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MANY OF US admit to doing it at least once and most of us believe we will never be caught or properly disciplined. It is a crime that is supposed to be taken seriously but is sometimes swept under the rug; it’s an offence that tarnishes reputations and lands students in a world of trouble. No, we’re not referring to the amount of indecent exposures that occur during frosh week. We’re talking about plagiarism.

The top four most stupid mistakes made by plagiarizersSo, you know your nasty little habit could lead to expulsion, but you aren’t scared. You’ve been plagiarizing since your first week of school and you’re going to continue to do so, damn it!Well, if you insist on ripping off other people’s hard work, at least be smart enough not to make the following stupid mistakes:

1. Stealing from an article written by your own professor

Good luck explaining your way out of this one!

2. Copying and pasting something from the Internet without removing the links

See all of those underlined blue words? Yeah, that’s a bit of a giveaway.

3. Failing to remove someone else’s name from the work

No, telling your prof that you’ve recently applied to legally change your name is not going to save your ass.

4. Forgetting to change the font of the stolen work to Times New Roman

If phrases written in Comic Sans are sprinkled throughout your essay, consider yourself royally screwed.

The basics

As described by the website for the University of Ottawa’s Office of the Vice-President Academic and Provost, plagiarism “refers mainly to using words, sentences, and ideas from various sources and passing off them as your own by deliberately or unintentionally omitting to quote or reference them correctly.” This is not to be confused with academic fraud, which is defined by the university as “an act by a student that may result in a false academic evaluation of that student or of another student.”

Plagiarism has likely been around since the first caveman picked up a writing utensil and went to work on the side of a rock, but the birth of the Internet has caused the instances of plagiarism to grow exponentially. A simple Google search of the phrase “free essay” results in 19 million hits, and when inquiring to purchase an essay, that number jumps to 24 million.

Some websites require potential plagiarizers to create a profile, while other sites won’t grant access without a credit card number. The first hit after searching “free essays” on Google is the aptly named AllFreeEssays.com. AllFreeEssays comes complete with a search bar, allowing students to quickly find hundreds of papers on any subject they choose. A search for essays on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye results in 414 free essays, most of which are riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. Given the quality of work available online often leaves much to be desired, why would students choose to plagiarize?

No one will notice… right?

Although the most common excuses for plagiarism include fear of failing, time constraints, and pure laziness, Jennifer Panek, an associate professor in the U of O’s English department, feels it is “impossible to generalize” why someone would plagiarize.

“One student might buy a paper from a cheat site because they’re desperate to pass a course that they’re failing. Another might copy a sentence from something they found online because they like the way it sounds and they don’t stop to think about the fact that it’s plagiarism,” she said. “Probably the only thing that students who plagiarize have in common is that they all think they won’t get caught.”

Justine LaBelle, a recent University of Ottawa graduate who holds a degree in communications, believes every student has had a momentary lapse of judgment in their academic careers.

“I think all students get tempted to plagiarize at some point,” she said. “I admit even I have countless times. Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘I’ll just use this small section—they won’t even notice,’ but then reality sets in and you reconsider.”

LaBelle thinks students plagiarize “because sometimes writing a decent paper can be stressful and demanding.”

She notes stress often plays a part in a student’s decision to plagiarize.

“[Writing a paper] is challenging at times and some students cannot handle the stress,” she said. “It’s normal. We are students; we run into situations we feel we cannot handle and we do inappropriate things to solve our problems.”

Students share their stories 

When a student commits plagiarism, intentionally or not, the effect can be devastating on an academic and personal level. U of O student Leah Peters* found herself in the hot seat after making a simple mistake in a paper.

“In my introduction I didn’t use quotation marks when quoting a statistical figure,” she said. “Instead, I referenced the author, date, and page of the article following the statistical reference in brackets. Due to this reference error, I was accused of plagiarism.

“After I had handed in my assignment, I was called into my professor’s office two weeks later,” Peters continued. “That’s when she informed me that I was accused of plagiarism and that I would have to go see the dean of the health sciences faculty.”

Although Peters tried to explain she had simply made a mistake in referencing, her professor had no interest in listening to her and simply said the dean would decide her fate.

When meeting with the vice-dean of the faculty, Peters received good news.

“The vice-dean took my file and shredded it,” she said. “He said there would be no account of this incident on my transcript, nor would I be penalized for having misreferenced the article.”

Peters chalks the incident up to experience.

“Needless to say, the outcome of this terrifying and traumatic experience has taught me that, unfortunately, something so small as misreferencing a statistical figure is in a way seen as plagiarism,” she said.

Sabrina Manuel*, a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph, admits to resorting to plagiarism on several different occasions.

“I found people who took the same classes I was in, but during previous years,” she explained. “I would get their essays and model mine after theirs. I also copied their references so I didn’t have to do the research.”

When her roommate registered in the same online course Manuel had taken the semester before, she quickly offered up her old work.

“I gave my roommate all of my answers to the online postings we had to do,” she said. “She copied and pasted them when she took the class the following semester.”

Manuel was never questioned about her actions.

“I never got caught and I never really worried about it,” she said. “I didn’t feel guilty because I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Christopher Ralph, a recent graduate of Carleton University, experienced plagiarism from the other side of the fence when his own work was stolen.

