Testing the Tariff

Merry winter break!  Now that I’ve had some time away from the classroom, I’ve been catching up on all the reading and writing and thinking I wanted to do all semester.  In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I’m catching up with things I’ve been meaning to do since Summer 🙂

Posting on the AMBeR tariff is one of those things–it’s a document I find I’m repeatedly turning back to as I discuss plagiarism policies.  One administrator I recently spoke to lamented that there was a lack of consistency in instructors recommending punishments for plagiarism.  In our informal chat we both agreed that it was indeed a problem that some instructors wanted to give warnings for acts that other instructors insisted on failing students for.  I gave him a copy of the AMBeR tariff–a tool designed to correct inconsistencies in plagiarism punishment in the UK–but upon thinking about it, regretted it.   The AMBeR Tariff is basically a really easy point-based formula to calculate the severity of a plagiarism infraction and assign punishment accordingly.  Punishments range from a warning to expulsion and everything in-between.  In each category there is a short range of options to allow for some judgment on the part of the instructor, presumably for individual circumstances not accounted for from the formula provided.


Second page of the AMBeR tariff

For instance, if a student falls into the green category (the second-most minor category) the school would have the range of formal warning to resubmission of assignment required with an assignment grade reduction.  It’s very much like minimum sentencing for certain crimes, with the exception that this is supposed to only provide a “benchmark” for plagiarism policies.  Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today has done a nice job of describing the tool and critiquing the few problems with it, particularly its limits in dealing with one and only one type of plagiarism: verbatim single-student plagiarism, and not other errors with source abuse or collusion.  While I can agree with the tariff’s intention to correct some of the consistency problems in plagiarism punishment, I worry that this tool, while standardizing the process, can incorrectly label students, actually encourage the worst kinds of plagiarism, and gloss over the real things we ought to be doing to deal with plagiarism in education.

My main concern is that the punishments in the AMBeR tariff do not adequately distinguish intentional from non-intentional plagiarism.   I can certainly understand why that is–it’s really hard to tell whether or not a student meant to cheat or not.  Plagiarism is such a bizarre form of cheating because it can result from a simple misunderstanding, such as “Oh, I was supposed to put citations after EACH quotation and not just on my Works Cited page?” to blatant cheating by purchasing an essay.   Normal cheating isn’t like this—a student hides notes in her calculator case or whispers the test answers to a friend, and it’s unquestionably intentional (sure, there are exceptions to this, but I’m talking about the majority of cases).  Because cheating is cut-and-dried, it’s easy to punish the cheater as someone who knowingly broke the rules, and the consequences can be both consistent and severe.

But plagiarism isn’t like that.  It would be as silly to formally punish the student who didn’t correctly place citations after quotations, as it would be to ignore the severity of the essay-purchaser.  And yet, the AMBeR tariff, in attempting to account for intentional and non-intentional plagiarism is both weak and harsh on punishment depending on the student’s real motives.  The AMBeR tariff makes a formal warning required as the minimum punishment available and part of each level after (except for rough drafts/formative work).  Think about it—a formal warning for a really minor citation error?  If I had to fill out paperwork for each and every minor paraphrase problem or source error that a student committed, it’d be my whole job.   Also, a formal warning isn’t something to sniff at—it can be the first warning in behavior cases and may have a bearing on scholarships or applications if this warning is part of the student’s academic file.  You might argue, “well, she should have known better!”  And this is true, but if the plagiarism is indeed an error and not a moral misstep, it’s being treated much differently than getting the answers to a test wrong.  And getting test answers wrong results in a bad grade, not a black mark in a student’s record.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the student who blatantly cheats, and AMBeR makes the punishment for this kind of infraction very lenient.  For instance, if Sally Smith, a first year student (+70) has her first instance (+100) of plagiarism at University by buying a term paper (+225) and handing it in for a typical essay assignment (+30), her situation adds up to 425points, or peach level.  In this category, the punishment is either redoing the assignment with a reduced grade for that assignment, or 0% on that assignment with no further penalties.   Sally did something that I think everyone can agree is cheating–buying a term paper–and yet having her redo the assignment with little or no reduction in grade seems to me more like a reward than punishment.  Unlike her peers, Sally has more time to complete this assignment and the only real punishment is that she now has this warning in her academic file.   A reduction in grade might be treated as a punishment, but in that she didn’t turn her assignment in on-time, or follow any of the instructions, it seems to me like she made out very well for what she did even if she does get a grade reduction.  What troubles me about this “punishment” is that Sally took a risk by handing in a plagiarized essay, and it paid off.

