University educators’ perceptions and responses to plagiarism

Academic dishonesty continues to be a considerable problem in higher education. While initial approaches to responding to plagiarism focused on detecting and punishing offenders, in more recent years the emphasis has shifted towards helping both instructors and learners understand and avoid academic dishonesty before it becomes an issue.

Developing a culture of academic integrity can be a complex institutional endeavor. One key step is clarifying and communicating the expectations of faculty, staff, and students, and helping everyone understand the processes involved in preventing and responding to plagiarism. Part of that process is deymystifying the topic and creating opportunities for members of the academic community to talk about academic integrity in open and candid ways.

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton investigated how instructional staff in the Werklund School of Education perceived the University’s policies on plagiarism, and how they acted on the suspicion of academic dishonesty. Dr. Eaton, together with her research assistants, conducted a survey, focus groups and individual interviews with participants to gain insight into their practices.

To report or not

The data highlighted tensions and discrepancies between institutional policy and the practice of instructors. While the Werklund School of Education has developed an innovative tool to help educators understand and promote academic integrity, and step-by-step instructions on how to respond to cases of plagiarism are provided by the Office of Teaching and Learning, the study revealed that some instructors were either not aware they existed, or chose not to follow the processes in some cases.

For many academic staff, these tensions arose as a result of official procedures limiting their involvement to the early stages of reporting. Though the instructor is required to document and report the plagiarized work, they are then no longer allowed to be involved in the process, as dictated by privacy regulations such as FOIP. In some cases, research participants shared that they had mixed feelings about this. The relational aspects of teaching can be key to developing teaching excellence, and some felt it may be more productive in the long run if they could continue to cultivate and nurture their relationship with their student throughout the process.

The instructors discussed wanting to help their students navigate the process, and show their support and commitment to them as learners. Some participants discussed the potential for retribution from the student. They noted that students still have the right to fill out a course evaluation, even if they are found to have committed an act of academic misconduct. If a faculty member’s relationship with the student is damaged by reporting the problem, participants feared that one possible outcome could be that the student (and potentially others) may report dissatisfaction with the course and the instructor during their evaluations. This could then have a negative impact on the instructor when it came to their performance review.

As a result, some instructors would handle what they considered to be ‘minor’ cases of academic dishonesty themselves, only completing the full process if it was a more serious issue. By maintaining their agency, and using their own judgment, the instructors felt better able to balance the need for addressing the issue, without hindering their relationship with their students.

Resolving tensions

Dr. Eaton’s study reveals the complexity involved in responding to instances of academic dishonesty. While the instructors understood the importance of academic integrity, they also shared frustrations when it came to following official procedures that could damage the relationships with students that they had worked to establish. This may decrease their motivation to report what they consider to be less significant problems.

A key finding from this study was faculty members’ deep commitment to their students’ long-term success. Above all else, participants in this study expressed a desire to support students’ success. This study may open up the possibility of further dialogue about how to effectively support students, as well as faculty, in terms of both practice and policy. Dr. Eaton is currently looking to expand the study to include academic staff from the across the university, and in other institutions beyond.

See more from Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton on her profile

Connected Citations

Eaton, S. E. (2017). Investigating Academic Integrity in the Werklund School of Education: Process, policy and perceptions. Research Project Brief. Calgary: University of Calgary. Available Online.

Eaton, S. E. (2017). Comparative Analysis of Institutional Policy Definitions of Plagiarism: A Pan-Canadian University Study. Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education, 48(3), 271-281. doi:10.1007/s10780-017-9300-7. Available Online.

Eaton, S. E., Guglielmin, M., & Otoo, B. (2017). Plagiarism: Moving from punitive to pro-active approaches. In A. P. Preciado Babb, L. Yeworiew, & S. Sabbaghan (Eds.), Selected Proceedings of the IDEAS Conference 2017: Leading Educational Change Conference (pp. 28-36). Calgary, Canada: Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Available Online.

Eaton, S. E., Lock, J., & Schroeder, M. (2017). Academic Integrity Online: Developing Support Mechanisms for Online Graduate Students to Understand Plagiarism. Research Brief. Calgary: University of Calgary. Available Online.

Eaton, S. E. (2017). Academic Integrity and plagiarism: Supplementary materials for educator workshops. Calgary: University of Calgary. Available Online.

In the Media

CBC Calgary Eyeopener. (2017). The problem of contract cheating. Listen Online.

The Conversation Canada. (2017). Universities unite against the academic black market. Read Online.