I did not suspect that my article on Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s paper in last week’s Voice would end up as part of a firestorm (Fellow Student Shares Term Paper!; v12 i19 (http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=2842)). Yet the day after he tabled his paper in the Alberta legislature, controversy erupted. Not only was Klein’s paper not particularly well-written (in the opinion of many) – apparently Klein had also “cribbed” a good portion of his paper from the Internet without properly referencing his sources.
During my time as president of AUSU, I became aware of how big an issue plagiarism really is, not just for Athabasca University, but all universities. I was surprised at the number of times students have been charged with plagiarism for incidents exactly like this, and appalled that so many students do not know how to properly reference their material. I continue to be surprised at the number of students who do not comprehend that copying Internet material (or any material for that matter) without giving proper credit to the source is plagiarism. Plagiarism, period.
On Friday morning I received a call from an Edmonton Journal reporter, David Howell, who had read my Voice article and wanted some comments from me. I was a bit hesitant, since I know firsthand the difficulties that can occur when media comes looking for a particular spin on a story – I’ve had my words taken out of context, given a meaning quite different than I intended, and it has caused me a lot of grief in the past. However, I am fiercely loyal to Athabasca University so I felt that if the press was going to be interviewing students, I’d be a good choice. It was clear that the reporter was trying to elicit an emotional response from me, something that would indicate that I was concerned about the validity of my degree.
Although I tried to reinforce to Mr. Howell that AU has very high standards of quality, I have very real concerns that Ralph Klein has, by his actions, possibly harmed the credibility and integrity of our university and damaged the validity of the degree we all work so hard to achieve. Sadly, I’m sure Ralph never intended to damage the university or his fellow students. He was proud of his paper; so proud that he wanted to share it with the world. All of us should feel that way about our papers. However, all of us should be properly referencing our work, and the majority of our work should be original, never lifting significant portions from the work of others. About 25% of Klein’s paper was copied virtually word-for-word from Internet sources. Although he listed these websites at the bottom of the paper in his bibliography, the quotes themselves were not properly identified with quotation marks, and were simply followed by the word “Internet” in brackets rather than the specific source or site. I’ve never submitted a paper without proper referencing, and my professors always took me to task for even minor referencing errors, so I know that what Klein did was not acceptable by AU standards.
A specialist on Internet plagiarism at the University of Alberta suggests that it is ironic that government cuts to education have given rise to these kinds of problems. She states that “cut and paste” from the Internet is an increasing problem and universities do not have the resources to follow up on Internet plagiarism. In many cases, such as Klein’s, the problem is due to a lack of understanding about how to credit sources (Maureen Engel, quoted in Johnsrude, Edmonton Journal, May 17).
One important thing to keep in mind is that we are missing some important information regarding Klein’s paper. The paper that we saw on the website was keyed in by someone who works for the Journal. Upon reading it I wondered if this was the exact same paper Ralph had submitted and received back from his tutor with a 77 percent, particularly when I noted several typos. Another very important item of note is that Klein’s paper, as tabled in the Legislature and presented on the Internet, contained no feedback from his professor whatsoever. We don’t know what his professor said about the paper or how she arrived at the mark, and it is quite possible that he was taken to task on his improper referencing (in fact probable, since that is common practice). Unfortunately most people do not realize this, leaving the impression that Klein received a decent mark on a poorly-written paper that contained significant content copied from the Internet without proper references.
This is what has caused most of the furore, and this is what has the potential to damage the reputation of Athabasca University itself. The newspapers have been filled with letters and editorials from individuals and students who state, quite rightly, that a paper that is not properly referenced should be either returned to the student for a re-write or receive a failing mark. Should a student persist in refusing to properly credit sources, further steps should be taken, including charges of academic misconduct and/or expulsion. Because it appears that Ralph was allowed to get away with this kind of thing, Athabasca University’s integrity has been unfairly called into question. Many have made comments denigrating the university, implying that our academic standards are not as high as other universities, providing fodder for those who are already sceptical of the credibility of online learning. Some have suggested this “black mark on academia” could potentially place AU in the same light as Internet diploma mills (Johnsrude, Edmonton Journal, May 13, 2004).
Many, including the Edmonton Journal reporter who interviewed me, have been implying that Ralph is getting preferred treatment at AU because of who he is. I do not believe this is the case, however, events of the past few days have lent credibility to that theory. Learning Minister Lyle Oberg was the first to support Klein, stating that the plagiarized essay is “no big deal.” Then on Saturday, May 15, the president of the University of Alberta wrote a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Journal in defence of Ralph, praising him for his “commitment to lifelong learning,” and applauding him for “pursuing post-secondary education while balancing the demands of families and careers” (Edmonton Journal, Letters, May 15, 2004). Ironically, that same day, the president of the University of Calgary also wrote a similar letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald in defence of Klein. Coincidence? I think not. Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has written a scathing denunciation of these letters, calling the universities “shameless.” She notes that universities are supposed to be “intellectual centres of excellence” that “set and maintain the highest standards for academic achievement and integrity” while staying away from partisan politics. Simons states that U of A and U of C degree holders should be embarrassed by their universities’ unwillingness to defend academic integrity in order to remain in good standing with Mr. Klein, who, after all, holds the purse strings (Edmonton Journal, May 18, 2004). The University of Lethbridge president has apparently also written a letter which will appear May 19.
