Thursday, July 18, 2019

Layers of academic theft unravelling: Is plagiarism on the rise at Camosun College?

February 6, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

According to several people I’ve spoken to, plagiarism is on the rise at Camosun College. Camosun’s Academic Honesty Guidelines list four levels of infraction, ranging from inadvertent plagiarism—which is penalized as the instructor sees fit—to unacceptable infractions, which could result in the dean removing the student from their program or even the college.

I wanted to find out what’s happening here. Does it only seem like plagiarism is rising when it’s simply a matter of more disputes? Are more students getting caught because of technological advancements making it easier for them to get caught? And, most importantly, is plagiarism actually on the rise or are instructors getting better at finding it?

Camosun vice president of education John Boraas says that plagiarism is treated like other academic concerns at the college.

“We have a policy that relates to academic dishonesty,” says Boraas. “There is a process to find there. Students always have the ability to appeal that, and each year we do have a few appeals of assertions that academic dishonesty occurred.”

Boraas says that for the most part infractions are not usually brought to his attention unless they are intentional.

“It’s generally through an appeals process,” says Boraas, “so I would not be as fully up to speed on the volume of assertions by faculty that plagiarism has occurred because in many cases it stops there.”

Across the province, appeals are growing in number, says Boraas, adding that Camosun is in the process of responding to that growth through a review of all of its appeals and academic dishonesty policies.

“We’re going to rewrite them because they are old and need redress,” says Boraas. “But we’re also looking at how we can help students to be more aware of what plagiarism is, and why it is that we’re concerned that it not occur. We think there is a lot of room for us to take a positive view of this. It’s not always that students are intentionally doing something wrong. There are some very different perceptions of how to complete academic work.”

Psychology department chair Bill Wong says that he doesn’t have actual data to say whether or not plagiarism is on the rise.

“Just to tell you anecdotally from our experience, after almost every semester there are some issues to do with cheating, copying, or things that fit under the rubric of plagiarism,” says Wong. “It can be two, three, four situations… I don’t collect data, and I don’t know if anybody at the School of Arts and Science does.”

To truly answer the question of whether or not it’s on the rise, Wong says that the college would have to look at how many cases were resolved informally.

“We just don’t know,” says Wong. “If we go by the paperwork on how many are formally reviewed, maybe there is some data on that. At the School of Arts and Science, we just started keeping some data about formal inquiries probably about a year ago, so we don’t have a lot of data.”

Wong says that despite what some say about plagiarism being on the rise, it seems about the same as any other year, from his perspective.

This story originally appeared in our February 6, 2019 issue.

“In my term as chair, and it’s been five years now, I have not had a situation go beyond me,” says Wong. “We’ve been able to resolve it at the chair level. I’m really trying to think hard and I cannot think of an incident involving plagiarism where it went beyond me and I had to refer it to the dean. Maybe [plagiarism is] on the rise, but it’s not going beyond me.”

Boraas says that while it’s rare, there are occasions where students decide to appeal the decision.

“It’s the appeals process for grade changes, and all of that kind of stuff,” he says. “It’s just within the spirit of fairness, which means that if a student has a complaint they first go to the faculty member. If it isn’t resolved there, it goes to the chair. If it isn’t resolved there, it goes to the dean. And if it isn’t resolved there, the final appeal comes to me.”

It’s speculation, says Boraas, but he has little doubt that English faculty would say that plagiarism is on the rise. However, after a year and a half as English department chair, Kristine Kerins says that she can’t say for sure whether or not it is on the rise.

“Anecdotally, yes,” says Kerins. “Do we have any hard statistics on it? No. We’re starting to track it better, but I don’t have any hard numbers for you. It is the impression of my faculty that it’s true.”

There is a set of guidelines that Kerins says outlines what the college understands to be the various forms of plagiarism, and what can happen to a student if they’re caught.

“We make it very clear, but a lot of students assume that plagiarism is handing in someone else’s work and slapping their name on it,” says Kerins. “Things get greyer as you move down the list. Sometimes it’s just getting a little snippet from another source. Sometimes it’s getting too much help from a tutor or proofreader, and then it’s not officially your work. It can become a collaborative effort in the last situation. We see examples of all of these.”

Kerins says that, to some extent, beyond the college there has been a shift in the way we exchange ideas.

“It’s the information age,” says Kerins. “Things are constantly being repeated, retweeted, and borrowed from other people in other areas of our communication with each other. It seems okay in the social media world, but, academically, things get sticky. We need to know where students get ideas, let alone where they get their words.”

Wong says he thinks it’s everywhere; the difference is that sometimes there’s intent, and sometimes there isn’t.

“I think it’s all over the place,” he says. “How to properly cite and give credit for work, or how you shouldn’t use the same work in two different courses, or you shouldn’t copy each other’s ideas. It goes on and on. Those are the ones that we are dealing with for the most part. I think we encounter every range of possibility under the sun.”

