Plagiarism in Colleges in USA

Copyright 2000 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

1. Plagiarism
2. Sources of Plagiarized Works
3. Law of Plagiarism
      copyright law
      trademark law
      statutes about sale of term papers
4. Cases in the USA involving plagiarism in colleges
5. Cases against commercial sources
6. My Suggestions for Policy
7. Colleges have the right to rescind degrees
No Plagiarism for Ideas
Threat of Litigation Against Reporters of Plagiarism
Links to other Webpages


Plagiarism by students is a serious problem in colleges in the USA. This essay discusses plagiarism from a legal perspective. For other perspectives on the problem of plagiarism, see the links section below.

The subject of plagiarism in colleges is rarely discussed in legal journals and law textbooks. For example, the excellent book by William A Kaplin and Barbara Lee, The Law of Higher Education, third edition (1995), despite its length of 976 pages, mentions plagiarism in neither the index nor table of contents. A few colleges in the USA have posted a webpage about plagiarism, and I mention a few of these webpages later later in this essay.

Note that the definitions of plagiarism, and particularly the exclusion of facts and ideas from plagiarism, in this essay are my personal views of what the rules should be. The rules that apply to a student are given in the regulations of the student's college, or in instructions from the student's professor.

Before beginning this detailed discussion of the legal aspects of plagiarism, it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on why plagiarism is wrong.
  1. Reputations in academia are made on the basis of creating new knowledge: discoveries of new facts, new ways of looking at previously known facts, original analysis of old ideas, .... A plagiarist receives credit for expression or analysis that was improperly taken from someone else. In this view, the plagiarist commits fraud, by claiming the work of other people as the plagiarist's own work.

    Respect for these academic values is also reflected in licensing for professions (particularly law and medicine), employment on the basis of academic credentials, and esteem from one's colleagues.

  2. Laws in civilized societies regard expression as property of its author. This is not only the law of the USA, but also the law of more than 130 different nations that have ratified the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Plagiarism – either by verbatim copying or paraphrasing – is infringement of a copyright, a kind of tort.

  3. A fundamental goal of education is to produce students who can evaluate ideas – both analysis and synthesis – and who can produce significant original thoughts. Plagiarism is simply repeating words or thoughts of other people, without adding anything new. Therefore, submitting a plagiarized paper – in addition to the wrongful conduct – does not demonstrate the level of understanding and skill that an educated person is reasonably expected to have.

1. Plagiarism

What is plagiarism? In minor cases, it can be the quotation of a sentence or two, without quotation marks and without a citation (e.g., footnote) to the true author. In the most serious cases, a significant fraction of the entire work was written by someone else: the plagiarist removed the true author(s) names(s) and substituted the plagiarist's name, perhaps did some re-formatting of the text, then submitted the work for credit in a class (e.g., term paper or essay) or as part of the requirements for a degree (e.g., thesis or dissertation).

indicia of a quotation

When using another person's words, to avoid plagiarism one must always do both of the following:
  1. provide a citation, either in the text or in a footnote, and
  2. either enclose their words inside quotation marks or put their words in a block of indented, single-spaced text.
I define these two things as indicia of a quotation, for ease of reference in this essay. Plagiarism is the act of quoting material without including the indicia of a quotation.

Note that the intent of a plagiarist is irrelevant. The act of quoting material without including the indicia of a quotation is sufficient to convict someone of plagiarism. It is no defense for the plagiarist to say "I forgot." or "It is only a rough draft." or "I did not know it was plagiarism."

ideas too?

Some colleges have expanded the definition of plagiarism to include copying ideas without providing a citation to the original source. I argue below that such deliberate copying is misconduct that should be treated separately from plagiarism.

Perhaps the authorities that include ideas in their definition of plagiarism really intended to say that a close paraphrase of another author's work is plagiarism.

paraphrasing without a citation is plagiarism

Suppose one reads a book by Smith and encounters the short sentence:
If the solution turns pink, it is worthless, and should be discarded.
I believe it is plagiarism to paraphrase this sentence as:
When the liquid becomes light red, it is spoiled, and should be poured down the sink.
Note that most of the words have been changed, yet the sentence – in a very real way – has been copied. As will be noted later in this essay, copying, even with "original" alterations, can be copyright infringement. That is why I believe that such copying is also plagiarism. However, to prove this kind of plagiarism, one needs to prove that the alleged plagiarist had the work in mind – if not actually next to the computer or typewriter keyboard – when he/she paraphrased it.

The proper way to avoid such plagiarism is to cite the source in the text, or in a footnote, as in:
Smith [citation/footnote number] has reported that when the liquid becomes light red, it is spoiled, and should be poured down the sink.
No quotation marks are needed, because these are not Smith's exact words, but only a paraphrase. But a citation to Smith is still required.

Note that the short sentence by Smith is just a terse, contrived example for this essay, not an actual instance from plagiarized text. In most cases of this type of plagiarism, many sentences – probably whole paragraphs – will have been paraphrased.

fine points of paraphrasing

One might wish to concisely summarize a long passage – a direct quotation would be too long. Hence, one paraphrases the original author.

In my view, one can properly write one paragraph that summarizes a book, published paper, opinion of a court, etc. using a paraphrase of the publication, with just one citation to that source at either the beginning or end of one's paragraph. The context makes it clear to the reader that one is describing someone else's publication. One should be careful not to include one's original thought(s) in a paragraph that is summarizing another person's thoughts, as such mixing could mislead the reader about the scope of one's work.

Note that the amount of citations is a matter of style. Some scholarly journals, particularly law reviews, sometimes have a footnote for each consecutive sentence, maybe even two footnotes attached at different places in one sentence. In such writing, a printed page can easily contain more space devoted to fine-print footnotes than to text. If most of these footnotes are Id., the footnotes seem excessive to me. If these copious footnotes are to different sources, the page can be difficult to read, as full understanding may require the reader to consider all of the citations. Such copious footnotes are sometimes seen as scholarship run amok. I emphasize that the appropriate style varies among different intellectual disciplines: professors of law tend to use more footnotes than either physicists or electrical engineers.

In my view, a proper paraphrase can even use a few isolated words from the original source without including quotation marks. When concisely summarizing a long passage, one also wants to summarize accurately, so using the identical – but isolated – words may be appropriate. In the above example, one might use Smith's word "pink" without quotation marks in the paraphrase. However, it is always essential to both (1) write text that makes clear that one is summarizing another's work and (2) cite the original source somewhere within the paragraph.

On the other hand, a string of several consecutive words copied verbatim from a source generally requires quotation marks. In making such judgments, one might consider the originality of the words. A common phrase (e.g., "obtained a writ of habeas corpus" in law, or "three degrees of freedom" in physics) is less deserving of quotation marks than genuinely original expression, since there may be few conventional alternatives for accurately expressing the same idea or fact.

These fine points may be dangerous for students, who would be well advised to use too many direct quotations, rather than paraphrasing. Again, I say that the actual rules that apply to a student are given in the regulations of the student's college, or in instructions from the student's professor, but not my personal opinions in this essay.

2. Sources for plagiarized text

Traditionally, a student simply
  1. copied paragraphs from various scholarly journals or books in the library, or

  2. removed an old term paper from the files in his fraternity and copied some, or all, of it.

In the late 1960s, commercial services began to sell term papers to students, sometimes under the euphemistic name of "academic research services". These services are particularly repugnant, as these businessmen are making a profit from the fraudulent acts of students, as well as damaging the integrity of grades and degrees from schools and colleges.

And, since the mid-1990s, students can simply download material from the Internet, without the bother of retyping the text. While the Internet is a great resource for plagiarists, it can also be a great resource for professors who are suspicious and want to take a few minutes with search engines, in an attempt to find the true source. Further, some commercial anti-plagiarism services have begun to prepare databases of essays, term papers, etc. for comparison with a student's work submitted in a class, in a large-scale attempt to find plagiarism by students. Furthermore, the existence of free material on the Internet is likely to diminish, if not kill, the business of selling term papers from stock. Unfortunately, there may continue to be a business for custom-prepared papers.

