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In one study, 37 per cent of Canadian undergraduates and 24 per cent of graduate students admitted plagiarizing. (VINCENT KESSLER/REUTERS)
In one study, 37 per cent of Canadian undergraduates and 24 per cent of graduate students admitted plagiarizing. (VINCENT KESSLER/REUTERS)

Education Comment

Choose a C over plagiarism Add to ...

The best way to conquer plagiarism in universities is to make students and faculty more comfortable with failure. All too often, the focus on marks or on succeeding in the publish-or-perish culture can make universities seem like credential factories that have structured the risks and rewards of plagiarism in such a way that, for the unethical, copying is a smart bet. Yet anyone who chooses that path is misunderstanding the purpose of a university.

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Last week, Chris Spence, the former director of the Toronto District School Board, learned that allegations of using others’ work can destroy a career. Among the disputed passages are sections in his doctoral dissertation. Graduate students are less likely to plagiarize than undergrads, but they are not immune. Almost a quarter of graduate students admitted to plagiarism versus 37 per cent of undergrads in a study published several years ago by Julia Christensen Hughes, the Dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph and Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School.

Accomplishment and plagiarism can go together. As Alex Gillis, a journalism instructor at Ryerson University who’s written on plagiarism told me, it’s the “good students who cheat…where competition is higher.”

C students are realistic – they’re not going to become doctors or top researchers. Imagine you almost have the A average to get into grad or professional school, or that you must publish a certain number of articles to achieve tenure. Why do a minority of academics choose the cut-and-paste shortcut? They are relying on a false conceit: That it’s the words that count. If the words, or the lab results, led to acclaim for one scholar, they’ll be golden for another, no? Well, no.

Not only does copying offend the plagiarist’s weekend-sacrificing colleagues, it does nothing to train the muscles that make the words and increase confidence in meeting the next challenge.

No doubt the costs of even small failures in university and college can be high. “I’m not sure how much students are willing to participate in failure,” said Dr. McCabe, who is updating the study he published with Dr. Hughes. “Students want the grade and move on with their lives.”

Yet experiencing failure at the postsecondary level is increasingly praised as instructive – from a poor essay grade to dropping out of university altogether. The trend is an extension of Paul Tough’s bestselling book of last year, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, which argued that kids always coached for success are being deprived of the character-bolstering effects of failure.

Making failure easier – by perhaps spreading around the percentage each assignment is worth, or valuing teaching as much as research in tenure decisions – is not the only answer. Institutions are also learning which practical strategies can lower rates of plagiarism.

1. Talk about it. As Dr. Hughes points out, most universities now have policies and workshops on plagiarism. Instructors, too, must open the subject in class: Of course you can read Wikipedia, I used to tell students. But no, it’s not an academic source – disappointment and debate followed.

2. Incentivize the enforcers. Catching and prosecuting plagiarism takes time. Graduate students might be proud they are maintaining academic integrity, but pride is costly if it detracts from classroom prep or personal professional development. The result? One study cited by Dr. Hughes and Dr. McCabe found that only 1 per cent of cheating students reported being caught.

3. Establish and get students to sign honour codes. Where these have been implemented, cheating declines. Signing might mean grappling with one’s better ethical self or a reminder, when the deadlines pile up, that an unstressed you believed the effort to play it straight worthwhile. Even if it means sometimes netting a B, or a C.

 

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