Plagiarism: Failure isn’t the only option


 Peter Lozinski / Ryersonian Staff

Moving to a new country and starting a university education in a foreign language is hard enough. But imagine the trauma from getting a notice that you’re suspected of plagiarism. It’s an accusation that could lead you to fail your course or be expelled.

“I’ve had a lot of CESAR members come into our office and some just immigrated to Canada and start taking classes at Chang School,” says Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) president Shinae Kim. “Those students not only have not had an education in Canada, this is their first time taking a class.”

She tells the story of one student who recently emigrated from China.

“She wants to upgrade her education so that she can get a job, she’s just adjusting to a new country, and she got an academic misconduct,” she says. “Is it really fair to target the student with these penalties in their first semester of studying in Canada?”

Ryerson student groups are arguing that the minimum penalty for academic misconducts should be lighter. As it stands, the minimum penalty is a mark of zero on the assignment. Many Ryerson students, especially those from abroad, fear the consequences of plagiarism, despite not fully understanding what it entails.

Changing the minimum penalty is one of the many possibilities being discussed by a senate committee launched this October to review Ryerson’s Student Code of Academic Conduct, also known as Policy 60.

The review committee has a representative from each faculty and student group. The committee is to make recommendations about reforming the policy after several meetings and consultations with students and faculties.

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Arman Aghbali / Ryersonian Staff

Kim, who is CESAR’s representative on the plagiarism review committee, says she supports a lighter penalty as many students she interacts with are unfamiliar with the concept of plagiarism.

The code, which was approved in March 2009, defines academic misconduct as, among other things, plagiarism, cheating, submitting false information and misrepresentation of personal identity.

It also sets disciplinary procedures, the most severe being expulsion. Other penalties include failing the entire course, suspension and a disciplinary notice on a student’s academic record.

While Ryerson does keep official records of misconduct issues, they’re not publicly available. Part of the review will be considering whether, like the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa, Ryerson should make the numbers public.

“Right now the penalties are very harsh,” said Rochelle Lawrence, the Ryerson Students’ Union’s vice-president of education. She’s the RSU representative on the committee, and believes the policy should consider unique student life issues. “It could be a student is under a lot of pressure. They don’t have enough time because they are working so hard in other different areas and they have to provide for themselves.”

A second-year biomedical engineering student, who wishes to remain anonymous, says pressure to get work done on time, while maintaining a high GPA, led him to plagiarize in first year. He copied  from another person’s assignment during a programming class.

“Yeah, it’s risky and it’s dumb. But in engineering you just want to get every last drop of a per cent that you can basically get,” he said, adding that students rarely score above 60 per cent in engineering courses. “It’s the lesser of two evils to potentially put yourself in danger.”

The student says  he was charged alongside 30 others, who all shared the same plagiarized assignment. They received zeros on their assignments and disciplinary notices on their transcripts.  He adds that it’s fairly common in his program for students to circulate small assignments, and he often still uses them.

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Arman Aghbali / Ryersonian Staff

“Not in big assignments, but little assignments that aren’t worth the time to put in when you have five other courses with midterms…. It’s kind of the norm.”

While he does use other people’s information, he says he understands the need for a penalty. He wishes the university would also take other factors, like stress and workload, into consideration.

“I’m in the engineering building all night. I literally sleep there,” he says. “If they could look at the reason behind it all, that would be more beneficial rather than just hitting you with a zero.”

Meanwhile, U of T has a comparable system of suspicion and appeal, but the minimum penalty is an oral or written reprimand. In practice, this is often just a warning letter. The code allows students to redo assignments without losing marks, with the instructor’s permission.

U of T ombudsperson, Joan Foley, says the procedure was created with fairness in mind.

“Prior to having this procedure, the concern was that individual instructors in different departments might be applying very different penalties to students for basically the same offence. That’s not fair,” said Foley.

Foley says the university offers workshops, and is developing a website on plagiarism in hopes that they better educate students.

Co-chair of the Ryerson review committee, David Checkland, says the current penalty also has fairness in mind, in the sense that all students are treated equally.

“One of the goals you want in any policy is the greatest possible degree of consistency, so that people should get more or less the same penalty for more or less the same offence,” said Checkland, a Ryerson philosophy professor.

Many students agree with Checkland, that equality is the best policy. So long as students are honest, they won’t run into these issues in the first place.

“You’re copying someone’s work and you should be penalized for it,” said Mohammed Quraishi, a third-year mechanical engineering student. “Everyone should be treated equally when it comes to plagiarism.”

On Nov. 19, the committee chairs held a public consultation in which students and faculties voiced their major concerns with the current code.

Some suggestions that were brought up included having lesser penalties for first offences, having more educational remedies, shortening the process of dealing with misconduct charges and appeals and raising awareness among students about the policy as a preventive measure.

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Arman Aghbali / Ryersonian Staff

According to Chris Evans, the other co-chair of the committee, many of these suggestions will be considered. But it is too early to say what their final report to senate will entail in June 2014.

If the committee reaches a consensus this school year and senate approves, a new version of Policy 60 could be implemented as early as the next school year.

Kim says she hopes the university will teach students about academic misconduct as a pre-emptive measure, adding that most students she knows don’t intend to plagiarize.

“I think the professors and the university do need to know when people are paying $6,000 to $7,000 a year the last thing a student wants is an academic misconduct,” says Kim. “We’re just here to learn.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 27, 2013.

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