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University staff should be held to the same standards as students

Photo: Rémi Yuan

“Beware of plagiarism!” reads the University of Ottawa’s official handout on academic fraud. “It’s easy, it’s tempting… but it can be very costly!”

It’s a warning that all students have heard before, if not a thousand times. But what about professors, arguably the most distinguished members of any university? If you give them the chance, do they not bend the rules? And if they are caught committing academic fraud, do they get expelled?

More often than you think, the answer is no. Last year alone, three different cases revealed the difference in the way plagiarism is handled when the perpetrators are university staff.

In April, assistant professor Vanessa Ryan from Brown University was caught for having plagiarized materials more than 30 times in her 2012 book Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel. According to the Brown Daily Herald, Ryan called the incidents of plagiarism “inadvertent errors of attribution,” even though lengthy passages were used verbatim from the original source without quotation marks. In the end, a review committee deemed Ryan’s mistakes unintentional and, as punishment, she later was named associate dean of the university’s graduate school.

In May, Matthew C. Whitaker, a history professor from Arizona State University, was accused of plagiarism for a second time. Despite being a multiple offender on this front, the university eventually decided not to pursue punitive action, despite massive protests from students and professors alike.

Another case was made public in November, when former University of Regina engineering student Arjun Paul accused professor Shahid Azam of having plagiarized passages from his master’s thesis. Even though a CBC investigative team found that as much as 24 per cent of the article had been plagiarized, Azam insists he wrote most of Paul’s thesis himself. Despite Azam’s claims, his publisher decided to retract the plagiarized article. But the school? Nothing so far.

How can this be? What would have been done to a student who had committed similar errors in judgment? He or she would have certainly been treated as having committed a crime of the highest order, punishable by death of reputation or banishment from the land of academia. So why is an erring professor offered clemency when it comes to plagiarism?

In a recent article for CBC News, professor Benson Honig of McMaster University’s business school said this double standard is a matter of administrations trying to save face: “My observation is the institutions have much more interest in pursuing student ethical violations than faculty violations because the faculty violations reflect on their institution.” But doesn’t a university’s reputation also suffer when it tolerates academic fraud from its staff?

These recent examples of professor plagiarism reflect a larger lack of transparency and accountability on behalf of post-secondary institutions. Most of us will have seen the “Beware of Plagiarism!” document, and its contents are widely discussed on the U of O campus. But there exists no specific regulations for staff regarding plagiarism at this university, nor is there a set disciplinary process for professors who are caught cheating.

The problem, in other words, is acting as though profs are beyond reproach, when in reality, they too will occasionally break the rules. And when they do, there’s no reason that the cost of plagiarism should be any less for them.