The problem with giving any cheating student an easy second chance is not so much that it violates human decency or teaches poor morals (though these are considerations) but that the student who cheats is treated with more compassion than the student who tries and fails.  Sally Smith isn’t just a student in a box—she’s in the same classroom with the kid who turns in a paper with misspellings, a poor thesis, and no direction.  While this student is at risk for failing the assignment, the student who cheats by plagiarizing is recommended to re-do the assignment.

Another problem with the “Sally Smith” case is that she’s on the same scale with non-intentional plagiarists–students who commit citation errors.  Assigning point totals to certain characteristics does not allow these two very different problems of intentional and non-intentional plagiarism to be treated in the totally different fashion they deserve.  Some of the confusion is totally understandable–certain forms of intentional and non-intentional plagiarism can look exactly the same, and unlike cheating, by just looking at the page, we teachers have a poor view of what’s actually going on inside the student’s head.   What the AMBeR tariff does is that it boils down things that teachers can always see to easily quantifiable or yes/no characteristics: level of study, amount plagiarized, importance of assignment.   One of these yes/no characteristics is patchwriting, attempting to “disguise plagiarism by changing words, sentences or references to avoid detection.”  On the surface, this sounds very reasonable–a way to indeed differentiate between intentional and non-intentional plagiarism–but again, this adding of points has the danger of oversimplication that can over or under-correct the problem.

Adding this qualification equates patchwriting with intention.  Though the criteria states that they change words “to avoid detection” the tariff gives no indication on how to tell if the student patchwrote to cover her tracks or because she struggles with paraphrase and citation.  If the authors of the tariff had a clue on how to tell whether or not a student patchwrote to avoid detection, I suspect that they would have briefly qualified the statement in this way.  Instead, I suspect that most readers would take this statement to mean that changing words necessarily indicates a intent to deceive, and that this, therefore, would deserve a greater degree of punishment.  However, as Rebecca Moore Howard and other researchers have found, patchwriting, or changing words around but keeping most of the structure of the appropriated passage is more likely in non-native speakers and adopted as a mode of writing which is not always meant to be unethical, but a learning tool.   I’ve also found some patchwriting from native English-speaking students who are clueless on how to paraphrase, and even occasionally when a person unconsciously memorizes a line and repeats it.   I would disagree with those scholars who say that this means that we should ignore patchwriting or be tolerant of it, or judge that patchwriting is always or even mostly innocent, but what this does say is that patchwriting can be indicative of a writer who is struggling to find her voice and doing it in the wrong way, rather than a cheater who is lazy.  One needs correction and help;  the other needs punishment.  But the difference between these two types of plagiarists is unfortunately not discernible simply by noting that they have or have not changed words.

Besides over-punishing the clueless, assigning more points to patchwriters has the potential to under-punish blatant rule-breakers.  AMBeR counts it more wrong  to intersperse a paragraph with adjectives than to appropriate the whole paragraph of text.    But why is intent to hide even important?   If plagiarism is comparable to theft, is stealing in broad daylight worse than stealing in the dead of night?   We don’t punish these crimes differently, but we do with plagiarism.   We could even make the argument that the person who stole in broad daylight is actually more harmful to the community because of her blatant disregard and disrespect.