How common is plagiarization by students? No one really knows, because most plagiarization is either undetected or unreported. Julie Ryan, an instructor at George Washington University, found that "7 of 42 students plagiarized most or all of their papers" in a class during the Fall 1997 semester. She says that, in the Spring 1998 semester, again 17 % of the students "plagiarized their entire papers." But wait! That 17 % only represents the plagiarists that she caught by using the AltaVista search engine on the Internet, a method that will not find students who plagiarized from books, scholarly journals, old term papers by other students, material sold by term paper mills, .... So the true incidence of plagiarism among students is higher than one in six. Still, one in six is unacceptably high and represents a serious erosion of quality and integrity in colleges in the USA. I urge that faculty make an effort to detect and to punish plagiarists, instead of trying to precisely determine the frequency of plagiarism.

3. The Law of Plagiarism

College rules for student conduct sometimes say that plagiarism is an academic offense, not a legal offense. That statement is not completely correct. Colleges certainly have the authority to punish plagiarists in various ways, including expulsion from the college or revoking a degree earned in part by plagiarism. But plagiarism is also a legal issue.

copyright law

The owner of the copyright (i.e., in most cases, the true author) could sue the plagiarist in federal court for violation of the copyright.

Any work created in the USA after 1 Mar 1989 is automatically protected by copyright, even if there is no copyright notice attached to the work. 17 USC §§ 102, 401, and 405.

See my separate essay on copyright law.

It is important to note that the addition of original material by the plagiarist in no way excuses the act of plagiarism. The focus is on what the plagiarist did wrong, not what the plagiarist did right.

Trivial changes in copied text, in an attempt to avoid copyright infringement, are specifically prohibited by law in the USA:
  • Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119, 121 (2d Cir. 1930) ("It is of course essential to any protection of literary property ... that the right cannot be limited literally to the text, else a plagiarist would escape by immaterial variations.").

  • Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 81 F.2d 49, 56 (2d Cir. 1936) ("... no plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.").

  • A Columbia Pictures' promotional poster for a movie infringed the copyright of an illustration on the cover of a New Yorker magazine, although the details in the movie poster had been changed from the magazine cover (only the words "Hudson River" were the same in both items). The judge ruled that the movie poster was "substantially similar" to the magazine cover. Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures, 663 F.Supp. 706 (1987).

trademark and unfair competition law

Professors and research scientists are often hired, promoted, receive tenure, and are awarded salary increases on the basis of their scholarly publications. To measure the significance of scholarly publications, many administrators in colleges look at Science Citation Index to see how often a professor's work has been cited by others. Therefore, if D plagiarizes V's work – instead of D citing V's work – then V is potentially harmed by having fewer citations to V's work. On the other hand, D is unjustly enriched by receiving credit for a publication that was plagiarized, so D builds D's reputation with V's work.

Recognizing this harm, the true author could sue the plagiarist in federal court for "false designation of origin", 15 USC § 1125, since the plagiarist was misrepresenting someone else's work as his own. Similarly, there are also possible remedies under state unfair competition law. Restatement of the Law (Third) Unfair Competition §§ 2, 3(b), 5 (1995).

Note that application of trademark and unfair competition law requires that the "false designation of origin" be "in commerce". Therefore, trademark and unfair competition law affects plagiarists who write books or articles in archival journals – but probably not students who plagiarize a term paper for a class.

The application of trademark and unfair competition law to punishing plagiarists is a new development in law, with few reported cases in the USA at this time.


Beyond intellectual property issues (e.g., copyright and trademark), the plagiarist committed fraud. The plagiarist knows that he is not the true author of the work, yet the plagiarist willfully and deliberately puts his name on the work (thereby concealing the true author's name), then the plagiarist submits the work as an inducement to some kind of reward (e.g., good grade on a term paper, awarding a graduate degree for a thesis or dissertation, obtaining a scholarship, winning a prize in a science fair, ...).

Using phrases like "academic misconduct" to describe plagiarism is too sterile, too kind.
Plagiarism is fraud.

statutes about sale of term papers, etc.

The following states have enacted statutes to make unlawful sales of a term paper, essay, report, thesis, or dissertation to students. I did a quick search of statutes in the WESTLAW database on 22 Jan 1999 – I make no representation that this list is either complete or current.
  1. California Education Code §§ 66400 – 66405
  2. Colorado § 23-4-101 – 106
  3. Connecticut § 53-392a – e
  4. Florida § 877.17
  5. Illinois ch. 110, § 5/0.01 – 5/1
  6. Maine 17-A § 705
  7. Massachusetts ch. 271, § 50
  8. Nevada 207.320
  9. New Jersey 18A:2-3
  10. New York Education Law § 213-b
  11. North Carolina § 14-118.2
  12. Pennsylvania title 18, § 7324
  13. Virginia § 18.2-505
  14. Washington 28B.10.580 – 584

Note that sales of term papers can be unlawful in states that have no specific statute on this subject. For example, the commercial enterprise might be charged with aiding and abetting fraud in obtaining a college degree, as in the Saksniit case that is discussed below.

The statutes in California, Illinois, and New York were first enacted in 1972, other states enacted laws afterwards. The offense is a misdemeanor, with a typical maximum punishment between two and six months in jail or a fine not to exceed US$ 1000. In theory, each act of selling a term paper is a separate offense, so a businessman who sells 1200 term papers could receive consecutive sentences to run for 200 years, at 2 months for each sale. In practice, the punishment is likely to be not burdensome, as white-collar criminals in the USA generally receive light punishments compared to the harm that they do, a point that I also make in my essay on computer crime.

The statutes in a few states (e.g., Colorado, New Jersey, Virginia) explicitly give a college or university the right to request a court enjoin a business from selling term papers, etc. to its students. In some other states, only the Attorney General can apply for the injunction under the statute. Since the Attorney General is likely to be busy prosecuting "serious crimes" (e.g., homicide, rape, larceny, etc.), a statute that permits colleges or universities to apply for an injunction is a useful feature in the fight against sales of term papers. In states without a statute against sales of term papers, a college can apply for an injunction on the usual grounds of both:
  1. "irreparable future injury"
  2. "no adequate remedy at law" (i.e., award of money would be inadequate or difficult to calculate).

Even in states with a criminal statute on this subject, the common law of torts, as well as various other statutes, could still be invoked by a college who wishes to sue a business that sells term papers to its students. The statute making sale of term papers a misdemeanor may be useful in a tort case to demonstrate a duty. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 286 (1965). However, a judge will need little persuasion before the judge finds plagiarism to be socially undesirable and harmful to both the university and its students. For more information on the option of suing businesses in tort, a college should consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in their state.

4. Cases Against Plagiarists in Colleges

As long as term papers, theses, and dissertations are required of students – and as long as professionals submit articles to publishers – there has been, and will continue to be, isolated incidents of plagiarism. However, beginning in the mid-1980s, there has been a significant increase in the amount of litigation in courts in the USA concerning punishments imposed by colleges and licensing boards. Here is a quick review of the major cases, in chronological order:


In January 1982, Gabrielle Napolitano, then in her senior year at Princeton University, plagiarized the majority of her 12-page term paper in a Spanish class from a book in the library. While she did cite the book in five footnotes, she did not include citations in the text for some paraphrased material and she did not include the indicia of quotations for "numerous" verbatim quotations. The professor was familiar with the book and immediately recognized the plagiarism. The Princeton University Committee on Discipline in February 1982 unanimously found Napolitano had plagiarized and recommended punishment of delaying her bachelor's degree for one year. Napolitano sued and the judge recommended that Princeton give her a rehearing. The Committee on Discipline gave her a rehearing in May 1982 and again unanimously found her guilty of plagiarism and – with one abstention among the eight votes – again recommended that her degree be withheld for one year. The trial court held that the evidence supported Princeton's finding that Napolitano had plagiarized, and the appellate court affirmed. Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 279 (N.J.Super.Ch.Div. 1982), aff'd 453 A.2d 263 (N.J.Super. 1982).

The judge in the trial court felt that Princeton's punishment was too severe and he remarked:
  As this court has noted in prior hearings and conferences, Princeton might have viewed the matter of the penalty with a greater measure of humanity and magnanimity, with a greater recognition of the human frailities [sic] of students under stress, as the university apparently has done in many cases in the past.   This court cannot mandate compassion, however, and will not, nor should not, engraft its own views on Princeton's disciplinary processes, so long as the standard of good faith and fair dealing has been met and the contract between the student and the university has not otherwise been breached.
Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 279, 283 (N.J.Super.Ch.Div. 1982).

