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Academic misconduct ‘likely’ on the rise in Canada

Universities with up-to-date policies and education campaigns are on the right track to reduce cheating, but they can do more, researcher says.

By ALEX GILLIS | MAR 23 2015

Ten years after they completed Canada’s first, large-scale survey about academic cheating, two researchers are poised to release a follow-up study that shows cheating has likely increased and become more sophisticated.

Julia Christensen Hughes, who is dean of the college of business and economics at the University of Guelph, worked with Donald McCabe, founding president of the U.S. Center for Academic Integrity, on the 2012-14 survey, a follow-up to their 2002-03 survey of 11 Canadian universities. In the earlier paper, published in The Canadian Journal of Higher Education (36.2, 2006), they reported that 53 percent of nearly 15,000 Canadian undergraduates admitted to cheating on written work in the year before the survey, and that 45 percent likely cheated on exams. Their findings were in line with 15 years of similar surveys in the United States. “Cheating” included plagiarism, submitting essays found on the Internet and using crib notes during exams. Also, in the 2002-03 study, about half of professors surveyed (about 890 individuals) admitted to not reporting incidents of academic misconduct.

The new survey is similar in structure and size to the past one and involves some 10 universities and a large sample size of students who self-reported about whether they cheated, what type of cheating they engaged in and how serious they considered the cheating. Dr. Christensen Hughes is still reviewing the data and expects to release results later this year, but she was able to offer preliminary and anecdotal observations.

University instructors are concerned about the growing popularity of websites that encourage students to submit their work for other students to use, she said. Sites such as ManyEssays.com offer custom-written papers and are still popular, as are CliffsNotes.com, SparkNotes.com and others. However, sites like GradeSaver.com and StudyMode.com (which claims to have nearly 16 million members) are glitzier and offer entire libraries of past essays for a fee.

“Because of the Internet, there are growing opportunities for students to access papers written by other students and access case studies that have already been analyzed – even the teaching notes,” said Dr. Christensen Hughes. Instructors use analyses and teaching notes for case studies in business schools and other departments.

At StudyMode.com, students upload their own papers to the site and pay $30 a month to get full access to other uploaded essays. In spite of much badly written content, StudyMode.com claims to be making $10 million a year from the use of its 1.5 million documents. All the content runs on a variety of mobile devices.

Dr. Christensen Hughes worries that even though StudyMode.com advises students not to plagiarize, the site is unclear about how it helps students. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for faculty to be assured that work done outside a supervised setting is work done by the students alone,” she said. “Growing class sizes are making the issue even more challenging.” With classes of several hundred students, faculty members can find it difficult to recognize an individual’s writing style or even to identify each student by name. “This can make detection very difficult, including in exam settings, particularly where photo ID is not required,” she said.

These issues, combined with the anonymity of the Internet, are making academic misconduct more sophisticated. As a result, universities are having a hard time keeping up. “I know all universities struggle with this,” she said, adding that universities are doing a lot right: hiring academic-integrity officers, educating students with poster campaigns, and increasing scrutiny within exam settings for example. The college of business and economics at the University of Guelph, where she’s dean, puts a strong emphasis on students becoming ethical business leaders.

“Our faculty know that if they bring an issue of suspected academic misconduct forward, it will be taken very seriously,” said Dr. Christensen Hughes. “Being able to provide a formal warning – for a first, minor offence – is an important attribute of Guelph’s system. This way, students have the opportunity to learn what our expectations are, why our policies are important, and to know that we take the issue of integrity very seriously.”

But she said that universities could do much more. “The most important thing that universities can do is to raise awareness on campus, educate their students, educate their faculty, make sure they have policies and practices in place that the faculty will follow, and get really serious about exam invigilation,” she said.

None of this will be easy, because of challenges like large classes. In a case in December at the University of Waterloo, a first-year math student hired a PhD student from York University to write her exam, using false student ID. In the end, police charged both students with fraud. Dr. Christensen Hughes points to other cases: a student at the University of Windsor caught impersonating another student during an exam (PDF) and a former student from Brock University who told Dr. Christensen Hughes that he and a friend had impersonated their way through their undergraduate degrees (he was good in the arts, his friend was good in the sciences, so they made a pact to write each other’s exams).

“How do we stay a step ahead of this?” Dr. Christensen Hughes asked. “We can’t issue the same amount of security as a passport.”

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  1. Skeptic / April 1, 2015 at 14:12

    I recently had a clear-cut case of academic misconduct that was not taken seriously in the least. The student had written me an email asking if the assignment could be done in a group and, despite being told no, she actually rallied a group of other students to join her in collaborating. I know this because I ended up with a number of identical papers and several non-participating students complained to me about the disruptive student encouraging them to cheat. My Associate Dean refused to meet with me in person to discuss the case – instead multiple long emails and conflicting directives were given. The students were initially penalized but the penalty was later overturned because the Associate Dean felt the cause was ‘systemic’ and she ‘didn’t want parents involved’. At the same time the Dean of Students was helping me quell the chaos the disruptive student was causing in my course, the Associate Dean of my faculty was aiding and abetting the lying and cheating. Thus empowered, the student went on to appeal her final mark (a C- that should have been an F). Even though the appeal was rejected at the faculty and departmental level, it was overturned when it arrived back on the Associate Dean’s desk. In the end, the student received a B. The moral of this story: Students, get your helicopter parents involved early! Administrators are afraid of you. Faculty are being undermined in their efforts to encourage honesty. And it makes cheating your way through the system (and avoiding developing a shred of integrity or character) that much easier. Glad we’re taking this seriously.

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