Copy, paste: plagiarism at UBC

“I hereby accept and submit myself to the statutes, rules and regulations, and ordinances (including bylaws, codes and policies) of The University of British Columbia and of the faculty or faculties in which I am registered.”

If you’re UBC student, this is a promise by which you are bound. Odds are, however, that you didn’t even know it existed.

This is the student declaration, a pledge that comes into effect for students when they accept their offer to UBC. And if you break it, it's on your own head.

Despite the severe consequences — expulsion, for example — that can await a student who chooses to break the student declaration, some do so every year in a particular way and with a particular end in mind: plagiarism.

UBC, like virtually all academic institutions, sees cases of plagiarism every year. It makes up the bulk of the 72 academic misconduct cases listed in the last discipline report, which tracked academic and nonacademic misconduct at UBC from 2013 to 2014.

A different report released by the CBC several years ago found that compared to other post secondary institutions in Canada, UBC’s rate of punishing people for plagiarism was quite low. Between 2011-2012, UBC had penalized far fewer than the hundreds of students who faced punishment for plagiarism at Simon Fraser University that year.

UBC again penalized less than 100 students — out of a population of 50,000 — for plagiarism during the 2013-14 academic year. 

Paul Harrison, associate dean of student services in the Faculty of Science, estimates that he had to deal with 20 to 60 students who had allegedly plagiarized. In a faculty of over 7,000, this is a small percentage.

Despite being a problem that appears relatively insignificant when judged by the number of punishments, plagiarism is often on the minds of students. The reference desk and writing commons in Irving K. Barber Library are no strangers to students who are worried about plagiarizing, said Julie Mitchell, managing librarian of Irving.

In her experience, students rarely bring in assignments with the worry that they have plagiarized, but are more concerned that they are going to. 

It might be easy to say, “If you don’t want to plagiarize, don’t.” But it’s not that simple — there are a number of lesser-known modes of plagiarism that are considered just as disingenuous as what Mitchell referred to as “blatant plagiarism” — the deliberate presentation of someone else’s ideas as your own.

Cases of blatant plagiarism litter the academic misconduct report for 2013-14, such as when one student “committed academic misconduct by taking another student’s homework assignment, erasing the student’s name and student number and writing his/her own name on the assignment and submitting it.” Another case: “A student committed academic misconduct by submitting material in a course that was plagiarized from a research summary submitted earlier by another group in the course.”

On the other hand, examples of little-known methods of copying include patch plagiarism — stringing a number of ideas together without including much original thought — or relying too heavily on a single source in a multi-source assignment. Or, in fact, plagiarizing from yourself.

“[Something] a lot of students don’t know is the idea of self-plagiarism. If you’ve cited an idea in another paper, you should cite it,” said Mitchell. “Think of it this way, if you publish a paper in a journal … you’ve signed away the copyright on that and you would have to cite it … the same goes with when you’re using papers between classes.”

This is where resources such as the writing centre come in handy. 

“There’s a lot of one-on-one help in the writing centre — they’re going to help students look at how to use sources and how to use them effectively,” said Mitchell.

Cautioning against plagiarism isn’t only common practice in writing-heavy courses, it’s prominent in courses involving coding. While there's a misconception that there's only one way to code for a solution, Harrison said coding is a lot like writing an essay — submissions shouldn’t look exactly the same. As a result, some computer science courses distribute guides to the academic policy with each assignment.

“[In] computer science 110 … this semester, I think we had 450 students and in the fall we often have more than 800,” said Meghan Allen, a UBC computer science professor. “So for every assignment, it’s not uncommon that we would see at least a couple cases [of plagiarism].”

In cases such as this, where the accusation being levelled in first year may have played a role, the allegation is sometimes treated as a learning experience.

“Many students aren’t clear on how to cite papers or things like that, so sometimes it’s turned into a learning experience or a warning,” said Stefania Burk, associate dean in the Faculty of Arts, noting that the teachers and deans will typically try to get to the motivation for why a student cheated and understand what in the student’s life may have contributed. “Everyone has complicated lives and so it’s about having the conversation about how to make better choices and why those choices, in the long run, make more sense.”

Take Sarah James who worked for UBC Okanagan's student newspaper, The Phoenix, and was also involved with multiple other academic commitments when her professors told her she hadn’t cited properly.

