Tiffany Martinez, a 21-year-old college senior at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, submitted a sociological research paper for a senior seminar paper. The professor later returned the paper to her with no grade and a strong accusation of plagiarism. Martinez denied any plagiarism and filed a complaint with her university’s sociology department. However, Martinez also created a lengthy blog post about the affair, including two minimal screenshots of her paper, which she then used to accuse her sociology professor of racism with no evidence to support her claim. Her blog post has since gone viral and has been picked up by many well-read and major media outlets. News agencies and blogs alike have taken Martinez’s unsubstantiated tale of racism and created an outpouring of support for the Latina undergrad student. The opinion of media outlets, news agencies, and the onlooking public have abandoned a serious accusation of academic dishonesty to bandwagon behind an unsupported claim of racism. The actions taken by mass media groups and the public show a lack of journalistic and academic integrity, forgiving plagiarism and dishonesty, abandoning objectivity, and foregoing any attempt at critical thought simply because the issue of race was brought up, which greatly jeopardizes the future of higher education for all universities in the United States.
Tiffany Martinez’s blog post from October 27, 2016, entitled “Academia, Love me Back,” is heavy on emotional appeal but lacks any evidence to support her claim. Martinez begins her claim with a proud statement to establish her credibility. She has been published in peer-review journals, has been a Dean’s list recipient for the entirety of her college attendance, and has participated in field research by managing a teen girls’ empowerment program. These are all remarkable achievements. She then begins the lengthy process of her emotional appeal by framing her accomplishments through her race. Martinez is a first generation college student and a first-generation U.S. citizen. She spends the first part of her blog post detailing the obstacles she has faced in academia because of her race. “My last name and appearance immediately instills a set of biases before I have the chance to open my mouth” (Martinez 1). She then closes out her post by reiterating the negative feelings experienced by her and many other women of color as a result of systemic racism.
Her claims of experiencing racial discrimination are not without merit, as many studies and narratives have shown that women, particularly women of color, face increased harassment in academic settings. The 2012 book Presumed Incompetence, a collection of narratives by women of color in academia, non-white students face “denial of access to power structures normally associated with their position(s) or achievement(s)” (Muhs 48). Additionally, research into the question of systemic racism in academia have consistently noted that minority students have significantly lower educational attainment rates and are frequently stereotyped as deviant, dropouts, gang members, and dangerous (“Systemic Racism in Higher Education” 68). Martinez’s emotional appeal strongly matches the experiences of other minority students throughout all of academia.
It is during her logical appeal that Martinez’s tale begins to fall apart, and this is what has caused the greatest damage to academia. According to Martinez, this unnamed sociology professor presented the accusation of plagiarism to her in the classroom, in front of her peers. Martinez’s blog post only shows two pictures of her paper, taken with a cell phone and cropped to show comments from the professor. The first comment, on her title page, states “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” The second comment occurs later where the word “Hence” is circled with a comment of “This is not your word.” Martinez does not provide any copy of or details about her paper beyond those two notes from the professor. Additionally, Martinez does not detail any conversation with her professor; she only states that the professor accused her of plagiarism. According to Martinez, “My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that. As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence I could just imagine them reading my paper in their home thinking how could someone like her write something like this” (Martinez 1, emphasis added). The only indication of racism comes from Martinez’s stated assumptions and her own imagination, none of which are supported by any evidence presented in her post.
The well-read media site Buzzfeed was the first to latch onto Martinez’s tale and the catalyst for the story to go viral. Their article, stating that a Latina student was accused of plagiarism because of the word “hence,” only cites Martinez’s statement of events and the one picture of the word “hence” circled with its accompanying note, assuring the reader that this is evidence of racism in higher academia. It is important to note that, through an interview they conducted with Martinez, the article states “She has not spoken with the professor since the incident” (Griffin 1). Huffington Post, another well-read media outlet, also jumped on the story. The Huffington Post article also states that a Latina student was accused of plagiarism after using the word “hence,” citing no evidence beyond Martinez’s statement and the cropped picture of the professor’s note provided by Martinez. The Huffington Post article states that they do not know the professor’s name and, when they reached out to Suffolk University for comment they only received a summary answer that the institution would be looking investigating the incident. However, the article states: “’This is not your language,’ her professor said” (Wanshel 1), a quote that appears nowhere in Martinez’s blog post or her interview with Buzzfeed. Like the Buzzfeed article, Huffington Post notes that Martinez has not talked to her professor since the incident. The story has since been reported on by news outlets such as Daily Mail, Fox News, and several other news outlets, all stating that a Latina college student was accused of plagiarism after using the word “hence,” only citing Martinez’s blog post and provided pictures, and stating that Martinez has not talked to her professor about the accusation. All of them show agreement with Martinez that this accusation of plagiarism is unfounded and based only in racism. It is a fact further supported through the comments sections of these articles as well as Martinez’s own Facebook and Twitter pages.