Sometimes students think they’re helping each other out, Wong says, but there is a line where help becomes plagiarism.

“Other students may copy or paraphrase part of [another student’s work], not knowing that the instructors are reading all of their stuff,” he says. “If we see two similar paragraphs or two similar works, it’s likely someone wrote it and someone copied it.”

Camosun College Student Society student services director Michael Glover says that it’s important that people’s work is their own.

“Obviously it’s important within the college and university world that people are sharing their own ideas and not just replicating others’, even self-plagiarism, which really is pretty new in the academic world,” says Glover.

“Self-plagiarism” is a phrase that is tossed around more and more these days. Interestingly, Karins says that it isn’t on the college’s list of forms of plagiarism, but it is something her department encounters.

“Usually, it’s students wanting to recycle their work,” she says. “For example, say a student wrote a similar essay for anthropology, and they want to use it as a research paper in 151. There are times when a student can basically get a sign-off from both instructors, and basically say, ‘I’d like to use some of this research again,’ and then bring that to the other instructor. Some instructors may say you can use some sources again if you’re remodelling, but that’s on a case-by-case situation. Otherwise, you are contractually obliged to meet the course requirements and produce original material. No instructor would say you can hand in a paper again.”

Something Wong is seeing and dealing with, informally for the most part, are issues to do with plagiarism and international students. A lot of the problems seen recently, Glover says, stem from a lack of understanding of what “plagiarism” means in Canada.

“From a North American perspective that’s a really important thing, but that’s also cultural, so that’s where we run into some big problems, having such a high international student population,” says Glover. “Certainly there are a lot of Canadian students who are tempted by the internet and the ability to access information, but there are also a lot of international students who come and don’t understand the exacting rules.”

We have an educational system that Boraas says is influenced by western European models that are very different from education models in China, India, or South America.

“Students come in with different understandings of how to proceed with their work,” says Boraas. “Most cases I really do believe are areas where we need to do a better job of teaching the realities of what good academic practice is.”

As an advocate for students, Glover says that it’s very important to take a student’s intent into account.

“If it looks like it’s a misunderstanding or a cultural miss, we would make that argument and say, ‘This person has been here for four months and we haven’t had time to do the education piece from Camosun’s point of view,’ and make sure that the student knows what plagiarism is in a North American environment,” he says.

From time to time Glover is asked to advocate on behalf of a student who feels that the process is unfair.

“Most issues are dealt with between the student and instructor,” says Glover. “I think most of the time they can work it out. The instructor tries to find a punishment that fits the crime. If a student rips off an entire paper from the internet, or they don’t do their citing properly, those are two completely different things.”

Probably the biggest problem, Glover says, is inconsistency in how infractions are dealt with.

“Where we run into problems is when instructors seem to overreact,” says Glover. “A couple of citing errors might be laziness or ignorance, but that’s not necessarily wilful plagiarism. We want the punishment to equal out. Can you prove that someone was wilfully trying to steal? That’s what we’re interested in. What’s really going on and why?”

In all cases, the student society’s interest, Glover says, is to get the student back into class. “We’re looking for restoration of trust, and to get the student back on the path,” he says. “We are always going to advocate in the best interest of the student, and sometimes it is in the best interest to say, ‘We’re sorry. How can we make restitution?’ Or if we feel that there has been an overreaction or there is something else going on we’ll advocate for that. We are always trying to act in the best interest, depending on the situation, and then try to get the student back in class.”

Camosun is an educational institution, after all, so what can be done to better equip students to succeed? Boraas says he is completely committed to ensuring that students leave Camosun with the skills and capability to be successful.

“Part of that is understanding how to work ethically and how to acknowledge other people’s work,” says Boraas. “I’m also committed to us taking an approach to academic standards that is about giving students every opportunity to learn the skills necessary, and not initially take a punishing perspective. We are an educational institution first and foremost.”

Instructors can talk about plagiarism issues more in class, says Wong, or bring in a librarian to talk about proper citation and formatting, what’s copying and what’s not, and the definition of “plagiarism.” 

“Sometimes students don’t know that using the same work for two different classes isn’t allowed,” he says. “They just don’t know. I’ve talked to students in the past who just had no clue. Maybe, since we’re an educational institution, we should start there.”

It is incredibly important, says Wong, that instructors lead by example.

“The other thing is modelling some of that,” says Wong. “On my PowerPoint slides I use quotes from somebody and cite it. I’m trying to model to the class that I’m the instructor and I can’t just take someone’s idea.”

Wong says that he’s not sure why sometimes people give credit and sometimes they don’t with citations. They may have forgotten, says Wong, or they were well-intentioned but they didn’t know how to do it.

“There is another resource in the library that students can use,” says Wong. “There is all kinds of information available. It’s all there. I guess at this point it’s about pointing students in the right direction, even if you’ve heard it before.”

