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By Richard Maerov

Some students suspected of academic misconduct were upset when their instructors summoned them to meetings with third parties without their consent last year.

Most of the 34 students who complained to ombudsperson Nora Farrell felt charges of plagiarism were unjustified or were unhappy about the methods faculty used for discussing concerns. Inviting a third party to the meeting without student consent is against the rules, said Ryerson’s Academic Integrity Officer Donna Bell.

“It’s a power issue,” she said. “It becomes two against one and that can be very intimidating for the student.” Some students say they were not provided with a summary of the discussion at the end of the meeting as is required, Bell said. Student complaints regarding charges of academic misconduct went up by almost 50 per cent in 2004-2005 compared to the previous year, according to the ombudsperson’s annual report, which was released last week.

“Concerns have been raised regarding incidents where students are charged for plagiarism for improperly referencing direct quotations in an essay,” Farrell wrote. “The students in these situations indicate that they had no intent to behave in an academically dishonest fashion.”

Bell launched a campaign last term to promote the resources available for students to learn about their academic responsibilities, but said faculty needs to do a better job at educating students about these issues. “It is not enough for professors to talk to students about academic misconduct for five minutes during the first class of the semester,” Bell said. “This should be a conversation piece that continues throughout the term.”

She said she spoke to one instructor who found that more than 30 of 100 students had plagiarised on an essay. She wants faculty to understand that plagiarism, particularly in a student’s first year of university, should be used as a “teachable moment,” not necessarily a punitive one. Philosophy professor Jim Dianda, who is on the Appeals Committee for the Faculty of Arts, said he gives the benefit of the doubt to the student where warranted.

“Plagiarism is a very serious offence,” he said. “There is an understanding for students who have made an oversight or if the offence was a result of sloppy note-taking. We don’t want to be charging students willy-nilly.”

But Bell said that there is a lack of consistency in how these situations are handled. She is seeking to correct this by creating a structured procedure and educating faculty on methods for notifying and approaching students who are suspected of academic misconduct.

She is also part of a review committee that has been established to rewrite the Student Code of Academic Conduct to make it more clear and understandable. It will be presented to Academic Council in April. Staff issued 152 disciplinary notices for first offences of academic misconduct last year.

Bell expects this to go up next year as faculty learns how to identify plagiarism more effectively.

But she hopes students will become more familiar with their responsibilities and that charges of academic misconduct will decrease over the long run.

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