Ottawa Citizen:Carleton plagiarism 'not rampant'


Carleton plagiarism 'not rampant'
University dean says engineers accused of cheating will be dealt with appropriately

Rebecca Reid
The Ottawa Citizen

Friday, March 29, 2002

The Edmonton Journal
Thirty-one of 400 third- and fourth-year ethics students at Carleton University are accused of plagiarizing documents from the Internet.


The associate dean of engineering at Carleton University said Thursday the number of engineering students accused of cheating isn't large enough to declare it rampant at the school.

The university revealed earlier this week that 31 of 400 third- and fourth-year ethics students had plagiarized documents and essays from the Internet and faced punishment ranging from failing an assignment to expulsion from the university.

Don Russell said that teachers' assistants haven't been doing anything differently to try to catch plagiarizers.

"We tell them to use standard search engines," he said. "Often you can just type in the first sentence and the entire document will come up."

Although about nine per cent of the class is being accused of cheating, Russell doesn't consider the numbers point to a wider problem.

"It's not news that people are cheating," he said. "What is news is that we've caught 31 people.

"I would be hesitant to say that it is one type of engineering student that cheats," said Russell. "But, most students who were caught are in third year."

He added that fourth-year students might be more inclined to take the Professional Practice course more seriously because they are tested on its content at graduation. The Professional Engineers' Society of Ontario administers an ethics test to graduates before certifying them.

So far, the university has conducted about 20 interviews with accused students and their most common excuse has been time constraints.

Russell said third-year students are more focused on technical assignments and tend to let other courses slide, but he said that is still no excuse for cheating.

"I don't think the pressures we place on our students are any different from the pressures at other institutions," he said.

But an engineering student says the engineering department should not have gone public about a crackdown on plagiarism until allegations against the students have been proven.

"They want to portray the image of cracking down on cheating," third-year engineering student Chris McLellan said. "And when it has been proven, I'm all for it."

Charles Berndt, another third-year electrical engineering student, said engineers have a bad reputation for cheating and that is why the faculty decided to get tough. He said the cheaters should be expelled.

McLellan and Berndt expressed concerns that an overzealous teacher's assistant might have discovered the cheating, but Russell said the essays were marked by several teachers' assistants, not just one.

Both third and fourth year students take the ethics class.

"It's still inexcusable regardless of workload considerations," agreed Berndt.

Steve Junker, president of the Carleton Students' Engineering Society said he thinks the cheating "stems from the fact that engineering is pretty tough and there's a lot of work," but adds that workload is no excuse.

"A lot of students turn to friends for help," he said. "Sometimes there is a fine line between working together and plagiarism."

Russell agreed. He said students can easily work together on technical projects because there is only one right answer. The students all have to hand in the same thing to get a good mark. Not so with essays.

Russell said the punishments will fit the crime. So far no one stands accused of buying an essay from the Internet.

"Students think of plagiarism as a little white lie as opposed to the theft of intellectual property," he said. "They don't understand the seriousness of it."

Stuart Adam, Carleton's vice-president academic, said the recent media attention doesn't hurt the reputation of the university, which has worked hard to improve its image.

"I think the case at Carleton is no different than any other university. The danger would arise out of not dealing with it," he said.

Last summer, university officials discussed paying for Web-based anti-cheating services, but decided against it, said Adam.

"We will consider it again if it's demonstrated that it does unique things," he said.