With the other universities in Alberta getting on board to defend Klein, it has become a much bigger issue. It’s not simply an incident that happened at Athabasca University, it has now become an issue tainting the post secondary environment in Alberta as a whole, calling into question the academic integrity of all universities when faced with political “correctness.”
This apparent willingness of these university presidents to overlook Klein’s plagiarism has also angered many students, who are held accountable or disciplined when they do not properly reference their assignments. Today’s Edmonton Journal contained another spate of letters, some of them quite humourous in their suggestions to the U of A president (one was looking for full marks for his thesis project entitled, “The Fellowship of the Ring”) (Letters to the Editor, May 18, 2004). What I continue to find surprising, however, is the number of academics and students who do not think Klein has done anything wrong. I was stunned to read a letter in the Journal on May 17 from Robert Einarsson, English professor at Grant MacEwan College, in which he stated that “Ralph Klein’s use of the Internet for information on his university essay was not plagiarism. It was research.” He based these comments on the fact that Klein made no attempt to hide his sources.
Unfortunately, far too many people, including Ralph Klein, simply do not seem to understand what plagiarism means. The Athabasca University calendar, Policy on Academic Integrity and Definition of Academic Offences, under the heading “12.2.2 Plagiarism,” states:
Plagiarism involves submitting or presenting work in a course as if that work was the student’s own, when, in fact, it was not. Often plagiarism exists when:
a. the work submitted was done in whole or in part, by an individual other than the one submitting the work;
b. parts of a work were taken from another source without reference to the original author; and/or
c. the whole work (e.g., essay) was copied from another source.
It seems very clear to me. Klein took parts of a work from another source without reference to the original author. That is plagiarism.
Klein has stated that he does not see what the problem is, saying, “what’s the big deal?” He added that nothing about this whole business will change the way he approaches essay writing, adding, “it won’t change how I do papers, I’m still struggling like every student” (Edmonton Journal, May 14, 2004). This is probably the part that bothers me the most. If Klein had admitted that he did not properly reference the paper, I might have some respect for his academic integrity. If he stated that he had learned a lesson and will be paying closer attention to his references in the future, I’d be happy to attribute this whole thing to a difficult lesson learned. Unfortunately that does not appear to be the case. Klein’s attitude is an affront to the hard work and integrity of those of us who do ensure that we are meticulous about giving proper credit to others when we use their ideas or material.
Ralph Klein’s actions should not diminish the credibility or academic integrity of Athabasca University, since they are not indicative of the high standards of quality normally expected of students. AU is highly regarded and respected within the academic community and I’m confident the university will recover from this. I’m also confident that the university will do whatever they deem necessary to properly and fairly deal with Mr. Klein for what has occurred, so as to protect the academic integrity of our university. Whatever does happen, it will be part of the process used for all students, and it will be confidential.
For me, this has been an important lesson in the need to raise awareness regarding the issue of plagiarism. I believe the university needs to do much more to ensure that students know what plagiarism involves, with expectations that papers are properly referenced at all times. Far too many students feel that there is nothing wrong with copying material, particularly Internet material, without giving proper credit. This attitude needs to change, in order to maintain the academic integrity of our university degrees.
Athabasca University policies on plagiarism:
Intellectual Ownership and Honesty: http://www.athabascau.ca/studserv/inthonesty.htm
Plagiarism: Identifying it, Dealing with it, deterring it: http://www.athabascau.ca/wcs/presentation/Plagiarism-LS=2001_files/frame.htm
AU Students’ Rights & code of conduct: http://www.athabascau.ca/handbook/rights.htm
Athabasca University Calendar, code of conduct: http://www.athabascau.ca/calendar/02/conduct12.html
For further information and articles referenced, see the Edmonton Journal online:
“Klein lifted parts of term paper from Net: Scholarly writing far from original.” Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal, May 13, 2004.
“Klein’s essay takes a hit on plagiarism detection site” Canwest News Service, Edmonton Journal, May 13, 2004.
“Cut for ‘copy and paste’: U of A students risk expulsion for violating plagiarism rules”. Larry Johnsrude, Staff writer. Edmonton Journal, May 14, 2004.
“Klein defends term paper: ‘What’s the big deal?’ premier says of plagiarism charges.” James Baxter, Legislature Bureau chief, Edmonton Journal, May 14, 2004.
“Applaud premier’s commitment to learn.” Roderick Fraser, president, University of Alberta. Letters to the Editor, Edmonton Journal, May 15, 2004.
“Students fear reputation of Athabasca University harmed: Klein’s mark raises questions about validity of degrees” David Howell, Edmonton Journal, May 15, 2004.
“Grading a premier must be stressful.” Editorials. Edmonton Journal, May 16, 2004.
“On the wrong trail,” Robert Einarsson, Professor, Grant MacEwan College. Edmonton Journal, May 17, 2004. Letters to the Editor.
“Klein’s essay black mark on academia, ethicist says.” Larry Johnsrude, staff writer. Edmonton Journal, May 17, 2004.
“Emperor naked, but universities shameless: praise for scholarly efforts should keep coffers of kingdom open.” Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal, May 18, 2004.
“Disgusted by U of A president’s comments: Fraser’s defence of premier looks like an attempt to curry favour with man who controls institution’s finances” Letters to the Editor, Edmonton Journal, May 18, 2004. http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/news/letters/index.html
Letters from the U of A, U of C and U of L about Klein’s essay: Edmonton Journal Online extras, May 18, 2004: http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/news/archives/story.html?id=870d719b-9e0d-4f9e-bd8d-b78a38faf58c
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology.