The Plagiarism Gamble and Theory of Mind

Randall Stephens

Most history professors have handed out, or will soon be handing out, their syllabi to students in their classes. Students will stare blankly at the five stapled pages, hoping that they will be able to find some way to get through the class while maintaining a respectable GPA.

Among other things, a syllabus is a contract. A good syllabus gives students and teachers a clear picture of what to expect from one another. A bad syllabus--self-contradictory, thin, riddled with mistakes--does the opposite.

It's always a good idea to spell out clearly what you mean by cheating, misuse of evidence, or otherwise trying to pull one over.

Almost every year I find myself wondering if students really understand what plagiarism is. I include the following in my syllabi:

Cheating and plagiarism will not be tolerated. Be advised: ANY instance of cheating on tests, essays, or other assignments may result in immediate failure of the course. For more on this fascinating topic, please refer to the ENC history dept. guidelines concerning academic honesty: Those who are guilty will be caught. Incriminating evidence is only a Google™ search away.

Still, that warning does not necessarily get through. Now and then I'm left wondering about what a student was thinking. ("What were you thinking!!??") Neuroscience and psychology shed some light on that vexing question. I sometimes fall down a theory-of-mind rabbit hole when I reflect on student cheating. Simon Baron-Cohen writes: "By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds."* The game of poker requires some theory of mind skill. Adjudicating cases of plagiarism test our theory of mind abilities, too.

Did a student know what he/she was doing when he/she lifted that long passage, unaltered, from Wikipedia? Did she/he think that I wouldn't notice that the writing style shifted from spotty, wordy, and atrocious to fluid and concise? Was it a calculated bet worth making? Did the student not even know that there was anything wrong with copying and pasting all of that material from the web?

Surely there are some researchers out there who have polled students on questions like this. Until I see those kind of studies I'll continue to wonder just what was going through the plagiarists mind. . .