We aren’t taught nearly enough about how to avoid plagiarism

Online tutorials and optional resources are not enough to prevent serious or unintentional academic dishonesty

Screenshot by Hannah Davis/The Peak via Canvas

Written by: Hannah Davis, Staff Writer

One of my biggest fears in handing in an assignment is that I unknowingly committed plagiarism, boldly claiming ideas or words as my own without even being aware of it. It seems that most university students know how to avoid plagiarism in a very basic sense, in that it’s wrong to steal someone else’s writing and pretend it’s our own.

This may be enough in high school, where they may not check as closely and the stakes are much lower, but is it enough once we continue into post-secondary? Probably not.

In most of my classes, the threat of plagiarism feels like a vague intimidation tool, as a way to encourage us to not be tempted by shortcuts like essay writers or copy-pasting something into our essay. The term plagiarism itself is waved around like a small red flag, warning us of something that could go wrong, but not necessarily informing us of how to avoid the academic catastrophe outside of clear and explicit cheating.

What’s more is that most professors will just assume that the class has a working understanding of plagiarism, even though many students aren’t guaranteed to have perfect knowledge on the subject. Even in first year, I never had a professor take the time in lecture to explain in greater detail what is and what is not considered plagiarism, and this topic feels subjected to the professor’s discretion.

As it is, it’s difficult for many students to learn the more complicated forms of plagiarism. For example, it’s still plagiarism when you change most of the words but copy the sentence structure. Some might not get that just putting an in-text citation doesn’t prevent it from being plagiarism. You’re even able to plagiarize your own ideas, as weird as it sounds. Students need greater guidance if they’re going to be able to avoid committing academic fraud.

The most common thing students are consistently provided with is an online plagiarism tutorial on Canvas, where you can read and do multiple-choice quizzes to verify your knowledge. This could have the potential to provide standardized knowledge of plagiarism, but the module is often fully optional and the tests are infinitely redoable. Despite being an important thing to be conscious of throughout your academic career, the module feels more like a piece of forgettable homework for participation marks.

Even so, some of the information in that Canvas module is either vague or downright unhelpful. One answer key even claims “the correct answer is *probably* plagiarism,” alongside a lengthy paragraph talking about how plagiarism in this context could be a grey area, making the question feel uninformative and oversimplified.

Other than that, though, there’s not a whole lot we’re given. Maybe a prof will direct the class to an SFU policy about the consequences of plagiarism, a copy of a guide designed by the school, or maybe we’ll get a link to a PurdueOWL page.

But I wonder how many students actually take these recommendations seriously when they’re stuck in the thick of midterm season and barely having time to get enough sleep. More than that, with these resources being briefly thrown to us, I have to wonder how many students think they know what plagiarism is, but don’t truly understand the full extent of it.

This isn’t to say it’s entirely on SFU to make sure students don’t commit plagiarism. It’s still important for students to take academic responsibility for their own work, and these pages of information are thing students should be independently seeking regardless.

Nonetheless, the university could be doing more in helping students understand plagiarism, especially when the consequences for plagiarizing can include suspension, loss of funding, or denial of re-admission.

A start would be improving the Canvas plagiarism module, and integrating it further into all first-year courses by providing regular testing throughout the semester. Enforcing its completion with higher stakes could help students get more benefit out of it, and it could give students a reason to internalize the information more.

The information that exists about plagiarism also needs to be provided more aggressively to students. While some classes might have included some websites and workshops as “additional resources,” I at least was unfamiliar with what was out there, and how easy it is to commit plagiarism. While it’d be costly, more mandatory workshops might be a further way to ensure students have a shared knowledge of plagiarism.

With what we have now, I think many students are missing a lot of specifics about plagiarism. While we may generally understand the concept when we come into university, it seems there is a substantial amount of information about plagiarism that students may not know or intuit if they were not specifically told. Academic dishonesty is a huge and complicated topic, and we shouldn’t expect understanding it to come naturally to every student.