When smart kids do dumb things

“Academic integrity speaks to the heart of educational processes. Plagiarism undermines learning and the purposes of our academic institutions. At stake is honour of the school, faculty and students. Prospective students place a high value on their perception of the integrity and reputation of the institution of their choice.” — from Glatt’s An Open Letter of Academic Faculty and StaffIf it is true that most cases of plagiarism result from an attempt to realize only marginal benefits and that the punishments remain so severe one wonders what motivates students to attempt it.

An obvious question arises when one considers plagiarism — why? When one considers the penalties that surround plagiarism — it is taken more seriously than any other offense within the university community — and the need that society has for university educated individuals that are foreclosed by being caught for plagiarism (it basically marks you as an outcast from the university and college systems), you begin to wonder about the mental firmness of those who engage in such practices.

The most succinct definition of plagiarism that I have come across was offered by Professor Jon Radue. Radue presented this unattributed quote at a TA workshop offered by the Brock University Centre for Teaching, Learning and Educational Technologies:

“Plagiarism is stealing a ride on someone else’s train of thought.” — unknown

Radue, the university’s plagiarism officer, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Basically, plagiarism is very akin to cheating on your taxes: everybody wants to do it — even brags about someday attempting it — but few wind-up actually committing themselves to such a course of action. The reasons for this are much the same as those alluded to above; not many people are as willing to suffer the consequences of their actions–that would result in only marginal benefits, at best, for most people (others hire accountants!) — should they be found out.

So, why, then, do students cheat?

In conversation with a variety of officials and individuals, both inside and outside of the university administration, some interesting points came to light.

When asked whether cases of plagiarism have gone up in recent years, registrar Rob Tiffin mused that perhaps it more complicated than just the number of cases going up. Tiffin made reference to the fact that there are now more resources available — mostly via the Internet — to instructors to detect plagiarism. This kind of stands on its head the notion that most students hold about pulling a paper off of the web to use; although that is a simplistic explanation.

What can be said to have gone up in a concrete way are verification requests from employers regarding the qualifications listed by applicants as having been obtained at the school in question. According to Tiffin, this holds steady across all fields within the institution and not just those that one might call to mind from media exposure.

This situation, far from resolving the notion of whether students misrepresent themselves outside the institution, actually might make one take a closer look at what is going on inside of the institutions; if only to determine if — and how many — students are misrepresenting themselves to employers about their accomplishments at university or college.

Dr. Ian Brindle, acting dean of math and science, commented that, as dean, he saw his role as ensuring that academic integrity is upheld. That is to say, he says that the dean’s role is one of ensuring that ‘everything is in order’ and that all charges are fully documented and fully accurate.

Brindle commented that most plagiarism cases seem to emerge from students not fully realizing the distinction between finding and doing; or, to put it another way, between the why and the how. Brindle feels that students, especially in math and science, are led astray by a variety of sources, not the least of which are course textbooks. Students often merely find the examples and commit them to memory (i.e., that is how they do it, and so will I), rather than attempting to understand why the equation is by doing it.

As with Tiffin’s comments, these are just general comments from one individual about some of the possible reasons for plagiarism. It is not meant to establish the fact that people who merely repeat the examples they see are cheaters, just that there seems to be something missing from that process that ought to be there as part of the overall university experience.

BUSU ombudsperson Troy Brooks thinks universities need to concentrate on communicating and educating about plagiarism to have a noticeable impact on the problem. Rather than an advocate in the traditional sense, the ombuds’ role is really to play an impartial referee. That is, much the same as the dean’s role, though as an outside check on the internal processes.

According to Brooks, and in agreement with the others consulted for this story, the issue of plagiarism is perennial; it just always seems to be there. Among the community of ombudspersons from across the university sector, it is an issue that always manages to find itself on the agenda at their meetings.

Brooks believes that there is definitely an opportunity to do more with the issue of plagiarism. He says students (in most cases) need to be made more aware of the distinctions between one’s own work and work that is done collaboratively (i.e., in groups). This reflects a similar comment made by acting Dean Brindle regarding the role of instructors (be they profs, TAs, or lab demos) in making sure that instructions regarding responsibility are clear and relatively precise. Students often lack a clear understanding of what constitutes plagiarism in the first place. Of course, ignorance is not an excuse that is likely to carry much weight in a student’s defense.

All those interviewed felt that a major factor contributing to cases of plagiarism is a lack of mechanical familiarity with what actually constitutes plagiarism. Many students reach university without having had very much in the way of instruction or experience with the varied approaches to citation and reference. The solution to this problem is simply to get the students instruction and experience so that they will have the requisite tools throughout their university careers. However, this is rather more simply said than done. Only time will tell who will be willing to make the first move on this issue.

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