A proposal to restore academic integrity to McGill University
The proposal below was made in February 2008, shortly after I became aware of the corruption within the university for dealing with issues of student plagiarism. In the years since, I have come to realize that even if the implementation of these ideas was practical and the measures adopted, they would at best address only a small portion of the underlying problems. Therefore, the text below is retained more for historical purposes than as an actual position for which I continue to advocate. My colleague, Gábor Lukács, has suggested a far more dramatic remedy, which involves removing from the university's purview all responsibility for summative assessment of student learning and qualifications, at least within non-creative disciplines for which assessment can be objective. Instead, under Gábor's proposal, formal evaluation or "grading" would rest in the hands of professional certification, licensing, or accreditation bodies such as the bar association for practicing lawyers, independent of the university and directly accountable to society.

The proposal seeks to remedy these problems on the two critical fronts of transparency and accountability (reporting). In doing so, it addresses the first three of the preventative measures I outlined last year in my meeting with the Provost. The fourth of these measures, related to the actions of my senior faculty administrator, also needs to be addressed, and urgently so, by our Chief Information Officer, who has to date refused to provide straight answers on this subject. However, that problem remains outside the scope of this proposal.

The footnotes included throughout the text are often important as explanatory material, in particular with regard to recent actions of our administration and the justification for the proposal.


  1. The university should provide to every student, in writing, a clear, succinct, and unambiguous definition of plagiarism1 and a summary of what constitutes acceptable levels of student collaboration2 on course work.
  2. Students should be required to indicate explicitly, either in writing in the case of printed work, or communicated orally in the case of a presentation, any other forms of collaboration in which they engaged.3
  3. Unless stated otherwise in the assignment specifications, all work is expected to be completed by each student, independently.
  4. Administrators should not be assessing charges of cheating or grade evaluation in his or her own faculty. Internal faculty relationships and politics could influence the process unfairly to either the student or the professor. Instead, both matters should be reviewed first by the course instructor.
    1. In the case of suspected plagiarism, this gives the professor an opportunity to hear the student's explanation first-hand, and make an initial determination as to whether the charge of plagiarism is warranted. If so, the professor is mandated to assign a mark of zero to the suspected work,4 communicate this to the Dean of Students, and inform the student, in writing, of his or her right to appeal to an independent assessor. A generic form should be made available for this purpose.5
    2. A simple and consistently applied policy, governing the consequences of plagiarism, must be articulated.6
    3. Re-evaluation (grade appeals) of any term work should be conducted first by the course instructor, as the nominally responsible individual for assessment of student learning.7 This provides an opportunity for the professor to explain to the student why the particular mark was assigned, to discuss the matter with a teaching assistant, who may have graded the work originally, and if warranted, to adjust the grade.8
    4. Given the relatively high value of final examinations, the lengthy lines of students that often form outside of professors' offices after final grades have been submitted, and the friction that may arise from disagreements over the grading of particular questions, review of examinations with the professor should not be conducted one-on-one. Instead, the option should exist, either for:
      1. The professor posts solutions to the examination, along with the grading scheme, and students could then review their examinations under the supervision of a secretary, or
      2. The professor conducts a single post-examination review session,9 which all students are invited to attend. During this session, the professor would explain the correct answers and grading scheme for each question.
    5. Simple clerical errors, such as an incorrect addition or forgetting to mark a particular question, could be addressed immediately. Other concerns regarding the marking should be submitted to the professor as a written request, supported by a detailed analysis of the question(s) being challenged. The professor would then reply to the student by email.
  5. In a situation where the student is dissatisfied with the outcome, any subsequent appeal or request for re-evaluation must be expressed in writing to an independent official who uses external (also independent) subject experts,10 as appropriate.
  6. If the student contests (appeals) a grade or a charge of plagiarism, both the student and the professor must have the right to be consulted and to be kept informed throughout every stage of the process.11
    1. The student would first send a notice of appeal to the independent official, along with any relevant documentation.
    2. The official would then select one member from a list of subject experts who are competent to make an informed determination of whether the grading was reasonable or plagiarism is indicated.
    3. In the case of a charge of plagiarism:
      1. A private interview should be arranged with the independent official and an external subject expert, as warranted. This interview may be conducted in person, by telephone, or by other electronic communication.
      2. The professor should be made aware of the student's explanation, as well as the comments of the independent official and external subject expert, and be given an opportunity to respond.12
  7. In the case of a grade appeal, the external assessor should be given access to how other work in the course was evaluated, with identities concealed, and following a grading standard consistent with the norms applied by the professor.13
  8. In either case, the external assessor would have to provide substantive reasons for any changes to the evaluation.14
  9. In the interests of fairness to students for whom the outcome of an appeal will affect future course selection, there must be a reasonably expedient adjudication process, such that the results are known to the student in advance of the start of the following semester.
  10. The report of the external subject expert, whether for plagiarism or re-assessment cases, should be addressed to the Provost, not the faculty. Both the student and the professor should receive a copy of this report, and its contents considered confidential. An annual report should also be submitted directly to Senate by the independent official to help ensure independence.
  11. The faculty administration should have the right to notify a professor that a particular mark is preventing the student from graduating and to request that the professor re-checks the addition of marks in a borderline situation. The administration may, on its own, also appeal to the independent investigator when it believes that a student has been graded in a grossly unfair manner. Beyond that, the administration must be prohibited from coercing professors to change grades and must be prevented from doing so unilaterally.15 Similarly, the administration must be prohibited from setting limits on the number of failures, which, for some classes, may be high, as necessary to maintain our academic standards. To this end, all communication related to grading must be in writing.
  12. Similarly, students should not be permitted to harass professors for grade increases.16 The rights of students to review of their term work and examinations must be balanced with a respect for the time of the faculty members.


