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Is everybody cheating? Best practices in addressing academic misconduct

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It certainly seems that way. A recent annotated bibliography by the University of Calgary presents some pretty staggering data that suggests that academic dishonesty is “widespread amongst Canadian students and faculty.”[1] The authors reviewed 68 studies on academic integrity performed in Canada up to and including 2017. The paper states that between half and 90% of students self-report academically dishonest behaviours.[2] Based on a review of research in professional programs, the paper reports that the majority of faculty members either participate in plagiarism or do not recognize or discuss plagiarism in the classroom.[3] The paper cites from one researcher’s work who suggests that between 10-20% of academics received their degrees fraudulently.[4]

While Canadian institutions have managed to mostly stay out of the limelight with respect to issues of academic misconduct[5], this may only be a matter of time. The college admissions scandal in the United States garnered much media attention and academic dishonesty may be having a bit of a moment in the spotlight. Indeed, a recent investigation by the CBC discussed the phenomena of “contract cheating” and how businesses selling custom-written essays to students in Toronto are thriving.[6]

Most universities and colleges have policies and procedures in place for defining academic misconduct and outlining the steps to be taken when an incident of academic misconduct arises. That being said, a 2006 study into academic misconduct in Canada found that undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and TAs alike had little confidence in the effectiveness of their institutions’ academic misconduct policies and procedures.[7] This lack of confidence coupled with the fact that academic misconduct is likely being underreported in institutions [8]presents an interesting dilemma for institutions. How does an institution combat this misconduct when there is not enough information about how it is occurring? When an incident does come to an institution’s attention, how should it go about addressing it in a way that will instill confidence in its processes and encourage others to report misconduct?

An institution-wide survey or assessment is one method to better understand the extent to which academic misconduct is occurring. The anonymity of a survey or assessment process is particularly effective in exposing behaviours that the academic population might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. An assessment also provides an opportunity to better understand the views of not only students, but also faculty towards academic misconduct, including how and when they feel it is appropriate to report academic misconduct. This type of information can lead to better and more effective prevention campaigns.

What to do once an institution has uncovered misconduct? Often times the most serious forms of misconduct (and those which pose the greatest risks to an institution’s reputation) only come to light after many years of fraud and deception. Given the frequent collaborations in academia, academic misconduct can have wide-ranging consequences for an accused’s academic peers and may necessitate further inquiries into their knowledge and involvement. Accordingly, an inquiry into the misconduct may require extensive document review, witness interviews, and detailed analysis to fully and properly investigate the allegations and discover the scope of the wrongdoing. In our experience, investigations can uncover a range of findings that may not have been obvious at first blush. These include uncovering:

• The mechanics behind the misconduct (ex. how did the respondent cheat? how did they fabricate data? how often?)
• Other individuals who may be implicated in the misconduct
• Other instances of misconduct by the respondent previously unknown to the institution
• Whether the misconduct is systemic to the program or institution
• The impact the misconduct has on the student or the faculty population
• Institutional attitudes towards misconduct and reporting misconduct
• Whether there are mitigating circumstances at issue
• Impact of misconduct on the institution’s relationship with third parties, including funding bodies

Most university policies allow for an external investigator to be appointed in these circumstances. Engaging an external investigator can be beneficial for several reasons. As stated above, often times these investigations require specialized knowledge and expertise and dedicated time to uncover the full scope and impact of the fraudulent conduct. An external investigation also ensures procedural fairness for the parties and helps counter any arguments of conflict of interest on behalf of the institution. When such serious consequences are at stake, not only for the accused but also for the reputation of the institution, an institution should do everything possible to ensure that the investigation is conducted in a timely, fair, and efficient manner. This will go a long way in helping the institution withstand the scrutiny of the media or any subsequent appeal or review processes.

[1] Sarah Elaine Eaton et al, “Academic Integrity in Canada: An Annotated Bibliography” (2019) Calgary: University of Calgary at 5. Academic dishonesty is defined by the study as the “deliberate violation of academic codes of conduct.”

[2] Ibid at 14.

[3] Ibid at 21.

[4] Ibid at 42, citing from Irving Hexham, “Forget about academic fraud? Were you sexually harassed?” in K. Westhuses, ed, Workplace Mobbing in Academics: Reports from Twenty Universities (Lewistion: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004) at 218-237.

[5] We are using this term in its broadest sense to encompass various forms of academic misconduct arising in educational environments, including but not limited to: plagiarism; misrepresentation and falsification of credentials; data fabrication; biased grading; cheating and ‘contract cheating’; and corruption in recruitment and admissions. Academic misconduct can implicate students and faculty alike.

[6] Nick Boisvert, “Experts say ‘predatory’ essay writing firms are thriving and there is not stopping them,” CBC News (April 25, 2019), online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/contract-cheating-nursing-investigation-1.5109322.

[7] Supra note 3 at 17.

[8] The University of Calgary paper found that students often trivialize or fail to recognize academically dishonest behaviors and are confused about what amounts to academic dishonesty. The study also states that there are inconsistencies in faculty’s understanding of academic dishonesty. Supra note 1 at p. 6.