On the surface, plagiarism is the act of stealing another individual’s ideas and claiming them as as your own without properly crediting them. Sometimes this results from a miniscule mistake, such as forgetting to use quotation marks, to larger, more extreme cases in which complete texts are recycled. Still, no matter how small the error, the College feels strongly about bringing these cases to the light, and issuing the proper consequences.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Zosia Krusberg understands the stress that would push a student to cheat; however, she feels that this extends beyond the classroom.
In an emailed statement she wrote, “We find ourselves in a culture that makes tremendous allowances for financial, political, and ethical dishonesty, often to further individual success over the wellbeing of our communities. Within that context, it is unsurprising that dishonesty also permeates the realm of higher education. Our students feel tremendous pressure to get high GPAs, to get accepted to the best graduate schools, and to have successful careers, and they are willing to make ethical sacrifices to get there. In our hearts we know that a dishonest society is not a healthy one, so we bear a significant burden as teachers if we want our students to enter the post-college world with a sense of personal responsibility.”
Given the gravitas of the situation, when a student commits an act of plagiarism, he or she not only must face the consequences decided on by the academic panel,
Dean of Studies Joanne Long explained, “When you enter an academic, or any other, community, you’re really a person in relationship with other people on the basis of trust. When we write papers or write articles or publish them, we’re entering into a conversation with other people. And in order for that conversation to be productive all members who enter have to do so in good faith.”
Co-Chair of the English Department Susan Zlotnick has spotted plagiarism in essays and papers only a few times over the years. She wrote in an emailed statement, “Plagiarism cases go to the Academic Panel, which is chaired by the Dean of Studies, with panel members ordinarily consisting of three faculty and three students. If I discover plagiarism, and I can document it, I send it along to the Dean of Studies.”
The Dean of Studies decides if a panel should be held. There, accused student and his or her professor are interviewed after the material in question has been thoroughly reviewed. The student, then, will either plead guilty or not guilty.
Judicial Board member Deep Anand ‘15, wrote in an emailed statement, “The most severe case I’ve seen involved a paper that was plagiarized to the point where more than 60% of the material was lifted straight from a single book, word for word. The least offensive involved either lacking to cite sources/include quotation marks or cheating on a single question of a test.”
Zlotnick, who has sat on the panel in the past, stated “If a student is found guilty, the panel makes recommendations to the faculty member bringing the charges, and the panel always asks the faculty member for input when it comes to sanctioning a student. Sanctions on students found guilty can vary, from the plagiarized document being invalidated (and thus receiving no credit) to the panel recommending that the faculty fail the student in the course.” Moreover, if the the student is found guilty, a note will be made on their record, which medical schools, law schools and other graduate programs will have access to. The most severe consequence, as well as the rarest, would be expulsion from the College, though occasionally students may be suspended for the remainder of the current semester, or the following semester.
And while there were twenty-seven cases heard last year, and fourteen thus far this year, Long explained that not every student is found responsible. “Some cases I think need to be heard even if the panel then decides there is not enough evidence to find the student guilty or they believe the student’s version of events,” she said
The panel takes into consideration first time offenders, as well as what academic year the student may currently be in. Zlotnick added, “[I]ntentionality is something the panel adjudicates. Sometimes students, particularly early in their Vassar careers, may not properly attribute the materials they’ve used because they are still getting accustomed to citation practices within the academy.”
Krusberg explained that enforcing a policy on plagiarism is about creating a group of young adults who are ready to enter the real world.
She said, “Our objective is not to control our students by imposing arbitrary or dogmatic rules and punishment…it is important that the underlying motivation for our policies is transparent. Our fundamental objective is the education of the world’s future generation of artists, scientists, and professionals…”
Long advised students to be conscious about which ideas belong to them and which belong to others, all the while upholding honesty. She said, “I think the main term here is integrity. People can be distracted by thinking that the academic panel is merely about rules or about someone getting away with something, but it’s really about integrity. And that’s a much larger educational goal.”