Academic dishonesty reports on rise since 2010

Analysis of 17 years of data shows most common majors and infractions for reports

Photo illustration by Hailey Hoffman// AS Review

By Hailey Palmer

A Western computer science professor was browsing RentACoder, a website where people can pay for coding solutions to problems, when he came across something familiar. It was a student offering money for a solution to one of the professor’s assignments.

The professor asked Aran Clauson, another computer science professor, if it would be wrong to write a solution to the problem, get paid by the student and then fail the student for submitting the work he gave him through the website.

Yes, it would be wrong, Clauson told his colleague, but that’s only one example of a larger problem at Western.

Reports of academic dishonesty spiked in the 2012-2013 academic year with 88 incidents reported. There were 64 incidents reported in the previous academic year. Reports have remained steadily high ever since, with more than 90 reports in each academic year since 2012, according to academic dishonesty data from Western.

The finance department had the highest rate of academic dishonesty reports from 2000-2017 with 35 reports for the 10,699 students enrolled in finance classes for that period, a rate of .3271 percent. The computer science department followed with 146 reports for 60,211 students enrolled in its classes, a rate of .2425 percent. With the third highest rate, the journalism department had 34 reports with an enrollment of 31,977 students or .1063 percent.

Plagiarism was the most common violation in all three departments. Other violations were collaborating on homework, cheating on homework and submitting another student’s work.

The data used in this story, broken down by academic year, department and type of violation from 2000-2017, was obtained by a public records request to Western. Over 90 academic dishonesty report forms from the 2016-2017 academic year were also examined.


Plagiarism is consistent

Kinesiology Assistant Professor Jessyca Arthur-Cameselle serves as a member of the Academic Honesty board at Western. At the beginning of winter quarter 2017, she required students to pass an online plagiarism test which showed how to cite sources and avoid plagiarism.

Later that quarter, a student in her class submitted an assignment that included a sentence that was copied and pasted directly from a web source, according to an incident report filed by Arthur-Cameselle on Feb. 10, 2017.

“[The student] did not use quotation marks or provide a citation for the sentence,” Arthur-Cameselle wrote in the report. “When I talked with [the student] about the issue, he understood why it was considered plagiarism and stated that he had intended to reword the sentence into his own words but forgot.”

Students enrolled in Arthur-Cameselle’s course were aware of how to properly cite sources because of the plagiarism test taken at the beginning of the quarter, according to the incident report.

Arthur-Cameselle gave the student a zero for the writing portion of that assignment.

Plagiarism was the most frequently reported violation in the three departments with the highest rates of academic dishonesty.

Finance Department Chair Ed Love said plagiarism is easier to discover today than in the past.

“We used to run into a fair amount of plagiarism,” Love said. “I haven’t had a straight up plagiarism incident in awhile. Part of it is because plagiarism is so much easier to detect these days.”

Of the 35 reports of academic dishonesty in the finance department from 2000-2017, 11 of the reports, or 31 percent, were from plagiarism, according to academic dishonesty data from Western. Of the 146 in the computer science department in that same time frame, 33 were considered plagiarism, accounting for 23 percent of the total reports. For the 34 reports in the journalism department, 24 were noted as plagiarism, or 71 percent.

Journalism Department Chair Jennifer Keller said plagiarism is the most common type of violation she sees in the department.

“I would say the majority of [reports] is plagiarism in one form or another,” Keller said. “Either it’s improperly citing stuff from other places, but it also can be using your work for two different classes.”

Keller said academic honesty is important in journalism. The department puts an emphasis on ethics and integrity in its classes.

“In journalism, especially today where good journalism is under attack from so many sides, we really want to make sure our students understand all of the ethical implications of what they’re doing and what they’re writing so they can go out and be good journalists,” Keller said. “That’s one of the reasons we are very strict about making sure they understand the impact when they’re out being a reporter in the business because it’s so important for our field.”

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering and part of the Western Coalition for Integrity, said the plagiarism she sees in student work is what she would call unintentional plagiarism.

“In the digital age, when we write papers, we usually have a resource in front of us that we’re using as background information for our papers,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “When I’m writing my own research and reading some background reading or looking at a previous study, I’ll often read that and be writing my own paper and it’s very difficult if I’ve got that [previous study] in front of me to write it in any different words.”

Former liberal studies instructor Stephanie Maher ran into an incident of unintentional plagiarism in one of her courses during fall quarter 2016.

According to an incident report filed on Dec. 16, 2016, Maher caught a student who had plagiarized from more than one website on their final exam. The student said they had misunderstood the instructions and was told by the Writing Center to use the websites, according to the report.

The student ranked in the top 1 percent of the class, Maher wrote in the report, so she found it odd for them to include the information without proper citations.

“After discussing the matter with him, however, I firmly believe that this was an unintentional mistake,” Maher wrote in the report. “I made it clear to him the critical importance of academic honesty and advised him to cite any and all sources in the future.”

Maher offered the student the opportunity to submit a 15-page research paper to make up for the final exam.

Plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional, is still an issue, Caplan-Auerbach said.

“The problem is that plagiarism involves taking someone else’s work. Not just because you’re trying to represent it as your own or steal ideas,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “You’re stealing their effort and the time it took for them to craft the right phrase and pick the words that best described it.”

