Academic twitter has been abuzz with the story of Tiffany Martinez, a student and aspiring professor at Suffolk University. Martinez was called out in front of her whole class for suspected plagiarism because she used the word “hence.” Martinez described her own story here. I join many others in at least suspecting that if Tiffany Martinez were a white male, she would not have been questioned and humiliated for using a word like “hence.”
Sadly, I’ve seen so many academics who are minorities commenting on the Martinez matter discuss how, while students, they felt that had to be super careful about citations, because they were always suspected of not doing their own work.
This is unacceptable.
Look, of course plagiarism is a plague. Like most college-level instructors, I’ve caught plagiarizers. But we should be extremely wary of falsely accusing students in general, especially if, as seems to be the case, we are disproportionately accusing minority students.
So here I’ve outlined a few ideas to help professors avoid a similar situation to Tiffany Martinez’s.
- Unlike Martinez’s professor, never, never, never announce to other students your suspicions of plagiarism. It is no other student’s business.
- Never, ever suggest a student plagiarized due to writing style alone. Not only is this immoral, this is incomprehensible to me. Has this teacher not had a variety of students of all apparent racial, ethnic, economic backgrounds who are amazing writers, or formal writers, or overly dramatic thesaurus denizens, etc.?
- Some possible rare caveats to number 2: I’ve had cases in which the writing style switched strikingly mid-paper for a couple of paragraphs, or from one paper to the next. I’ve also had students use philosophical jargon that I never used while teaching. These have been red flags, and occasionally following up on such has led me to find plagiarism. Note: it’s unthinkable that one word alone – especially one that’s unrelated to course subject matter – should itself count as a red flag. If it passes a plagiarism checker (see #5 below), I’d either let it go or – in the case of technical jargon only – Google around a bit. If you still find no evidence, I’d personally give it up at that point. But if you feel certain there’s a problem despite lack of evidence, you can ask students to visit during office hours and talk about the paper and sources without accusing them. I worry about even doing this, since it might have a chilling effect on students (especially minorities). But I suppose it’s better than evidence-less accusations, private or public.
- Most schools have a means by which you can grade your students’ assignments anonymously. If you can take advantage of it, it’s a good idea, in part because you won’t fall into any traps of second-guessing matches of student with writing style.
- If your school does not have a plagiarism checker, use a free one for all your students’ papers.
I’d love to hear more ideas and/or criticism of these ideas in the comments.