I am a full-time nursing student. In my class, we are required to to post our homework responses to an online forum twice a week. The online forum is open to all students in the class, so everyone has access to each other’s work. I take great pride in my work and am always eager to see feedback from my instructor. As I logged into the forum the other day to see if there was any feedback from my instructor, I noticed that a classmate had copied and pasted my assignment word for word. The classmate in question did change the font and bolded the subtitles, but all the words were mine. I emailed my instructor to see what could be done. She responded by telling me that this was not plagiarism because the student work isn't copyrighted. This doesn’t sound or feel right.
Can you help?
Thank you for your email and inquiry! Any work that you or anyone else authors is copyrighted. That said, however, the online forum that you posted to may have a "terms of service" or "user agreement" that you signed off on to use the system that may have abdicated your rights to your work posted to that forum. I'd suggest that you take a look at the "user agreement" for the system. If it turns out that the system does NOT ask you to release your copyrights, then you might consider discussing your issue with someone in student affairs or the office of academic integrity (if you have one).
Hope this helps!
It may be tempting to think that cheating in school isn’t a big deal. After all, doesn’t almost everyone do it? It’s true that surveys show most students say they’ve cheated. Still, you’re risking your future by joining them. The policies in your school or college generally determine the immediate consequences. But basic legal principles govern some aspects of the disciplinary process. And of course, the law determines what happens when students sue schools, claiming that they were unfairly accused or punished for cheating.
Cheating in All Its Guises
There are probably as many ways to cheat as there are students, but some basic types crop up again and again—even if the methods change over time from peering over a classmate’s shoulder to texting an answer under the desk. Examples include:
- copying another student’s answers or homework
- letting another student copy your answers or work
- using or distributing copies of test questions, answers, or answer keys
- secretly using “crib notes” or the Internet to help you answer test questions, whether you’ve printed a cheat sheet on your leg or looked up information on your phone
- having someone else do your homework or take a test for you, or doing the same for another student, and
- changing your answers on a test after it’s been graded and then asking for the grade to be changed.
Some kinds of cheating may not be as obvious. For instance, many colleges and universities have policies that require you to report cheating by other students when you know about it. If you don’t report it, you may be subject to discipline for cheating yourself.
Plagiarism—From Copy-and-Paste to Bespoke Research Papers
Plagiarism—basically passing off someone else’s work as your own—is another form of cheating that becomes more of an issue as students move from middle and high school to college and beyond. Some forms of plagiarism are obvious, like:
- copying text (or even an entire paper) from a website, book, or other source without putting the copied words in quotes and giving credit to the source
- buying, stealing, borrowing, or downloading a paper written by someone else, or
- hiring someone to write a custom paper for you.
But students may not always realize they’re plagiarizing, such as when they:
- paraphrase other people’s work without giving them credit
- borrow or build on someone else’s ideas without giving credit
- follow another author’s organizational structure without credit
- misquote source material
- use incorrect (or made up) information about sources, or
- “recycle” their own work for another class without permission from the teacher.
From Reprimand to Expulsion
Technology continues to give students new tools to cheat, from smartphones and reprogrammed calculators to hard-to-trace artificial intelligence programs. At the same time, it has given teachers and professors sophisticated tools to prevent and detect cheating, including webcams and video monitoring, biometric tools, and software (like Turnitin) that matches students’ work to huge databases of other documents and school papers. It may feel like a whack-a-mole game to schools, but the reality is that lots of cheaters get caught. What happens then?
The answer to that question depends on lots of factors, including:
- your education level (with more serious repercussions as you progress from middle and high school to college and beyond)
- your disciplinary history
- the policies in your school (and sometimes in your individual teacher’s class), and
- how bad the cheating was (such as involvement in a widespread cheating ring).
Your institution’s student handbook, code of conduct, or honesty code will spell out the rules and the consequences for breaking them. In general, those consequences may include:
- being sent to the principal or detention (in K-12 schools)
- a written reprimand on your record (in college)
- a failing grade or zero on the assignment or test
- a failing grade in the entire course
- loss of privileges like participation in school sports, and
Colleges and universities may also impose other punishments, including:
- dismissal from the course
- academic, disciplinary, or athletic probation
- loss of scholarships, and
- expulsion from the college or university.
Whenever cheating or plagiarism leads to formal disciplinary proceedings, the procedures will depend on the setting. In public K-12 schools, state laws and regulations set the basic rules, while local district policies fill in the details. But all schools must also meet federal standards that protect students’ constitutional rights, including the right to know the charges against them and to defend themselves in a fair hearing. (For more details, see our article on students’ right in disciplinary hearings.)
The vast majority of colleges use disciplinary information in their admissions decisions.
The Long Shadow of Cheating
Cheating in high school can seriously hurt your chances of getting into college. When you get an “F” for cheating, you may not be able to make up the test or assignment as you would if you received a low grade honestly. Beyond the impact of grades, studies have shown that nearly three-fourths of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and the vast majority use that information in their admissions decision. (And if admissions officers find plagiarism in your admissions essay, they’re likely to flat-out reject you.) At the college level, a record of cheating or plagiarism not only can hijack your academic career, but it could hurt your chances at getting future internships and jobs.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My daughter was formally disciplined for cheating at school. How can we get the discipline removed from her permanent school record?
- My son was one of many students who passed on texts with answers to a math test, but he was the only one who was formally disciplined. The teacher says it was because he was the ringleader, but I think he was singled out because he’s gay and a vocal activist. Can we sue the teacher and the school for discrimination?
- Can my college discipline me for plagiarism in a research paper without ever identifying the supposed source of the plagiarized material?
- I was denied admission to a postgraduate program based on a false accusation of plagiarism in my research proposal. Can I sue the university and faculty members for defamation related to my profession? Even though I’m still a student, I’ve co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific article.