Dealing with plagiarism as a teaching assistant


in Psychology, Security, Teaching, Writing

One aspect of starting a PhD program is that I will be responsible for working as a teaching assistant: teaching seminars, grading papers, and so on.

I am worried about the inevitable day when I discover that a student has committed plagiarism and when I am in the position of having to decide what to do about it.

So far, the best plan seems to be to issue a stern warning during my first session with each group of students. It could be something along the lines of:

Do not submit plagiarized work to me.

If you do, you will be reported to the appropriate disciplinary authorities without exception.

You are here to earn meaningful degrees. Plagiarism devalues all of the work you are doing, and I will not tolerate it.

It’s unfair to give some people second chances or the benefit of the doubt while denying it to others. Being consistent seems important, and it also seems plausible that a sufficiently strong warning could prevent the problem from ever coming up in the first place.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen—to the extent of fifty words except in the case of a child; its memory-tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the actual language can have graving-room there, and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory-tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own. No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”

Scott May 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm

It will happen, it will be glaring, and when I was a TA, I just referred it to Dr. Nossal for his judgement.
For first year courses, a far more common occurrence is improper citation that in effect ends up being plagiarism.

Donna May 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Milan, I agree with Scott – it will happen, no matter what you do. I have been a TA for two years, and have had occurrences of deliberate plagiarism in each session (as opposed to unintentional cases where the student doesn’t understand how to properly cite/reference).

I include a discussion of plagiarism in my first class, refer the students to the University’s website on plagiarism, and provide links to guides on referencing/citations. Later lesson plans include a review of how to do in-text citations and referencing. Students are required to complete the academic honesty exam. Discussion of plagiarism again takes place when essay topics are submitted. I provide extensive feedback on the first assignment of the year to help students do better on their subsequent assignments.

There is very little downside to students getting caught plagiarizing – and they know it! If your Course Director decides to bring this forward (yep, many just don’t want to deal with this), the student may get a few marks taken off their paper. This year I had one student who plagiarized on his fall essay and again on his winter essay and he still passed the course (the prof re-graded both essays). There may be some profs who are more concerned with the ethical issues, but I have not yet worked with one.

I know many TAs who no longer report plagiarism cases because of the non-action on the part of faculty/administration. They simply fail the student on the assignment in question and tell the student why.

I love my work as TA. I meet amazing students and have a chance to make a difference. I take a holistic approach, focusing on skill development (researching, writing, presentations, critical analysis). I hope you find your TA experience to be rewarding.

Milan May 25, 2012 at 9:55 pm


Thank you for the informative comment.

I certainly hope I don’t find myself encountering plagiarism on a regular basis. It really corrodes the value of university if there are people getting through that way.

The system is meant to be meritocratic and based on study and quality of original thought.

anonymous June 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm

At a lot of schools, taking a hard line against cheating will get YOU in trouble, not the cheating students.

. August 29, 2016 at 9:33 am

Cheating has become second nature to many students. In studies, more than two-thirds of college students say they’ve cheated on an assignment. As many as half say they’d be willing to purchase one. To them, higher education is just another transaction, less about learning than about obtaining a credential.

The market, which includes hundreds of websites and apps, offers a slippery slope of options. Students looking for class notes and sample tests can find years’ worth on, which archives exams from dozens of colleges. And a growing number of companies, including Course Hero and Chegg, offer online tutoring that attempts to stay above the fray (one expert calls such services a “gateway drug”).

. August 29, 2016 at 9:33 am
. August 29, 2016 at 9:35 am

“The company’s dealings with one Ph.D. candidate illustrate the increasingly complex work that students are outsourcing, while faculty members remain in the dark. Last year, Ultius contracted with a student who described herself as a “single active duty parent” to help write a concept paper for her doctoral program, records show. The job included revisions requested by the chair of her dissertation committee.

The Ph.D. student requested that Ultius complete a literature review and produce a theoretical framework for her dissertation. The order required the company to find data on migration patterns and economic growth in Jamaica, and to apply advanced economic theory. The company did the work, but the customer was so displeased with it that she filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. That complaint details the case.”

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