Inside Higher Ed: Who is punished for plagiarism?

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

July 25, 2011

Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis has taken down the controversial blog post, but the debate is raging on without the original material.

Ipeirotis, a computer scientist who teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business, wrote a post on his blog last week called “Why I will never pursue cheating again”. In it, he told the story of how he had found that about 20 per cent of a 100-person class had plagiarised – and described the fallout from his accusations. While Turnitin (an academic plagiarism detector) led to his initial suspicions, and gave clear evidence against some of the students, it only cast doubts on other students. Many of them confessed only when Ipeirotis told the class that if he didn’t hear from those who had cheated, he would report the incident immediately – whereas in the end he included in his report the information that students had admitted what they had done.

So why does Ipeirotis consider the experience to be a failure? His students became antagonistic, he wrote on the blog post, and gave him lower teaching evaluations than he had ever received before. And those poor teaching evaluations were cited in a review that resulted in the smallest salary raise he had ever received.

For Ipeirotis, the experience led him to vow never to go after cheaters again. “Was it worth it? Absolutely not,” he wrote on the now-deleted blog post. “Not only [have] I paid a significant financial penalty for ‘doing the right thing’ (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I ‘should change slightly my assignments from year to year’. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.) I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of ‘me against them’ as opposed to the much more pleasant ‘these things that we are learning are really cool!’ ” (The University of Venus blog features a new post on this controversy and other debates over plagiarism in higher education.)

You can still read the many comments on Ipeirotis’ blog post – just not the original. Where the original once appeared, Ipeirotis wrote: “The post is temporarily removed. I will restore it after ensuring that there are no legal liabilities for myself or my employer.”

In an email interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ipeirotis said that NYU officials had told him that they had received a letter from a professor at another university warning of “legal liabilities that NYU is facing as a result of my actions”. Ipeirotis said he was given “a brief summary” of the letter which suggested that he had violated federal privacy protection laws by using excerpts from a student’s email, quoting parts of a plagiarised assignment, and describing the situation in his course. The professor believed that Ipeirotis, by describing the incident, was in effect labelling all of his students as plagiarisers.

Ipeirotis said that he disagreed with these points. But he said he agreed to take down the post because “I am not a lawyer, and I cannot make arbitrary judgements about the validity of these accusations”.

NYU officials did not respond to enquiries about the legal concerns raised about Ipeirotis’ blog post (which is not on an NYU website).

The university did, however, release a statement from Ingo Walter, vice-dean of the faculty at the business school, suggesting that some protections exist for professors being punished in the evaluation process, as Ipeirotis believes he was.

Walter’s statement, in its entirety: “Faculty evaluation is based on a detailed annual review of research, teaching and service to the department, the university and the profession. The teaching component of the evaluation is based on curriculum development, preparation of cases and other teaching materials, and student evaluations. Stern faculty members are obligated to support the university and Stern honour codes and are never sanctioned in any way for doing so. This includes possible class-feedback consequences in plagiarism or cheating cases in course evaluations. Moreover, the course evaluation input of any student who has an honour code infraction is removed from consideration when evaluating teaching performance.”

The wrong debate?

Via email, Ipeirotis said that one of his greatest frustrations about the discussion of his blog post is that most of the focus in the blogosphere has been on how many students plagiarised and whether he lost raise-money for doing something about it. In a comment on the website Business Insider, he noted that part of his original blog post was a suggestion for a new approach to fighting plagiarism.

“My point is that students cheat because they can! Is an arms race the answer? Devise more sophisticated cheating detection mechanisms? Higher penalties for cheating? While students devise more sophisticated cheating methods? My belief is that this is the wrong battle to fight,” he wrote. “Instead, as educators, we should be focusing on making cheating impossible. Not through enforcement but by designing evaluation schemes that are much less amenable to cheating.”

He suggested assignments in which students make their projects public, in-class competitions in projects and peer reviewing of in-class presentations. The question should be: “How can we teach and evaluate students without being afraid that students may cheat? How can we make cheating irrelevant?”

Asked what he made of the failure of the discussion to focus on those issues, Ipeirotis emailed the following: “Apparently the public is not ready for a civil discussion. This was a post to illustrate the futility of fighting cheating by force. I wanted to start a discussion about plagiarism and how we can design our courses and evaluation strategies to make cheating irrelevant. The discussion was derailed into a finger-pointing flame war, that I did not particularly enjoy. My gut feeling right now is that I will never write about my teaching experiences again.”

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