The trial judge does not specifically say why he felt that Princeton's punishment was too severe, except for his cryptic remark about "human frailties of students under stress", alleged nonuniformity in penalties at Princeton for different plagiarists, and some irrelevant remarks about Napolitano's "previously spotless record", her cumulative grade point average of 3.7 out of 4.0, and her service to Princeton's athletic department after a knee injury in her first week of her first year prevented her from playing on the University's basketball team.

As for the trial judge's allegations of stress, the appellate court noted that:
[Napolitano] did not meet with Professor Molloy to seek approval of her topic until December 16, 1981, the last day of classes before Christmas recess. She was one of the last, if not the last, to seek such approval from Professor Molloy.
Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 263, 267 (N.J.Super. 1982).
The term paper was due not later than 13 Jan 1982. In other words, any stress from waiting until the end of the semester to begin the term paper was solely Napolitano's decision, for which she should bear full responsibility.

The appellate court also noted that
... everyone involved in this action regarded plaintiff as a somewhat gifted[,] if not unusual student[,] of high achievement. ... Under those circumstances[,] should not the community of Princeton University have been entitled to expect more of plaintiff?
Id. at 278. The appellate court did not answer its rhetorical question, which may have been intended as a gentle rebuke of the judge of the trial court, who felt Princeton was too severe.

The appellate court quoted extensively from the 1980 edition of the Rights, Rules, Responsibilities of Princeton University, in the section titled General Requirements for the Acknowledgment of Sources in Academic Work:
  The academic departments of the University have varying requirements for the acknowledgment of sources, but certain fundamental principles apply to all levels of work. In order to prevent any misunderstanding, students are expected to study and comply with the following basic requirements.
  Quotations. Any quotations, however small, must be placed in quotation marks or clearly indented beyond the regular margin. Any quotation must be accompanied (either within the text or in a footnote) by a precise indication of the source—identifying the author, title, place and date of publication (where relevant), and page numbers. Any sentence or phrase which is not the original work of the student must be acknowledged.
  Paraphrasing. Any material which is paraphrased or summarized must also be specifically acknowledged in a footnote or in the text. A thorough rewording or rearrangement of an author's text does not relieve one of this responsibility. Occasionally, students maintain that they have read a source long before they wrote their papers and have unwittingly duplicated some of its phrases or ideas. This is not a valid excuse. The student is responsible for taking adequate notes so that debts of phrasing may be acknowledged where they are due.
  Ideas and Facts. Any ideas or facts which are borrowed should be specifically acknowledged in a footnote or in the text, even if the idea or fact has been further elaborated by the student. Some ideas, facts, formulae, and other kinds of information which are widely known and considered to be in the "public domain" of common knowledge do not always require citation. The criteria for common knowledge vary among disciplines; students in doubt should consult a member of the faculty.
  Occasionally, a student in preparing an essay has consulted an essay or body of notes on a similar subject by another student. If the student has done so, he or she must state the fact and indicate clearly the nature and extent of his or her obligation. The name and class of the author of an essay or notes which are consulted should be given, and the student should be prepared to show the work consulted to the instructor, if requested to do so.
  Footnotes and Bibliography. All the sources which have been consulted in the preparation of an essay or report should be listed in a bibliography, unless specific guidelines (from the academic department or instructor) request that only works cited be so included. However, the mere listing of a source in a bibliography shall not be considered a "proper acknowledgment" for specific use of that source within the essay or report.
  With regard to essays, laboratory reports, or any other written work submitted to fulfill an official academic requirement, the following are considered academic fraud:
  Plagiarism. The deliberate use of any outside source without proper acknowledgment. "Outside source" means any work, published or unpublished, by any person other than the student.
  Please note that, while not all academic infractions involve fraud, all are violations of the University's standards and will normally result in disciplinary penalties.
  Because of the importance of original work in the Princeton academic community, each student is required to attest to the originality of the submitted work and its compliance with University regulations: Student Acknowledgment of Original Work
  At the end of an essay, laboratory report, or any other requirement, the student is to write the following sentence and sign his or her name: "This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations." [Emphasis in original]
Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 263, 265-266 (N.J.Super. 1982).

Therefore, Napolitano not only plagiarized, but also submitted a false statement claiming as her own work quotations from the book without the indicia of quotations.

Note that Princeton's definition of plagiarism does not require an intent to deceive the reader. Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 279, 281 (N.J.Super.Ch.Div. 1982).

Anthony Lamberis, an attorney in Illinois, was enrolled in classes in an LL.M. program in Law at Northwestern University during 1970-71. In 1977, he submitted a thesis that was rejected as unsatisfactory. In 1978, he submitted a 93-page thesis, of which 47 pages were "substantially verbatim" from two sources that Lamberis did not cite. His professors detected the plagiarism in June 1979. Lamberis attempted to resign from the law school, but Northwestern University expelled him, then reported him to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

In an attorney disciplinary proceeding based on this conduct the Hearing Board found that the respondent had "knowingly plagiarized" the two published works and that this plagiarism constituted "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation" violating the Illinois Code of Professional Responsibility DR 1-102(A)(4) (Illinois State Bar Association 1977). The Hearing Board recommended that the respondent be censured. The Review Board adopted the Hearing Board's findings of fact, but recommended in a closely divided vote that the respondent receive a suspension of six months.
In re Lamberis, 443 N.E.2d 549, 550 (Ill. 1982).

  The only factual finding that the respondent disputes is the Hearing Board's conclusion that he "knowingly plagiarized" the two published works. In reaching this finding the Board regarded as unworthy of belief respondent's explanation that his plagiarism was the result of academic laziness and did not reflect an intentional effort to deceive his thesis examiners. The Hearing Board found:
"Respondent engaged in conduct which clearly constituted plagiarism. Objectively considered, the facts demonstrate nothing else. Subjectively, it is inconceivable to us that a person who has completed undergraduate school and law school would not know that representing extensively copied material as one's own work constitutes plagiarism. Respondent's deception is compounded by his lack of candor in claiming that his efforts were not an intentional effort to deceive. We cannot accept an assertion that would require that we find such a naivete or a lack of intelligence on his part."

  We agree with the Board's conclusions; given respondent's extensive academic background and the extent of the verbatim copying, any other finding would be untenable.

Id. at 550-551.

The Illinois Supreme Court spoke about the necessity of punishing plagiarists.

  In cases of this type, fairness and justice require that discipline be imposed only "to protect members of the public, to maintain the integrity of the legal profession and to safeguard the administration of justice from reproach." (In re Nowak (1976), 62 Ill.2d 279, 283, 342 N.E.2d 25.) In this case, sanctions are appropriate and required because both the extent of the appropriated material and the purpose for which it was used evidence the respondent's complete disregard for values that are most fundamental in the legal profession.

  The extent of the respondent's plagiarism displays an extreme cynicism towards the property rights of others. He incorporated verbatim the work of other authors as a substantial portion of his thesis and obtained no permission for this use. Moreover, this conduct amounted to at least a technical infringement of the publishers' federally protected copyrights. This fraudulent conversion of other people's property is similar to conduct that Illinois and other States have held warrants discipline.

Id. at 551-552.

The court held that Lamberis violated a provision in the Code of Professional Responsibility for attorneys. The court continued:

The respondent violated this provision when he plagiarized the two sources. The essence of plagiarism is deceit. In this case, the deceit is aggravated by the level on which it occurred. Academic forums have a long and well-known tradition of evaluating each individual on his own performance. The respondent attempted to exploit this tradition to his own benefit; the purpose of his deceitful conduct was to obtain a valuable consideration, an advanced law degree, that would have undoubtedly improved his prospects for employment, reputation and advancement in the legal profession.

Id. at 552.

The Illinois Supreme Court censured Lamberis. Note that Lamberis could have received a more substantial penalty: Two dissenting justices believed a suspension for three months was appropriate. The Disciplinary Review Board recommended a suspension from the practice of law for six months. The Administrator of the Disciplinary Program recommended disbarment of Lamberis.

