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U of R does itself a disservice by not firing Shirif

It’s Judgment Day for the Engineering faculty/ Grace Lee
It’s Judgment Day for the Engineering faculty/ Grace Lee

Practice what you preach

Author: Liam Fitz-Gerald

‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ the old saying goes, and usually it’s used by parents when their children point out that they act hypocritically. Arguably, it has a new context in the case of Ezeddin Shirif (Vol. 57, Issue 17, p. 3), a professor of Engineering at the University of Regina recently found guilty by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) of plagiarism—yes, that terrible offense our profs warn us against. Indeed, the deliberate act of passing someone else’s idea off as your own is one of the more vile forms of non-criminal obscenities, because it demonstrates pure and utter contempt toward those who undertook the time, effort, and risk in engaging in that research. It reveals something terribly troubling about the character of that individual, that they are so quick to simply claim somebody else’s work as their own, an act that is plain and simple theft.

For plagiarizing a U of R Master’s student’s work back in 2008, APEGA barred Shirif from registering for five years and will only be allowed to register again after completing professional ethics examinations. He was also fined $26,520.76. The University of Regina and the Faculty of Engineering, citing privacy laws, have been secretive to their response into this matter. So, it’s unclear what, if any, sanctions from the University were imposed upon Shirif.

Another engineering professor is under investigation for plagiarism as well. Shahid Azam is accused of plagiarizing his Master’s student’s thesis and is currently claiming that this is not the case. The investigation is ongoing.

Despite the appropriate sanctions levelled against Shirif by his professional body, students across campus should be deeply incensed by this action. The undergraduate calendar makes it very clear in Section 5.13.2.2 that plagiarism constitutes “intent to deceive, lack of understanding, or carelessness,” meaning one cannot use ignorance as an excuse to defend words or ideas that are not theirs being uncited in their project/paper. The penalties range, depending on the severity of the circumstance and whether or not it is a repeat offense, from grade reductions on assignments and in courses, to expulsion outright. In Shirif’s case, he claimed that he had two co-authors for his paper, but it turns out he forged the signatures and failed to give proper credit to the student whose work he plagiarized. According to the undergraduate calendar, this clearly constitutes “intent to deceive,” the worst of the three that he is guilty of. If a student is going to be expelled for any of those offenses, it’s probably going to be that one.

Alas, the universities have little interest in going after academics committing plagiarism. As McMaster University business professor Benson Honig points out in a CBC interview on Azam’s case, academics engaging in these types of behaviors are not exactly what the universities pride themselves on. Students who commit these actions are easier targets because nobody bats an eye hearing that students cheat. And, really, who can blame the universities for this? What law firm would want to advertise themselves if a prominent partner was found to be overbilling? What franchise owner, assumed oblivious, is going to be happy if their customers find out that management is cutting costs by watering down drinks?

While those analogies are not perfect, they do illustrate the predicament institutions find themselves in when their employees engage in dishonest behavior. In each case, the hope is that the public will quickly forget about it and move on.

Yet, this will not end the issue of plagiarism in academia, a problem that Honig suggests is more widespread than we’re comfortable with. No, that requires two things: a willingness for faculties across disciplines and the university administration to recognize this as a terribly troubling reality, and second, for penalties that reflect how serious these actions are, up to and including dismissal. The fact that this man is still teaching undergraduates without going through extensive ethics courses, at his expense, should anger both students and academics alike.

Editor’s Note: The print version of this op-ed did not have the reference to the article mentioned by the author. It has been added here. 

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