Furthermore, no student from Suffolk University has made any comment about this incident either to the media or any of the school’s social media accounts. Not one of her classmates has said a word to either corroborate or refute Martinez’s claims.
The reporting of this incident by media sites and news outlets show a serious lack of journalistic integrity. Huffington Post is probably the worst offender as that article actually lied in attributing an unsourced quote to the professor. All the articles mentioned only utilized one biased source, Martinez’s blog post with its cropped images. While Martinez’s post states that she assumed a racist intent and that she imagined the professor committing an act of discrimination, she presents no evidence to transform those musings into fact. The articles, however, have all stated that this is indeed an incident of racism in academia, citing Martinez’s own assumptions and imaginings. None of these sites have seen Martinez’s paper to provide any context for the professor’s notes nor have they talked about the incident with any other party. Martinez does not quote her professor at all beyond the written note and has admitted that she has not talked to her professor since the incident. However, news outlets reporting on this incident have found, with no evidence, that the accusation of plagiarism is false and Martinez is a tragic victim of racial profiling.
It is astounding how quickly the idea of academic honesty has been discarded in order to pursue an unfounded story about racism. Using only the picture, Martinez, news agencies, and commenters have all stated that it is impossible for a professor to accuse a student of plagiarism only based upon the word “hence.” None have stopped to question what other evidence the professor may have to support their claim of plagiarism, nor why the word “hence” was circled with its accompanying note. Some dissenting commenters have noted that since “hence” is a final conjugation and therefore not grammatically proper to place at the beginning of a sentence, perhaps “this is not your word” was an instance of feedback regarding syntax. Others dissenters have speculated that since “hence” is a transition word between two thoughts, perhaps the thoughts Martinez connected did not actually connect, something impossible to see without a full look at her paper. These ideas about the grammatical use of the word “hence” are only theories with regards to the one note, and do not answer the question of plagiarism.
It is completely possible for a professor to note the use of one word, such as “hence,” as a red flag indicating possible plagiarized content. The word itself is not indicative of plagiarism, but its use by a student can cause professors to suspect the presence of plagiarized content. University professors often notice a change in the style of writing within a paper, often noted with a transitionary word (such as “hence”) preceding differently voiced content. This is referred to as intrinsic plagiarism detection (Oberreuter and Velásquez 3757). Such red flags become more prominent in cases of English Language Learners (ELL) as a use of syntax becomes readily apparent (Abasi & Graves 224). Additionally, University professors all have a myriad of tools at their disposal with which to investigate plagiarized work, such as Turnitin, SafeAssign, and even Google (Abasi & Graves 226). As Martinez does not include anything besides the two cropped images of her paper, and notes that she has not discussed the issue with her professor, it is impossible to see what content was possibly plagiarized.
Through my own discussions with first-year composition professors at my own University, I have learned that it is absolutely common to suspect plagiarism in a student’s writing even from the use of one word. Professors are aware of a student’s use of the English language through discussion, either individually or class participation, and through the student’s previously written work. Professor’s become quickly aware of the vocabulary and use of grammar unique to each student’s individual voice. According to the professors, I spoke to, many students do not confess to plagiarism and refuse to accept accountability for their actions. Such statements match with qualitative research done where professors at Universities throughout the United States have noted similar actions in their students accused of plagiarism (Abasi & Graves 226). Other professors I spoke with have also experienced baseless accusations of racism after receiving poor grades, despite that professor’s well-documented accounting of the student’s performance. Professors do not typically make an immediate note of the plagiarized content but discuss the issue with the student, prompting the student to point out content that may not be their own. This is present in Martinez’s paper with the professor’s more direct note of “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste” (Martinez 1). While the sociology professor at Martinez’s University did make a rather questionable decision to discuss her paper in front of the class, it is not known if that conversation was prompted by the professor or Martinez herself. It is well within the realm of possibility for a professor to have that conversation when ceaselessly prompted to it by a student in front of the class.
