Making the Grade


This case discusses understanding the complexities of interpersonal, professional, academic and social responsibilities in ethical decision making by discussing the subjects of plagiarism, authorship on the internet, and how to be fair with international student's understanding of referencing material used in research.


Three professors team teach a 15-student graduate course (Dr. Whelan, a tenured senior faculty member, and Dr. Jihvraj and Dr. Brady, two junior faculty members). The only requirement for a grade in the course is a final paper on key course topics. Whelan arranged the course curriculum and does some of the instruction, but Jihvraj and Brady are responsible for reviewing and grading each paper. A student turns in his paper for a final grade. Jihvraj feels uncomfortable with the paper and does not assign a final grade.

In discussing the paper with Brady, Jihvraj points out that there are no references and a few of the paragraphs have different tenses. He does a web search with selected paragraphs of the student's paper and finds two online documents that match the student's paper. Apparently, the student has pasted sections of two different documents together. Jihvraj remembers reading articles in separate scientific journals and his suspicions are confirmed when he finds the articles and compares them to the student's work.

Jihvraj and Brady look at the school's penalties and policies handbook for some guidance. When a faculty member has information that a student has violated academic integrity in a course or program for which he or she is responsible and determines that a violation has occurred, the faculty member should inform the student and impose an appropriate sanction. A faculty member may make any one or a combination of the following responses to the infractions:

  • warning without further penalty,
  • requiring rewriting of a paper containing plagiarized material,
  • lowering of a paper or project grade by one full grade or more,
  • giving a failing grade on a paper containing plagiarized material,
  • giving a failing grade on any examination in which cheating occurred,
  • lowering a course grade by one full grade or more.

Faculty members can take an additional step of reporting the case to the university's judiciary board.

Further investigation by the two faculty members reveals that the student holds a medical degree from a different country and came to the department on a renowned international fellowship. The student's faculty adviser is Whelan.

Jihvraj and Brady discuss the option of having the student rewrite the paper but they are concerned about being fair to the 14 other graduate students. They decide to give the student a lower grade of "C" with the recommendation that he retake the course.

Whelan is very upset that his student is to receive a "C." He calls for a meeting with the dean. Jihvraj and Brady point out that plagiarism is punishable by expulsion if formal charges are brought to the judiciary board and that they have elected not to press formal charges in light of the total situation. The student refuses to admit that his paper is plagiarized, as it is a normal practice in his country to use material without referencing the sources. He also feels that he is being treated unfairly and unprofessionally.

The junior professors know that Whelan is a former department chair and that he has considerable political clout, but they feel that their decision is sound and just. Brady is even contemplating resigning publicly if their decision is undermined.

The dean listens and concludes that the junior professors' decision should stand.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does it matter that this international student is unfamiliar with typical U. S. university policies?
  2. Where is the line drawn for adherence to the rules and regulations on references?
  3. Was the student being treated unfairly and unprofessionally? If so, how? What about the other 14 students in the course?
  4. Did Jihvraj and Brady exercise all options in arriving at their decision?
  5. Should they have consulted Whelan before giving the student a "C?"
  6. Who would be most affected by this outcome? the dean, funding agency, instructors, student, school?
  7. How would a potential backlash change the final decision? Potential problems may arise with the funding agency that sponsored the student and their relationship with the university and the future of the junior faculty when they go up for tenure.

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Making the Grade. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This interesting and rich scenario raises two primary issues:

  1. Did Jihvraj and Brady use an appropriate procedure to punish the graduate student?
  2. Did the graduate student deserve to be punished?

Any university that allows its faculty to impose sanctions on students for academic dishonesty without going through a judicial process is morally corrupt and legally on very dangerous ground. One of the hallmarks of our legal system and Western morality is that all people are to be treated equally unless there are justifiable reasons for doing otherwise. Ideally, a transgression by one is treated exactly like that of any other, regardless of wealth, race, status or any other irrelevant characteristic. When a university allows its faculty to decide on their own what penalties are to be imposed, it is saying in effect that it does not care that all students be treated equally and with justice.

Second, the university is in shaky legal territory when it allows individuals to impose sanctions. Any student who receives sanctions should be able to seek redress in a court of law. The student's legal argument would be that the sanctions imposed by professors are arbitrary. To show that they are not, the university would have to prove that similar transgressions resulted in similar sanctions, which they could not do because they would have no record of the results of academic irregularities. Legally speaking, the university would be placing itself and its professors in harm's way.

So the answer to the first question is that the procedure used by Jihvraj and Brady was not appropriate - not because the two professors did not want to do the right thing, but rather because their university failed them.

The second question is an interesting one. Should the graduate student deserve to be punished at all if he honestly did not know that his behavior was inappropriate in the context of an American university?

Once again we must look to common law, that wonderful living legacy from England that still guides our jurisprudence. In common law, not only are all penalties to be just, but penalties are to be imposed for wrongs even if the perpetrator did not know that he or she was committing an unlawful act. If I drive along a highway at 60 m.p.h. and get pulled over for speeding in a 35 m.p.h. zone, I cannot plead that I did not know the speed limit. If the police can show me a speed limit sign that I should have seen, then my ignorance does not mitigate my wrongful act.

