Academic institutions are in a constant battle against plagiarism and cheating — and it’s only getting worse, according to those involved in the fight.
In 2011-2012, Thompson Rivers University’s Academic Integrity Committee reported 103 cases of academic dishonesty — 71 were deemed plagiarism, 25 were for cheating, five for academic misconduct and two for fabrication. The significant majority of those were racked up at the first year level.
Although past reports using the same format are not available for comparison, said committee chair Nancy Flood, the problem of academic dishonesty is growing.
“Plagiarism is definitely increasing in frequency at TRU, as it is at virtually all institutions for a variety of reasons,” she said.
The university puts its efforts into educating students and faculty about cheating through such initiatives as workshops.
But TRU is still not using an increasingly popular method — anti-plagiarism software. And that’s the way TRU’s student union wants it to stay.
“It creates an adversarial relationship between students and professors,” said TRUSU president Dustin McIntyre. “What we think is that there should be preventative measures.”
Nonetheless TRU continues to consider the use of such software. A few years ago committee members rejected Turnitin.com, a company dedicated to rooting out plagiarism, based primarily on the cost of $45,000 a year.
But the committee hasn’t discounted the idea altogether.
“We’re looking at free software that’s used by many institutions,” said Flood.
That would allow instructors to input a student’s essay into the system, which then scours its database and Internet for similarities. It next tells the instructor what percentage of the work is identical to other work.
That doesn’t sit well with the students’ union, said McIntyre, because it presumes a students’ guilt before proving innocence and sends students’ intellectual property to a third party to use as they see fit.
A Maclean’s magazine article from 2007, The Great University Cheating Scandal, used academic studies to show that “the numbers on academic misconduct at both Canadian and American post-secondary institutions are startling” and rising due to the advent of the Internet.
The article also indicates that universities and professors themselves are not doing enough to catch the cheats.
Flood said the situation is problematic because it devalues the degrees earned by honest students and makes those students feel as though their work has been compromised.
Far from creating an adversarial relationship, rooting it out is actually a trust-building exercise between instructors and students, said Flood.
“I think everybody would want the person in charge to stop the cheating,” she said.
She acknowledges that anti-plagiarism software isn’t as cut and dried as it may seem on the surface.
For example, if the software indicates that 80 per cent of an essay is identical to other work but the similarities are in reference materials, the idea of plagiarism becomes entirely false.
And it doesn’t deter cheating, according to a study by Robert Youmans, assistant professor of psychology at California State University.
“The instructional techniques and the use of the Turnitin.com system failed to prevent plagiarism to the satisfaction of the researcher,” concluded Youmans in his report, Does the Adoption of Plagiarism-Detection Software in Higher Education Reduce Plagiarism?
Currently TRU fights the problem with education and senate policies on punishments.
A first offence draws a zero on the assignment, “which can be quite serious for the student involved,” said Flood.
A second offence results in automatic course failure.
“At that point, the committee may recommend to the president that the student be suspended from the institution,” said Flood.
Typically, she said, officials instead meet with the student to determine whether there’s a problem that can be rectified.
“And we then say, typically, ‘You have another chance but if you have a third offence of any sort . . . we will automatically recommend to the president that you be suspended from the institution.’”
The number of TRU students recently suspended for academic dishonesty was not available.