President comments on academic dishonesty

Feb 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 3

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The following letter from President Michael Stevenson was sent to the editor of the Vancouver Sun on Jan. 31.

I am writing to address a misunderstanding over Simon Fraser University's response to a question of academic dishonesty.

As recently as last fall, the university gained national credit for applying zero tolerance in a plagiarism case involving 44 students: the facts were determined fairly, discipline (including lengthy suspensions) was applied, and the University reported publicly on the outcome. I believe our record in dealing with dishonesty is second to none.

I am therefore very concerned that this record is being called into question by confusion over a current case in which two students turned in identical assignments. One student admitted to submitting the work of another and subsequently accepted the instructor's failing grade. This is a good example of the system working to detect and respond to cheating. The second student successfully appealed the failing grade, arguing authorship over the work that the first student had plagiarized.

The exonerated student openly acknowledged employing a tutor. This is common practice at all levels throughout the education system and there is nothing dishonest about students attempting to improve their understanding of a subject in this way. It is fundamentally dishonest, however, if a student submits work done by a tutor while claiming it to be their own. At the same time, it is fundamentally unjust to penalize a student simply on the assumption that plagiarism might be involved without first establishing the facts of the matter. Because the consequences of cheating are so significant for all concerned, zero tolerance for academic dishonesty must be accompanied by fair and rigorous examination.

The instructor was directed to re-evaluate the assignment and has chosen not to do so. It nevertheless remains for the university to conduct an objective and impartial re-examination of the student's work. If the student's claim to authorship is substantiated, an appropriate mark will be awarded. If it is found that the work was indeed plagiarized, appropriate consequences will result.

While the facts in this case remain to be established, important questions can be raised about the role of tutors and about academic honesty in the Internet age where instant access to commercial paper mills is available. These are difficult issues. The university has responded by purchasing software that aids in identifying plagiarism and by striking a task force on academic honesty to explore these matters in depth. I expect the results will provide clear assurances to students, faculty and the public that academic honesty will remain a defining characteristic of academic life at Simon Fraser University.

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