The Ethics of Self-Penned Recommendation Letters. Q (from coldupon): A former student of mine is applying for a prestigious grant related to his doctoral research. He has asked me for a letter of recommendation, as he needs at least one referee who is outside his home university. (Since being his professor, I have moved to another institution.)
He is a bright, motivated, and hard-working student, and I would very much like to help him. However, he needs the letter rather quickly, and has caught me at a particularly bad/busy time. Since I don’t have enough time to go over his recent work, etc., I could probably provide him only with a very generic letter (recycled from others), which might not be the most compelling.
Now, the question: I offered to let him write a bang-up letter for himself, send it to me, let me edit it if I feel anything needs editing, and then send it in. I know several colleagues who have done this (I haven't), so at the time I didn't think it was entirely unethical. However, he sent me an email explaining that the application contained a box that both the applicant and referee must tick, which asks both to confirm that the letter is the work of the referee. He asked me if I was concerned about that. I wondered, "Are they simply trying to avoid students submitting letters that are written without the referee's knowledge, or are they aware that some referees will indeed ask students to write their own letters, and trying to discourage people from doing this?" And then I wondered, is this unethical? It's not likely that they're going to send detectives to find out who the actual letter writer is for each candidate, but am I asking the student to do something potentially detrimental to his career (and detrimental to mine)?
… and Answers
I Know My Student Plagiarized, but Do I Have Enough Evidence to Prove It? I have a student who turned in a paper that I know she didn't write. I think she had someone write it for her, because it's nowhere on line. My evidence is this:
- She had three papers to turn in. She turned in two and lied to my face about a third. (When I said I hadn't received it, she feigned surprise, then went home, dashed something off, and turned it in. It was short and terrible. I checked the timestamp, saw that she wrote it right after our meeting, and gave her no credit for it.)
- The two papers she did turn in were terrible. The writing was terrible, there was no research. It was awful.
- I gave her a chance to rewrite those papers. She resubmitted the first paper with almost no changes. She ignored all my edits and comments. She resubmitted the second paper and that version was the plagiarized one. It bears no resemblance to the first version. It is beautifully written and meets all the requirements of the assignment. It's an A. I don't give A’s frequently.
I have asked her to come in for a conversation. But I know she will lie to me again and say she wrote it. I have no concrete proof in the form of text from which she copied -- because it wasn't copied. I can quiz her about the content, but because the paper is only a book review and not a complicated research paper, I expect she will be able to fudge her answers well enough. I can ask her if she she worked with someone at the Writing Center, but she will most likely say a friend helped her. I can ask her for earlier drafts, but she will say she deleted them.
Which brings me to my question. Do you think her other terrible papers and her history of lying are evidence enough to nail her? I am hoping to speak with the ombudsman before my meeting with her, but I'd love to know what people think.
P.S. My chair is unsupportive. She resists prosecuting plagiarism cases because she doesn't want to hurt the students.
A (from yeahright): If you are not tenured, I would follow the lead of your chair.
A (from thang1): Original poster here. I'm tenured. And the student thinks I'm mean already.
A (from giacomo): I had a foreign student whose writing was among the worst I have seen in my career. He then submitted a perfectly written paper that I could not find online. Even though I had a completely supportive chair who believed in punishing plagiarism, I did not proceed with academic integrity procedures. I had no proof, it was not going to stand up to an appeal, so I let it go, as frustrating as it was. I strongly recommend that you let this go unless the student confesses. Previous terrible papers are not proof that she did not write this one. It is possible that she has the ability to write well, put absolutely no effort in the previous assignments but spent time writing this paper. It is not likely that happened, but it is possible and you do not have proof otherwise. If your chair does not support punishing plagiarism, it may hurt you to pursue a plagiarism case without proof.
A (from yeahright): You have tenure? In that case you can do what suits you best.
I think your best bet is to bluff, accuse her of plagiarizing it, and hope that she confesses.
However, you don't have enough evidence if she doesn't confess. But look, this type of student is a repeat offender and the next person will probably catch it. I wouldn't lose sleep over it, and it sounds as though, even in the current course, she only passed 1 out of 3 papers, right?
A (from hegemony): I'm totally with you, OP. It's infuriating to see students getting away with plagiarizing. I would ask her many questions about the content of the work. If it's about a book, it's probably safe to say that she hasn't read the book. So without having the paper visible, ask her detailed questions about the book, questions that could only be answered by having read it, rather than having been in class or having gotten a paper somewhere. You might say things like, "When you run out of time, it's hard to get things done, isn't it? And that was a challenging book. Did you manage to get through the whole thing?" And so on. When she finally admits she didn't read it, you can turn to the paper: "So, I imagine you were panicked about having to write a paper when you hadn't been able to get to the book, so you got the best paper you could ..." This might lead to a confession. Then you say something like, "I know what it's like to be overwhelmed with work. Sadly, this is college and everyone has to do their own work. So I'm afraid this has to be reported and won't get a passing grade. [Or whatever]."
Or if the book is a non-issue, just go for the paper with a series of questions about what every sentence means and can she expand on that and so forth. Maybe your chair wants to sweep these things under the carpet, but you can pursue it as far as you can. Consequences for dishonesty are a good thing.
A (from tenured_feminist): How closely does it match the assignment? Occasionally I've been able to give low grades for well written papers that do not fulfill the assignment's requirements.
A (from fosca): Unfortunately, it's quite easy these days to hire someone to write a paper for you following specific requirements. I'm on a couple of online freelance writing websites, and I actually had to put a note in my bio that I wouldn't do other people's homework assignments/papers for them. Doesn't stop them from asking me, though. That would be hard to catch except through the "questions about the topic" tactic, and I've had students bluff by saying they didn't remember anything about the subject because they always forget everything right after they learn it. Which, at the college I was at at that time, was an acceptable excuse.
A (from drgrieves): At any point does the student use the word hence?
Don't let this one become your white whale. Speak to the student and then drop it if you don't find the smoking gun.