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JmacOroni's avatar

Could confirmation bias be behind this false accusation of plagiarism?

Asked by JmacOroni (3271 points ) March 23rd, 2011

As some of you may already know, I played a very big part in raising my sisters. My youngest sister, who is now a senior in highschool, wants me to attend a meeting with her teacher and principal to discuss her punishment for plagiarizing a paper in AP English.
Of course, the problem is that she didn’t plagiarize.

Apparently, what happened is that another student did plagiarize the same assignment, and had copied large portions of text from Wikipedia. My sister’s paper stood out because it was “too good,” and her teacher found, from what we understand, 2 lines that looked similar to another paper that can be found on the internet. She claims that only a few words have been changed in the lines, one of which was to add the word “amalgamated.” For whatever reason, she didn’t believe that my sister even knew the word amalgamated (which is ridiculous, because my sister is a very bright kid and an excellent student.)
Anyhow, my sister brought in her sources, but this teacher insists that she does not believe that it wasn’t copied. Apparently this teacher has already discussed the situation with other senior teachers and the principal… which I find upsetting, because I don’t think it is fair that my sister’s other teachers may now be suspicious of her work. The teacher also told my sister that if she brought this situation to a meeting, that she would go over her paper with a fine tooth comb and find anything and everything she possibly could that might be wrong with it (which sounds like a threat, to me, but that is an aside.)

Anyhow, I’m not saying that I believe this teacher has malicious intent… but could this be confirmation bias at play? Could it be that she found something in my sister’s paper simply because she was looking for something? I can’t imagine that if you compare the wording in student papers written on similar topics that you won’t find countless examples where certain things may sound alike. There are only so many ways to say certain things. This woman has no reason to doubt my sister’s ability to write a good paper, so the whole thing seems like it is out of left field.

We haven’t actually seen the paper she is comparing it to, and my sister has no idea what part of the paper is actually being called into question (which is one of the big reasons that I believe she is telling the truth.) Does she have any line of defense against a school that seems to have already deemed her guilty? If she fails this class, which the teacher says she will, it will ruin her 4.0 GPA. So, obviously aside from having her reputation tainted, she has huge concerns about her grades.

Sorry, this was really long. Thanks to anyone who reads it all.

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22 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

Yes, this does sound a bit like confirmation bias to me. If there are only two suspicious lines in the whole paper, and the paper is good throughout, then this sounds like a case of convergent evolution. It happens. I just finished grading 64 papers on the same topic. Unsurprisingly, many of the same concerns came up over and over again. Had I bothered to compare, I’m sure there would have been some near-identical sentences in a few of those papers. Am I to assume those students were collaborating with one another in order to cheat? No. Like you say, there are only so many ways to say something.

What always worries me is when a particularly good sentence or two stand out from a bad paper. I always put those into Google, often trying a couple variations, and they almost invariably come up in some document that would also rank high in a search for the paper topic. Similarly, a really good paper from a bad student arouses suspicion. But if I get a paper that is good throughout from a good student, I see no reason for surprise. If part of it turns out to be similar to something else, I just conclude that great minds think alike until I have reason to think otherwise.

As for the threat—and it’s definitely a threat—it sounds to me like a “don’t challenge me because I can’t back this up” move. I’ve taught for professors who do similar things in order to forestall challenges to grades given by the teaching assistants. I generally don’t like that kind of tactic, but it is particularly disgusting in a situation like this where it is being used to prevent someone from defending herself. It is unprofessional, and any grade change could probably be appealed to a higher power on the grounds that it was retaliatory if the plagiarism charge gets dropped.

zenvelo's avatar

I would inquire as to what is the hearing/appeals/review process at the school. And to avoid confirmation bias, someone other than the teacher needs to compare, in a blind method, the two texts. The evaluator needs to see both without nay attribution so that your sister’s paper and the supposed “source” are not identified.

JmacOroni's avatar

@SavoirFaire thank you, that was very helpful.
@zenvelo I thought the same. My sister is going to ask for copies of them tomorrow in class, so hopefully we will get a chance to at least see what we are up against. That is the part that blows my mind. I know the teacher would expect her to deny it, but this poor kid is at home thinking “oh gosh, what if they are identical? What if it really is verbatim? What are the odds that I wrote something that someone else wrote, without any idea?” because she has no idea what is even being questioned. That shows her innocence to me, I wish it were that simple to show to her teacher.

klutzaroo's avatar

There are two sentences in an entire paper that are similar to a paper written on the same topic on which your sister and the other author agree… and there’s surprise that the have a similar sentence? Similarities happen all the time, there are only so many ways to make certain points. If the point is that “Amy doesn’t believe in science and that leads her to disregard all scientific studies as hoaxes and coincidence,” there are only so many ways to get about making that point. Since its the same point, they’re all going to be similar. Many of them will use the same words. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything sinister going on.

