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Schools look to push new punishment for cheaters

A large Canadian university has decided to up the ante in the battle against cheating by creating a new grade for academic dishonesty. The move represents a more aggressive approach to rooting out cheating - a tactic that is becoming increasingly common across post-secondary institutions in Canada.

Although cheating is hardly a new concept, the Internet has made it much easier - and perhaps more tempting - for students to buy essays online, borrow sections of an author's work, or copy another person's assignment. As a result, post-secondary institutions around the world have been forced to confront hard questions and cold realities about the prevalence of plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty.

Simon Fraser University recently added a new kind of punishment to its arsenal in order to deter would-be cheaters. The university can now give an "FD" grade - "failed for academic dishonesty" - to students who are found to have committed serious or repeated offences.

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The grade doesn't replace expulsions or suspensions for serious infractions, said Rob Gordon, director of the university's School of Criminology chair of its senate committee on academic integrity. Rather, it provides an extra disciplinary tool professors can use if a student has cheated on multiple occasions, plagiarized major portions of a paper, or committed other serious acts of academic dishonesty. The FD grade will appear on a student's transcript, which officials hope will serve as a major deterrent, Prof. Gordon said.

The decision highlights the seriousness of the problem.

But it also exposes clashes of opinion present across academic institutions struggling to determine what action to take against students who try to cheat the system.

Many post-secondary schools, including Simon Fraser, have commissioned reviews or investigations in recent years to examine the scope of the problem and figure out how to address it. Now, a clear divide is emerging between schools that are adopting a more aggressive and pro-active approach, and those that are putting stock in the belief that students should be seen as innocent until proven guilty.

Many Canadian institutions have begun using computer programs - most notably services offered by - to sniff out potential plagiarists by comparing a student's work against a large database of papers. While has been the subject of controversy over the fact it's a for-profit enterprise that stores a student's intellectual property, schools say it's an efficient way for professors to ensure that none of the sometimes hundreds of papers handed in at a time have been plagiarized. Bruce Mitchell, associate provost, academic and student affairs at the University of Waterloo, said it creates a level playing field by weeding out dishonest students looking to get a good grade by cheating.

"That should give some satisfaction to students trying to do it the right way. They're not being put at a disadvantage."

Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has resisted plagiarism-detection services until now, but is considering using them because of the potential threat of cheating in an online world, said James Lee, academic integrity adviser to the vice-principal, academic.

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The University of Calgary, however, has decided against using plagiarism detection services, opting instead for building trust with students and educating them about proper academic conduct, such as the right ways to cite sources and use information, said Meghan Houghton, associate vice-provost for student success and learning support services.

Forcing students to submit their work to a plagiarism check before any indication of wrongdoing may establish "a premature, almost probationary relationship with our students," Ms. Houghton said.

"It's not a message that we're willing to lunge out into."

She added that in many cases, students who "cheat" do so because they're unaware of proper academic protocol. For instance, they may not acknowledge references used to complete their work. As a result, the university's approach is to emphasize proper citation methods and other aspects of academic honesty when students arrive on campus.

Despite that, the university is on the lookout for more serious offences, such as impersonating another student in an exam, tampering with exams and blatant cheating, and will take strong action when necessary.

"Obviously, this is dependent on the severity of the infraction," Ms. Houghton said.

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Even those institutions that use plagiarism-detection programs say they have begun putting much more weight on the importance of educating students to prevent cheating. For instance, many have created sessions and other educational workshops to hammer home the importance of academic ethics, proper sourcing and other vital tools. Some, such as the University of Waterloo, are working on plans to expand those information seminars to local high schools, so students learn those lessons before they enter post-secondary life.

"This is bigger than just academic integrity," Mr. Mitchell said. "We're talking about people living their lives with integrity and conducting themselves in an appropriate and proper way."

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