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When an instructor catches a student in an act of plagiarism, they often struggle with what to do with the pupil at issue.

Most instructors know that they’re supposed to report the student to the school, but, according to research from Darrin Nelson at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (research presented at the 2019 International Center for Academic Integrity conference), very few do. Nelson conducted a survey of instructors and found that only 1 out of 6 had ever filed an academic integrity report.

The reasons for this varied. Many feared the paperwork and headache that might follow reporting a student for an academic integrity issue, others didn’t wish to derail a student’s academic career and others just felt they could handle the matter better in the classroom.

And that, in turn, is how most of the teachers surveyed handled it. They approached the student in class, made sure they understood what was wrong and gave them a chance to correct the issue there.

The problem is that, while instructors feel that they are reducing plagiarism with this approach, they may actually be doing the opposite. According to Nelson, incidents of plagiarism drop in classrooms where teachers report academic integrity issues.

However, the problem with not reporting plagiarism goes much deeper than the classroom itself. After all, a student’s academic career isn’t contained within just one class and it’s unlikely that their academic integrity issues are either.

The Biggest Problem

The biggest problem with a teacher not reporting an academic integrity violation is that there is no record of it. If a student has committed plagiarism in the past or commits plagiarism in the future, there’s no way to know the full history.

The result of this is that students are often able to plagiarize many different times but never face escalating consequences. As long as they are caught just once per class (or per instructor) every violation is a first violation.

Reporting academic integrity issues allows there to be a central record of problems the student has had so that each incident can be treated appropriately. If it is the first violation, then the university can take steps to help the student but if it is the third, fourth or fifth, the school knows they may need to take more drastic action.

However, without a report filed, that information isn’t available and the appropriate level of action can’t be taken. In short, the school is flying blind when it comes to the student and can’t respond appropriately when it is reported.

Sending the Wrong Message

The other issue with not reporting incidents of plagiarism is that it sends an inadvertent message to the student that plagiarism simply isn’t a big deal. If it’s something that can be dealt with through an awkward conversation and redoing an assignment, there’s little motivation to not do it again, especially if their record is still clean.

Instructors that report plagiarism are seen as taking the issue more seriously than those that do not. That’s because plagiarism in those classes have lasting consequences and the instructors have shown they’re willing to spend the time and energy to submit the case to the school.

Though instructors often think that, by approaching the student directly, they’re putting on a tough face and being strong on plagiarism, they’re actually sending the opposite message and the increase of plagiarism in such classrooms shows that.

If students are going to respect the school’s academic policies, then it is important for their instructors to do so as well. That includes reporting incidents as they come up.

A Matter of Training

According to Nelson, the key to addressing this issue is training.

Just as students are trained on the importance of citation and how to not plagiarize early in their academic careers, instructors need to be trained both on the importance of reporting academic integrity issues and how to do it.

According to his survey, only 1 out of 3 instructors knew where the academic integrity forms were for their university and barely half understood the school’s policies on the topic. This lack of knowledge and misunderstanding is dangerous and, as discussed above, may be unintentionally encouraging or enabling plagiarism.

Informing instructors of both the rules surrounding plagiarism and its reporting should be a core part of any teacher’s training. Just as teachers are taught how to use plagiarism detection tools, they should be taught how to report the plagiarism they do find.

While it is great that teachers are getting better at spotting academic integrity issues, if they don’t report them, they aren’t completing the loop and are leaving the job partially complete.

Conclusions

The temptation to avoid reporting plagiarism is understandable. No one wants to be the person who derails an academic career and the work that often follows such a report is certainly unenviable.

However, dealing with a plagiarism incident in the classroom isn’t really dealing with it, at least not completely. The school has a need to know that the student had an academic integrity issue so the school can provide the help the student needs, which is likely more than what the teacher can do in the classroom, or take more drastic action if its a repeated problem.

Not reporting plagiarism is not only encouraging plagiarism in the classroom but it doesn’t serve the students who have issues. If students are going to correct these problems, they need to be aware of just how serious they are and have access to all of the resources available to them.

Simply put, there’s no way to do that without fully reporting every instance of plagiarism, regardless of how tempting it is to do otherwise.


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