Public Interest Cases

Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct - September 2014

These cases illustrate different issues to be considered in dealing with allegations of plagiarism and academic misconduct.

 

The responsibility on students to make sure they are familiar with university regulations

Cranfield University

A student at Cranfield University committed plagiarism in one module. The student admitted the offence.

In mitigation the student suggested that changes in the timetabling of assessment of another module had meant that there was not enough time to submit original work.

The OIA noted that the University has a duty to maintain academic standards by addressing misdemeanours in accordance with procedures to ensure that all students are treated on an equal footing. It would have been open to the student to raise concerns at the time and to have sought assistance. Such a course of action would have allowed the University to consider an appropriate response, for example, granting an extension or deferment

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University of Bristol

A student at the University of Bristol was accused of extensive plagiarism and a penalty was imposed. The student appealed the decision on the basis that the University had not taken account of the difficulties that he had experienced in adjusting to studying in the United Kingdom. He also stated that the training and information he had received still left him insufficiently educated about academic misconduct.

The OIA was satisfied that the University’s final decision and the penalty imposed were both reasonable and in line with its regulations. The University was able to provide evidence that the student had attended a plagiarism training session, that it had considered the impact of the penalty on the student and that information and guidance on how to avoid plagiarism was readily available to students. It was the student’s responsibility to seek further advice from the University if he was still unsure how to avoid plagiarism after the training. The OIA also noted that the student had not taken the opportunity provided by the University to run his work through the Turnitin software earlier on in his course. The OIA’s decision was that the case was Not Justified.

 

The importance of clear regulations

University of Exeter

An undergraduate student who had been studying at the University of Exeter for three years had a bundle of unauthorised and relevant notes, and a mobile phone, under his desk during an examination.

The Review Panel members considered all the relevant information, including the student’s statement where he admitted breaching the regulations but explained that he had been late arriving to the examination and had forgotten to leave his notes and mobile phone outside. A penalty, in line with the table of tariffs available for such an offence, was imposed. The student appealed and asked for the penalty to be reduced because he had not intended to cheat.

The University’s regulations were clear and it provided very clear guidance that any notes and phones should be handled to an invigilator before an examination commenced

Part 3 of the University’s Code of Good Practice on Managing Academic Misconduct lists as one example of Severe Academic Misconduct “taking notes into or using any unauthorised device in an examination.” Section 8.3 of the Code then stipulates that: “In considering a case of exam misconduct, the panel will address the case as a strict liability offence. This means that where a student is found to have taken unauthorised material into the exam hall the student is guilty of an offence, irrespective of that student’s intent either to deceive or gain advantage or otherwise.”

Therefore, the issues of why the student had taken the notes and mobile phone to his desk, and whether he had intended to use them, were irrelevant. The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.

 

Setting penalties

University of Liverpool

The OIA received a complaint from a postgraduate student at the University of Liverpool who had taken notes into a resit examination on two occasions, against the University regulations. The Board of Discipline decided to terminate his studies with no further right of resit.

The Board of Appeal refused the right to appeal as the student did not provide any fresh evidence, but did look at the penalty. It concluded that this was ‘not out of line with decisions taken in the previous academic year’. However this was not supported by reports to Senate nor by minutes of earlier Disciplinary Panels which suggested that termination of studies was highly unusual.

The OIA found the case Partly Justified and recommended that the University offer the student a fresh appeal to look at whether the penalty was proportionate to the offence.

Where a student is facing a penalty as serious as a termination of studies, it is essential that the reasons for the decision to impose or uphold that penalty are absolutely clear, and that the decision is demonstrably based on a complete and accurate understanding of the relevant facts.

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The University of Manchester

The OIA reviewed a complaint from an MA student at The University of Manchester. The student was found guilty of plagiarism in her written dissertation and, under the Regulations, was allowed to resubmit with a mark to be capped at 50 per cent.

The student accepted the findings of the Academic Malpractice Committee and accepted the penalty. However the University did not inform her until the end of the programme that as a result of the penalty she would not be able to achieve more than a pass classification in her Masters degree.

Whilst the OIA considers it reasonable to expect students to familiarise themselves with the contents of the University’s procedures, in this case the relevant guidance states that students will be informed of the impact of any penalty imposed. The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified and recommended that the University offer the student a fresh hearing. That hearing took place and the penalty was reduced.

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Queen Mary University of London

The OIA will not normally look at whether plagiarism has been committed because an assessment of whether a student has plagiarised will normally involve a University's academic judgment. However it can consider whether the University has followed its own procedures correctly and whether there was any unfairness in the way it reached its decision.

A Queen Mary University of London student complained to the OIA after her appeal against the severity of a penalty for plagiarism was rejected. The Chair of the Assessment Offences Panel imposed a more severe penalty than that recommended by the Assistant Academic Registrar.

The University's regulations state that the Chair of the Assessment Offences Panel can act on behalf of the Panel when a student admits to an offence. A decision also needs to be fair and based on good reasoning. In this case, the OIA found that reasons were not provided for the penalty applied, particularly as the penalty was more severe than that recommended by the Assistant Academic Registrar.

The appeal also did not consider the issue of the reasons for the penalty imposed. The OIA found this element of the student's complaint justified and recommended that the University reconsider the student's appeal. The overall decision was Partly Justified.

 

Extenuating circumstances and academic misconduct

University of Wales Trinity St David

A student at the University of Wales Trinity St David complained after her studies were terminated following plagiarism in a number of modules.

The student had submitted medical evidence which had previously been taken into account in granting extensions to deadlines. The University considered that under its regulations such extenuating circumstances could not be taken into account in dealing with allegations of academic misconduct.

The OIA found the case Not Justified.

 

Authorship of work

University of Leeds

The OIA sees a number of complaints relating to work that it is suspected was ‘ghosted’ or taken from the internet. It is increasingly common for universities to use viva examinations and analysis where plagiarism is suspected and the OIA does not consider this unreasonable.

In one such case, work submitted by a student at the University of Leeds showed a high match on Turnitin. The student complained to us about a number of aspects of the way the University had challenged him to prove his authorship of the work.

The University was able to demonstrate that its decision to uphold a finding of plagiarism was based on the academic judgment of subject experts. The minutes of the relevant meetings attended by the student recorded clearly that the student had not been able to answer questions about his work or the techniques he had used. The OIA also considered it reasonable that the University had taken into account the supervisor’s view that the work submitted differed entirely in standard, content and title from work that had been previously discussed.

The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.

 

Investigation

The University of Salford

The OIA reviewed a complaint from a student at the University of Salford about the way the University had dealt with allegations of academic misconduct and his subsequent appeal. The student was accused of collusion. Part of his complaint was that members of the Academic Misconduct Panel had been made aware of a previous occasion on which he had plagiarised work. This made no difference to the current case as the student admitted the collusion offence.

The OIA found the complaint Not Justified and suggested to the University that it "may wish to consider its approach (the fairness and relevance) to the disclosure of previous findings of academic misconduct against a student where that student is later accused of a further offence. If the University is to present details of previous findings of academic misconduct to a Panel, before a decision is made regarding a further offence, then in our view the University’s regulations should make it clear that a previous offence is relevant, and what exactly it is relevant to." So, for example, the fact that a student had previously been found guilty of plagiarism might be relevant to a subsequent plagiarism allegation, but not to an allegation of collusion.