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Artificial Intelligence

Rethinking the Plagiarism Conversation in Light of ChatGPT

We must prioritize students' mental health.

Key points

  • False accusations of plagiarism using AI can have serious consequences.
  • Students need to know limitations of AI; schools need to know AI-detection programs have variable accuracy.
  • When plagiarism is suspected, assume good intent, find out what happened, and make it a learning experience.
Student stressed over homework
Source: demaerre/iStock

Recently, a young person was accused of using ChatGPT to complete a high-school assignment. She had not. Once the teacher suspected that the straight-A student’s extremely well-written English assignment must have been computer-generated, things moved quickly. She ran the assignment through an AI plagiarism detector, which “concluded” it was AI-generated; a letter went out to the student from the school accusing her of plagiarism, and further actions were being considered. The student, who suffers from anxiety, began to have suicidal thoughts. She knew that she hadn’t used ChatGPT or AI but thought no one would believe her over the AI detector. Fortunately, her parents intervened and, eventually, after back and forth with the school, the teacher dropped the claim of plagiarism. Of note: No apology was extended.

Plagiarism is not new, but ChatGPT’s instant answer-generating capacities put us in a whole new world. But not just in the ways we think. There’s a sweeping mental health crisis for children and teens, and grade pressure is at an all-time high. Worldwide rates of anxiety and depression in youth have doubled in these last years of the pandemic to 20 and 25 percent, respectively.

In this context, ChatGPT-assisted plagiarism may be especially tempting for stressed-out students; it may even happen inadvertently, or, as we see for this youngster, it may not even occur at all but may be a quick conclusion for schools to jump to. We need to keep well in mind that plagiarism is one explanation for a student turning in exceptional work, but it is not always the correct one. And importantly—contrary to what we might imagine, rarely is “laziness” the reason for it; confusion for our digital native, collaborative model students about what constitutes plagiarism is much more common.

What is the best response to suspicions of plagiarism in a time of warp-speed technologies? Slow down. Proceed with caution. Constant updates can be made to technology without consequence, but there is no Student 2.0, no instant emotional re-sets; students are stretched to the limits no matter what they may look like on the outside. Accusations make a deep imprint and, as we saw above, could lead to tragic consequences.

And AI detectors can be wrong—flat-out wrong. This could be the case with a student’s schoolwork as evidenced by a recent Washington Post story that found that out of 16 student writing samples it fed to an AI detector, half that were flagged were actually false positives—not AI generated. Or it can happen with art and photography: The New York Times recently fed artwork to five AI detectors; there were no instances of agreement between the detectors except for one: a picture of a giant Neanderthal standing in front of a normal-sized couple. They all marked that as real Hyperbolic, perhaps, but it makes the point.

Without a doubt, plagiarism is wrong. It erodes academic integrity and deprives a student of the chance to learn and contribute original thought, to take pride in hard work, and to be part of a community that supports their development. But students will make mistakes such as plagiarizing, whether intentionally or not, and then we can help them solve the problems they face by making choices. Sometimes, as we have seen, schools with all the best intentions will make mistakes, too, trusting the technology over the student. We all need to take responsibility for this, go forward, and do better.

As a child psychologist, here is my plea: We must keep students' mental health needs front and center when it comes to the topic of plagiarism. Make it a conversation, explore why and how plagiarism might have arisen, in context—the full picture of a student’s life.

We must make informed AI use part of classroom curricula. In the words of data journalist Meredith Broussard, author of More than a Glitch and Artificial Unintelligence, "It’s important not to pretend that AI is not a factor. Kids are using it. If we talk to kids about understanding its limitations and talk to kids about appropriate uses, they will be responsible consumers, otherwise they may believe the shallow promises from marketers of Big Tech and end up in situations that are not good for them."


To that end, here are important points to consider in rethinking the plagiarism conversation:

Preventive Strategies: Helping Students Be Better Consumers of AI

  • Explore the technology and define the terms paraphrasing, plagiarizing, and using AI-assisted technology. What is paraphrasing and how does it differ from plagiarizing? Is it plagiarism to use Google Translate? To use sites like Grammarly to do a grammar check? Is that entirely different from using spell and grammar check in Microsoft Word? This resource from MIT provides definitions and examples.
  • Buyer beware: Help students be informed consumers of AI. Let students see the shortcomings and benefits of AI themselves. A popular activity is “The Critical Assignment”—have children complete an assignment, then have AI complete the assignment. The class then critiques how well AI performs and sees where the AI falls short.

When Plagiarism Is Suspected: Guidelines for Emotionally Supportive Plagiarism Conversation

  1. Keep the education goal front and center. We want students to learn to take risks and create original work. We want to support a growth mindset, where students feel safe exploring, experimenting, and doing a good-enough job, rather than cheating to do better. Any individual grade is not a reflection of their worth or intelligence.
  1. Whether AI has been used or not, think whole child. A young person with a developing brain is less guided by logical cause and effect and has a developing sense of self with a life before them to learn from their mistakes and grow forward.
  2. Keep lines of communication open, use a supportive tone, create safety in conversations. Find out the student’s explanation, then decide what it makes sense to do. Students may resort to using AI if they have a situation that they feel they can’t control—too many assignments due at the same time, sickness, family obligations. In a safe environment, when students feel safe to tell the truth, they generally will.
  3. Remember: AI-detection programs can be unreliable. Even the website of the most popular program, Turnitin, acknowledges false-positives and advises that conversations should “assume positive intent.”
  4. Separate the action from the student and give second chances. While sometimes disciplinary action is indicated (repeat offenders or as mandated by school policy) consider the tremendous benefit of a student being given a second chance to complete an assignment appropriately rather than feeling ashamed and having their academic record impacted by their worst decision they may have made without much deliberation.
  5. When false accusations are made, apologize. There may be no more powerful lesson than when a student sees an adult take responsibility for their mistakes. There is no shame—only modeling strength of character.

Schools are a safe haven and a lifeline for students; the pandemic highlighted this in unprecedented ways. The plagiarism conversation should be continuous with other educational experiences: a means of helping a student grow. By taking both plagiarism and the student seriously, we can instill and foster a sense of trust with our students and trust in themselves. Especially in this confusing time of new technologies, a growth mindset is essential for all. Academic integrity is a contract that we must build together. Granting students a role in the integrity conversation is an investment in their future and ours—their mental health will be bolstered by our support, and harmful or even tragic consequences will be prevented.

©2023 Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.


Peetz, C. Kids’ Declining Mental Health Is the ‘Crisis of Our Time,’ Surgeon General Says. EducationWeek. April 25, 2023.…

Cleary MN. Top 10 reasons students plagiarize & what teachers can do about it (with apologies to David Letterman). Kappan. November 27, 2017.

Fowler GA. We tested a new ChatGPT-detector for teachers. It flagged an innocent student. Washington Post. April 3, 2023.…

Thompson SA and Hsu T. How Easy Is It to Fool A.I.-Detection Tools? New York Times. June 28, 2023.…

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