Being accused of plagiarism is, in a word, frightening.
It’s a fear that’s shared by nearly all students, including those who are careful to not use unattributed work, largely because of the potentially severe consequences and stigma that can follow a plagiarism allegation.
However, if you find yourself accused of plagiarism, the most important thing to do is to not panic. As bleak as things may seem to be, it is likely not the end of the world or your academic career. This is especially true if the case is your first infraction and the allegations are not particularly serious.
What happens next depends on a variety of factors including the nature of the plagiarism allegation and the level of education you are in. Every situation is different.
The first thing to do is to speak frankly with your instructor. Ask them why they felt that you had plagiarized and what the next steps are in this particular case.
Many teachers, especially in relatively minor cases of plagiarism, don’t take the issue any higher. They simply address the issue within their classroom and hand out whatever punishment they see fit.
While this can be difficult, especially if it means failing or having to redo an assignment, it also means that the incident likely won’t have any long term consequences.
If your instructor has submitted the case for further disciplinary action, then it’s important to ask them what is next for you and to confer with your student handbook to learn what the next steps are.
In many cases, an administrator simply takes over the case and makes a decision unilaterally about what punishment, if any, should be handed out. Other times, the case may go before a tribunal that resembles a trial, giving you a chance to present a full defence.
However, regardless of what is next, it’s important to remember one simple thing: This is not the criminal justice system. The rules about what police and courts can and can not do don’t apply. School’s have a great deal of leeway when it comes to handing out punishments to their students.
As such, the best thing to do, in general, is to be open and honest. Even though it may feel like it, your teachers and your administrators are not your enemy. They don’t want to harm your educational career.
If you didn't understand the rules of attribution, say so. If you did plagiarize for one reason or another, say so. If your school is accusing you of plagiarism they likely have compelling evidence already. The best action you can take is not to try and disprove the evidence, but to work with your school to show why you deserve another chance.
But, even if you don’t get that second chance, it’s likely not the end of the world. According to an analysis from Australia, the most common punishment for an initial allegation of plagiarism is either a zero mark or a reduced mark on the assignment. While this is certainly a setback, it’s one you can recover from.
In the end, the best thing to do with an allegation of plagiarism is usually not to try and disprove it, but rather, to learn from it. Even if you didn’t intend to plagiarize, learning how the allegation came about can help you avoid future problems.
As serious as plagiarism is, it’s usually not the end of an academic career. Instead, it can be a very powerful teaching moment, but only if you’re ready to listen.