In recent years, although we haven’t seen a significant increase in academic misconduct cases in our caseload, the issues and challenges arising in cases of suspected misconduct have evolved. In this note we draw out some themes that we have seen in recent casework. Alongside the note we have published some case summaries of complaints relating to academic misconduct. We hope these resources, in addition to our Good Practice Framework: Disciplinary procedures, will be helpful to providers, students and student representative bodies. We have also included some information in our Toolkit for providers.
In our casework, we have seen many examples of good practice in how providers have addressed suspected academic misconduct. Providers usually follow their published procedures in terms of identifying potential academic misconduct, gathering evidence, and providing students with opportunities to respond. Many providers have good systems in place to make sure their decisions are consistent, for example, by referring to a standard tariff of penalties. But we have also seen examples of processes that have not resulted in a fair outcome.
It is reasonable for providers to take steps to safeguard the value of the education they offer by addressing matters of academic misconduct. But how providers approach this is important for both the fairness of the outcome and the wellbeing of the student involved.
Promoting good academic practice
Some academic misconduct arises from poor academic practice, or from students not fully understanding what is and is not acceptable. It can also arise from a student’s poor decision making at a time of significant stress. Providers can take positive steps to help reduce the likelihood of academic misconduct.
Changes to assessment practices that were accelerated by the pandemic have probably contributed to uncertainty for some students about what is expected and what is permitted. The variety of online tools and services available to students, whether free of charge or as a paid-for service, can be very confusing. Some providers recommend particular paid-for resources to students. Students may not see a difference between paying for access to a journal article behind a paywall, and paying for a sample of academic writing on the specific topic of a module assessment. Similarly, students do not always know whether they are permitted to use any proof-reading, paraphrasing or translation assistance, or understand whether the service they have used has been inappropriate. Providers can help students by giving examples of legitimate approaches to research, or of services which students should not use.
It can also be helpful to encourage students to keep notes or early drafts of their work so that they can show more easily that the work is their own if concerns are raised later on.
Many of the students who complain to us have admitted to academic misconduct and explain that their personal circumstances and mental health at the time of the assessment contributed to poor decision-making. Providers should remind students frequently of their options if their workload seems overwhelming, or if they do not feel able to perform to their best of their ability for any reason.
Supporting the student through the process
Any investigation into concerns about academic misconduct is likely to be stressful for the student, even if the process ultimately concludes that there was no misconduct, and it is important to direct students to sources of support. Providers should consider whether the investigation process might have a significant impact on the student and what steps it may take to mitigate this. For example, it may be appropriate to postpone an investigation until after a particular assessment period. Students may be directed to make a request for additional consideration if they feel the investigation process has had a significant impact on them.
Students are not always sure whether they are allowed to continue with their studies while an academic misconduct investigation is ongoing. Providers should make it clear to the student whether they should continue to attend teaching and submit work for assessment. It is unusual for providers to suspend a student from their studies because an academic misconduct investigation is ongoing, though this may be appropriate in limited circumstances such as where the student is involved in research with vulnerable individuals and there are concerns about ethical approval. Where the investigation coincides with a progression or re-enrolment point it is important to set out whether the student is permitted to progress, and explain what the consequences may be if a penalty is applied after re-enrolment. A penalty might have an impact on the student’s financial arrangements or visa status and they may benefit from access to independent advice, from the students’ union or other student representative body or others with specialist expertise.
Some students can be vulnerable to exploitation by those seeking to profit from selling services to them. It is important that students can still feel able to seek welfare support in circumstances like this.
Investigating concerns and reaching a decision
Sometimes when a provider first suspects that there has been academic misconduct, it may be unclear what sort of misconduct may have been committed. For example, a student who posts a question on a website may have compromised the exam, but if they didn’t pay for the answer they may not have committed contract cheating. It is important that students understand what misconduct is being considered, so that they can respond effectively. Providers should explain if they are considering more than one type of misconduct, and should narrow this down as soon as practically possible. It is important that the correct regulation is identified before a decision is made, especially where different penalties might be involved.
It is important to investigate concerns promptly. Some techniques for investigating, such as asking a student to demonstrate familiarity with particular material, may be less reliable or valuable if a long time has passed since the work was submitted.
Investigators and decision-makers must take care to listen to what the student says has happened and consider whether this is supported by any other evidence, whether it adequately explains the concerns that have been identified, and whether it is plausible. They should consider carefully whether the student’s intention is relevant, either to the misconduct itself or to the penalty. In many cases, whether the student used the material won’t be relevant to whether they contracted to cheat, but evidence that they did use the material, such as a similarity report, is likely to support the case against them and may also be relevant to penalty. It’s important that decision-makers understand the evidence that they are given, what it is relevant to, and how to probe it effectively.
The burden of proof remains with the provider to prove that misconduct has taken place. A student does not have to prove that they didn’t commit academic misconduct, although any evidence to support that the work is their own is likely to be helpful to them, and they may need to show that they didn’t intend to do something.
Providers should try to resolve all academic misconduct cases promptly. It is important to keep students informed of progress, especially if the investigation is taking longer than anticipated.
A proportionate approach to penalty
Providers often take a supportive approach to instances of poor academic practice, minor or first-time misconduct. It can be appropriate as part of a penalty to require a student to access training or other resources explaining the importance of academic integrity, and to ensure compliance with this requirement. It’s important for providers to have a range of possible penalties and to apply them consistently and proportionately. For example, it’s likely that a lower penalty will be appropriate for a first-year student’s first case of academic misconduct than for a third-year student with previous incidents on their academic record. The student should also have the opportunity to present any mitigation they have.
It is good practice to capture learning from complaints, appeals and other processes to improve the student experience. Identifying trends and patterns in academic misconduct cases may identify groups of students who would benefit from additional support, for example, those returning to education after a significant gap, or international students with experience in different academic traditions.