Case #697

Case 697 - Sanction

DATE: August 8, 2013 and January 17, 2014
PARTIES: University of Toronto v B.S.

Hearing Date(s): July 12, 2013 and December 17, 2013

Panel Members:
Paul Schabas, Chair
Pascal van Lieshout, Faculty Member
Adam Found, Student Member

Appearances:
Robert Centa, Assistant Discipline Counsel
Michael Alexander, Lawyer for the Student (at Sanction only)
The Student
Betty-Ann Campbell, Law Clerk, Palaire Roland Barristers (at Finding only)
Serene Tan, Instructor (at Finding only)
Rana Nouri (at Finding (only)
Rohina Gul (at Finding only)

In Attendance:
Lucy Gaspini, Manager, Academic Integrity and Affairs, UTM
Natalie Ramtahal, Coordinator, Appeals, Discipline and Faculty Grievances

Trial Division – s. B.i.1(d) and B.i.1(f) – plagiarism –witnesses – first offense – ought reasonably to have known – finding of guilt – reference plagiarized, not concocted – differing penalty submissions – Student’s submission of community service rejected - no binding appellate authority – sanction to reflect the seriousness of offense – no mitigating factors – aggravating factors – three-year suspension; grade of zero in the course; notation on the Student’s transcript for three and a half years or until the Student graduates

Student charged with an offence under each of s. B.i.1(d), B.i.1(f) and B.i.3(b) of the Code. The charges related to allegations that the student had submitted a plagiarized essay and allegedly concocted a reference. The Student submitted a paper in a course at the University of Toronto Mississauga knowing that it contained verbatim passages from unreferenced sources and concocted references to conceal his plagiarism.

The syllabus contained a section on academic integrity and advised that assignments were to be submitted to www.turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection site. The assignment at issue had a remarkably high similarity index of 51%. Upon further investigation the instructor pinpointed three sources with an unacceptable degree of similarity to the Student’s paper, with only the third source referenced in the footnotes.

The Panel found the Student guilty of the charge under s. B.i.1(d) of the Code, noting that while the term “knowingly” is used, that is deemed to have been met if “the person ought reasonably to have known” they were committing an offense. The evidence against him was strong, his explanations were unconvincing and the Panel found the Student guilty of deliberate plagiarism. The Panel found the evidence so convincing they would have also have found the Student knew he was plagiarizing. The Panel was not satisfied that the charge under s. B.i.1(f) of the Code was established. S. B.i.1(f) requires “concocting” a reference. While not condoning the Student’s behaviour, the Panel did not find this an accurate charge for the Student’s conduct as the footnote was plagiarized from a source that existed. It was not necessary to deal with the charge under s. B.i.3(b) of the Code.

In reasons for Decision on August 8, 2013, the Panel found the Student guilty of plagiarism.

The University submitted a penalty of a final grade of zero in the course, a suspension of three years from the date of the order, and a notation on the Student’s academic record for four years. The University noted that the penalty is up to Panel discretion and there is no binding appellate authority.

The Student submitted a penalty of zero for the paper (worth 20% of the course grade), a one year suspension, and a notation on the Student’s transcript until he graduates (expected two years). Additionally, the Student was prepared do a year of community service as a demonstration of remorse but proposed no plan and the Panel had no power to impose or oversee such a “sanction”.

The Panel, recognizing that there is no formula dictating a specific sanction for a particular act, did note that a two year suspension is akin to a starting point for a first offender. Additionally some decisions state that a two year suspension is the appropriate “threshold” penalty for plagiarism (Case No. 509,488, and 521). While the Panel was not bound by any presumption of a two year suspension as a starting point it did recognize the importance of fairness and consistency. The Panel considered the case of Mr. C (Case No. 1976/77-3) which stated that the purposes of punishment are reformation, deterrence, and protection of the public and set out a number of criteria in assessing punishment. The Panel considered the seriousness of the offense of plagiarism noting that it cannot be tolerated. Both the preamble to the Code and Section B of the Code assert this and instructors stress the importance of integrity and give guidance on how not to plagiarize. The seriousness of the offense meant that, absent mitigating factors, the sanction must reflect the harm caused and convey the seriousness of the misconduct to others. In this case the plagiarism was significant as virtually the whole paper was plagiarized knowingly and deliberately.

The Panel addressed the Student’s submissions noting the importance of rehabilitation and that for a first offense of plagiarism a student is not generally given a life sentence. The Panel also noted that falling behind one’s peers a result of suspended graduation may not be a disadvantage as economic circumstances are unpredictable and many students take a “gap year” during their studies. The Panel agreed with the University that there were no mitigating circumstances and the Student’s conduct aggravated the matter. The penalty should be consistent with principles that have guided other panels. While many first offense plagiarism cases receive two year suspensions some receive lighter sentences when there are mitigating circumstances and others receive longer suspensions when aggravating factors are present.

The Panel imposed a three-year suspension from the date of the order, assigned a grade of zero in the course, and ordered a notation on the Student’s transcript for three and a half years or until the Student graduates, whichever occurs first.