MOSS, Programming Plagiarism, and Academic Misconduct

It's an all-too-common tale, and it happens more often than you think. You're a college or tech school student majoring in computer science, trying your hand at writing code. You create a program that you consider to be sheer genius—a shoo-in for an “A” grade from your instructor. But instead of getting an “A” or any kind of accolade, you receive a notice from the school that the instructor used MOSS detection software on your program, and you're being accused of plagiarizing someone else's code!

You had no intention of stealing or taking false credit—you believed your coding was your own. Now, your reputation, your education, and your career are all at stake—all due to a simple misunderstanding.

You're not the first to encounter this issue, and you won't be the last. But the worst thing you can do is nothing. Schools take plagiarism very seriously, and they have been known to penalize students even for unintentional plagiarism. When you're facing accusations of academic misconduct, your best course of action is to hire a skilled attorney-advisor like Joseph D. Lento. Mr. Lento is a nationwide expert in student discipline cases, and he has helped thousands of students protect their good name and preserve their career path.

Why Schools Are Cracking Down on Plagiarism

Among the different forms of academic misconduct running rampant in colleges and universities, plagiarism is perhaps the most prevalent. Plagiarism is basically the act of taking someone else's work/ideas and presenting them as your own. It is remarkably easy to do (even by accident), and given the academic pressures of modern education, it's one of the greatest temptations for students to simply copy/paste something from the Internet or to “borrow” content from their friends.

But this begs the question: What's the big deal? If you're gleaning the information and someone said it better than you could say it, what's wrong with just “borrowing” what they said instead of reinventing the wheel? At least, that's what so many college students tell themselves.

The truth is, plagiarism is a serious offense, even though it's incredibly easy to do—and even though the Internet makes it seem less offensive. Here's why schools take it so seriously:

  • It doesn't require you to think or write original thoughts. When you “borrow” from someone else, you're actually robbing yourself of the exercise of coming up with your own solutions.
  • It is stealing. By law, anything someone creates (whether it's words, music, computer code, etc.) is intellectual property, protected in this country by copyright laws. When you plagiarize, you're actually taking and mishandling someone else's intellectual property. It's copyright infringement, and it is against the law—not just against school policy.
  • Schools have standards to uphold. Because plagiarism is basically intellectual property theft, if a college or university turns a blind eye to it, they could potentially be liable or culpable. Thus, when they crack down so hard on plagiarism, they're trying to protect themselves from liability, as well.

Computer Programming Plagiarism and MOSS

Let's take this conversation more specifically into the area of computer science and programming education. As it turns out, words aren't the only thing that can be plagiarized; computer coding can be plagiarized, as well. After all, computer code is a language, even if it isn't English. It is a set of instructions for the computer to follow, written in a specific way or sequence to accomplish a certain task. Thus, plagiarism (both intentional and unintentional) is almost as common in computer coding as it is in other disciplines. Predictably, the most common occurrences of programming plagiarism are among computer science students. To help combat the problem, computer science instructors across the country are utilizing a program called MOSS to help them detect plagiarism among their students.

What Is MOSS?

First developed by the brainiacs at Stanford University in 1994, MOSS is a free system designed to automatically detect similarities among software programs. (“MOSS” stands for “Measure of Software Similarity.”) The developers of MOSS emphasize that it is not a plagiarism detector, but rather a similarity detector—stressing that it is still up to the instructors using it to look at the codes and make a determination whether plagiarism occurred. Nevertheless, MOSS has proven to be highly effective, not only in detecting similarities between one program and other existing programs, but also in resisting attempts by students to “trick” the system by inserting white space, introducing random bits of code, and other hacks.

How MOSS Can Get You in Trouble

Unlike other general programs used for plagiarism detection, MOSS doesn't specifically “flag” content as plagiarism, so therefore it yields no “false positives.” Rather, the comp-sci instructor uses the results of MOSS to compare code and make a subjective determination as to whether the program plagiarizes another program. This can be highly problematic for the student because he/she is basically at the mercy of the instructor's biases, their frame of mind, and even their opinion of the student. Some instructors may simply flag a programming assignment for having too many similarities with another program without actually looking at the code for context. Others may make judgment calls based on their mood. Whatever the case, there are far too many instances where an instructor could use the results of MOSS to wrongly “cry foul” on a student who perhaps made a legitimate mistake—or whose program didn't actually constitute plagiarism at all but was similar in some way to some other program. In short, using MOSS helps protect the school's interests in the name of ensuring academic honesty—but in reality, it affords very little protection for the student.