What consequences exist for Martinez’s lack of supporting evidence in her statement? Her accusation of racism without any material to back her claim was carried by major media sources, thus influencing the decisions of the public. This particular institution, Suffolk University, now has a serious PR disaster on their hands. In their initial statement on October 28th, Suffolk University stated they would be investigating the matter Their facebook page shows a consumer feedback rating of 3.6 out of 5 stars. This is based on 337 reviews, 110 of them being 1 star reviews posted since October 28th, 2016 and specifically discussing the media coverage Tiffany Martinez’s paper. This intuition’s reputation has been severely tarnished throughout the academic community it is a part of. According to the University’s acting president Marisa Kelly, the incident has caused the school to lose access to TRIO grant funding and faces the loss of many other funding sources unless its entire faculty participates in micro-aggression and diversity training (Kelly 1). In other words, their ability to educate students is in jeopardy based on the media coverage of a case of academic dishonesty that has not even been resolved yet.
Tiffany’s blog post assumes and imagines racism after an accusation of plagiarism. Her blog post cites no factual evidence, uses an out of context, cropped image, and utilizes no statement from her professor to support her claim. The logically deficient blog post of ONE student was picked up by the media and, without research or any sort of journalistic ethics, used to gaslight a campaign against the ill-perceived racism of that university. That University now faces a severe loss of funding, greatly jeopardizing the school’s entire faculty, the continued education of its many students, and its future ability to meet the academic needs of its community. The voice of one student. While systemic racism has been shown to occur in institutions of higher learning, there is absolutely no evidence to support that this case was one with a racist motivation. The solution to systemic racism in higher education is absolutely not to destroy the whole of academia; such a scorched-earth policy attacks the very nature and purpose of education. What is to stop the voice of one student, grossly misinterpreted by incompetent news agencies, crippling the academic capabilities of any other university throughout the United States?
Abasi, Ali R., and Barbara Graves. “Academic Literacy And Plagiarism: Conversations With International Graduate Students And Disciplinary Professors.” Journal Of English For Academic Purposes 7.(2008): 221-233. ScienceDirect. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Griffin, Tamerra. “A Professor Circled ‘Hence’ On A Latina Student’s Paper And Wrote ‘This Is Not Your Word’. Buzzfeed. 28 October, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/tamerragriffin/a-professor-circled-hence-on-a-latina-students-paper-and-wro?utm_term=.vcMXdQK4a#.dpGjZVLew Accessed 1 November, 2016.
Kelly, Marisa. “We All Share Responsibility for an Inclusive Community” Suffolk University Facebook Page. 1 November, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/suffolkuniversity/posts/10154060141072151 Accessed 1 November, 2016.
Martinez, Tiffany. “Academia, Love Me Back.” WordPress. 27 October, 2016. https://vivatiffany.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/academia-love-me-back/ Accessed 1 November, 2016
Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez. ed. Presumed incompetent: The intersections of race and class for women in academia. University Press of Colorado, 2012.
Oberreuter, Gabriel, & Velásquez, Juan D. “Text Mining Applied To Plagiarism Detection: The Use Of Words For Detecting Deviations In The Writing Style.” Expert Systems With Applications 40.(2013): 3756-3763. ScienceDirect. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
“Systemic Racism In Higher Education.” ASHE Higher Education Report 42.1 (2015): 49-71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
Wanshel, Elyse. “Latina College Student Used ‘Hence’ In Paper, Is Accused of Plagiarism.” Huffington Post. 28 October, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/latina-college-student-plagiarism_us_58139daae4b0390e69d0113d Accessed 1 November, 2016.