Honesty is the best policy

September 4, 2018 | Campus Life
Like most things in life, assessing and addressing academic misconduct – plagiarism, cheating and other academic offenses – isn’t as simple as it might sound. Were those incorrect sources cited intentionally? Did you knowingly take parts of someone else’s work and present it as your own?

Paul Sopcak, MacEwan’s academic integrity coordinator, says that at an institution where learning is the focus, accusations of dishonesty and prescriptive punishments aren’t necessarily the best answer, especially when it comes to first-time offenses.

“Published studies and the research our own students have done on campus show that about half of academic integrity offenses are unintentional,” he says. “Rather than being a result of dishonesty, these offenses are caused by lack of skill or knowledge.”

On July 1, 2018, MacEwan introduced an updated academic integrity policy that includes some important changes that acknowledge this, changing the way we talk about academic integrity (a move away from calling all violations dishonesty) and revising the way we handle the appeal process (making deans the final level of appeal). According to Paul, the most exciting change is a new option to use a restorative approach that addresses the lack of skill or knowledge that is so often the root of academic integrity issues.

About half of academic integrity offenses are unintentional.
—Paul Sopcak

Using a restorative approach means beginning with a conversation rather than an accusation, he explains. “The first conversation between a faculty member and student involves giving a student the opportunity to be heard,” he explains. “Faculty can begin the conversation using a standard set of questions from the International Institute for Restorative Practices that prompts students to reflect on what happened, what they need to do to make things right and who was potentially harmed.”

The question of harm is probably one of the trickiest parts of implementing restorative practices in the context of academic integrity.

“The harm in the case of academic integrity is not physical and may not even be just material,” says Paul. “It’s often emotional and something that affects the larger university community in a general way.”

Preventing future harm is something that restorative solutions address particularly well. Unlike the disciplinary approach (which is still part of the policy and necessary in certain situations), restorative practices can result in solutions that are scalable, and even creative. A student might be asked to take a time management course or take part in a session on accurately citing sources at the university’s Writing and Learning Centre, for example.

That doesn’t mean the consequences are less serious.

“There is often an impression among people who are not familiar with restorative practices that offenders get off easy, but that really isn’t the case,” says Paul. “Restorative solutions are tailored to address the needs of those who have been affected by the harm and those responsible for it.”

Paul adds that building a culture that embraces restorative practices isn’t about implementing a new policy in a single area. He’s quick to acknowledge other restorative efforts happening on campus in the university’s Residence, kihêw waciston and those of experts like Kevin Hood in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies, who studies and teaches restorative practices from a variety of contexts and in different parts of the world.

“The restorative process isn’t just about responding to misconduct, and implementing restorative practices in the context of academic integrity is really just the tip of the iceberg” he says. “It’s about building a community and a culture that embraces and understands the approach. Restorative practices align really well with any university’s mission, but especially here at MacEwan where we focus on sustainability, community engagement and putting students first.” 

READ MORE: 5 questions you didn’t know you had about academic integrity


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