“It was just extremely sloppy. I did these papers at the same time within two days while also doing all of [the newspaper’s] production stuff,” she said. After James, then a fine arts undergraduate, was accused of plagiarism in her final year for the improper citations, she was called in by her professor and then met with the dean, as is protocol. 

Although punishments are administered on a case-by-case basis depending on the severity of the offence, the procedures for actually reporting the incident remains the same for all faculties, even at UBC Okanagan. After the meeting with professors and deans, James’ case was sent on to the President’s Advisory Committee, which handles academic misconduct cases.

“From there, I had to go to a nice big meeting. There were representatives from different faculties on the committee, there were the teachers who accused me, the dean who accused me and then the vice-chancellors,” said James. “I was allowed to bring in one witness.”

According to James, the penalties she received didn’t greatly affect her academic standing. After the president’s advisory committee hears a case, it goes to the president who then decides what action to take. In this case, former President Arvind Gupta simply sent James a formal letter of reprimand.

James also received a notation on her transcript, which she can apply to remove once two years have passed.

“I did apply to a separate degree after this degree in Vancouver ... so that didn’t really have an impact there, but I think going into grad schools it would have,” she said.

It’s also difficult to punish plagiarism because allegations can also be based on the individual judgement of a professor. 

Lisa Rudolph, a second-year physics major, was accused of plagiarism in her 200-level computational physics class. Rudolph was working on her final project which involved research. She said her professor accused her of plagiarism because they did not believe she was capable of understanding one of the papers she had read “at that magnitude.”

In this case, Rudolph didn’t have to go through any of the disciplinary processes. Technically, all cases of academic misconduct should be directed to the dean of the faculty, but Rudolph said her professor dropped the matter after making her promise not to do it again and to be conscious of it in future.

“It was really degrading to tell someone, ‘Yeah, I won’t copy this again,’ because he wouldn’t believe that I had written it,” she said. “It was degrading to admit that I had copied something when I hadn’t.”

James and Rudolph are examples of the difficulties in identifying and punishing plagiarism — circumstances and individual judgements play a big role. But not every case is considered so nuanced. More severe cases are those in which, for example, a student wasn’t mistakenly citing, but was blatantly pulling ideas from elsewhere without credit, particularly if the student is in their senior year and is expected to know how correctly use secondary sources. 

These warrant harsher punishments such as expulsion from the university or actual revocation of the degree.

“There are many cases where the student deliberately cheated, deliberately cut corners, ran out of time, something else was going on in their life,” said Harrison. “It happens and students sometimes take the easiest way out instead.”

Harrison noted that intentional cheating occurs even on assignments worth one or two percent of the mark. Rather than take a zero, students “will do it dishonestly … and then they lose a lot.”

“Plagiarism isn’t an admonishment against using other people’s work. It’s about acknowledging it and being part of that scholarly or intellectual community.”

— Stefania Burk, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts

But once students have been warned, they rarely plagiarize again, according to Harrison. That being said, if they’re a second offender, penalties are harsher. Harrison has a case on his hands currently with a group of five students who copied code, one of whom he has dealt with before.

“They’re not going to get off lightly,” he predicts for the second offender. “And the others probably will.”

Rather than emphasizing the negatives of academic misconduct, Burk suggests focusing on academic integrity instead.

“We talk about academic misconduct and I think a better way of phrasing it is about integrity. Rather than seeing it as a bad thing you do, there’s a good thing we’d like everyone to do,” said Burk. “Plagiarism isn’t an admonishment against using other people’s work.” Instead, she said, “It’s about acknowledging it and being part of that scholarly or intellectual community.”

To avoid plagiarism, one piece of advice is offered loud and clear, and it’s not triple-checking your citations or extensively reading about every way you could plagiarize — it’s time-management.

According to Mitchell, things like not allocating time to take proper notes and work in advance can lead to plagiarism.“You’re just in the mindset of you’re really tired, you’ve been writing a paper and you literally forget that idea was something you read in a paper,” said Mitchell.

Harrison agrees. “Often it’s poor time management that leads to the poor decisions and there are usually alternatives,” he said. “Seek an extension, the worst that can happen is the instructor can say no.”