The message seems to be–if you do plagiarize, then for goodness sake, make it easy to find!  I agree with the authors of AMBeR that patchwriting is indicative of something, and that something CAN be intention to hide, which, in turn, can indicate an intention to cheat, but what this small point total seems to do is to correct for the possibility that not all plagiarists are intentional, and those that are should be more accountable.  However, this seems like too little too late–since punishment is already being meted out at all levels of the tariff the assumption should already be that the student did something unethical.  And to my mind, an error is not the same as cheating–it’s just hard to tell them apart.

The problem seems to me that AMBeR is attempting to account for too many variables: percentage appropriated, importance of appropriated object, immaturity of the student, times plagiarism has been caught, patchwriting, and assignment value.  These variables seem to be in place not because they indicate the severity of the act, but the psychology of the plagiarist.

I agree that the psychology of the plagiarist is critical.  But the variables tested are shortcuts, not reliable indicators.  I fear that in creating this rubric, we might have think we have made a foolproof system.  AMBeR calls itself a “benchmark” in order to avoid this problem, but even calling it an estimation tool has problems when the target can be so far askew–it gives messages that can simply be incorrect and encourages a scale of punishment that for all of its concrete recommendations would seem confusing rather than decisive to the students who are at the receiving end of the system.  In enacting a method of punishment with so many shades of gray, might we send the message that plagiarism is sometimes punished and sometimes not (we don’t expect students to learn the color shades of plagiarism, do we?)–teachers will sometimes make you redo the assignment, sometimes expell you, and sometimes send letters home.  In this case, though the system might actually be more concrete, it seems arbitrary.   This seems to me to be a more harmful message to institutionalize than Professor So-and-so is a harda$$ and will fail students while Professor Whatsit is a big softee.  At least then, students get the sense that there is something wrong about plagiarism–so wrong that some instructors care enough to clamp down on it, rather than all being in somewhat conflicted states.  In that AMBeR is such an easy tool for instructors and administrators to use–add up easily accessible numbers–a danger is that administrators might make such a simple system a mandatory tool, and, in doing so, tie the hands of instructors who have seemingly variable punishments for very good reasons.

I thought about messing around with this tool, trying to come up with my own, but I realized that really my questions would come down to these two:

  1. Did the student plagiarize?
  2. Do I think that he or she meant to cheat?

If the answer to #1 is yes, and #2 is no, then the answer is in rigorous teaching and/or assigning poor grades—not in punishment (assigning a poor grade is not the same as punishment—one reflects skill/the other reflects character).

If the answer to #1 and #2 is yes, then punishment is required.

If I can’t answer #2, then I’ve got to give it my best guess.  But here’s the thing—my guess is based on so many more variables than the AMBeR tariff accounts for—I look at the student’s prior work, if they turned in the assignment late or with rough drafts, if they have been a student who tries hard, stops by my office, or seems checked-out of the course and has missed classes.  Also, I meet with the student to see if they are surprised by my accusations, confused, angry, or accepting, and I see what they say when I ask why they wrote in this manner.  I see if they understand the material or do not, if they understand citation or do not.  If they are a good writer or are not.  I look at what words the student patchwrote—is it just changing active voice to passive, or is it adding sentences or descriptors to indicate the student’s ideas?  Have I went over plagiarism in the course yet, or not?  Have they plagiarized in other courses?  None of these factors, on its own, tells me anything about whether or not the student plagiarized willfully.  But together, I can paint a picture of what happened and take my best guess.

“Taking the guesswork out” seems like a phrase promising reliability and accuracy.  AMBeR reports don’t use this phrase exactly, but it seems to be exactly what it offers from its goal to have a “unified national consensus on the management of plagiarism” (19).  However, “taking the guesswork out” or having a regimented series of punishments based on only a handful of variables that masquerades as consistency isn’t actually not be a good thing—along with guesswork, it might take out genuine communication, concern, and consideration of a complex issue and a student community that needs greater attention.


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