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January 24, 2002 Professor fights plagiarism with zero tolerance, strong support



This photo of Lynda Clarke was removed at the explicit request of the subject, August 31, 2004

by Barbara Black

Religion Professor Lynda Clarke says that when she started teaching at Concordia, the plagiarism in her classes was “massive and widespread,” ranging “unbelievably,” up to a fifth of all “free” (self-chosen) assignments submitted. It still happens, but it is much decreased, “hovering around five per cent.”

She had no trouble identifying cases of plagiarism, Clarke said. “It was very easy to find, and it took place in every class but one, and it is easily proved.”

Her procedure is to inform the student and give him or her an opportunity to explain or make excuses. Then she sends him or her to the dean.

Some students have paid other people for their work — which they, in turn, have plagiarized!

“Some students are clearly overloaded with work, and this is a management technique to keep abreast of it. Others cannot handle writing anything. Even though I try to help them at every stage, often they are not willing to take the ‘risk’ of showing their own work, which they are certain will result in a bad grade, or failure.”

“Talking to my students, I find that plagiarism is a symptom of a variety of ills, some of which are, I now believe, embedded in the system,” Clarke said. “Five courses a term, for instance, is an unreasonable load, yet completing a degree in three years requires exactly that, and foreign students and their parents normally expect a three-year stay.

“Many students are admitted with inadequate research and writing skills. When it comes time to write a paper, it seems to them that they have no escape but this. We need to identify and help this stream of students.

“Actually, Concordia does offer a great deal of assistance through the Writing Centre and the Student Success Workshop Series, as well as through friendly and willing professors, but for many students, I think it seems too much of a risk.”

There are others, however, who clearly intend to cheat their way through university, and may have cheated to get as far as they have.

Clarke makes it absolutely clear in her classes that she has zero tolerance for cheating, and she will catch and pursue every miscreant. Many professors do that, but Professor Frances Shaver says that few go to the lengths she does to support those students who need her help to write their own work.

Clarity essential

It’s important for the professor to clearly define what is expected at the beginning of the term. Shaver, who adjudicated more than 100 academic misconduct cases over her four years as Vice-Dean, Academic Affairs, in Arts and Science, agrees that professors could do more to prevent plagiarism, by defining it and by structuring their assignments appropriately.

“There are many ways to do this,” Shaver said, “such as to get the students to hand in an outline, and then write their assignment in class.”

In many disciplines, she said, group work is encouraged for the sake of effective learning, but it might be fairer to individuals in the group to simply critique a group assignment rather than to assign a grade.

Shaver adds another point about detection. “The Web may make it easier to plagiarize, but students should remember that it also makes it easy to identify.” A chunk of text in a very different writing style from the student’s own is a dead giveaway.

Penalties for plagiarism can be severe

Plagiarism is defined in the university’s Code of Conduct (Academic) as “the presentation of the work of another person as one’s own or without proper acknowledgement.”

Also verboten under the Code is the contribution by one student to another student of work represented as his or her own; obtaining by theft or any other means of the questions or answers of an examination; and “the falsification of a fact or research data in a work including a reference to a source which has been fabricated.”

Sally Spilhaus is Advisor to the Rector on Rights on Responsibilities and a former secretary of the Academic Hearing Board, which hears cases of academic misconduct.

She said that before the revised Code of Conduct (Academic) was introduced in 1997, professors had considerable discretion, but there was little coordination across the university. The revised Code has made it easier to track multiple offenders, but it has also presented faculty members with more procedures to follow.

According to the Code, an instructor who suspects a student of plagiarism fills in an incident report, which goes to the Dean, or Vice-Dean. This means using search engines or other means to identify the offending passages and highlighting them.

The Dean sends a copy to the student, the Registrar and the secretary of the academic hearing panel, indicating whether he or she intends to interview the student or sent directly to the hearing panel. If this is done, it must take place within 15 days after the Dean receives the incident report.

Within 10 days of the interview, the Dean writes to the student indicating his or her decision to dismiss the charge or to uphold the charge and impose sanctions, such as a reprimand, direction that the work be resubmitted, a failing grade, or community service.

If the student disagrees with the Dean’s decision, he or she has the right to a full hearing before an Academic Hearing Panel. This body has five members, as well as a non-voting chair. It is composed of three faculty members drawn from the Faculty Tribunal Pool and two students drawn from the Student Tribunal Pool. Provision is made under the Code for the student to have advice and support through this process, from the interview with the Dean through to the hearing.

Attitudes vary

When they are caught, students’ attitudes vary. Spilhaus said that in her experience, the attitude of students charged with plagiarism covers the full spectrum, from arrogant nonchalance to genuine remorse. The extent to which the student is able to learn from his or her mistake will depend on the attitude.

If a charge is upheld, it goes on the student’s permanent file. If two charges of plagiarism are upheld, suspension of the student is mandatory, subject to confirmation by the Provost.

Her statistics show that there were 202 cases of academic misconduct between June 199 9 and May 2001. Of these, 129 were upheld, and 72 were dismissed.

The full Code of Conduct (Academic) may be found in the policies section of the university’s Web site, and in the undergraduate and graduate calendars.