What Happens If I'm Accused of Programming Plagiarism?

If an instructor believes you may have plagiarized another student or another computer program with your assignment or project, the instructor may file a complaint with school authorities. At that point, the matter falls under the rules of your school's Student Conduct Code regarding how the school administers discipline for academic misconduct. Every school's policies and procedures are a little different, but the gist of the process usually falls along these lines:

  • You will be formally notified of the accusation or complaint. At that point, you'll be instructed by the school as to what happens next and how to respond.
  • The school will conduct an investigation. The committee or board tasked with administering academic discipline will look at the evidence, interview you (and probably your instructor), and possibly question any other people who may provide information and context, to see if there is merit to the complaint.
  • The school may hold a hearing. At this point, you'll be invited to present your side of the story to the disciplinary board, including any evidence proving your alleged plagiarism was either false or unintentional.
  • The board will make a determination. After the hearing, the board will rule on whether it feels you actually plagiarized, and if so, what the punishment/sanctions should be. Depending on how much authority the board has, it may either determine the punishment itself or make a recommendation to the dean, who makes the final call.
  • You will be allowed to appeal the ruling. If the board rules against you, you typically have a short window of time to appeal the decision. Each school has certain rules under which grounds you may appeal, and you may be allowed to present your case at another hearing. After this, the decision by the school is final.

What Are the Penalties for Programming Plagiarism?

That depends on the school's policies, as well as the circumstances surrounding your alleged offense. Penalties for academic misconduct (also called sanctions) may be very mild or very severe, depending on the situation. Possible sanctions typically include the following:

  • Formal reprimand
  • Academic probation
  • Fines
  • Failing grade for the assignment and/or class
  • Remediation/repeating the class
  • Repeating a semester or year
  • Academic and/or extracurricular restrictions
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

How Can Being Disciplined for Plagiarism Affect My Future?

Being found in violation of a school's academic policies rarely fares well for the student. If the school determines that you plagiarized someone else's work—whether it's a written assignment or a piece of code—the ramifications for your career can be challenging at best and disastrous at worst. Obviously, being expelled from college, university, or trade school can derail your career in computer programming, but even lesser penalties might result in a permanent notation on your record—something that doesn't look good to prospective employers. The more you can do during the disciplinary process to have the charges dropped or even receive a lesser penalty, the better things will look both for your academic and professional future.

Will I Be Charged with a Crime?

Most likely not. Plagiarism is illegal, but it seldom qualifies as a criminal offense unless other crimes are associated with it. However, plagiarism often classifies as a copyright or trademark violation because you are effectively stealing and misusing intellectual property. If the copyright/trademark owner believes they may have suffered a loss on your account, you could face a civil lawsuit in federal court for infringement. In the vast majority of cases, however, discipline for plagiarism in school begins and ends with the school.

Do I Need an Attorney if a School Accuses Me of Plagiarism?

Most colleges and universities do not allow students to have “official” legal representation during disciplinary proceedings because it is not a legal matter. However, you are permitted to have an attorney who operates in an advisory capacity (an attorney-advisor) in student discipline matters. An experienced attorney-advisor will have a clear understanding of the Student Conduct Code for your school, as well as the nuances of the disciplinary process. The advisor can help you strategize on the best way to present your defense; help you gather evidence and procure witnesses; advise you on the best way to present an appeal, if necessary; and be a general safeguard to keep the school accountable to its own policies so that your rights are protected. In most cases, having an attorney-advisor can greatly improve your chances for a better outcome, and in many cases, the advisor's involvement can actually save your career.

Hire an Experienced Attorney-Advisor Today

If a teacher has utilized MOSS to flag your programming project for plagiarism—or if you have a child who has been accused of programming plagiarism—you don't want to face the possible consequences alone. You've invested too much in your (or your child's) education to see it washed away over a simple misunderstanding or even a lapse in judgment. The sooner you involve a knowledgeable attorney-advisor in the process, the better the chances to avoid having your career derailed.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento is recognized nationally as an expert in matters of student defense and other school-related issues—including cases of suspected plagiarism. He has successfully defended and protected the futures of countless students facing academic misconduct charges, and he understands the many ways MOSS and other plagiarism detection software can be misused. Take steps now to protect your future career. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to explore your options.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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