Today's Lesson: Cheating Is Bad

academic integrity
The poster used by the college several years ago to publicize academic integrity.

News, Opinion and Analysis

By E.P. Chant,

Managing Editor, SRC Student Publications

A few days ago, St. Clair Librarian John DeCaro emailed a notification to all faculty and staff at the college, bringing their attention to a recently published research paper on the topic of “academic integrity”. That’s the highfalutin term used for the prevention of cheating in school, particularly in the form of plagiarism in essay writing.

The study was published in The International Journal for Educational Integrity – on-line at https://edintegrity.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1007/s40979-019-0042-4

It was authored by four Canadian educators, from the University of Manitoba, the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto, and Toronto’s Humber College.

The researchers based their study on the academic integrity/anti-cheating/plagiarism/students-rights-and-responsibilities policies of Ontario’s 24 community colleges.

In a nutshell, authors Brenda Stoesz, Sarah Eaton, Jennifer Miron and Emma Thacker concluded: “Key findings revealed that specific and direct language pertaining to contract cheating was largely absent from the policy documents, that underlying policy principles lacked clear definition, and that exemplary policy has yet to be developed in this context. We conclude with recommendations for increased policy research in the area of academic integrity and a call for policy revision in Canadian higher education institutions to more explicitly address the issue of contract cheating, as well as provide more support to students and other campus stakeholders to better understand how contract cheating impacts and impedes teaching and learning.”

That synopsized conclusion highlights one of the chief topics of the entire report: namely, its concentration on “contract cheating”.

The term refers to the most egregious sort of academic misbehaviour: when a student farms out his/her work to a third-party – either by arranging for another person to sneakily write a test on his/her behalf, or (more commonly) by having another person or a “paper-mill” company write an essay. (The authors note, too, that contract cheating might not, necessarily, involve the payment of a fee. Some students can convince friends or classmates to perform such tasks for them without the exchange of cash.)

Such misbehaviour is considered especially egregious because it is not caused by ignorance (“I don’t know proper footnoting formats”) or accident (“I did some paraphrasing and just forgot to cite the original source material”). Contract cheating, by contrast, is “academic dishonesty” which is “deliberate, pre-planned, and intentional deception”, according to a definition used in the report.

The authors also note that such cheating may begin in the high school environment. They cite studies that indicate that upwards of 18 percent of students have contract-cheated at some time during their secondary school educations – not much of a difference compared to the estimated 22 percent of postsecondary students who have done so at one time or another during their academic careers.

While noting that assorted definitions in many schools’ integrity policies could be improved, the authors emphasized that specific references to contract cheating are completely lacking in almost all pertinent documents of the 24 Ontario colleges.

Which is where some of The Scene’s commentary comes into play ...

... While we suppose that the insertion of specific references to contract cheating might be warranted, do we really need to extensively re-emphasize a definition of something that is so obviously wrong?

If people think, for one second, that getting other individuals to do their work for them is somehow appropriate and proper, their fundamentals ethics are either non-existent or deeply flawed ... and bolstering the language in a policy document stands little chance of curing that.

As the report’s authors noted, contract cheating is knowingly, deliberately and intentionally dishonest and deceptive.

And, as suggested above, there are levels of academic misbehaviour:

• Ignorance: “I don’t know proper footnoting formats”. Remedy: “Here are the guidelines to follow for proper citations, footnotes and bibliographical references. Use them in the future, and sin no more.”

• Accidents: “I did some paraphrasing and just forgot to cite the original source material.” Remedy: “Be more careful, so you don’t do it again. This is your one warning. Oh, and sin no more.”

• Contract-cheating and Chronic Plagiarism: If a school gives even one warning about such incidents, transgressing students should be shamefully appreciative that they’ve enrolled at an institution with such a forgiving mindset. There should, really, be no explanations and no excuses accepted. Such behaviour is so self-evidently dishonest, unethical and wrong that the hammer should come down immediately.

When it comes to that sort of blatant misconduct, it is amazing that multi-page policies must exist at all. How about this simple rule: “If you make a conscious decision to cheat, you will automatically fail the assignment in question. If it ever happens again, you will be expelled.”

Which bring us to another topic covered by the recent study: that a lot of the reviewed policies seem to put the onus for academic integrity largely in the lap of students.

Well, yeah.

Under the heading of “responsibility”, the contention of the authors is that pertinent policies must emphasize that all stakeholders at a school have roles to play in promoting and upholding the tenets of academic integrity.

And while that is true, there is no getting around the fact that the chief group which must do the upholding is students.

Here’s the fundamental, unwritten contractual agreement of all educational settings: The school’s faculty will provide knowledgeable and competent instruction, and students will work hard and honestly to absorb that instruction.

From that basic perspective – yes, indeed – the lion’s share of the responsibility to behave in a manner steeped in academic integrity falls to students. So long as a school’s administration (through its policies) and its faculty members (through clearly outlined practical guidelines of essay-writing and test-taking) specify their expectations of reasonably acceptable quality, it is entirely up to students to strive to meet those expectations ... and to recognize the penalty-laden ramifications of failing to meet those expectations.

Another topic covered by the study dealt with the accessibility of academic integrity policies: how easy (or difficult) it is for existing students and prospective students to actually acquire those documents.

In the case of some of the two dozen Ontario colleges, a half-dozen, inconvenient website link-clicks were necessary to locate such policies.

St. Clair appears to be somewhat more forthright with that information.

On its main website (http://www.stclaircollege.ca/), “Academic Integrity” is the first link under its “Student Services” heading. Clicking on that leads to a subpage with more links: “Penalties & Process”, “Resources For Faculty”, “Resources For Students”, and “Understanding Academic Misconduct”. The official policy is found under the “Penalties & Process” heading, by clicking on “Official Code of Students Rights and Responsibilities”.

Or, even more directly, the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities has its own link from the main webpage, also under the “Student Services” heading.

In both cases, that 44-page policy document pops up as a downloadable PDF (http://www.stclaircollege.ca/docs/policies/scc_policy_7-1.pdf).