Risks of plagiarism and how to avoid them

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Graphic by Lauren McCallum / Design Director

By Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer

High school and universities work to educate students on the specifics of academic integrity. The University of Southern Maine’s Student Academic Integrity Policy defines academic integrity as not lying, cheating, or stealing. “To cheat on an examination, to steal words or ideas of another, or to falsify the results of one’s research corrupts the essential process by which knowledge is advanced,” according to the policy. Violating the policy is considered cheating or plagiarism.

Erika Lamarre, Director of Community Standards and Mediation, says that this academic year to date her office has handled 20 cases of academic integrity allegations. Last year, that figure was 27. She suspects the number is far higher. Sometimes faculty handle it individually, she says, usually unaware that her office is designed to help facilitate the investigation process for such professors.

In the academic setting of a university, plagiarism is an offense against university policy and procedure. It is not a criminal offense, says Lamarre, but a form of “intellectual property theft.” Real-world consequences of plagiarism include tarnished professional reputation and trustworthiness.

Dr. Lynn Eckersley-Ray, an English professor at USM, says that, “when students present me with work that is questionable, it’s typically a result of an honest mistake on their part: incorrect or missing citations regarding summary, or including what they may think is “common knowledge” in their work, but, in fact, isn’t.” She advises that if there is “even a feeling” that they may possibly be plagiarizing, students should, “honor that doubt and/or feeling” and cite the source.

The majority of issues regarding academic integrity involve first and second year students, says English professor Dr. Lorna Hughes. When students first enter USM, they are “not yet acculturated to university at all,” Hughes says. Plagiarism is much more prevalent in freshmen, Hughes believes, because they “do not yet see themselves as creating new knowledge, and do not yet recognize themselves as part of a specific community with specific standards.”

Issues of academic integrity are handled depending on the severity and frequency of occurrence. Lamarre says that when a faculty member suspects dishonesty, they contact her to determine a student’s prior history. Whether a student has a previous history of offenses determines how likely it is the suspicion of academic integrity violation is correct. Additionally, that student’s history informs the degree of punishment.

Faculty speak with the student in private first to give them a chance to explain the situation. From there, the faculty may decide to proceed on their own, in conjunction with their department head, or with the Office of Community Standards, according to the Student Academic Integrity Policy.

Consequences for plagiarism are left up to the faculty to decide. That may range from not receiving credit on an assignment, tossing out the portion of an exam that likely was compromised, failing the class, suspension from the university or expulsion. Suspension can last for up to a year or longer, says Lamarre.

Many students’ first and primary concern is how a plagiarism or academic dishonesty charge will affect their future endeavors. Lamarre says that an incident will not go on a student’s academic transcript, but that her office keeps a record of the case for a period of time. However, to gain entrance to graduate or law school, to transfer institutions or to work for the federal government, student’s will be asked about their academic conduct record. Lamarre notes that students may refuse the request, but that, “if they say no, they know something is up.”

In cases where plagiarism cannot be definitively proven, guilt is based on evidence – if it appears to have happened, and the student tries to convince it’s not, then they are found responsible.

Student’s perception of plagiarism and academic integrity varies. In some cultures, copying and pasting from the Internet without citing is considered acceptable, as it getting excessive (or a lot) of help from friends on a writing assignment, says Michelle Perry, instructor and coordinator of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. The ESOL program conducts a workshop in the third week of the semester for all of its writing classes to define what is acceptable and what is plagiarism. The workshop intends to define what is considered getting too much help with an assignment, what are proper citations, and why academic integrity is taken so seriously at USM. Perry says that every workshop assumes positive intent and is designed for students growth as scholars and members of the academic community.

Ultimately, a students best defense plagiarism is to be diligent, says Hughes and Eckersley-Ray. For the full process of hearing cases of academic integrity, see the Office of Community Standards and Mediation page and click the sidebar for Academic Integrity.

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