This teacher needs a chill pill. Two sentences that happen to make the same point on the same subject that are remotely similar to another paper from an A student is not a cause for concern. If this was a college professor instead of a frustrated high school teacher, this would have never become an issue.

The meeting needs to become about why the teacher is persecuting your sister over something that clearly is not plagiarism. Go into it prepared to discuss whether anyone other than this one teacher has examined the supposed plagiarism and the fact that she has gone on this quest to punish your sister without the courtesy of informing her what it is that she supposedly copied. Make sure that you demand to see (or review) the two sentences in question and ask the teacher and the principle to brainstorm as to how you might make the same point without coming up with a similar sentence. Odds are that this will point out the ridiculousness of the situation. Go in prepared to ask the teacher whether or not she can manage to be impartial for the rest of the school year or if your sister needs to go to another class if she is going to be unfairly graded and punished for this and any future overreactions. If the teacher is going to be immature and punish your sister for the rest of the year if she comes out looking bad for her bitchfit, your sister doesn’t need to be in that class.

Is this a new teacher perhaps? Or one close to retirement? Or one going through a lot in her personal life so that she’s looking to take out her frustrations on someone else? There are a lot of things that lead to people becoming bad teachers. It sucks that your sister has found one of them.

JmacOroni's avatar

@klutzaroo I don’t know anything about the teacher, she wasn’t employed at the school when I was attending. I do suspect she might harbor a small grudge against my sister, because she misses that class often. She has health issues, and frequently has doctor’s appointments in the morning – which means her first class is the one that she misses the most. Of course that is only a guess, I’m trying to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt. I just can’t help but feel like she singled her out for seemingly no reason. For all of the same things cited above. She is an excellent student, she is smart, her papers are consistently good, this paper was good overall.. plagiarizing two sentences just seems like a lot more work than it would be worth. Plagiarizing a whole paper is one thing, but to seek out and copy two lousy sentences? The whole thing seems ridiculous to me.

Zaku's avatar

* If a student writes 90% of a good original paper, she isn’t going to have any reason to copy two sentences off the Internet, and it’s pointless and stupid to accuse her of it.

* She deserves to be shown the evidence that’s the accuser is referring to. Otherwise it’s an abuse of basic principles of justice.

* The thing about not believing your sister could know the word “amalgamated”, is reason to insist that the teacher needs some remedial training. That’s teacher malpractice. Any third grader can learn to look up the meaning of any words in a dictionary. That’s just such bad teacher behavior in so many ways it’s sick. If the teacher doesn’t get that, she needs to be retrained.

* If your sister is adamant she didn’t plagiarize, then she should remain that way, and speak up at every insinuation that she has.

Zaku's avatar

Oh, and the threat about not defending against the charge, or else be persecuted by unfair grading, is abusive BS and another reason that teacher needs retraining.

augustlan's avatar

It certainly sounds like some kind of bias, that’s for sure. Why on earth would she think a 4.0 student wouldn’t know that word? If that’s her big issue, have her give your sister a vocabulary test.

JmacOroni's avatar

@Zaku I’m glad that you said that, actually. She was really ready to go in there tomorrow and “decide her punishment,” simply because she didn’t see a way out of this. She doesn’t know how to prove that she didn’t do it, even though she knows she didn’t. I told her that I thought it was a very bad idea to go in there and lay down and take punishment for something that she didn’t do. I’m glad that I’m not the only one that feels that way. I certainly don’t want to make things worse for her, but I hate to see her feeling so defeated and helpless. It’s sad, and I’m furious.
@augustlan I agree. When she said that to me I about hit the ceiling. Then she had the nerve to say “it isn’t that I’m doubting your intelligence.” Well, what are you insinuating, then?

augustlan's avatar

I would definitely not let her plead guilty for lack of a good defense. The onus is on the teacher to prove her claims of wrong-doing.

Bellatrix's avatar

If I suspect a student has plagiarised information but I cannot prove it, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have to have evidence to support the accusation. If a submitted paper was of a very high standard (and this was the norm for that student) and there were a couple of suspect sentences, I would be unlikely to take this further and especially if the questionable content was fairly generic. How did the teacher pick up the problem sentences? Did she use some form of text-matching software?

Your sister should definitely not plead guilty if she did not copy the material and I would definitely go with her to answer the charge against her.

klutzaroo's avatar

You need to be meeting with the principal anyway to discuss the teacher’s inappropriate behavior. The threats, taking it to other teachers, and the potential for further abuse once she’s proved wrong needs to be discussed with someone who has the authority to do something about it. Especially the potential for further abuse.