Clauson said the plagiarism he sees in the computer science department is typically students copying code and ideas. He said he also sees students lifting solutions and code from Stack Overflow, a question and answer website, but not being able to explain how the solution works.

“If you understand how it works I’m happy, just come in and explain how it works,” Clauson said. “Students who lift it from Stack Overflow can’t explain it.”

Students who are caught plagiarizing in the computer science department are usually 200-level students struggling their way through the class and department, Clauson said.

Caplan-Auerbach takes a similar approach to Clauson when she suspects a student of cheating.

“In some cases, a student is able to explain what happened, and it ends there,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “If the student is not satisfactorily able to explain what happened then there is an e-form that we fill out.”


Violations and Reporting Them

In addition to plagiarism, collaboration on homework and tests was the most reported violation from 2000-2017 in the finance, computer science and journalism departments. The mathematics and environmental studies departments had the next highest percentage of reports with cheating on a test and plagiarism being the most common type of violation.

Caplan-Auerbach said the College of Science and Engineering has recently put an emphasis on catching and reporting academic dishonesty.

“It has kind of been on our radar as faculty and we’ve been trying to be more proactive at [catching] it for probably about five years,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “We’re fighting to be a little more vocal about it.”

Cheating on homework and submitting another student’s work were each reported 25 times from 2000-2017 in the computer science department.

Having a solution to a homework problem and being able to develop a solution to a problem are two different things, with the latter being more important, Clauson said.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about my ability to look at their work and give them a grade,” Clauson said. “If they submit something to me that’s not their own work and doesn’t really reflect their mastery of the material, then that’s cheating.”

Other violations in the department include 19 reports of collaborating on homework, 13 reports of using unauthorized resources and nine reports of unauthorized collaboration.


Caught In The Act

For online submissions, professors have the option to run assignments through an anti-plagiarism software called Vericite. Western previously used a software called Turnitin until summer 2017.

These software aid in catching plagiarism by checking the internet and any previous assignments submitted through the software for similar language or phrasing.

While the software helps, Keller said it is still up to a professor to determine what is and isn’t plagiarism. She said the journalism department encourages all professors to use the software.

Software such as Vericite only checks for the language in a paper or an assignment and not for citations so there are other approaches the journalism department takes to not only catch plagiarism, but all kinds of cheating.

We talk to each other if we get something turned in and we’re like, ‘This doesn’t sound like the student,’” Keller said. “Especially if you’ve had the student for awhile you can tell by their phrasing and tone that the language isn’t something they would normally use.”  

Some professors in the computer science department use Measure of Software Similarity to catch students copying code. The system is similar to Vericite or Turnitin, but used specifically for code and program solutions.

Clauson said he personally isn’t a fan of using Vericite to check for plagiarism.

“I find that Vericite is completely useless,” Clauson said. “The positives I’m getting are clichés. Turnitin was a whole lot faster and when it said something was in the 10 to 15 percent range it means that several sentences [were plagiarized].”

While Clauson doesn’t prefer using Vericite, anti-plagiarism software has helped him in the past.

According to an academic dishonesty incident report filed by Clauson on May 3, 2017, a student submitted a paper which contained sections that were directly copied from Wikipedia. The paper was run through Turnitin and Clauson gave the student a zero for the assignment.   

“It’s easy to cut and paste out of Wikipedia,” Clauson said. “It’s really easy to find, too.”

Caplan-Auerbach said one of the approaches she knows of to catching academic dishonesty was certain professors talking to their classes about cheating at the beginning of the quarter.

“[T]here wasn’t any kind of university-wide statement about it,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “What we’d rather do is talk about why this matters and why we care about this.”


Moving Forward

There were 41 reports of academic dishonesty during fall quarter 2017, which is almost half of the 97 total reports during the 2016-2017 academic year.

The Western Coalition for Integrity is aiming to encourage academic honesty among professors and students.

“What can we do as a university to promote integrity and make it clear why this stuff matters to us,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “We’re really just trying, bit by bit, to educate the community that this is going on.”

Caplan-Auerbach and the Western Coalition for Integrity are focused on identifying ways to more broadly start a discussion about academic integrity.

“Prior to last year, all information about integrity or academic dishonesty was relegated to Appendix D of the online catalog, which means not a soul on this planet read it until they got busted for something,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “This is not a very proactive approach on the part of the university to deal with integrity.”

Professors using the e-form and reporting incidents of academic dishonesty is something Caplan-Auerbach would like to see.

The use of e-forms in reporting academic dishonesty was implemented only a few years ago and prior to that, professors had to fill out the form by hand.

“[Faculty] had to find some word document to fill out and nobody knew where it was or where to find it and it was huge,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “They needed to make six copies of everything, it was just an enormous hassle.”

A goal Caplan-Auerbach and other professors have for the future is for incidents of academic dishonesty to also be a learning experience for the students involved.

“We would like to have sanctions that are educational not just punitive,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “We would like this to actually be something where [students] don’t just get busted, they learn why it’s an issue.”

Clauson also said he tries to turn reports of academic dishonesty into a learning opportunity if appropriate for the violation.

“We are fundamentally a place where people learn and if you can’t learn from your mistakes here, where are you going to learn from them?” Clauson said.

“Reporting for this story was done by a team comprised of James Egaran, Hailey Palmer and Logan Portteus. As part of their Advanced Reporting class they compiled and analyzed the data, and worked together to report and produce a thee-part series. Read the rest of the series at The Western Front.

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