Camosun director of learning services Sybil Harrison says she thinks sometimes there is not a full appreciation for what librarians and the people in the Writing Centre can do to help.

“I think what’s happening in the class is the responsibility of the instructors, but there is other expertise around this that isn’t always used,” she says. “There is a whole area of digital scholarship. I really do believe we need to spend more time on informational literacy. As a librarian, that’s my professional background. We need to teach students why we are doing things, not just jumping into mechanics and the differences between MLA and APA.”

The Camosun libraries at both campuses are open seven days a week, and there are a number of online supports available to students around the clock.

“There is always someone here who is available to help a student,” says Harrison. “The Writing Centre books one-on-one appointments for help with academic writing consultants. We’re participating in a provincial service called Askaway, so if a student can’t come in and they have a citation question, they can ask online. We have online guides, which we update all the time to keep them relevant and current.”

It’s absolutely critical, says Kerins, that academic integrity is maintained at Camosun.

“Especially in the era of fake news, it’s important to be able to properly identify sources of information,” says Kerins. “It’s becoming, arguably, more and more important, since it’s harder and harder to know what to believe. Holding ourselves accountable when we write is the first step to holding others accountable when we read things.”

Harrison says that Camosun needs to talk about information literacy and be critical of what information sources students are using, as well as what tools students are using to keep track of resources.

“In this day and age there is so much fake news, and we need to be really critical information consumers and thoughtful information creators,” she says. “I think we still have a long way to go as educators. I think they are doing a pretty good job in Grade 8 and 9, but we sort of lose track of it.”

Wong says that he has gone to workshops about how to prevent plagiarism.

“One of the things I remember is that, as instructors, we should try to craft assignments such that it isn’t so general that students can find the information and copy and paste,” he says. “My assignments are very specific. You can’t just look it up on the internet and find it. As an instructor, I try to put students in a situation where they have to do the work, rather than looking for the information somewhere else.”

Every student has to take English 151; Glover says they should be learning about plagiarism there.

“They should be going through that course early. I think it’s also important for the instructors to focus on why this is happening more and more. We have students now that work full- or part-time jobs and take full- or part-time school simultaneously, and the pressures on students to cheat are visceral. Where do you give and take in your life? As the cost of tuition goes up, and as the cost of rent goes up, the temptation to cheat will go up. It’s good, everywhere a college can, to take pressure off of students. That may mean instructors, hopefully, understanding that workloads need to be realistic.”

Harrison says she thinks sometimes we have an expectation that if people have graduated high school they should know about academic writing.

“I think sometimes assignments set students up for inadvertent plagiarism,” says Harrison. “Years ago, I heard a really good presentation at a conference from an instructor who, rather than an annotated bibliography, got students to write a reflective bibliography. Her emphasis was about engaging with those academic articles, and how you are able to engage with them, and perhaps come up with your own ideas on the subject of them. There are other examples out there, but I think we need to revisit the approach we take to research papers. I should be careful about this, because my colleagues in the English department will probably shudder hearing me say this, but we’ve been using that standard for so long. Is that really where we need to be in the 21st century? I don’t know.”

At times we’ve seen dramatic shifts, says Harrison, and it’s likely about how the tools available change the landscape.

“I think we go through ups and downs where things become more apparent,” says Harrison. “For example, around 1995 when we began cutting and pasting—that made it easier for people to do. On the flip side of that, you can hand me a piece of writing, and I can cut and paste it into Google and see if it comes from somewhere else. It is a bit of both sides. Perhaps it wasn’t as easy to see before. I do not believe that students are more dishonest or have less integrity than students before them. I think it’s the context and the environment we are operating in.”

Boraas says that UVic and some of the larger institutions are using computer programs to detect plagiarism.

“There is software like Turnitin,” says Boraas, “and papers are submitted through that platform and then analyzed for common plagiarism. It’s a database of all kinds of papers, including ones that are available on the web for sale. We have not gone down that path, and partly because as a college our first inclination or effort is about the teaching/learning experience. It’s certainly worthy of a conversation but at this point we have not chosen that kind of a path. As with anything, if the issue becomes more problematic we’ll revisit the conversation.”

Academic integrity is the foremost concern, says Wong. He says that once we allow academic integrity to degrade, all is lost.

“If we allow that to happen, then we start wondering about the academic journals and expert testimony—everything is in jeopardy,” he says. “I don’t know if students think about that when they are in the middle of plagiarizing or if it’s just, ‘Deadline, gotta get it in.’ Maybe they are just getting sloppy. I don’t know if it dawns on them. It’s a good question to ask. I bet if you asked students off the record and they admitted to it, they wouldn’t say they were worried about academic integrity collapsing. They are probably thinking about deadlines and grades and work, and they forget how important the whole structure is.”

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