NU penalizes plagiarizing students

Jonathan Katz and Jonathan Katz

After a month-long series of investigations, 11 students were found to have plagiarized parts of their final papers for a Spring Quarter Introduction to Philosophy course. One student remains under investigation pending a meeting with Weinberg Assoc. Dean for Undergraduate Studies Robert Coen.

The students, who copied text from various Internet sites including Encyclopedia Brittanica and the Internet Philosophy Page, will receive penalties ranging from reprimands to suspension for a quarter or more at Coen’s discretion. A few of the students are not enrolled in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and have been referred to their own schools for disciplinary action.

All the students have been referred back to Prof. Axel Mueller for grading decisions. Coen said that he expects all of the students’ grades will be lowered, and that most — if not all — of the students will fail the course.

The instances do not appear to be related, Coen said. He declined to comment on the specifics of each case but noted that some of the students under investigation were not first-time offenders.

The students are allowed to appeal the decisions and eventual punishments, but none had taken any such action as of Wednesday.

“I’m shocked that there would have been so many of them,” Coen said. “In a course of 90 students or so, to have a dozen cases of plagiarism — it’s raised concerns throughout the university.”

Among those concerned is Assoc. Provost Stephen Fisher, who called a series of meetings in the wake of these cases to discuss growing concern over internet plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. These meetings, which involved the academic deans of Northwestern’s six undergraduate schools and the School of Continuing Studies, were also attended by classics Prof. Dan Garrison, who serves as chairman of the Undergraduate Academic Conduct Committee, and representatives from the Office of General Counsel.

One of the topics discussed at those meetings was what administrators described as a need to convey the seriousness of academic dishonesty to the student body, as well as to help faculty deal with students who commit such infractions.

“The objective of coordination on the part of the six schools is first to make sure that justice is uniform — within reason — and second to make sure that there is going to be an absolute minimum of innocent or accidental plagiarism,” Garrison said.

Both Garrison and Coen hope students will be able to sense a different climate with regard to plagiarism in the coming year. “For those who feel that for whatever reason they can get away with this kind of thing,” Coen said, “I think we have to make it clear to them that they’re unlikely to get away with it and that if they get caught, the penalties are severe.”

The students first came under suspicion when teaching assistants Jason Leddington and Sebastian Rand noticed inconsistencies in the writing styles of some of the papers they were grading. After entering selected phrases into the Google search engine, the TAs discovered those phrases were identical to material available on the Internet. Neither TA was available for comment Wednesday.