This is a clear case of plagiarism. Correct? I am not sure how to handle it. I know they are not realizing that's plagiarism, otherwise they wouldn't have shared those fb conversations. So I don't want to report to the school (yet!). But I am also not sure how to penalize them? Give a zero for the assignment? What do you recommend? Should I give zeros to both of them?
I'm going to disagree with Ben Crowell's answer, despite it being well-written and mostly sensible except for one crucial detail. The students have perhaps committed what we technically define as plagiarism (or more precisely, as StrongBad commented, one of them committed plagiarism and the other allowed her work to be used), but the element of mens rea, the "guilty mind" that we consider morally necessary to inflict punishment, is clearly lacking. So my verdict is not guilty.
The bottom line is, it doesn't matter how much we educators wring our hands about "kids these days". If someone clearly doesn't know that a behavior is wrong then it is foolish and harmful to penalize them for it. It is our job to educate students about what constitutes plagiarism and what are the standards we expect of them for independent work and citation of sources. All the things that Ben Crowell's answer lists are basically irrelevant, since if a student is showing you a facebook conversation proving that they did not realize what they were doing is plagiarism, that means your institution has failed to properly educate the students about this subject, whether it's written in the catalog or not.
I should add that in my opinion part of the problem with this common misunderstanding of plagiarism by students is that plagiarism is in fact quite a subtle concept, and that our expectations of how fast and easily students can understand and adapt to it are simply unrealistic. To criminalize a behavior that can result from a misunderstanding or lack of sophistication that is very common among students entering university is very problematic, and can backfire in all sorts of unexpected ways. (On the other hand, of course plagiarism is a real problem that needs to be dealt with; I don't have all the answers about what is the correct approach or balance to strike, and a detailed discussion of this topic is in any case beyond the scope of this question.)
To summarize, in my opinion it would be wrong to penalize the students in this case. You can and should use this as a teaching opportunity, and it would be reasonable to require the plagiarizing student to submit a revised paper that satisfies your standards for academic writing, after very clearly and carefully explaining to her what those standards are. This is also an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what we are trying to achieve with various "zero tolerance" policies that impose an unrealistically high standard of behavior on students who may not be adequately prepared to be capable of satisfying those lofty standards.
Edit: thanks to all the commenters for their lively and intelligent discussion and criticism of my answer. You have persuaded me that the answer is perhaps more subjective than I thought. I am willing to tone down my recommendation and say that the plagiarizing student may be deserving of punishment. I think ultimately it would all depend on specific details about the facebook conversation and other evidence that we do not have. At the same time, given the information presented in the question I still think an educational, rather than punitive, approach, would be the most appropriate one in this case. The key question that needs to be answered in my opinion is whether the student "knew what she was doing" in the sense that she had an understanding that basing her paper off of another student's paper was wrong. It doesn't sound like she did, but I'm only speculating and am open to changing my mind about this if presented with new information.
It may be tempting to think that cheating in school isn’t a big deal. After all, doesn’t almost everyone do it? It’s true that surveys show most students say they’ve cheated. Still, you’re risking your future by joining them. The policies in your school or college generally determine the immediate consequences. But basic legal principles govern some aspects of the disciplinary process. And of course, the law determines what happens when students sue schools, claiming that they were unfairly accused or punished for cheating.
Cheating in All Its Guises
There are probably as many ways to cheat as there are students, but some basic types crop up again and again—even if the methods change over time from peering over a classmate’s shoulder to texting an answer under the desk. Examples include:
- copying another student’s answers or homework
- letting another student copy your answers or work
- using or distributing copies of test questions, answers, or answer keys
- secretly using “crib notes” or the Internet to help you answer test questions, whether you’ve printed a cheat sheet on your leg or looked up information on your phone
- having someone else do your homework or take a test for you, or doing the same for another student, and
- changing your answers on a test after it’s been graded and then asking for the grade to be changed.
Some kinds of cheating may not be as obvious. For instance, many colleges and universities have policies that require you to report cheating by other students when you know about it. If you don’t report it, you may be subject to discipline for cheating yourself.
Plagiarism—From Copy-and-Paste to Bespoke Research Papers
Plagiarism—basically passing off someone else’s work as your own—is another form of cheating that becomes more of an issue as students move from middle and high school to college and beyond. Some forms of plagiarism are obvious, like:
- copying text (or even an entire paper) from a website, book, or other source without putting the copied words in quotes and giving credit to the source
- buying, stealing, borrowing, or downloading a paper written by someone else, or
- hiring someone to write a custom paper for you.
But students may not always realize they’re plagiarizing, such as when they:
- paraphrase other people’s work without giving them credit
- borrow or build on someone else’s ideas without giving credit
- follow another author’s organizational structure without credit
- misquote source material
- use incorrect (or made up) information about sources, or
- “recycle” their own work for another class without permission from the teacher.
From Reprimand to Expulsion
Technology continues to give students new tools to cheat, from smartphones and reprogrammed calculators to hard-to-trace artificial intelligence programs. At the same time, it has given teachers and professors sophisticated tools to prevent and detect cheating, including webcams and video monitoring, biometric tools, and software (like Turnitin) that matches students’ work to huge databases of other documents and school papers. It may feel like a whack-a-mole game to schools, but the reality is that lots of cheaters get caught. What happens then?
The answer to that question depends on lots of factors, including:
- your education level (with more serious repercussions as you progress from middle and high school to college and beyond)
- your disciplinary history
- the policies in your school (and sometimes in your individual teacher’s class), and
- how bad the cheating was (such as involvement in a widespread cheating ring).
Your institution’s student handbook, code of conduct, or honesty code will spell out the rules and the consequences for breaking them. In general, those consequences may include:
- being sent to the principal or detention (in K-12 schools)
- a written reprimand on your record (in college)
- a failing grade or zero on the assignment or test
- a failing grade in the entire course
- loss of privileges like participation in school sports, and
Colleges and universities may also impose other punishments, including:
- dismissal from the course
- academic, disciplinary, or athletic probation
- loss of scholarships, and
- expulsion from the college or university.
Whenever cheating or plagiarism leads to formal disciplinary proceedings, the procedures will depend on the setting. In public K-12 schools, state laws and regulations set the basic rules, while local district policies fill in the details. But all schools must also meet federal standards that protect students’ constitutional rights, including the right to know the charges against them and to defend themselves in a fair hearing. (For more details, see our article on students’ right in disciplinary hearings.)
The vast majority of colleges use disciplinary information in their admissions decisions.
The Long Shadow of Cheating
Cheating in high school can seriously hurt your chances of getting into college. When you get an “F” for cheating, you may not be able to make up the test or assignment as you would if you received a low grade honestly. Beyond the impact of grades, studies have shown that nearly three-fourths of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and the vast majority use that information in their admissions decision. (And if admissions officers find plagiarism in your admissions essay, they’re likely to flat-out reject you.) At the college level, a record of cheating or plagiarism not only can hijack your academic career, but it could hurt your chances at getting future internships and jobs.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My daughter was formally disciplined for cheating at school. How can we get the discipline removed from her permanent school record?
- My son was one of many students who passed on texts with answers to a math test, but he was the only one who was formally disciplined. The teacher says it was because he was the ringleader, but I think he was singled out because he’s gay and a vocal activist. Can we sue the teacher and the school for discrimination?
- Can my college discipline me for plagiarism in a research paper without ever identifying the supposed source of the plagiarized material?
- I was denied admission to a postgraduate program based on a false accusation of plagiarism in my research proposal. Can I sue the university and faculty members for defamation related to my profession? Even though I’m still a student, I’ve co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific article.