“A close friend, who happens to be a year behind me in law, asked to borrow a paper I had written the year previous on a particular topic, as the professor does not change the curriculum year to year,” he said. “She asked to borrow my paper from the year previous, as it had earned an A. When over at her house the weeks following, I noticed my paper, word for word, on her coffee table with an A- grade on it. It put a real strain on our relationship and almost caused us to never speak again.”

Ralph made sure to alert their mutual friends of the incident and refused to let his friend borrow his work again.

Cracking down

Finding plagiarized work can be as simple as typing text into a search engine or as difficult as hunting down a particular sentence or phrase from a book. Regardless of their chosen method, most professors are experts at spotting stolen work. Although some chose not to disclose their plagiarism-catching secrets, Heather Murray, assistant professor in the Department of History, revealed the most common red flags.

“Often the language is too sophisticated, but other times it is obvious markers like misnumbered footnotes, font changes, and drastic change in tone.”

Michael Strangelove, communications professor at the U of O, avoids the plagiarism problem by asking his students to present their work in non-written formats.

“I used to run into [plagiarism] fairly often when I accepted research papers,” he said. “Now I don’t [accept papers] because of plagiarism. [Students] have to do video documentaries instead … I don’t have take home final exams; they must write them in class with nothing but a pen and paper.”

Upon making the change, Strangelove noticed an interesting change in his students’ grades.

“The minute I [stopped accepting written papers], my class average dropped from an A- to a B,” he said. “It showed that students didn’t master the material without something in front of them.”

Suzanne Bowness, a part-time instructor and PhD candidate in the English department, thinks people who plagiarize simply lack common sense.

“I’m constantly surprised when students copy from the Internet, which is a common form,” she said. “Don’t they realize I have access to the same sites they do?”

Plagiarism punishments 

Each professor deals with plagiarism differently. Bowness gives students the chance to explain themselves.

“I have options: I can give an assignment a zero or turn them into the faculty to be dealt with at that level,” she said, although she prefers to “gather the proof and present it to [the student] and ask why this happened.”

Other professors, like Panek, have a different perspective.

“First of all, I get angry. Tracking down and proving plagiarism is a huge waste of a professor’s time,” she said. “Besides, it’s insulting. Not only has the student proven to be dishonest, but he or she clearly thinks I’m stupid enough not to notice.”

Panek takes the case to the next level.

“What I do next is report the plagiarism to the chair of my department, who refers it to the faculty,” she said. “A case of proven plagiarism goes on a student’s record, so there can be increasingly stiff penalties if there’s a second or third offence.”

According to the University of Ottawa’s academic regulations, there are several ways a student can be punished for handing in work that is not entirely their own. A guilty student may receive a mark of zero on the work in question; a mark of zero for the course; between three to 30 credits added to their graduation requirements; the loss of scholarship opportunities; or suspension from their program. Expulsion from their faculty is the worst-case scenario for a plagiarizing student.

Although plagiarism is usually regarded as an intentional act, there are instances when a student is unaware of what they have done. Most professors make an effort at the beginning of the semester to ensure these problems are avoided by encouraging students to read the university’s resources regarding plagiarism; however, human error is sometimes inevitable.

Some professors are willing to let students correct innocent mistakes.

“There are always students who still get it wrong, so my rule of thumb is that if your paper shows that you’ve made an honest attempt to cite your sources … I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” said Panek. “This means that I’ll email you and require you to submit a revised version of your paper, with proper references, before I’ll give it a grade.”

Students who have been accused of plagiarism but want to fight their case should visit the Student Appeal Centre. Mireille Gervais, director and senior student appeal officer, reports in the past 12 months “the Student Appeal Centre was consulted on 39 cases of academic fraud, 22 of which were successful, meaning either that no sanction was imposed or that the outcome was to the satisfaction of the student.”

Confused? Ask for help!

Although plagiarism is a black and white subject, many students do not take the time to figure out what it entails. LaBelle suggests students who are confused by the definition of plagiarism consult their professors.

“Professors encourage students to ask them if they are unsure about how to paraphrase or what they need and don’t need to cite,” she said. “If you’re uncertain, ask! There’s no harm in informing yourself. As a student it is our duty to inform ourselves and do the proper research in order to be successful.”

The website of the Academic Writing Help Centre (AWHC) echoes LaBelle’s statements, stating it is the student’s “responsibility to acquire the knowledge necessary to avoid plagiarism.”

Helping students understand and avoid plagiarism is one of the AWHC’s many specialties, and students are encouraged to make an appointment to meet with one of their trained advisors if they feel they need clarification.

If you find yourself wondering if what you are doing is wrong, take the time to make sure you’re in the clear. It’s better to dedicate a minute of research to ensure academic honesty than to spend weeks fighting your case with your professor or faculty.

Play it safe 

Despite being tempted in the past, LaBelle argues plagiarism simply isn’t worth it.

“I would never go through with it because it isn’t worth the potential consequences. As university students, I feel that we should be able to cite sources correctly,” she said. “Some consider plagiarism to be an easy way out; however, it’s actually just an easy way to get yourself expelled.”

—Dani-Elle Dubé, with files from Kristyn Filip

*Names have been changed