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20-40-60 Etiquette: Caught stealing?

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Grad student is concerned that a book review may have been plagiarized. [Thinkstock photo]

Grad student is concerned that a book review may have been plagiarized. [Thinkstock photo]

QUESTION: I take a grad school class and noticed in the online discussion that a classmate copied a book review almost verbatim and posted it as her own. Do I tell the teacher? Do I politely tell her I know she copied it and take it down? Or leave it alone?

CALLIE'S ANSWER: If you really feel inclined to do something, I would politely ask her to take it down. If she doesn't take it down, you can talk to the teacher. But I wouldn't say anything, the teacher probably knows, if you know.

LILLIE-BETH'S ANSWER: Violating a school's ethics code (or even your own ethics) is a serious offense, so you want to be careful about making accusations to higher levels without certainty. It is also wrong to steal someone else's work and frustrating that a fellow student would try to pass off another person's work as their own. My gut reaction would be to talk to the person and give them a way out before reporting it — sometimes the shame in knowing that another person knows of your offense is enough. Maybe you could approach her and say something like, “I noticed that you posted XYZ's book review as your own. Did you upload the wrong file? I didn't want you to get in trouble for posting it.” That way you can give her a chance to take it down and do her own. Assume the best and let her show it to you. Or directly ask her to take it down. But if she really did plagiarize a paper, you might have to talk to someone else at the school and ask what you should do, starting in general terms. I like the suggestions for you to review your school's code of ethics and find out what the consequences and reporting procedures are.

HELEN'S ANSWER: If you are absolutely sure that the book review was copied and feel like the classmate is not adhering to the school's code of ethics, then consider reporting it. If you are not sure what to do, or if you are not sure if this action will affect you in negative way, talk to a counselor about the situation without revealing the name. Get your questions answered, and then, handle it by doing what makes you the most comfortable.

GUEST'S ANSWER: Yvette Walker, assistant dean of Student Affairs for Gaylord College at the University of Oklahoma who has a strong interest in communication ethics: Academic integrity is an important part of education and means "honesty and responsibility in scholarship." Many universities have academic integrity policies, such as: being compelled to appear at a hearing, enduring sanctions from the university and even being expelled. I suggest you look at your university's academic integrity policies in order for you to understand what might happen if you do decide to report the student. But back to your question at hand: Should I report it? It depends on a few things.

First: Proof of wrongdoing. Do you have proof that the book review is someone else's?

Second: Intent. Do you know that the student intended to purposely steal the material, or is it possible she copied and meant to go back and rewrite it?

Third: Fairness. Is it fair that other students had to do the work and this student simply copied?

Fourth: Theft. In copying and pasting, this student essentially stole another writer's property without permission. Should she punished for that?

Fifth: Extenuating circumstances. Does the student have any extenuating circumstances that you think makes this less of an offense?

After considering all this, you will find your answer.

Callie Athey is 20-something, Lillie-Beth Brinkman is in her 40s, and social columnist Helen Ford Wallace is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email helen.wallace@cox.net.

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