Academic misconduct: ‘Students are buying degrees that they aren’t earning’

Teaching assistants struggle with lack of support from University in handling academic breaches

Cases of academic misconduct have increased during remote learning.
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Following an increase in breaches of academic integrity during the remote fall term, two teaching assistants (TAs) are calling on the University to take action in penalizing academic misconduct.

George and Isabelle, whose names have been protected, were TAs for courses in the Film and Media department in the Fall 2020 term. They found professors didn’t support going to the administration to penalize students in cases of academic misconduct.

Both TAs were made aware of academic misconduct when marking final assignments using Turnitin. The software, Isabelle explained, detects passages from other sources and assigns a percentage of how much of a work is plagiarized. 

Isabelle told The Journal that Turnitin will flag everything in a paper that’s copied regardless of whether it’s properly cited. It’s the responsibility of the TA to go through assignments to ensure everything taken from another source has been adequately cited. 

READ MORE: December Senate: academic integrity breaches increased in 2019-20 year

Where copy rates are dismissed when proper citations are in place, Isabelle said if the rate of plagiarism is still 20 per cent or higher, TAs must investigate further, and in some cases, refer the assignment to the professor. 

George said that, out of the 50 students he was responsible for, he encountered five or six cases when marking final assignments where he was required to alert the professor. Isabelle, who was a TA for a second-year course, also encountered five cases of plagiarism. 

“[In using Turnitin,] I realized a lot of students were just copying and pasting their work,” George said. “One of the most notable examples was one particular student, who I thought to be my best student, who had a plagiarism rate of 60 per cent.”

Isabelle noted that four of her five plagiarism cases had copy rates of between 50 and 60 per cent, where the highest copy rate was 61 per cent. 

When reporting the instances of plagiarism, both TAs noted the punishment for students was lenient. George said he was told by the professor of his course to mark the assignment with a 20 per cent grade deduction because they “didn’t want to make this misconduct a big deal.”

“The [professor] said the student would be very disappointed and frustrated if they were to be failed, and the process for the department to handle [the misconduct] would be very long,” George said. 

“That is insane. We’re not the ones who are supposed to be responsible for this kind of misconduct. The students should be penalized, not us.”

READ MORE: International graduate students now eligible to hold TA & RA positions

Isabelle was met with a similar instruction by her professor. Her professor recommended she deduct each paper by between 10 and 20 per cent, depending on the copy rate. 

She said the professor attributed the leniency of the penalty for students breaching academic integrity to the lack of support for investigating cases from the department administration, claiming the process was “intense.” 

While the professor maintained that the way the University handled academic misconduct was intense, he never disclosed details of the process to Isabelle. 

In a statement to The Journal, the University noted course syllabi are required to contain information on academic integrity, which is often verbally addressed early in the term by professors. The University said there are resources available to students on campus, such as Student Academic Success Services, to ensure they’re able to comply with academic integrity. 

The University also noted that deterring students from engaging in academic misconduct and beginning the process for penalizing breaches in academic integrity was in the hands of TAs and instructors. 

“TAs will often be involved in marking assignments and as such, may be the first to become aware of possible departures from academic integrity. They would then bring these to the course instructor,” the University wrote.

“The academic integrity policy and procedures state that the course instructor is responsible for initiating an investigation, where they have a basis for alleging a possible departure from academic integrity. The University is consistent in advocating for the importance of academic integrity, but instructors are best placed to make judgments about integrity in their own courses.”

The University declined to provide a statement on how academic misconduct is being effectively managed during a period of remote learning. 

Regarding the University’s approach to handling academic misconduct, both George and Isabelle are concerned for the reputation of the University. 

“I don’t want people to see [students] graduating from Queen’s and assume [they] got their degree easily; that’s not the truth,” George said.

Isabelle echoed his concerns.

“I’m appalled,” Isabelle said. “I was so proud to get accepted to a top 10 school with a 50 per cent acceptance rate at the undergrad level. Now that I’m here, I feel that it’s a joke. Students are buying degrees that they aren’t earning.”

“I’m glad my undergrad didn’t come from here if this is what goes on here.”

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