Unfair, hence invalid !!

Last night I had a heated debate (okay, a shouting match) with a friend over the phone. He was telling me about this high school student who was given a score of 0 on a science research paper because the teacher caught one line—a sentence—plagiarized. The paper required at least three citations or sources (bibliography). My first reaction was, how in the world could the teacher catch a one-line of all the 1) paper she needed to read, probably about 35 total, and 2) all the sources she needed to cross-examine, which would amount to 3) 35 x 3 = 105 different sources to skim through.

Assuming this was what needed to be done to catch all the plagiarists in class, how first of all did she have the time to sit down, maybe in front of the computer and check sources online for each paper (I know high school teachers have enough work to do without this extra checking they needed to do). My friend’s response was, she didn’t have to. She must have picked him of all the students and checked his work against his sources, and voila! a one-line evidence of plagiarism.

And my response was, the teacher’s system for catching plagiarists is flawed or unfair, and therefore, anything that comes out of that system is invalid or unfair as well. It may very well be that the student did actually plagiarize, but what about the rest of the students who might have done so, but wasn’t caught because there just was not enough time to do all 35, and so only those that the teacher had managed to check, and had proven to have committed it, got punished.

I even gave examples of people committing traffic violations, like going over the speed limit, using the carpool lane (and not have any passenger, besides the driver), crossing the yellow solid double-line, etc. I said because the system is not designed to catch all violators, only some, it is inherently flawed. It is not enough that those caught have actually violated something, the system used to catch them must also be applied equally and fairly, such that we don’t have instances where some or most violators suffer no consequence, while some, and only some do.

At this point his retort, accompanied with expletives, was–that’s the only system we have so far, that’s the one being used, so that is fair because another system is not available. My shout back was, along with fck, sht, crap, moron—that is not a valid argument for calling it fair. Then phones banged left and right.

Thoughts, anyone?

what is the better alternative: only busting some evil doers while some escape, or busting none.

if you assume that factors like race or personal hatred are not used in the random selection of audit candidates, then you cant say its unfair just because the govt/teacher doesnt have enough hands. its not ‘all or nothing’ you can still punish crimes and miss them at the same time.

[contented edited by ILP]

Ahh, but arendt, you are assuming it takes much time to check for any plagiarism in a paper.

The teacher doesn’t need to do hardly any work at all actually. All they need to do, is take their pick and then hit send basically:



ithenticate.com/static/home. … ff9ae0fa9c

There are countless other sites like these, but I think you catch my drift.

Future Man,

But my point is, let’s not call it fair then if we design something to penalize violators, yet at the same time allow others to go through without penalty. This is not what is explicit in many of our systems in place right now. Yet, it is very much implicit in these kind of system and my problem is we do not question the system, its validity, its fairness. We just take it for granted that it’s there and it’s doing its job.

And you are right, it’s better to have a system than nothing at all. I don’t object to this at all. But I want to make it explicit that many of our systems are not designed to be fair, only to be a working system.


I agree very much. We lose sight of how moral, fair, valid a system is because we don’t question, or we fail to analyze what it actually does, as opposed to its original purpose/function—like what you’ve mentioned about traffic laws, its proper function is to improve traffic, but what it actually does is it generates revenues for the city/state. And the problem with this, it is bound to be abused when money is at stake or some other power, or interest.


Okay, I understand what you’re saying. But like I said, if there is a system at all that would/could make catching plagiarists/violators and apply the system equally such that no one gets away with something just because 1) there isn’t enough time, 2) there isn’t enough manpower, 3) there isn’t enough resources to do------then, great. My problem is with the reasons given: 1) not enough time to check all, 2) not enough manpower, 3) not enough resources to enforce etc. I think these are reasons for practical purposes, but they cannot be reasons for assessing whether a system is fair.

Thanks for the links. I’ve had a conversation with one of my professors in philosophy and he admits that plagiarizing, downloading essays from the internet, is a problem and sometimes there is no way to catch them. I’ve had a classmate, who got an –A on his paper, and bragged about it to me. He downloaded his essay on Rawls, a paragraph at a time. He didn’t write anything in it. They were like taken from different sources, and all he did was arranged the paragraphs so it would be coherent enough. Of course, I was bitter.

