(Illustration Sinead Mulhern)

David Graham* was pulling all-nighters for his entrepreneurship class at Ryerson University. He was exhaustively working on group projects, so when a paper worth 5 per cent was assigned, he decided to copy information off a company website.

“I was scared about handing it in. I had never plagiarized before,” he says. “I didn’t know what the chances of being caught were so it was really just taking a risk.”

He took that risk and got caught. During the final, the professor announced that he had caught some students plagiarizing. He wouldn’t punish the students who plagiarized though, because they had worked hard all term.

A survey released by CBC in February found more than 7,000 students were disciplined for academic cheating across Canada in the 2011-2012 school year. One per cent of the students polled were penalized .

Ryerson University did not release its numbers on cheating, but the rules are clearly outlined in the student code of conduct. Students are supposed to understand what counts as cheating and are “expected to demonstrate that knowledge when engaging in academic activities by citing sources correctly, collaborating appropriately,” says the Student Code of Academic Conduct at Ryerson.

Kate Stiller*  can also speak about leniency towards academic misconduct. During the midterm in one of her language classes, the professor left the room to make more copies of the test. Most of students already had an exam on their desks.

The professor was gone for about 10 minutes, allowing students to exchange answers across the room with each other, not bothering to be stealth about cheating.

“The environment of the classroom and everyone taking the course were all pretty chill … so everyone was OK with doing it and knew that no one would rat each other out,” says Stiller. “It was bound to occur.”

Students who cheated still looked at their good grades as a sign of intelligence, according to a 2012 American study by the National Academy of Sciences.

And more than half of Canadian students participated in cheating, falsification or plagiarism, says a 2011 University of Regina survey. The study also found that observing classmates cheating makes it appear more normal in the classroom, but students were less likely to cheat if they were confident in their abilities and were invested in their learning at university.

This is the attitude Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center of Academic Integrity, says helps keep students in line. “At schools where faculty and students are proud of the fact that they don’t cheat, people coming into the community get the message that cheating isn’t accepted there, and they tend to behave accordingly,” says Fishman.

The International Center for Academic Integrity works with teachers, students and administrators to create and maintain communities of integrity. This includes educating students on ethics in order to discourage cheating.

Fishman acknowledges there are certain classroom environments, like Stiller’s class, that make it easier to cheat. She says classrooms with inadequate supervision, heavily weighted tests, and classes that give the same exams year after year contribute to the likelihood of students cheating.

According to Fishman, a cheating scandal can decrease the value of everyone’s degree and sometimes teachers don’t enforce the rules, “either because they don’t have sufficient proof, they are unwilling to spend the time, or they just don’t think it will do any good.”

Teachers who take a lackadaisical approach to cheating don’t always get away scot-free.

“Like students, teachers have a great stake in protecting the reputation of the university, so even when they know it will be time-consuming and difficult, it is their responsibility to act with integrity,” says Fishman.

Aaron Tucker is an English professor at Ryerson who is tough on cheating.

During a first-year English class at Ryerson, Tucker stood at the front of his lecture. He says if students hadn’t received their essays in tutorial a few days before, he would be handing them back now. He handed out a batch of essays all with bright red stickers on them. They had been plagiarized. He does this to draw attention to the seriousness of being dishonest in university classes – something he says he has seen many times during his career.

“I don’t think students are bad. It’s just that they are used to engaging with information in a completely different way outside of the university,” Tucker says. “Sometimes there’s a wilful ignorance and sometimes there’s a misunderstanding where they just don’t know until someone tells them.”

He has also had other incidents of cheating in his classes, including a time when his TAs caught Google results in assignments. Tucker assigned a mark of zero.

The English prof has a standard way of dealing with those he suspects of dishonesty. He will try to talk to them one on one if possible.

“Often I will go to academic integrity first just because (cheating) can’t be tolerated. And just because someone goes to academic integrity doesn’t mean they are guilty,” he says. “They have more than enough opportunity to explain themselves.”

Students who do go to the Academic Integrity Office can face a range of penalties, according to vice-provost Christopher Evans.. The minimum penalty in a course is a zero on the assignment, but with a more serious offence, such as submitting a bought paper or having another person write a student’s exam, the student can fail the course or get a maximum two-year suspension.

“Only in the most serious of cases would a student face disciplinary withdrawal from his or her program or expulsion from the university,” says Evans. Such penalties can only be assigned by the senate appeals committee. Cases where disciplinary withdrawal and expulsion are assigned are rare,” says Evans.

Although the student code of conduct states getting caught has major consequences for educational goals, in Graham’s case this wasn’t enforced. However, the experience discouraged him from cheating ever again, he says.

“They caught me for a five per cent one. I thought if it was a small assignment they’d probably just overlook it but they are definitely going to check for future assignments,” says Graham. “I’d never do it again.”

*The names in this article have been changed.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 12, 2014.

Alexa Huffman is a former reporter with the Ryersonian. She graduated from Ryerson University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Journalism.