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Nearly 60 federal bureaucrats have been busted for plagiarism, caught cutting and pasting information from the Internet directly into exams that they had hoped would earn them promotions.

This case of what the government alleges to be "fraud" has resulted in reprimands and lost job opportunities, but not in any firings. The individuals in question are said to have independently acted to crib material from Internet sources such as Wikipedia while passing off the work as their own.

Plagiarism within bureaucracies may be a bigger problem than is generally acknowledged, since findings of it are often kept confidential to safeguard privacy. The issue came into sharp focus this week when the Toronto District School Board's director of education admitted to plagiarizing passages of a newspaper essay he published.

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The case at hand can only be reported because one individual challenged his reprimand in Federal Court in Ottawa last fall, forcing the release of federal records that are normally said to be released only on a "need to know basis to authorized individuals."

The case started in 2010 when a new pool of government-wide information-technology jobs opened up. These "Computer-Systems Three" designated jobs would earn successful candidates salaries of between $73,000 and $91,000 a year.

More than 2,000 candidates applied, the vast majority of them already federal bureaucrats. To qualify, they had to first write open-book exams that were disseminated to them via the Internet.

The candidates were warned in writing that they were on an honour system – they were to isolate themselves and not confer with anybody. And while they were free to reference documents online, no cutting and pasting would be allowed. They had to mark an "I agree" box accepting these stipulations before writing the exams.

The exams were marked by Ottawa officials who ran suspicious passages through Google. A surprising ratio of cheaters was discovered – in fact, nearly 1 out of every 20 people who wrote the tests.

"The 58 candidates represent approximately 2.5 per cent of the total number of candidates (2,287 candidates) and 4.8 per cent of the number of candidates that wrote the take homes (1196 candidates)," reads a briefing note to the Public Service Commission of Canada.

These cheaters were informed in writing that they would not be getting the sought-after new jobs since "some of your responses provided were a direct copy and paste from other sources."

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The matter did not end with failed job applications.

Officials warned the cheaters that they were obliged to take further "corrective action."

However, they also assured the plagiarist bureaucrats that the matter would be dealt with discreetly.

"The Commission will not publish an investigation summary of this case and will not provide a copy of the investigation report to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," reads a memo.

The punishments seem to have mostly amounted to one to three years in the penalty box – cheaters were told they would gets notes in their files, that they could not accept any new jobs in the federal bureaucracy without prior approval, and that their superiors would be notified that they had been busted for plagiarism.

Such penalties, a memo says, are "in line with recent similar cases of fraud in appointment processes." (The similar cases are not specified further.)

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The Federal Court filings show that the cheating candidate who challenged his reprimand in court had earned two master's degrees prior to working in government. And yet on one of his civil-service tests, he had lifted an Internet passage several hundred words long and inserted it holus bolus into his answers.

After he was caught, he wrote officials to say that "in his mind he was not plagiarizing" because he had overlooked the admonition against cutting and pasting.

Besides, he said, he "felt that in any event, in any exam, even closed book exams, he is always rephrasing someone else's work."

Government officials disagreed, citing a passage from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, to explain why.

"Fraud … is 'an act of deceiving or misrepresenting,'" they wrote back, attributing the definition to the dictionary.

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