a student committing academic fraud
There has been an increase in the number of academic fraud cases as a result of virtual learning. Image: FreePik.
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Cases of academic fraud have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as students use Chegg and online websites to find answers

According to a number of faculty members since the University of Ottawa adapted to online learning at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, there has been an increase in reported academic misconduct cases. To avoid increased academic misconduct and plagiarism, professors have turned to various methods to dissuade cheating. 

This semester, some of the academic fraud cases have been linked to plagiarism off the website Chegg. The website claims that “everything is ‘figureoutable’ and often posts answers to assignments and occasionally entire midterm exams.

At the same time, Chegg also has an honour code that will “identify the nature of misuse or any information about users [involved]” to be used by professors and the university during a misconduct investigation.

Tim Gulliver, advocacy commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) warned that students should be aware that Chegg has the ability to share information with universities if requested. 

Professor WonSook Lee’s course Data Structures and Algorithms (CSI 2110) is one where students were found to have used Chegg for two assignments and a midterm. Students were also using a Discord group chat to share answers during the midterm. 

“Chegg promises answers within 30 minutes. Students can then put all the questions into Chegg and then wait for the answers before plugging them all in,” said Lee. “I had to change it so students can not go back and forth between questions to prevent this.”

“I contacted Chegg and asked them to take down all the posts relating to my course because that is copyrighted material. I also asked for all the information of students who used Chegg for those answers. The answers on Chegg are right usually so it takes a long time to investigate the exams and go through each students’ exam and compare their answers to both Chegg and other students.”

As per the U of O’s website, “academic fraud is defined as any act by a student that may result in a distorted academic evaluation of that student or of another student.” 

The sanctions currently put in place by the university range from a written warning, to permanent expulsion of a student according to Academic Regulation 14

“Plagiarism typically results in a zero or F for the course in question.”

Reports from the University of Ottawa say that on average, from 2007 to 2012, there were around 200-300 cases of plagiarism per academic year. Now, they are seeing an increase.

The faculty of arts has reported a small increase in cases of academic fraud since the fall of  2019. For last year’s fall semester, there were 37 cases of fraud, increasing to 42 in the winter term. The spring/summer 2020 term saw 50 reported cases of fraud. As of the week of Nov. 9 there have been 16 cases of academic fraud reported in the faculty of arts this semester. 

“Fraud cases went up roughly an order of magnitude. It still reflects a very small minority of our students, but unfortunately, we did have many more cases [than previous semesters],” said Alain St-Amant, vice-dean of undergraduate studies and student experience for the faculty of science.

“It’s very tempting for students [to cheat] if the professors make the exam excessively hard or teach in a way that the students panic about the material,” said Timothy Lethbridge, professor of engineering and vice-dean of governance for the faculty. 

“The amount of fraud is a little bit up, but it’s triggered from increased stress. We’ve done surveys and students are way more stressed. Because of the challenges of being locked down and not being able to talk freely to other people who learn. They’re not learning as easily in some cases,” said Lethbridge.

“One significant turning point was during last spring’s final exam period,” said Mireille Gervais, the director of the Student Rights Centre on campus. “We saw an unprecedented number of misconduct cases after the April 2020 final exams.”

“Professors have now had time to be more aware of cheating on online assignments and exams, so the number of cases for the fall 2020 semester have so far been similar to previous years, however [they] may increase as we near December’s final exams.” 

In response to increased academic fraud in the spring, the university decided to allow professors to use proctoring software Respondus Lockdown in order to discourage students from plagiarizing. The U of O’s decision to let professors use Respondus has been controversial, with a number of professors, faculties, and student leaders denouncing the software’s invasive nature.  

“It’s [Respondus] egregious, invasive and unnecessary,” said Gulliver.

“COVID-19 has made it more difficult for the university to track cheating, but that does not mean that students’ privacy should be sacrificed. Instead, it should encourage professors to develop more flexible, alternative models of learning and evaluating, that are responsive to the principle of universal design,” said Gulliver. 

“In regards to cheating [without Respondus on assignments] you’ve been told you’re on your honour, and if you do cheat, you’re only cheating yourself out of the knowledge. It’s also unfair to your fellow students who wanted to respect the honour of the course,” said Lethbridge. 

Annick Bergeron, the secretary general for the University of Ottawa said academic misconduct at the Senate Appeals Committee increased as well. If accused of academic fraud, students can appeal their case to the committee.

If a student wishes to appeal the decision of their faculty the case automatically goes before the Senate Appeals Committee. 

“For the last two [academic] years the committee has dealt with 12 cases of appeals for fraud, but in the last three months, the committee has already seen 14 cases of appeals. While the date is not in yet for the whole year it looks as if there is an increase in cases of academic fraud,” said Bergeron. 

“Students should also be aware that a permanent statement on their record can be seen by employers if they wish to see the official transcript.” 

Students who have been accused of academic fraud should reach out to the Student Rights Centre run by the UOSU for support. 

Gervais advises students to contact the centre as soon as they are notified they’ve been accused of academic fraud. Gervais says the centre has a response rate of one business day in order for students to receive help right away. 

“The first thing to do is to contact the Student Rights Center, and not to reply to the email until they’ve had a chance to discuss with one of our advisors … there’s a lot of misinformation about what constitutes academic fraud, and what is necessary for the university to be able to impose a sanction,” said Gervais. 

Students will meet with an advisor to discuss the case of fraud, and the advisor will accompany them to any meetings with their faculty and will look over any written defense required for the investigation.

“If the student admits to us that, whether it be [they] intentionally or unintentionally breached the regulation, our advice is to admit to that and to take responsibility,” said Gervais.  

“We never tell a student who is guilty of wrongdoing that it’s better for them to lie about it. In cases where students were really forthright and took responsibility, it can lead to a less severe sanction.”

Gervais encourages students however to stay away from Chegg no matter what during an exam time, as IP addresses and timestamps from Chegg can be shared with professors.