Plagiarism, and writing research papers based on others' work, are clearly a fuzzy area. What do we consider acceptable behavior, and what do we consider inappropriate? In this country, we agree that we can take a word, phrase, or even a paragraph from another publication and use it in our own work as long as we clearly indicate its source and original author. But suppose we change the rule to read that we could take whatever we wanted from another publication as long as we gave general credit in the bibliography at the conclusion of the paper. Would this strategy not be just as workable? Yes, it might lead to students copying entire papers or large chunks of papers and pasting them together, but the students' papers would then be judged on the basis of their ability to assimilate the works of several authors and to produce a seamless document that makes sense and presses a point of view. Students would want to do a lot of editing in tense, voice and vocabulary to produce such a paper, which are skills many professional editors value. Why, then, do American universities consider this behavior wrong? We must conclude that taking large sections of other works and synthesizing them into a cohesive document is not by itself an immoral activity. We are not breaking any moral rules by using such sections.

So the graduate student in our scenario might have been perfectly justified in arguing that he did not do anything immoral. The problem is, of course, that he was still going 60 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. speed zone. He is enrolled in an American university, and he has had ample opportunity to learn the rules. If, as in this scenario, he has an M.D. and is a well-read and intelligent person, there should be no excuse for ignorance.

There is, of course, the question of the university's role in helping its graduate students (particularly graduate students from overseas) to understand the rules of academic conduct. Given the first part of this scenario, it might seem that this particular university has failed to prevent such problems. If I were Jihvraj and Brady, I would definitely start looking for a new job.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University.

This case was designed to introduce a situation where the many roles, responsibilities and demands of students, advisers and faculty can be revealed in simple conflicts. In an environment that purports to protect academic integrity and scholarship, the discussants are provoked to consider a number of different outcomes and situations in their examination of the ethical conflict. This multifaceted presentation may facilitate a better understanding of the complexities of interpersonal, professional, academic and social responsibilities in ethical decision making. This commentary will approach the discussion and analysis from that viewpoint.

Of primary concern is the decision on the subject of plagiarism. The first two questions strike at the heart of this discussion. Did the student knowingly plagiarize a paper? Was this action wrong, and from whose perspective? The case also provides an opportunity to address the differing rules that apply to international students vs. domestic students. U. S. institutions of higher learning typically utilize similar policies for academic integrity and research. The internet has broadened the scope of research and education throughout the world. When authorship on the internet becomes questionable, academia confronts a dilemma in the quest to separate valuable and reliable sources from the vast information pool that is the World Wide Web.

Also unique in this case is the student's coming from a society where the normal practice is not referencing material. The professors are now forced to factor in potential cultural differences that are in direct conflict with any decision based on policies and procedures. Jihvraj and Brady are also concerned with their responsibilities as faculty members. Some schools do not place such decisions in the hands of professors due to potential for liability, etc. However in this situation, they decide to consult the University Handbook for guidance. They are presented with five or six choices on how to deal with this situation. It is important to analyze how well they explored each of the options available to them. Should they have involved the Judicial Board? Would that have been a significant and important turning point?

Another important consideration is the issue of fairness. Fairness paints a picture with a broad brush as it involves a number of different factors. Being fair and being ethical may not be synonymous despite how often the word "fair" is used in this situation. What is fair to the student? Should he be given an opportunity to rewrite the paper or provide his references, or should he have to do nothing at all? Would that be a fair and favorable outcome? He feels that while he is a student, he is also a professional and that his treatment should take account of his status. Professional courtesy is not being extended, and there may be further implications from that viewpoint.

What is fair to the other students in the class? Their involvement in the conflict, while seemingly minimal, carries some weight. Graduate school is an investment in education, which implies that all three professors have an underlying obligation to treat all of their students equally and without bias. How should this obligation be approached in this situation? Further exploration may even illustrate that being fair may not be the ethical objective in this case.

Dr. Whelan's involvement was also critically important. Would his inclusion in the decision making have changed the outcome? When exactly should that inclusion occur? Where do his responsibilities ultimately lie? They may be with his student, his class or the rest of his faculty team. The fact that he is the senior faculty member of the group and a former department chairperson brings up conflicts due to potential power struggle, both personally and interpersonally. There is also the question of bias in his position. He is only contesting the decision on the grade and not on the retaking of the course. Therefore while it seems that he isn't protesting the issue of plagiarism, it is understood at least that there is no benefit to have his advisee receive a C grade.

The last few questions are directed at examining the impact of potential outcomes in arriving at a decision. Who is to gain or lose the most from the outcome? Response from the funding agency of the international fellowship may be complicated; the agency might take issue with the maltreatment of the student. As a result the school may suffer a backlash, jeopardizing future participation or funding.

Whelan's protest is also problematic for Jihvraj and Brady. As junior faculty, they face the challenge of achieving tenure. Crossing an influential segment of the faculty can hinder their achievement of that goal in addition to the potential for added strain in the team-taught course. The dean is faced with handling faculty dissension, possible student protest and a potential problem with the funding agency. The student faces the possibility of a stain on his record in addition to being labeled as a cheat. Retaking a course may also have an impact on his responsibilities for maintaining the fellowship.

Many different courses of action may have been used in this case, each carrying its own significant set of outcomes. It is the goal of the reviewer/observer/discussant to employ a careful approach to addressing the problem(s) and ultimately arrive at a solution that meshes social and academic responsibility with sound ethical practice.