JmacOroni's avatar

@Mz_Lizzy I’m not sure how she came to decide on the problem sentences. I have a feeling that the word “amalgamated” had something to do with it, though my sister says that particular word was not used in the text she supposedly copied. It was, however, in the sentence that she used in her own paper.
All that I’ve been told so far is that her teacher thought that the paper was “too good,” and that she didn’t believe that my sister knows the meaning of amalgamated. She also said that many of the papers turned in were “so awful” that she knew they couldn’t be plagiarisms. So, it would seem that is a large part of her method for sniffing out ripped off papers.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Can she request a review by an English teacher from another high school? I’m not sure she would a fair review at her own school.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I think @BarnacleBill raises a good idea, but do not request a review. The only thing you should request is time to have a review done yourself. Otherwise, the teacher in question calls up a friend and says “help me prove this paper was plagiarized.” It might even be a good idea to get the review process started before making a request so that the teacher can’t call every school in a 50 mile radius.

Yes, I’m being a little bit paranoid on your behalf. I just hate to see this kind of thing happen.

JmacOroni's avatar

Thank you, we’ll look into that. She should be getting out of class now, I’m expecting her to call me soon.

augustlan's avatar

Keep us posted! We’ll have the pitchforks and torches at the ready.

Bellatrix's avatar

I often see papers that seem ‘too good’. Especially when they follow assignments where I have given very low marks. Suspecting an assignment has either been copied or written by someone else is not enough to charge someone with plagiarism though. It can be a very murky area. You need evidence where I work. Also, this teacher seems to be taking a very punitive approach. Your sister could have said to other members of her family, “what is a word that means….” and amalgamated was suggested to her.

Does your sister have any history with this teacher? Has she had problems previously? I would try to gather any information about their past interactions before you go into this meeting as well. It all just sounds quite odd.

Do you have a school board? Somewhere you can go to complain about the treatment your sister is receiving? I don’t have such an issue with a teacher getting a second opinion about whether there is a problem with an essay. I might do that if I was unsure or wanted some guidance on how to proceed in cases where I feel something isn’t quite right. If you don’t feel your sister gets a fair hearing though, I would take it further and put in an official complaint. It may be the principal has no choice but to have a formal meeting because the teacher has raised the concern officially.

If there is a school board or equivalent, and the meeting goes badly, take it further. Ask for an objective review of the paper by a teacher outside the situation. If you have previous work your sister has produced, take some of this to the meeting to show she is a high achieving student too.

Good luck with things. It must be very stressful (for you both) and demotivating for your sister.

JmacOroni's avatar

Thanks. My sister asked for the papers this morning and again in the afternoon before leaving school, and my mother also called the school this morning.. but the teacher gave her the runaround. We don’t have them, yet.
The principal said that he wanted us to meet with the teacher before he would get involved, so he is hoping it will be settled there. I’ll let you know when we learn something new.

JmacOroni's avatar

Okay, my father went and got the paper off of the teacher today. The snippet of text from both papers is nearly identical, and it is such an unusual and specific sentence.. I don’t see how she could have written it without having at least read the same line before.

I don’t think that she did it intentionally, maybe it was subconscious. I know her character and I do believe that she did not deliberately copy something. Especially by her reaction to all of this. Definitely doesn’t look good in her defense, though. I haven’t heard my sister’s reaction, yet, so I’m only giving her the benefit of the doubt until I see what she has to say about it. It would be terribly unlike her to do something like this and then lie about it, but if that is what happened, I will be terribly disappointed. However, it is a relief to know that this teacher isn’t just out to get her for no good reason.
On the other hand, I still think that avoiding giving us the paperwork and threatening to go over her paper if she brought it to a meeting is unacceptable, regardless of the reason, so I still plan to discuss that with the teacher when we have the meeting.

Thanks for all of your help and suggestions, this wasn’t the result that any of us were expecting, so I guess we will take it from here.

Bellatrix's avatar

Could it have been poor notetaking? Sometimes students do not clearly show in their notes that information was paraphrased or a direct quote. Has she actually looked at the original material? Perhaps ask your sister for her notes?

JmacOroni's avatar

@Mz_Lizzy she brought in everything that she used for the paper, according to my sister, so right now the teacher has them. I’m not sure what happened, I don’t even know if she knows what happened. Of course I’m not suggesting that she couldn’t be lying, and that this whole thing was just blatant plagiarism… I just don’t get that feeling from her. It doesn’t suit her character, at all. Unfortunately, I could be wrong. I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I’m so inclined to believe her, not only because of her character, but because she is a terrible liar. lol. I feel like it was an honest mistake, somehow, but clearly she is going to have to make an arrangement with her teacher to fix it.

Another thing is, apparently she gave copies of the drafts back after the original student was caught plagiarizing, which gave the kids a chance to “right their wrongs” before turning it in again. My sister didn’t change the part that was supposedly copied. She’s no idiot, if she really did plagiarize, I don’t think she would have just left it in there like that. I just don’t know what to make of any of it now.

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