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OSU coordinator of academic misconduct: ‘This isn’t high school anymore’

Fewer students were accused of plagiarism or other academic violations last school year than any other year in the past half-decade.

But of the 408 students referred to Ohio State’s Committee on Academic Misconduct, 348 were found to be “in violation” — equivalent to a guilty verdict from the committee.

In the 2006-07 school year, the committee reviewed 535 cases, a number that has decreased every year since, according to the committee’s annual reports.

Of last year’s cases, 40 percent were plagiarism cases, said Tim Curry, the coordinator on academic misconduct.

“It’s become a bigger problem now that people can just cut-and-paste,” said Gerald Kosicki, an associate professor in the School of Communication. “Often, students cut and paste large sections of text for reference purposes, but because they’re sloppy, it just ends up in their paper. It’s still blameworthy.”

Curry said 97 percent of plagiarism cases resulted in an “in violation” verdict last year.

The committee also reviewed accusations from professors who said students copied each other, worked together when they weren’t supposed to, used unauthorized materials, cheated or helped someone cheat on an exam, or otherwise deviated from course guidelines.

But students who end up in front of the committee aren’t necessarily the bad seeds. Curry said many are at the top of their class and are surprised when they end up in trouble.

“This isn’t about them as people,” Curry said. “It’s about whether they followed the instructions.”

The law of the land for the committee is often the university’s Code of Student Handbook, and Curry said the committee takes it seriously.

“This isn’t high school anymore,” he said. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s all right.’ It’s not all right.”

Cheating isn’t reported as plagiarism, Curry said, in part because officials are strict about monitoring students during quizzes and exams.

“I don’t see rampant cheating as a problem,” he said. “I see bad choices. It’s impulsive, and they regret it immediately as soon as they’re caught.”

It can also be difficult to determine when students are cheating, Curry said. Sometimes, friends sitting next to each other innocently glance at each other. But he said it’s enough to spark suspicion of cheating.

No matter how good friends are, Curry advised students not to release their work to others.

“Peer pressure — it’s a very sad mistake,” Curry said. “You’ve got a good intention to be nice to a fellow Buckeye. They take part of your paper and put it in theirs. Well, now you’ve collaborated with them. You’ve enabled them to cheat.”

When a student faces academic misconduct accusations, the first step leading up to a verdict is a pre-conference hearing. There, students have the option to admit guilt or contest the accusation, which sends the case to a formal hearing.

The hearing is led by a panel of three professors and two students who hear the case and hand down disciplinary sanction, Curry said.

Justin Ziniel, a graduate student who has sat on panels for about a year, said having students on the panel brings a different perspective. Students have a better understanding of time constraints and a different way of interpreting professors’ syllabi, he said.

However, Ziniel does not always side with the student at a hearing.

“It’s never a pleasant experience because you’re making decisions that can have a huge impact on people’s lives, but I don’t think being a student biases me,” Ziniel said.

When a student admits guilt, the case goes to a hearing officer who looks over the file but never meets with the student. That objectivity creates consistency, Curry said. The hearing officer then hands down a disciplinary sanction.

The most common disciplinary sanction in 2009-10 was disciplinary probation ranging from one quarter to “until graduation.” Of the 349 “in violation” verdicts, 250 students received disciplinary probation, according to the committee’s annual report last year.

Other disciplinary sanctions include formal reprimand, suspension — lasting from one to three quarters — and dismissal from the university.

Students might also receive grade adjustments, such as a “zero” on an assignment or a reduction in the final course grade.

However, the committee cannot hand down the grade sanctions; they simply authorize that option to the instructor, Curry said.

“We’re not trying to micromanage grades for students,” he said. “This is a culture that’s so focused on grades. (The committee) is more concerned with conduct. If we think you can’t write a paper legitimately, we’re really concerned.”

Curry said sanctions are often higher for graduate and doctoral students because expectations are higher. Graduate students found “in violation” are often suspended on a first offense, he said.

Though the committee takes OSU’s policies seriously and enforces them strictly, Curry said being called to the committee can be useful for some students.

“Maybe (the committee) experience should be a wake-up call that you’re in the wrong major,” Curry said. “Many times, it is. Many students tell me this is the best thing that ever happened to them in terms of improving their grades.”

But Ziniel said it’s best to avoid the committee.

“I would say it’s much easier for an instructor to catch a student cheating than one might think,” Ziniel said. “Students don’t realize how damaging an academic misconduct record can be to their career. It’s always better to be on the safe side.” 

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