University of Calgary education professor Sarah Eaton, who studies academic accountability and ethics. Image: Screenshot of Youtube video

What happens now that everyone knows the authors of the Kenney government’s hurriedly revised kindergarten-to-Grade-6 social studies curriculum plagiarized significant sections of the document from a variety of sources?

In business or the academy, such a revelation would certainly result in the delay and modification of the document, if not its swift withdrawal, and raise the possibility of serious discipline for the cheats who failed to attribute the sources of their publication.

In such circles it is understood that even beyond the potential claims of the owners of the stolen intellectual property for financial compensation, theft taints the entire legitimacy of the entire work, hence it must be taken seriously.

As Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told me recently, “if a student had done this in a paper, I would fail them and report them to the Office of Student Conduct.”

But do the same moral and ethical considerations apply to governments? Most of us would instinctively say yes, but the determination of Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party to press on and either ignore the scandal, or dismiss it as meaningless, suggest a cavalier contempt for the rule of law, not to mention for normal ethical conduct.

“This isn’t a 19-year-old scrambling at the deadline,” Bratt noted. “This is the Department of Education. And it’s serial plagiarism.

“Hard to divorce the plagiarism from the content,” he added. “Both are problematic.”

Indeed. And it’s hard to ignore unethical conduct by a government in one area without wondering what might be happening in another. Even the government’s Alberta energy war room, legally known as Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., pretty swiftly withdrew its logo, twice, when caught moving a little faster than the speed of business to appropriate someone else’s work without payment.

Mind you, the government’s haste was not really so different from that of the frantic student described by Bratt. Having repeatedly made the baseless claim the Progressive Conservative curriculum work continued by the NDP government was socialist ideology and therefore deserved to be run through a shredder, it had to come up with something in a hurry.

We know of the gravity of the plagiarism thanks to the work of University of Calgary Education professor Sarah Eaton, who studies academic accountability and ethics.

She is editor-in-chief of the International Journal for Educational Integrity, author of Plagiarism in Higher Education: Tackling Tough Topics in Academic Integrity, and one of two Canadians on the 40-member global Committee for Publication Ethics Council, so her thoughts on this topic ought to carry a certain weight.

Her initial analysis of the curriculum draft establishes beyond question there is a serious problem.

In a blog published on April 3, she identifies three basic categories of plagiarism: paraphrasing without attribution and “the practice of re-arranging or swapping out words from the original text with synonyms,” both of which she terms indirect plagiarism, and “copy-and-paste plagiarism,” or direct plagiarism.

Noting that she was sent more than 100 examples of plagiarism by teachers and others in the hours after the curriculum was released, likely including some duplications, Eaton picked three examples, one of which appeared to have been based on text published online by the North Vancouver Recreation Centre, another very similar to text found in Wikipedia, and one “an exact duplication of text published in a 1976 article authored by Howard Palmer, published in the International Journal.”

“I have identified several different sources in my brief analysis,” she wrote. “This indicates that content has been lifted or borrowed from multiple original sources, not just one or two.”

“This draft curriculum is a patchwork of material pulled from different sources,” she said.

“Plagiarism happens when source material is not attributed. A basic tenet of academic and research integrity is to give credit where it is due. In this draft curriculum, there is little to no indication of acknowledgement of those whose ideas and words contributed to its development. It appears as though the draft of Alberta’s new K-6 curriculum is rife with plagiarism” (Emphasis added.)

Eaton suggests three remedies:

  1. Identify content from elsewhere. “This will require a line-by-line review of the entire draft curriculum.”
  2. Document the source of the original, unattributed work.
  3. Cite and reference all sources.

None of this is likely to happen, alas. For one thing, it would require a delay, which the government doubtless feels it cannot afford. And it would reveal just how shabby a piece of work this is.

When allegations parts of the curriculum were based on other sources first surfaced after the draft was released by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on March 29, the Kenney government’s first instinct was to deny and obfuscate.

Since then, it has fallen silent about the plagiarism, which is no longer a matter of allegation, and blithely continued promoting the draft to the public as if it were a legitimate document and its critics are motivated solely by ideology.

The issue has not gained much traction with media, possibly because journalism as an occupation has its own troubled relationship with plagiarism. While word-for-word copying is uncommon in the field, and dealt with inconsistently when discovered, other forms of indirect plagiarism are frequent, owing to discomfort admitting ideas or information may have originated with a commercial competitor.

“The educational community will view plagiarism as important,” Bratt observed. “But I think the wider public will kind of laugh it off.”

He asked: “How do you teach students ethical conduct when the people preparing the curriculum are violating it?”

Good question. While children in Grade 6 and under may be too young to fully appreciate this situation, you can count on it that every undergraduate student in Alberta with an inclination to plagiarize will soon be aware of it, and adding it to their litany of excuses and justifications.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Screenshot of Youtube video

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...