King’s FYP students guilty of plagiarism

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Several FYP students take the heat for plagiarizing in their responses to a passage from Dante's Inferno. (Photo: Corey Davison)

Several FYP students take the heat for plagiarizing in their responses to a passage from Dante's Inferno. (Photo: Corey Davison)

At least seven first-year students at the University of King's College have been found guilty of an academic offence and penalized.

As punishment, students either lost marks or failed the assignment. No one was expelled.

Fourteen students, all in the Foundation Year Programme, were accused of passing off someone else's work or ideas as their own. They each had a hearing earlier this week where they could state their case.

Last week, officials refused to say exactly how many students were accused.

Dante question

Although each allegation was unique, most of the suspicious essays were responses to question No. 5: "As far as I could tell from listening; here/there were no wails, but only sighs, that made/a trembling in the everlasting air" (Dante, Inferno, IV, 25-27). Discuss the importance of the senses to Dante's experience of Hell."

Kimber said it was a very general question. "It was a lot easier to find information that seemed to answer the question."

Academic integrity officer Stephen Kimber said Wednesday that there were 14 complaints in total. While he would not say exactly how many students were found guilty, he said it was over half. He said most of them admitted that what they did was wrong.

Kimber said students were investigated for copying ideas from two online sources: Associatedcontent.com and SparkNotes.

Rumors have been circulating that some students bought essays from Danteessays.com, but Kimber said this was not the case.

"The issue was that students were using arguments and examples from these sites that were not arguments or examples that were discussed in class or tutorials," he said.

Although no one copied entire sentences or passages verbatim, in many cases it was difficult to ignore the similarities between the website and a student's paper, he said.

FYP is widely recognized for its small student-to-professor ratio, high academic standards and challenging curriculum.

Students are required to write 13 essays over the course of the year. They must also write a midterm and discuss the texts in an oral exam at the end of each semester.

The papers suspected of plagiarism were due two days after the FYP midterm.

Stressful program

Evey Hornbeck took FYP two years ago and knows it can be stressful to write philosophic essays. She said she understands how someone in first year could make a mistake because they feel overwhelmed.

"I see why they don't want to expel people - it is first year, it's new and hard but plagiarism is frustrating to hear about.

"I'm the kind of student who works hard and takes the time to think about the texts and that's what I liked about FYP."

Hornbeck is part of the King's Residence Leadership Program and lives on campus in North Pole Bay. Constantly surrounded by students, she says that some people feel like this incident is being made a bigger deal than it really is.

FYP student Dylan Tate-Howarth agrees.

"Yeah it's definitely been blown out of proportion," said Tate-Howarth. "I don't know enough about the whole thing to comment on it but it's become really big news."

All FYP students had to hand in the final paper of the term on Monday, the first day of the plagiarism hearings.

Tate-Howarth was not suspected of plagiarism. She said the accusations did not affect how she wrote her last essay.

"I maybe paid more attention to how I cited things but I wasn't really worried about it happening to me," she said.

Small numbers

"The only thing that's unusual about this case is that so many people know about it and that's pretty much it," said Bob Mann, manager of discipline and appeals at Dalhousie University. He also looks after accusations of plagiarism at King's.

A 1994 graduate of FYP, Mann does not believe that 14 is an abnormally large number.

"There have been certain types of assignments - exams, things like that, where a large group of people have been caught."

Mann is not surprised that expulsion was taken off the table so quickly. This is because it is the most severe penalty that the disciplinary committee can impose on a student.

"If every student got expelled for doing this, we'd have a pretty severe problem on our hands," said Mann. "We're not the public prosecution system, we're a university and we're here to teach people and part of what we're teaching people is about academic integrity."

There were 125 academic offences last year at Dalhousie. King's, a much smaller institution, only had nine.

Mann said that there have only been three expulsions in the last 15 years - none involving King's students. He said that only one of these was for academic integrity and it was the student's fourth offence.

Moving forward

FYP director Peggy Heller said King's is working on a plan to implement Blackboard Learning System next semester. This online program will allow professors to post essay questions and grades. It will also allow them to send messages to FYP students, making communication much easier.

It is currently unknown whether Turnitin.com, an online plagiarism detector that would create a database of students papers, will follow or if it would even be beneficial.

"I'd be interested to see whether Turnitin would catch these. This was more about arguments and examples rather than about stealing text," said Kimber.

Regardless of what happens next, journalism student and editor of The Watch Magazine, Adrian Lee, does not believe the reputation of King's has been tarnished.

"That's the picture that's being painted right now is that King's has a plagiarism problem when really this is a one-time large number.

"We were a great school before this thing and we're a great school afterwards - what's changed? Nothing really."

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