  1. The example that was on McGill's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering web page (until it was recently removed, perhaps because I was linking to it as an indication of the blatant lie it exposed) is an excellent start. Unfortunately, Deputy Provost Mendelson, in his CBC interview, provides a gaping loophole to cheaters by suggesting that "In the university, plagiarism is using someone else's work with the intent to deceive" Actually, according to most sources, he's wrong. The alternative (without the intent) might be called unintentional plagiarism but it's plagiarism nonetheless. Most problematic, this re-definition ensures that cheating students retain a guaranteed loophole to avoid punishment: "Oh, I didn't intend to deceive." Establishing intent is, I'm told, one of the most problematic elements of full-fledged legal proceedings. Do our university administrators have the capability of reading a student's minds to ascertain their intent or do they just take the student's word for it?
  2. For example, acceptable collaboration, provided it is acknowledged explicitly in the report or presentation, might include:
    1. discussing some aspect of the assignment specifications in attempting to understand a particular point
    2. discussing the high-level aspects of a problem-solving approach
    3. designing an algorithm together
    4. solving a small problem or part of an assignment set together
  3. We should not discourage students from interacting and helping each other in the learning process. A significant pedagogical benefit arises from student collaboration. However, good scholarship demands that such collaboration be acknowledged explicitly. This has the added benefit of helping the markers in assessing individual contributions and resolves many instances where plagiarism would otherwise be suspected.
  4. By insisting on the mandated penalty for a first offense, rather than leaving the penalty to someone's discretion, the hope is that very few students would actually a commit a second.
  5. This would limit the potential (in the words of Deputy Provost Mendelson) "to set up an adversarial situation between the student and the professor."
  6. A suggestion would be a "three-strikes" rule, along the lines of:
    • first offense: zero on the particular piece of term work or examination
    • second offense: F on the course
    • third offense: suspension from the university
    (two offenses in close succession, e.g., one month apart or less, should be considered as a single incident)
  7. Indeed, professors are hired not only to conduct research but to teach in specific subject areas and to evaluate the learning of our students. In turn, our teaching portfolios constitute a major component of our academic dossiers, by which we are evaluated for tenure and promotion.
  8. It bears comment that this was, quite sensibly, the norm in the Faculty of Engineering for many years, until creative re-interpretation of the rules was applied, although only to a single professor.
  9. I have found such a review, which I conducted two years ago at the suggestion of one of my former students, to be pedagogically valuable. Most importantly, from the students' perspective, everyone left the session satisfied that they were graded fairly and from the professor's perspective, only one hour was required for the entire class.
  10. Following the academic model for paper and grant review, to avoid conflicts of interest, this list of external assessors should ideally be faculty at other universities who teach similar courses, and at arms-length from the respective McGill professor. It is worth noting that this is similar to the norm currently applied in higher education in the United Kingdom. In fact, in an interesting parallel of what transpired at McGill, the action of one university in the UK to bypass the external examiner resulted in a tribunal finding the university in repudiatory breach of contract.
  11. Students' rights must be respected, but so must the professors'. As a party to the dispute and as the individual responsible for student evaluation, it is inexcusable to exclude the professor from this communication. The notion, advanced by Deputy Provost Mendelson, that "in the interview with the students, there may be information that is confidential, that is private, that the professor has... does not have a right to have access to" is absurd. This establishes the Disciplinary Officer (typically an Associate Dean) as the only individual sufficiently trustworthy as to be privileged with confidential information. As such, there can be no reasoned debate and no transparency in decision-making.
  12. The rebuttal process is part of established western legal tradition, but at McGill, professors are at times not entitled to this right.
  13. This is in contrast to the actions of one current administrator who admitted to applying his own standards in regrading an assignment, despite being provided with samples of how other students' work had been graded originally by the teaching assistant for the course. In this case, the administrator assigned credit for a portion of the assignment that was not supposed to count toward the overall mark, was plagiarized, and did not even produce the output indicated.
  14. This would seek to end the practice of an administrator who refuses to justify a dramatic change of grades to one student's examination.
  15. As it stands at present, professors have no way of knowing whether the grades they submit are left unaltered by the administration unless they have access to student transcripts. Several colleagues have experienced tampering with their grades by departmental or faculty administrators.
  16. Professors are presently obligated to offer individual consultation to any student who wishes to go over multiple pieces of term work and final examination, demand explanations and argue over every mark lost. This can easily consume many hours of time each semester, in particular with large classes. When faced with the choice between spending their time on research activities or justifying grades on dozens of assignments and examinations, it is little wonder that many professors opt for the easy way out by giving everyone high marks.

Last update: July 8, 2012
by Jeremy Cooperstock