U of A science students take issue with new ‘plagiarism checker’

Jonathan Faerber — The Gateway (University of Alberta)

EDMONTON (CUP) — Text-matching technology is currently under scrutiny at the University of Alberta, with the department of biological sciences’ plagiarism checker the latest subject in a long discussion about academic integrity on campus.

The aptly branded “Plagiarism Checker” — a mandatory text-matching tool used by the biological sciences department since September — is inciting controversy after the department’s decision to go ahead with the technology last year left students unhappy with the lack of communication about the service.

The department’s plagiarism checker is currently the U of A’s most extensive use of text-matching software, and the latest instance of academia’s shift towards Turnitin-type technologies. The increased use of text-matching software, and the need to discuss its advantages and drawbacks, was recognized by the Academic Integrity Task Force Report — a 2011 document outlining survey results and recommendations on academic integrity at the U of A.

The report’s proposed committee on text-matching software, however, is still in the works. Its emphasis on dialogue also seems to have come too late for the biological sciences department, which left all student bodies, including the Interdepartmental Science Students’ Society (ISSS), shut out of the decision-making process.

Students’ Union vice-president academic Emerson Csorba said he was surprised by the decision to use the software, and expressed concern with the lack of consultation between students and faculty.

“You want to see the officials going to the representative body before any decision like this is made — something that has the potential to affect a lot of students and has a lot of controversy as well,” Csorba said.

But U of A discipline officer Chris Hackett, who headed up the Academic Integrity Task Force, argued that the department had no obligation to seek student feedback.

“There’s nothing in the code that says there’s anything wrong with [text-matching software]. There’s no policy that says you can’t use it, so the [biological sciences department] is doing absolutely nothing wrong,” Hackett said.

The decision was made with students’ best interests in mind, according to senior lab coordinator Maggie Haag.

Although Haag admitted that the plagiarism checker is still an imperfect process, she sees it as an effective “guide” for instructors and teaching assistants to monitor their students’ intellectual property and to promote academic integrity in their classes.

Csorba, however, is worried that the program may be counter-productive in its promotion of incorrect perceptions about plagiarism among students.

“My concerns with anti-plagiarism programs are the presumption of guilt — the fact that a student has to send in the biology report even when that student hasn’t plagiarized and disagrees fundamentally with the program,” Csorba said.

Csorba said the text-matching software also risks damaging the relationship between students and instructors, especially since it only “prevents” cheating after the fact.

“This sort of program is reactive, and I would rather see measures that are proactive.”

Hackett admits that the program risks compromising the relationships between instructors and students.

“The most powerful tool in dealing with plagiarism is an instructor talking to his students,” Hackett said.

“If (text-matching software) becomes something that makes people complacent — that’s one of the dangers that I would worry about.”

But Haag feels that there’s plenty of opportunity for dialogue in the biological sciences department, and stressed that the program is still an imperfect process that is only the first step in teaching students about intellectual property.

“The whole point is to get the students to think like a scientist, write like a scientist, and do all the processes like a scientist,” Haag said. “We’re trying to ingrain that from year one.”