For the moment, I beg, indulge me by granting two assumptions for the sake of argument.

  1. This was not a case of ‘technical plagarism’ where the student got the bibliography format wrong, used Ibid. incorrectly or typo’d some page numbers. I have witnessed teachers make honor code cases out of crap like that, and it was so very wrong. At the high school level, I don’t think such errors would even have to warrant points off.
  2. Whatever led the teacher to check up on this paper, it wasn’t a desire to make life suck for the student. I’ll get back to this at the end, because I know that it’s ruling out a very important point that’s bouncing around here.

Given 1, its important to note that the student in question did, in fact, commit plagarism, which ought not be judged without considering that the student lied by turning in a plagarized paper and the student either stole (words or ideas) from somebody or slandered them by attributing something they did not say to their name (keep in mind that people likely to be cited are also likely to have their livelihood wrapped up in their academic reputation).
The continued function of scholarly research relies on the quite rigid enforcement of the highest standards of academic honesty. If another scholar’s idea isn’t fully and accurately cited in your paper, anybody else’s attempt to use your paper as a basis for further work will probably misuse that idea because its short of its full context. If you misattribute an idea to another scholar, the more your paper is read, the more time and energy will be wasted over the ensuing years as the person you slandered is read and interpreted and confronted by people who think s/he/it actually said that.
I know that the chances of this student actually becoming a well published academic are slim, but these are the rules you’re playing by when you write a research paper.

I also know (because I remember well) what a horrible rotten chore it is in high school to learn how to work within the suddenly much more stifling standards. This is actually where my really vehement rejection of the ‘it’s not fair to punish him’ claim comes from. Maybe not entirely so. It might not be fair to him because he gets hurt for doing something while others that did the same thing don’t. It also might not be fair to the other cheaters in this class, because he gets a the strongest wake up call and is more likely than they are to get his head in the game before taking this habit to college and doing his future some real damage. In both of these ways, for this student to get a 0 on the paper might be unfair. Please note that the people who might be treated unfairly so far have all committed a major breach of trust with the community which is being asked to respond fairly.

Here’s the thing: what about those other students in that class. The ones that did the work in good faith, conformed to all those uncomfortable standards because they trusted their teacher when informed that it did matter, or at the very least made the effort because they believed the teacher when informed that plagarism would not be tolerated. To not punish this guy when he was caught RED HANDED would be most unfair to the non- cheaters. Among other things many would come to question whether or not proper notation did matter. And they would be quite right to object to receiving a grade that purports to be on the same scale as the cheater.

This is already getting way too long, so real quick. Here’s why I don’t buy for a second that the teacher was in any way singling out the student for harassment. Why would the punishment have stopped at a 0 on the essay. Folks, that’s the bottom end of tried and true high school punishments for plagarism. Why not make him write another one just to pass the class, or retake the class that summer, or go for a 2 day suspension (with matching mark on the transcript)? incidentally, if the teacher was using reference checks to harass students, the fair thing would be to have somebody else check ALL the papers, not let the guy get away with cheating.


I understand that this seems to be the unintended conclusion that one may make after reading my post (at the start of this thread). And I agree, one could get that impression that to question something like what happened in that classroom is to oppose punishing the guilty one, because such and such. But my contention is that “among the guilty”, everyone should be subjected to the same scrutiny, if scrutiny is used at all. The idea that a random check is sufficient because 1) the teacher just doesn’t have enough time to check all, 2) and a random check is better than nothing at all, is at best needed to be questioned about its fairness. We don’t have a problem comparing real crimes in real courts to determine what would be a fitting punishment for each person found guilty. So, we know that even in court, crime and punishment is “relative” to other factors. So, to say that in the case of the plagiarist—that he is guilty anyway, no matter what others have done—is to argue in “absolute”. Never mind that others in class have plagiarized as well, but they were the ones “not caught”, he was. So, it is fitting that he get punished. This is thinking in absolute.

As far as the non-cheaters, this is the “default”, the norm. They get what they’re supposed to get. The contention is among those who actually deviate from the norm.

I think we agree on this. If you read my last post, you will see that I argued in terms of “what’s fair”.

Also check out these plagiarism sites :