The license of a physician to practice medicine in Massachusetts was revoked, because – as a student in 1978, two years prior to earning his M.D. degree – he submitted four plagiarized articles for publication. The Board of Registration in Medicine found in 1988 that this plagiarism demonstrated a "lack of good moral character which is required to practice medicine." The Supreme Court of Massachusetts affirmed this revocation.
Alsabti v. Board of Registration in Medicine, 536 N.E.2d 357 (Mass. 1989).
The actual situation is much worse than what the reported court opinion indicates. Alsabti is reported to have plagiarized as many as sixty articles and he claimed both a medical degree and a Ph.D., neither of which he had earned.
William J. Broad, Would-Be Academician Pirates Papers, 208 Science 1438 (27 June 1980);   William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, at pages 38-52 (1982).

Paul Haugh
Paul Haugh was suspended from a private high school for plagiarism. The high school notified colleges that had accepted Haugh of the plagiarism. Haugh then sued in federal district court alleging breach of contract and libel. Haugh "failed to offer any evidence whatsoever to refute the charge of plagiarism. Furthermore, they did not, either in their pleadings or in their proof, ever assert that the charges of plagiarism or of lying were untrue." Haugh v. Bullis School, 1990 WL 33945 at *1 (4thCir. 1990). The district court granted the school's motion for summary judgment. Haugh then filed an appeal in the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court, found the appeal to be both meritless and frivolous, and ordered Haugh to pay US$ 7136 in attorney's fees for the appeal to the school. Id. *1-*2.

Michael Hand "earned" a Ph.D. in counseling psychology at New Mexico State University in 1982. In the Fall of 1987 an anonymous tipster sent to the University a copy two scholarly sources that Hand had plagiarized in his dissertation. In April 1988, the University rescinded the Ph.D. it had awarded to Hand. Hand v. Matchett, 957 F.2d 791 (10thCir. 1992).

Dennis Allen Faulkner
Faulkner was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His faculty advisor, Frost, apparently told Faulkner to copy significant amounts of material from research reports written by Frost into Faulkner's dissertation. It is noteworthy that Faulkner had not participated in the research described in Frost's reports that were copied into Faulkner's dissertation. Faulkner was awarded the Ph.D. degree in May 1990. Approximately one year later, the faculty voted 5 to 2 to begin procedures to revoke Faulkner's doctoral degree, because of Faulkner's plagiarism. Faulkner then argued that the University was estopped from rescinding his degree, because Frost – acting as an agent of the University – had told him to do the copying. Faulkner v. Univ. of Tennessee, 1994 WL 642765 (Tenn.Ct.App. 1994)

The court considered
... whether or not the University can be estopped in this case by the conduct of Dr. Frost.   The conduct of Dr. Frost in this matter is, to say the least, unusual and to say the most, astonishing. He, in fact, told the Appellant to do exactly what the Appellant did and present the result as a doctoral dissertation. He sought other employment following the allegations in this case.   In view of the unmistakable dictates of the "Guide to the Preparation of Theses and Dissertations", it would be ludicrous to argue that Dr. Frost as agent of the University of Tennessee possessed the express authority to authorize Mr. Faulkner to plagiarize in his dissertation. Appellant must rely, as in fact he does, upon "apparent authority" and "agency by estoppel". [citation omitted]
Id. at *4.

The court reviewed the facts and the law, then concluded:
  The record in this case discloses no act of the University of Tennessee that could possibly be construed as providing authority for Dr. Frost to waive the prohibition against plagiarism, and clearly, Mr. Faulkner either knew or certainly should have known that Dr. Frost possessed no such authority.
Id. at *5.

The court concluded that the University "is not estopped to rescind the doctoral degree of Mr. Faulkner." Finally, in summing up the whole case, the court remarked:
  Appellant appears before the bar of this Court pro se. If, in fact, his work since the Administrative Law hearing is pro se, Appellant is a person of remarkable intellect and ability. He does not appear to grasp the self-evident fact that he has not earned his doctorate. He continues to seek shelter under the shield of a professor who is more culpable in this case than is the Appellant. His confidence is ill-placed, and the regrettable failures of both Dr. Frost and the Appellant have borne bitter fruit.
Id. at *6.

The U.S. Government brought mail fraud and other criminal charges against Dr. Frost, Mr. Faulkner, and three others. The Government proved that Frost operated a scheme to take tuition money paid by government for education of government's employees, where the employees submitted dissertations consisting of plagiarized material. U.S. v. Frost, 125 F.3d 346 (6thCir. 1997), cert. denied,119 S.Ct. 40-41 (1998). The Court of Appeals noted that
Awarding degrees to inept students, or to students who have not earned them, will decrease the value of degrees in general. More specifically, it will hurt the reputation of the school and thereby impair its ability to attract other students willing to pay tuition, as well as its ability to raise money.
125 F.3d 346, 367.

Sanderson was an undergraduate student in his final year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who plagiarized a paper that he submitted both for the requirements of a class and a research paper contest. "[M]uch of the first half of Sanderson's paper had come from" a textbook used in Sanderson's previous class. Further, Sanderson "used an unpublished master's thesis as a source[,] but that he failed to cite that source anywhere in the paper." The professor gave Sanderson a failing grade in the class and notified University authorities. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing. The ALJ could not find a definition of plagiarism in the University's rules, so the ALJ used the definition in Black's Law Dictionary. The ALJ concluded that Black's required intent to pass off someone else's words or ideas as one's own, and the ALJ found that Sanderson had no such intent, hence the ALJ found no plagiarism. The Chancellor of the University reviewed the record and reversed the decision of the ALJ, affirmed the failing grade, and suspended Sanderson for one year. Sanderson then sued in court. Both the chancery court and an appellate court affirmed the Chancellor's decision. The Chancellor and the two courts agreed that the appropriate definition of plagiarism was the one issued by Sanderson's professor at the beginning of the semester, not the definition in Black's. The professor's definition was simply "using an author's words or ideas without giving credit", so intent of the plagiarist was properly not an issue.
Sanderson v. Univ. of Tennessee, 1997 WL 718427 (Tenn.Ct.App. 1997).

professors who plagiarized

By including the following cases in this essay, I do not wish to cast aspersions on university faculty. However, it is an acknowledged fact that a very few isolated professors have engaged in plagiarization. The typical punishment is termination of their faculty appointment. The following cases are noteworthy for remarks made about the seriousness of plagiarization.

Jason Yu
Dr. Yu was a tenured professor of civil engineering at the University of Utah. The Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee at that University concluded that Yu had failed to give credit to a co-author, which was one instance of plagiarism. They also concluded that Yu had failed to give authorship credit to two former students at Virginia Polytechnic University, Yu's previous employer, for two publications that "were 90% prepared" by the students, which were two other instances of plagiarism. The University of Utah Committee recommended that Yu be suspended for one year without pay. The president of the University accepted this recommendation, but Yu appealed to the internal grievance committee. The grievance committee remanded to the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, which on its second hearing recommended that Yu be permanently dismissed from the University, and the president accepted that recommendation. Yu then filed suit in federal district court, which found that "there was ample evidence to support the charges of plagiarism and that termination was permissible under the university's regulations. The court dismissed the action sua sponte." Yu v. Peterson, 13 F.3d 1413, 1415 (10thCir. 1993). Yu appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court.

M. Jamil Hanifi plagiarized material from a book and an essay in his doctoral dissertation at Southern Illinois University in 1969. Hanifi later published "his" dissertation in a book, of which "three of the nine substantive chapters ... were plagiarized." The author of the essay discovered the plagiarism in 1976, the author of the book discovered the plagiarism in 1977. Southern Illinois University learned of the plagiarism in 1981. At that time, Hanifi was a professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University, who was being considered as a new chairman of the department. Tersely summarizing a long recital in the court's opinion, Hanifi was given the choice of resigning or being fired, Hanifi chose to resign. Hanifi then filed litigation that alleged that his resignation had been coerced. Hanifi v. Board of Regents, 1994 WL 871887 (Ill.Ct.Cl. 1994).

