being a school with a plagiarism problem can motivate teachers and schools to both keep such statistics hidden, even if the data could help others, and to avoid officially reporting students that do plagiarize.
This is unnecessary because plagiarism happens everywhere. As the Harvard case shows, what hurts a school’s reputation isn’t that plagiarism happened but poor handling of it. A reputation is for taking plagiarism seriously is far more important than trying to build a reputation as a place where plagiarism doesn’t occur.
Reason 2: To Protect the Student
Another reason teachers and administrators may be tempted to not report a case of plagiarism is to protect the student involved. This is especially the case where it’s believed to be the student’s first case of plagiarism or when there were extenuating circumstances that make the student’s situation more sympathetic.
The logic is that if the student can avoid entering the formal academic integrity process, they won’t face as stern of a punishment and will be given a second chance.
However, that doesn’t really serve the student’s needs long term. In an ideal world, the academic integrity system wouldn’t just be about punishing students who violate the honor code but about helping students in need.
Furthermore, without a report being made of the plagiarism, there’s no way to be certain that it is the student’s first problem. Instead of giving the student a second chance, they might be enabling a fifth or sixth violation.
Without reporting plagiarism, students can’t get the help they need and there won’t be a record on how serious the problem really might be.
Reason 3: To Avoid the Headache
Instructors and administrators alike often fear the headache that can come with a report of plagiarism. The process of handling such cases can be long and winding, often taking months to complete. This can make it very tempting to just handle such cases “off the books.”
Academia is rife with stories students who commit academic integrity violations but protest and fight their case, no matter how clear the evidence, and who drag things on for weeks or months. This eats up a lot of time for administrators and teachers alike.
It can be very tempting to avoid the headache, not report the plagiarism, and handle things quietly. However, as we discussed above, this doesn’t help the student or the school. The school needs the data and the student may have needs that can’t be met just by redoing the assignment.
Instead, schools should focus on streamlining the academic integrity process so that, while the process is still fair to all parties, it doesn’t overly burden either side.
Reason 4: To Preserve Funding
Schools often wind up getting their funding from a variety of sources and sometimes that funding pressures schools to maintain a specific overall GPA, graduation rate or other barometer related to student success. Academic integrity cases can damage those numbers.
This can be felt especially keenly in public schools where several key funding sources are tied to student performance. This has led to stories of schools not just ignoring cheating, but encouraging it.
The issue here is that academic integrity should be about helping students succeed, not forcing them to fail. Expulsion, for example, is a very rarely used recourse in plagiarism cases. The emphasis is and should be on helping the student turn things around.
Still, the pressures of meeting student success goals can tempt teachers and administrators into not reporting cases of plagiarism and dealing with them off the record.
Reason 5: Lack of Knowledge
In research presented by Darrin Nelson from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at the 2019 International Center for Academic Integrity conference, only ⅓ of the teachers that he interviewed knew where the forms to report academic integrity violations were.
This is a pattern we see over and over again as analysis shows that a small percentage of instructors make up the lion’s share of the reporting. For example, at Fresno State University, only 10 percent filed a report after catching an academic integrity violation.
Making educators aware of the academic integrity process, how it begins, and what it entails is the first step to improving reporting.
When it comes to academic integrity, in particular, plagiarism, there are many reasons that tempt teachers, administrators, and schools to underreport infractions. However, this serves neither the school nor the students.
Not only does it harm the honest students who are doing their work the correct way, but it also robs the students committing the infractions of a chance to learn, grow, and improve. No one wins.
Schools need to make sure that their instructors know when and how to report academic integrity violations and that issues are followed up on quickly. No matter how tempting it may be to keep such incidents off the record, that record is very important for all involved.