Focus on Learning

Changing the paradigm from a focus on academic dishonesty to a focus on learning


Howard (1995) states that “Universities’ policies describe plagiarism in moral terms when they classify it as a form of ‘academic dishonesty’” (p. 797). If viewed as a moral issue, plagiarism becomes laden with negativity. When the paradigm focuses on academic dishonesty, an incidence of plagiarism is considered as “theft” and a “crime”, with a need for “policing” and “punishing”. A text containing plagiarism may be seen as “yet another sign of declining morality”. Reactions by educators include emotions such as disbelief, anger, betrayal, damaged ego, frustration, and self-questioning (for example, see Freedman, 2004). Students feel like suspects or criminals, and are filled with emotions such as fear, doubt and mistrust, anger, and anxiety about feeling like an imposter in academia.

However, rather than seeing plagiarism as evidence of declining morals, the ELI posits classifying plagiarism as a sign of developmental stages of scholarly abilities and as an opportunity for pedagogical intervention (something that is quite natural to expect when working with students). In other words, we propose a shift from a paradigm that focuses on academic dishonesty to a new paradigm that focuses on learning.

The “learning” paradigm has very positive effects. Instead of a focus on “prevent, police and punish”, the new focus becomes “inform about and help with”. As a result, instructors feel more like teachers and facilitators, and students feel more like learners and apprentices who are being given opportunities (and time) to develop scholarly skills.

It is important to note that this shift in focus does not mean that faculty, administrators or students should have lower standards for academic discourse, or that plagiarized work should be allowed or ignored; rather, it’s merely a shift in how to respond when a text contains plagiarism.


Next: Responding to Plagiarism