The court said the following regarding plagiarism:
  John LaTourette, the current president of Northern Illinois University, who was the vice-president and provost of that university in 1981, acknowledged that plagiarism is "probably the most serious charge against a faculty member that one could imagine." The president of the university in 1981, William Monat, similarly acknowledged that plagiarism is "probably one of the greatest offenses that can occur in the academic community." Mr. Hanifi, himself, has written to others and admitted during his testimony that plagiarism involves "a complete lapse in professional judgment, moral sense and respect for academic ethics," "a most serious violation with dishonor, shame and guilt," "unethical conduct," "dishonorable and unprofessional conduct," and "dishonorable act and reprehensible and condemnable," "a violation of basic scholarly activity and serious misconduct," "a despicable act and a serious mistake." Mr. Hanifi acknowledged that the plagiarism is not erasable.
Id. at *2.

The court concluded that Hanifi had failed to prove that his resignation had been coerced. Note the court's final sentence about the bad character of a plagiarist:
  From a thorough review of the evidence in this case, we find that the Claimant has failed to prove that his resignation was involuntary, coerced or the product of duress. The testimony of Claimant and Respondent's witnesses is at loggerheads. To believe Claimant's testimony as to coercion, duress and involuntariness, we would have to disbelieve numerous other witnesses and find some grand conspiracy among the top officials at Northern Illinois University to injure Claimant, which would include mass perjury. Claimant has presented no compelling evidence to corroborate his testimony and therefore in light of the credible testimony disputing his claim, we find his testimony incredible. Frankly, we do not believe this admitted plagiarizer when he claims his will was overcome and he did not know what he was doing.
Id. at *6.


In every plagiarism case that I have found involving a student or professor, the court upheld the punishment imposed by the college. Further, the court often make gratuitous, pejorative comments about the bad character of the plagiarist, which show that it is unwise for a plagiarist to complain about how he/she was treated.

A judge in a federal court, noted that one attorney had plagiarized the Brief of the opposing attorney, then commented that opposing counsel had:
failed to call this major breach of professional conduct to the Court's attention. The Court, however, cannot let it pass without condemnation. Plagiarism is unacceptable in any grammar school, college, or law school, and even in politics. It is wholly intolerable in the practice of law.
DeWilde v. Gannett Publishing, 797 F.Supp. 55, 56 (D.Maine 1992).

The Alsabti case, discussed above, shows how plagiarism can haunt a person's reputation, even ten years later.

In summary, a plagiarist should accept their punishment and humiliation for their reprehensible act, without also being permanently enshrined in a reported court opinion. In the Napolitano case that was discussed above, the trial court remarked:
  Plaintiff had sought as additional relief an injunction against Princeton's giving notice of its plagiarism adjudication to any law school to which plaintiff had applied. The notoriety deriving from this case, however, marks plaintiff's record more permanently than anything that defendant might place upon her transcript. Therefore, her argument that there should be no such notification or notation is moot at this point.
Napolitano v. Princeton Univ., 453 A.2d 279, 284, n.5 (N.J.Super.Ch.Div. 1982).

5. Cases Against Commercial Sources

There are only a few reported cases against businesses that sell term papers to students.

The first is State v. Saksniit, 332 N.Y.S.2d 343 (1972), in which the New York State Attorney General filed litigation to dissolve a corporation whose only business was selling term papers to students.

The defendant's advertisement states:
Do you have a term paper assignment that's a little too much work? Are you cramped for time with a nightmarish deadline closing in? Let us help you. We have a team of professional writers who can handle any subject. Our papers are custom made, and professionally typed. We offer the most economical work anywhere, at no sacrifice in quality or service to you. This material is intended to be used for research and reference purposes only.
State v. Saksniit, 332 N.Y.S.2d 343, 345 (1972).

In 1972, defendants were charging US$ 1.90 per page for a term paper from their stock, or $ 3.85/page for a custom-written paper. The court noted that there were three signs in the corporate office:
  1. We don't guarantee grades
  2. We don't condone plagiarism
  3. No refunds
Id. at 345.
The court noted that:
  The termpapers are produced for defendants by free-lance writers who are college graduates with some expertise in the subject involved in the particular paper. The writers have signed a contract with defendants, promising 'to submit research and writing that is commencerate [sic] in quality with Work sufficient to be accepted in a Graduate Program at an accredited University.' Additionally–and ironically–each writer promises 'that all work he produces and submits will be original and the products of his own research and writing, and the final product will not be work prepared for him by others.'
Id. at 345-346.

The basis of the prosecution was a New York State statute that says, in part:
"No person shall ... attempt to obtain by fraudulent means any diploma, certificate or other instrument purporting to confer any literary, scientific, professional or other degree ...."
N.Y. Education Law, §224(2).

A violation of the section is a misdemeanor and "any person who aids or abets another * * * to violate the provisions of this section" is "liable to the same penalties".
N.Y. Education Law, §224(3).

The court then declared:
  Any student who submits a 'ghost-written' termpaper as his own, cheats. There is, conceptually, little difference between the 'ghost-written' termpaper and the copied examination paper or the hiring of another to take an examination in place of a student. Any student, therefore, who submits as his own work a termpaper bought from defendants, gets credit for a course through fraud, and thereby attempts to obtain his diploma or degree by 'fraudulent means'.
State v. Saksniit, 332 N.Y.S.2d 343, 346 (1972).

  Defendants protest they did not know they were encouraging fraud. They point to their various disclaimers—'This material is intended to be used for research and reference purposes only;' 'We don't condone plagiarism.' Yet in the very same breath they boast of the grades their former termpapers have received. Their warning, 'We don't guarantee grades,' only accentuates their awareness that some students could be relying on defendants' termpapers for their grades.
Id. at 348.

After evaluating this defense, the judge stated:
... the court is convinced that defendants are engaged in the business of selling termpapers to students, thereby knowingly aiding and abetting them to attempt to obtain by fraudulent means a diploma, degree or certificate, in violation of Education Law, § 224 ....
  The complaint seeks a dissolution of the corporate defendant on the ground that the 'business activities of defendants,' have the 'direct capacity and tendency of subverting the process of learning and encouraging intellectual dishonesty and cheating,' and are therefore contrary to the 'public policy of this State in maintaining and preserving the integrity of the educational process.'
  'Education,' wrote James Madison, 'is the true foundation of civil liberty.' Assisting and promoting plagiarism—the most serious academic offense—strikes at the core of the educational process, and thus at the very heart of a free society. Doing a student's work for him not only deprives him of the valuable disciplines of the learning process, but tends to destroy his moral fibre by lending credence to the all too prevalent notion that anything, including a college degree, can be bought for a price.
Id. at 349.

Then the court makes an observation that is not necessary to its opinion, but shows the selling term papers is a particularly reprehensible activity.
  The damage which defendants' business does to the fabric of the scholastic community is dramatically made clear in a plea from a young college student who writes to the Attorney General urging action:
  I am in competition with many students for entrance into a medical school. Spaces are few and the many students make the competition fierce. Only one student will occupy a seat desired by many, and he will be the student with the best grades.
  The situation is tight enough as is, but what chance do I stand if my independent work (term papers) must compete not with those of my peers but with those of professionals—people with Masters and even Doctorates in the areas in which they write? I am subtly being blackmailed into using their immoral services.
  An ironic development is the distrust my instructors have developed toward and above-average term paper I submit.
  Sir—can your office do anything to relieve this injustice? I do not believe I am exaggerating if I claim that my future And my integrity are at stake.

Id. at 349-350.

The court continued:

  The legislature of our state has enacted laws to prevent fraud in obtaining degrees or diplomas (Educ.Law, §224), and to guard the sanctity of the scholastic examinations (id., §225). It has thus declared it to be the public policy of this state that the integrity of the educational process should be protected and preserved. Whenever 'our courts are called upon to scrutinize a (business) * * * which is clearly repugnant to sound morality and civic honesty, they need not look for a well fitting definition of public policy ....' [citation omitted]

  The business defendants are conducting is morally wrong. It subverts the learning process and encourages intellectual dishonesty and cheating. It is directly opposed to the declared public policy of our State. It exceeds the purposes for which the corporate defendant was formed as set forth in its certificates of incorporation and is ultra vires. [citation omitted]

Id. at 350.

"Ultra vires" is an act by a corporation that exceeds its authority under the articles of incorporation filed with the state.

The court granted a preliminary injunction that prohibited the defendants from continuing to engage in their fraudulent acts of selling term papers and appointed a receiver to preserve the corporate assets, so any creditors could be paid. The final disposition of this case is not reported.

International Term Paper
The U.S. Government applied to court for an order permitting interception of all mail to four companies that sold term papers to students. The Court of Appeals held that the mail fraud statute applied to this situation, even though the fraudulent act was by the buyer (i.e., a student who submitted the purchased term paper to a college as the student's own work), because the seller contemplated a "scheme which involves misrepresentation based on the materials which he sends." U.S. v. International Term Papers, Inc., 477 F.2d 1277, 1280 (1stCir. 1973). The final disposition of this case is not reported.

The following case is an action by the Attorney General of New York State to "shut down" a corporation that sold term papers to students. This is an entirely separate case from Saksniit, which was previously quoted and summarized, except that the defendants in Saksniit employed John Magee as their "administrative assistant". 332 N.Y.S.2d at 347. In the following case, Magee is the defendant.

A preliminary injunction issued on 3 Aug 1979, ordering Magee to stop selling papers to students. Magee "grossly flouted" the order and, on 12 Dec 1979, the judge fined Magee US$ 1000.
People v. Magee, 423 N.Y.S.2d 417, 419-421 (1979).

The issue of whether or not to shut down Magee's business permanently was only slightly more difficult. There were no contested facts, so the judge ruled on summary judgment. The judge characterized the Defendant's position:
His basic defense is that the Education Law prohibits the rendering of Assistance for hire, and his products were not "assistance" but rather publications entitled to First Amendment protection. He argues that his papers bear the same status as an encyclopedia article or bibliography, and that the warning on his catalogue of approximately 5000 subjects for sale1 and the "conditions of sale"2 signed by the purchasing student, are sufficient to raise an issue of fact as to his good faith.
1   Our Company operates as a publisher and distributor of educational source material. It is not, and never has been, a writer of term papers or other academic work. The material we provide is intended to provide the reader with background and source material on a given topic, and not as a substitute for the reader's own original research and writing. We do not support or condone plagiarism or academic fraud of any nature.
2   I further agree and warrant that I shall not plagiarize of submit all, or any part of said material as my own in fulfillment of the requirements for a degree, diploma, certificate, courses of study, nor permit any other person or persons to do so.

Id. at 419.

The court continues:

  These arguments are plainly specious. The papers purchased by the Attorney General's agents and annexed to the motion are plainly designed to deceive and would have no other utility in the world of scholarship. Carefully tailored for submission as undergraduate work and keyed to the assignments in specific undergraduate and graduate courses, they were sold for that express purpose by defendant and his agents. These materials do not fall within the exception to the Education Law ( Sec. 213-b, subd. 4) provided for copyrighted materials.

  The fact that the papers sold by defendant (at $3.50 per page) could conceivably be put to a lawful use by a student of Aristotle or Shakespeare does not make the statute interdicting them unconstitutional. A gaming device which Could be played for sheer entertainment may be outlawed if the purpose to which it is put is gambling [citations deleted] These typewritten papers, in a format designed for direct submission, and taken together with defendant's seductive sales literature [footnote deleted], are full proof of unlawful intended use.

  Nor is defendant saved by the pious disavowals of plagiaristic intent which the paper buyer ritualistically signs. This procedure is patently tongue-in-cheek, and executed with an obvious wink. Precisely the same subterfuge was easily brushed aside by the court in State of New York v. Saksniit, 69 Misc.2d 554, 332 N.Y.S.2d 343, a similar cheating mill case in which this very defendant is a named subordinate offender. Such a sanctimonious charade stands on the same footing as the closing paragraphs in Fanny Hill .... Undeniably Cleland's heroine, after dozens of erotic bordello adventures, purports in the final paragraphs of her narrative to discover the true value of domestic tranquility. That belated appreciation did not serve to convert this work into a moral tract, nor render is suitable for 18th Century Anglican curates in their parish rounds.

  There is no genuine issue of fact. The People are now entitled to a permanent injunction.

Id. 419-420.

A1 Termpaper, et al.
In 1998, Boston University (BU) sued five separate defendants who were engaged in the sale of term papers. BU alleged that defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 USC § 1962, which was sufficient to give a federal court jurisdiction over the matter. Unfortunately, technical deficiencies in BU's pleadings caused the RICO complaint to be dismissed. Boston Univ. v. ASM Communications, 33 F.Supp.2d 66, 72-74 (D.Mass. 1998). The federal court then dismissed all of BU's claims under state law. In passing, the federal court noted that:
  1. The Massachusetts criminal statute, ch. 271 §50 that makes the sale of term papers a misdemeanor gave no private right of action to BU. Id. at 74-76.
  2. BU was not engaged in "trade or commerce" when its agents purchased term papers from defendants in a sting operation, thus BU could not bring a claim under Massachusetts statute ch. 93A §11 that prohibits unfair or deceptive business practices. Id. at 76-77.
  3. BU was not likely to meet the US$ 75,000 per defendant threshold for suing in federal court on various other claims under state law (e.g., tortious interference with university-student relationships, fraud, aiding and abetting fraud). Id. at 77.
The fact that Boston University lost this case in federal court does not mean that its legal theories were invalid, but only that the RICO claim must be pleaded more carefully. The various tort claims may be viable in a Massachusetts state court.

The federal court noted in passing that, in 1981, BU had obtained injunctions in state court prohibiting at least one of the present defendants from selling term papers to BU students. 33 F.Supp.2d at 71. This observation shows the remarkable persistence of businessmen who sell term papers to students, since the businesses were still selling term papers 17 years later.

6. My Suggestions for Policy

It is time that colleges took an active stand against plagiarism. Professors should actively check for plagiarism. When possible plagiarism is detected, professors should report the case to the appropriate authorities on campus for investigation, hearing, and resolution.

Every college administration should:
  1. inform every student during a required orientation lecture, and also in the college handbook, of the definition of plagiarism and the range of punishments.

  2. make available to every professor tools for detecting plagiarism (e.g., one or more commercial services in the links section below).

  3. periodically remind every professor of his/her duty to report suspected plagiarism or other misconduct by students. (Some specific suggestions for how to detect plagiarism are given later in this essay.)

  4. use new topics for term papers or projects every semester. This requires more creativity by professors, but it defeats the utility of files in local fraternities for plagiarists or passing materials between successive years of students.

  5. specially counsel foreign nationals that – regardless of the customs and practices in their native country – the college will strictly hold them to the American standard that plagiarism is forbidden. (My experience both in reading reported court cases in the USA, as well as in my ten years as a professor in the USA, is that immigrants or foreign nationals – both students and faculty – are involved in a disproportionately large number of cases of plagiarism in the USA. I do not want to say anything offensive to honest people in other cultures or other countries, but the pattern is apparent and we need to defeat the defense that "Plagiarism is accepted in my home country.")

  6. design procedures for investigation and hearings to be minimally burdensome for professors, so that reporting misconduct does not mean that the professor is volunteering for significant extra work. Instead, the burden of extra work should fall mainly on administrators and staff, or – alternatively – on consultants hired by the college.

This last point is important: if the college makes the misconduct investigations and hearings too cumbersome, professors will simply avoid reporting suspicions of misconduct to the appropriate authorities on campus. A professor might then simply give a suspected plagiarist a lower grade than they would have earned if they were honest (or simply giving the suspect a private reprimand in the professor's office), a "punishment" that the plagiarist might welcome, in contrast to having sanctions marked on their transcript, or even possible expulsion from college. This raises the possibility that a student could meander through college, plagiarizing here and there, without anyone being aware of the consistent pattern of misconduct that marks this student as unworthy of a college degree. While I have not seen this concern mentioned in any of the court opinions that have addressed the issue of proper procedure, it worries me.

How to detect plagiarism

Whenever a professor sees a paper written with an unconventional style, or with word choice that reflects more advanced knowledge of the field than a typical student would have, the professor should suspect plagiarism. The professor can easily ask the suspected plagiarist to explain a particularly obscure point. A student who struggled honestly to understand the material will give a convincing explanation, while a plagiarist will be dumbfounded or mutter platitudes.

Professors should also be alert for styles that shift within the paper, as the student switches roles from plagiarist to author.

The following techniques for detecting plagiarism are from a list of 15 suggestions by Margaret Fain and Peggy Bates at Coastal Carolina University in their document titled Detecting Plagiarization.
  • "Writing style, language, vocabulary, tone, grammar, etc." is different from "what the student usually produces. It doesn't sound like the student."

  • "Essays are printed out from the student's web browser."

  • "Web addresses left at the top or bottom of the page. Many free essays have a tag line at the end of the essay that students often miss."

  • "References to graphs, charts, or accompanying material that isn't there."

  • "References to professors, classes or class numbers that are not taught at" the college.

  • "Citations are to materials not owned by" local libraries to which students have access.

  • Dead links, or inactive URLs, in student's page. This is a symptom that the page was prepared many months ago and is now stale.

  • "All citations are to materials that are older than five years."

  • Historical events are referred to in present tense.

  • "Students can not identify citations or provide copies of the cited material."

Once plagiarism is suspected, a professor can type a distinctive phrase from a student's paper into a good search engine, and see what material can be found. With some luck, a professor may be able to find the source of the student's paper. In this type of search, one does not use typical key words that would retrieve information on the student's topic. Instead, one uses a distinctive phrase that one hopes is unique, with the intent of retrieving one source for the plagiarized paper. I have listed my favorite search engines in a document at my personal website.

7. Colleges may rescind degrees

What happens if plagiarism, or other academic misconduct, is discovered after a degree has been awarded? The answer is simple: the college has the legal authority to revoke or rescind an academic degree.

There are only a few reported cases in the USA concerning the ability of a college to rescind an academic degree:
  1. Waliga v. Board of Trustees, 488 N.E.2d 850 (Ohio 1986)(Kent State University decided to rescind Waliga's B.A. degree, 17 years after it was awarded, because of 28 discrepancies in the grades on the official transcript and the handwritten reports submitted by the instructors in Waliga's classes.)
    There is not the slightest hint in the opinions available on WestLaw for how these discrepancies arose. The most comprehensive discussion is in an unpublished opinion: 1984 WL 6436, *1 (Ohio.App. 1984).

  2. Crook v. Baker, 813 F.2d 88 (6thCir. 1987)(University of Michigan rescinded a M.Sc. degree in geology, because of fraud in that thesis.)

  3. Hand v. Matchett, 957 F.2d 791 (10thCir. 1992)(New Mexico State University, by the Dean of the Graduate School, attempted to rescind a Ph.D. in counseling psychology that had been awarded to Hand for his dissertation that contained plagiarized material.)
    Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals held that, under New Mexico state statutes, only the Regents could award or rescind a degree, so the revocation was unlawful. The Court of Appeals cited Waliga and Crook and concluded, at 795, "The ability to revoke degrees obtained through fraudulent means is a necessary corollary to the Regent's power to confer those degrees." The Court of Appeals, at 795, stated that the University could withdraw Hand's Ph.D. degree, but the Regents must do the withdrawing.

  4. Faulkner v. Univ. of Tennessee, 1994 WL 642765 (Tenn.Ct.App. 1994)("The University of Tennessee is not estopped to rescind the doctoral degree of Mr. Faulkner." Mr. Faulkner "does not appear to grasp the self-evident fact that he has not earned his doctorate.")

A paragraph of the Ohio Supreme Court's opinion in Waliga is worth quoting here:
    We consider it self-evident that a college or university acting through its board of trustees does have the inherent authority to revoke an improperly awarded degree where (1) good cause such as fraud, deceit, or error is shown, and (2) the degree-holder is afforded a fair hearing at which he can present evidence and protect his interest. Academic degrees are a university's certification to the world at large of the recipient's educational achievement and fulfillment of the institution's standards. To hold that a university may never withdraw a degree, effectively requires the university to continue making a false certification to the public at large of the accomplishment of persons who in fact lack the very qualifications that are certified. Such a holding would undermine public confidence in the integrity of degrees, call academic standards into question, and harm those who rely on the certification which the degree represents.
Waliga v. Board of Trustees, 488 N.E.2d 850, 852 (Ohio 1986).
Quoted with approval in: Hand v. Matchett, 957 F.2d 791, 794 (10thCir. 1992);
Crook v. Baker, 813 F.2d 88, 93 (6thCir. 1987);
Faulkner v. Univ. of Tennessee, 1994 WL 642765 at *6 (Tenn.Ct.App. 1994).

These cases all involved state universities. This is significant, because the ex-student often alleged that the degree was rescinded without "due process of law", a legal right that only applies to people in their relations with government. Simply put, a private college can legally rescind a degree without bothering about "due process". There may be other legal rights that a grieved ex-student could bring against a private college, but this is not the place to speculate on what those rights might be.

double jeopardy ?

Someone who knows a little about constitutional law might ask if the prohibition against double jeopardy (Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) acts to prevent punishment by both a college and a court. The answer is clearly no. Any punishment by a college is completely separate and independent of a punishment by a court. It is legally permissible for a plagiarist to be:
  1. expelled by a college – or have their degree rescinded by a college –
  2. sued in civil court by the owner of the copyright (e.g., the true author or his/her assignee) for copyright infringement,
  3. tried in criminal court on charges of fraud, and
  4. have a licensing board revoke or suspend their license to practice law, medicine, or some other profession.
This result is clearly just, because each punishment protects a different group of people from a different harm:
  1. the college protects its good reputation and the integrity of its degrees,
  2. copyright law protects the owner of the copyright,
  3. criminal law expresses the outrage of civilized society at evil acts,
  4. the licensing board protects an innocent public who reasonably trusts professionals to be honest, ethical, and competent.
The Fifth Amendment only prohibits multiple criminal trials by the same government. For more about double jeopardy, see my essay on the differences between civil and criminal law.

A 1997 case in Oklahoma state court concerned a University of Oklahoma student who "falsely reported a car-jacking" to the University's police department. "The University placed him on disciplinary probation for one year and ordered him to complete 100 hours of community service" at the University. The State of Oklahoma charged the student with a misdemeanor and the student's attorney moved to dismiss the charge, arguing double jeopardy. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma ruled that the criminal charge was not barred by double jeopardy. The opinion of the Oklahoma court cites a number of federal and state cases.
State v. Kauble, 948 P.2d 321 (Okla.Crim.App. 1997).

No plagiarism for ideas ?

Some colleges have expanded the definition of plagiarism to include copying ideas without providing a citation to the original source. I agree that one should provide a citation for all substantial information that is taken from another source:
  1. to give credit to the person who supplied the information or who first made the discovery,

  2. to relieve the writer from the responsibility for the accuracy or truth of the information,

  3. to lead the reader to a source of more detailed or complete information, or

  4. to give the reader a sense of the historical evolution of ideas in the field.
However, an author properly does not provide a citation to facts or ideas that are part of the general knowledge in the subject area of the paper (e.g., Newton's Laws of Motion, a mathematical theorem, etc.), unless the author is discussing the history of the subject. The key issue is whether the reader might mistakenly believe that the fact or idea was original with the author of the paper. When in doubt, provide a citation to the source.

Personally, I prefer to consider failure to cite sources of facts or ideas as something other than plagiarism. Such a failure to cite sources of facts or ideas might be:
sloppy scholarship, making unsupported assertions
negligent misrepresentation about the scope of the author's work,
if the author had intent to deceive the reader: fraudulent misrepresentation about the scope of the author's work,
in some cases: a matter of academic style that is a judgment call for an author, supervisor, reviewer, or editor.

In theses or dissertations, problems of whether to cite to a source of facts or ideas should be resolved when the student submits a draft to his/her faculty advisor. If a citation is desirable, the advisor simply scrawls "cite a source" or "cite your sources" in red ink on the draft.

Whether to cite facts can depend on the forum or audience. For example, a textbook, or a general essay to inform the reader, summarizes accepted knowledge without citations to primary sources. The same text published as a review article in a scholarly journal, or a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of a doctoral degree, definitely needs citations to primary sources.

