CBU professor touts plagiarism law

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Plagiarism policies can often be found on course outlines and syllabuses. (Photo: Laura Conrad)

Plagiarism policies can often be found on course outlines and syllabuses. (Photo: Laura Conrad)

Plagiarism should be illegal, according to an associate professor from Cape Breton University.

Todd Pettigrew, who teaches in the English department, said universities need a different approach when dealing with academic dishonesty.

Most schools define plagiarism as the presentation of another's work as one's own.

"The general understanding seems to be that if it's an academic regulation, it's more of a rule to get around than a real violation of some basic principles," said Pettigrew.

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A chart showing the number of proven plagiarism cases at Dalhousie and King's College in the past three academic years (Chart: Laura Conrad).

Pettigrew blogs about university issues for Maclean's OnCampus. His latest blog entry examines the possibility of a plagiarism law.

"Plagiarism, when successful, allows students who have not earned credits to be granted them nevertheless and thus to earn degrees to which the students have no right," wrote Pettigrew in the blog entry. "And yet, those students can, for the rest of their lives reap the benefits of those degrees without any real fear of discovery or punishment."

Pettigrew wrote that his latest post was inspired by the recent discovery of essay writing services in Halifax. These services provide students with completed essays written by contracted writers for a small fee. There are at least three of these services based in Halifax with advertisements on Kijiji.

"Lots of universities, including mine, have internal policies, but it seems to be increasingly common for people to come up with these essay writing services," said Pettigrew. "It seems like as long as you don't get caught by your institution, then it's OK."

Pettigrew explained in his blog that a plagiarism law would highlight the seriousness of the offence. Pettigrew also said that a law would standardize procedures at all institutions and would give authorities the power to shut down essay writing services.

Hard to enforce

According to Wayne MacKay, who teaches education law at Dalhousie, implementing a plagiarism law would be tricky.

"Normally, universities are given a lot of discretion in how they handle academic matters," he said. "It would be rare for the legislation to have to be directly involved. It's possible they might think about adding more - the legislature could co-operate with universities. But I personally think it's better handled at a university level, where there's more knowledge of these issues."

Concerns about plagiarism were raised last December, after seven students from the University of King's College were found guilty of copying ideas from websites for their essays. The students sat through academic hearings and received reduced grades or failed the assignment.

Most academic institutions have similar plagiarism policies, with the penalty depending on the seriousness of the offence. According to Dalhousie's academic integrity policy, the penalty can be a warning, failure of the assignment, failure of the class or expulsion from the university. Each offence is examined by an academic integrity officer.

Plagiarism as fraud

Pettigrew said these approaches are not enough to uphold academic integrity standards. On his blog, he compares plagiarism with fraud.

"Taking money for a job as a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor based on a degree you did not earn seems tantamount to fraud as far as I can tell," he wrote in his blog post, "and fraud is illegal."

If plagiarism could be dealt with in the same way as fraud, as Pettigrew recommends, the offence would be punishable by fines and even imprisonment, according to Canada's Criminal Code.

Bob Mann, manager of discipline and appeals at Dalhousie, said it would be the wrong approach.

"I think it's a fair comparison," he said. "But such a law probably wouldn't have any real effect. Jaywalking is a similar comparison. If law enforcement authorities thought they'd get serious about that, a lot of time and resources would be wasted, and the people who are best suited to deal with it, wouldn't be dealing with it."

Mann said universities should focus on shifting and strengthening their values, rather than just ramping up penalties.

"I'm not that interested in catching people who plagiarize because I know those people will always exist, there will always be dishonest people," he said. "I'm more concerned with trying to cultivate values that have to do with being an honest student. We need to encourage a culture where cutting corners is not looked at as a valid option."

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