One of my reasons for considering a narrow definition of plagiarism is that I prefer that to have the academic offense of plagiarism and the legal wrong of copyright infringement overlap. By definition, copyright protects only expression, not ideas, not facts. 17 USC §102(b).

It is interesting – but ultimately not enlightening – to consider the position of patent law on use of facts. Patent law, like copyright law, does not recognize ownership of facts. Patent protection is restricted by statute to only a "new and useful process, machine, manufacturer, or composition of matter." 35 U.S.C. § 101. It is well-established law that one can not patent any of the following: law of nature
natural phenomenon
abstract idea
purely mental process
mathematical formula
Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 185, 191-193 (1981);
Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67 (1972);
Funk Bros. v. Kalo Inoculant, 333 U.S. 127, 130 (1948);
O'Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62, 116 (1853);
LeRoy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. 156, 175 (1852);
Prater, 417 F.2d 1393, 1402 (1969)(purely mental steps).
However, the relevance of patent law to plagiarism is questionable. The sole purpose of a patent is to exclude others from making, using, or selling a commercially useful invention. 35 U.S.C. §271. In contrast to commerce, scholars welcome the use of their ideas by others, provided that the scholar receives credit for his/her idea in a citation.

Another of my reasons for considering a narrow definition of plagiarism is the difficulty of proof that an author copied an idea. Any intelligent, creative person routinely has "original" thoughts. A careful search of books and scholarly journals in a library will likely reveal that the same thought had been previously expressed by someone else. Even if an author spends days searching books and journals, diligently trying to find a previous expression of an idea, it is possible to overlook a relevant previous expression, particularly in older literature that is not indexed in online search engines (e.g., Physics Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts, MEDLINE, WESTLAW, etc.). It is inappropriate to impose disciplinary sanctions on an author for an innocent mistake, such as overlooking some earlier source, because an evil intent (i.e., mens rea) is generally an essential part of misconduct. Said in another way, without an evil intent, there is no misconduct.

In contrast to the sometimes discretionary nature of citations for facts or ideas, or the possibility of innocently overlooking an earlier expression of an idea, using someone else's words without the indicia of a quotation is always wrong. Further, there is a negligible probability that an author could independently create expression that consists of hundreds of – or even several dozen – identical words in the same sequence as an earlier author. And, as mentioned above, copying another's words, then making a few "original" changes, does not defeat a charge of copyright infringement.


There are two forms of self-plagiarization:
  1. for students self-plagiarization is taking a term paper or essay that was written for one class and submitting substantial parts of that work for credit in a second class, without informing the instructor.

  2. for professionals self-plagiarization is using part of one publication in a subsequent publication, without the indicia of a quotation or citation to a paraphrase of an earlier publication.

Self-plagiarization is wrong for students, because each class is supposed to represent acquisition of additional knowledge. Recycling an old term paper frustrates that goal.

Self-plagiarization in publication is wrong for several different reasons:
  1. The number of scholarly publications is an important credential for authors in academia. Repeating the same publication inflates the number of publications, giving the plagiarist an undeserved good reputation.

  2. Most scholarly journals only accept new material for publication. Repeating previously published text is a fraudulent misrepresentation by the author to the editor of the journal.

  3. Publication of the same material more than once wastes space on library shelves, and wastes money in library budgets.

  4. Moreover, someone doing a diligent search of the literature could order copies of two or three "different" scholarly papers, which, when read carefully, contain essentially the same information, thus wasting photocopy expense, interlibrary loan expense, etc.

Threat of Litigation Against
Reporters of Plagiarism

Sometimes, when a professor suspects plagiarism or other fraud by a student, the student threatens to sue the professor if the misconduct is reported. The fear of litigation may coerce the professor into silence. Such silence not only allows the plagiarist to escape the consequences of his/her actions, but also allows the plagiarist to continue his/her misconduct in other classes and, after graduation, in other institutions.
(This coerced silence reminds me of stories of New York City residents who sit in their office or apartment and watch someone being mugged on the street, but who do not call the police, because "they don't want to get involved".)

While I suppose it is possible that a plagiarist could sue for damage to his reputation, the plagiarist would likely lose a summary judgment motion by the defendant. As a practical matter, the plagiarist is unlikely to sue, because:
  • the publicity of the litigation would harm the plagiarist's reputation more than any allegations that prompted the litigation,
  • an ethical attorney would not file a groundless law suit on behalf of the plagiarist,
  • the plagiarist probably is unable to afford the cost of litigation, while the university is likely to pay an attorney to defend a professor for any action arising from the professor's official duties.
So the threat of litigation by a plagiarist is likely just an empty threat, made in an emotional moment when the plagiarist is scared of being punished.

I don't recommend being confrontational, but one could reply to threats of litigation with:
  1. It is never defamation to make a true statement, even if the statement damages the plagiarist's reputation.
  2. There is a privilege for good-faith reports of misconduct to the proper authorities. Even if the authorities eventually conclude that there was neither plagiarism nor misconduct, good-faith reporting is not defamatory.
  3. As mentioned above, judges have a low regard for plagiarists. A plagiarist has already damaged his/her own reputation by the act of plagiarization.
  4. Plagiarists are tortfeasors, not victims.   The real victims are (a) the true author whose work was plagiarized, and (b) the professor who [almost] gave credit to the plagiarist for someone else's work.
  5. One could threaten to counter-sue for malicious prosecution, including the value of one's time to respond to groundless accusations and reimbursement of attorney's fees.

Moreover, the college's policy manual may impose a duty on every professor to report plagiarism or other misconduct. With such a duty, the professor could get in more trouble for not reporting plagiarism than for reporting plagiarism.

Links to Other Webpages

To make it easier to update this essay, and also to update future Adobe PDF versions of this essay, I have put my links in a separate HTML document. These links are not a bibliography for this essay, but are provided as either alternative views or resources for teaching students to avoid plagiarism.


Academic degrees represent a college's public certification that a former student possesses at least some minimum amount of knowledge and intellectual skill. Such degrees are commonly used a minimum credential for being hired to fill a professional position, not only physicians, attorneys, engineers, scientists, teachers, but also managers. If academic degrees are to have any meaningful significance, then they must not be awarded to students who plagiarize material, cheat on examinations, commit fraud in reporting research results, and other kinds of serious misconduct. Plagiarizing, cheating, or fraud must not be an alternate route to a diploma. When a diligent student who writes an original paper gets a lower grade than a plagiarist, the instructor effectively punishes the honest student and rewards the wrongdoer.

It is time that colleges took an active stand against plagiarism. Professors should actively check for plagiarism. When possible plagiarism is detected, professors should report the case to the appropriate authorities on campus for investigation, hearing, and resolution.

this document is at
My most recent search for court cases on plagiarism was in Dec 1999.
version 14 April 2001, links updated 3 Feb 2007


October Astrophysics Conference in Maryland

The October Astrophysics Conference in Maryland is a series of topical conferences that are arranged each autumn by scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland. Each of the conferences is devoted to a single topic in astrophysics research, and is organized to elicit the free discussion of ideas.

The Conference is held at the University Conference Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

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2006: Radiation Backgrounds from the First Stars, Galaxies and Black Holes (October 9 - 11, 2006)
2005: Gamma-Ray Bursts in the Swift Era (November 29 - December 2, 2005)
2004: New Windows on Star Formation in the Cosmos (October 11-13, 2004)
2003: The Search for Other Worlds (October 13-14, 2003)
2002: The Emergence of Cosmic Structure (October 7-9)
2001: Two Years of Science With Chandra (September 5-7)
2000: Young Supernova Remnants (October 16-18)
1999: Cosmic Explosions (October 11-13)
1998: After the Dark Ages: When Galaxies Were Young (October 12-14)
1997: Accretion Processes in Astrophysical Systems: Some Like It Hot (October 13-15)
1996: Star Formations, Near and Far (October 14-16)
1995: Cosmic Abundances (October 9-11)
1994: Dark Matter (October 10-12)
1993: The Evolution of X-Ray Binaries.
1992: Back to the Galaxy.
1991: Testing the AGN Paradigm.
1990: After the First Three Minutes.