Plagiarist student set to sue university

五月 27, 2004

A student who admits plagiarising his way through his three-year degree course plans to sue his university for negligence after he was caught out on the day before his final exam.

Michael Gunn was told by the University of Kent at Canterbury earlier this month that a routine review of his English literature degree coursework "has revealed extensive plagiarism from internet sources".

The English department has so far decided to give "zero" marks to 13 formally assessed essays. Mr Gunn now has virtually no chance of graduating.

Mr Gunn, 21, claims that he was unaware that his activity - cutting and pasting material from the internet without attribution - constituted plagiarism and argues that the university failed to give proper guidance on accept able research techniques.

He says the university should also have spotted the problem earlier through more careful marking and tuition and nipped it in the bud before it became too late to save his degree.

"I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise," he told The Times Higher . "But I always used the internet - cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points. It's a technique I've used since I started the course. I never dreamt it was a problem."

He said he had debts of £11,000 after the three-year course: "I can see there is evidence that I have gone against the rules, but they've taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks, and no one spotted it."

Mr Gunn's mother, Elaine, said that the family was looking for a lawyer to take up the challenge of a potentially landmark test case. "It is not about the money," she said. "We just don't want this to happen to others." She said that her son was not proud of what he had done, but the university had to accept some responsibility.

"He has no degree, debts up to his eyeballs and three missing years of his life with nothing to show on his CV. It could not be more disastrous.

"The university was happy to take his tuition fees over the past three years and fill a place on the course, but what about its obligations? Why was it not pointing out the pitfalls, and why was its head in the sand for so long? I didn't want to have to go the legal route - I just wanted my son to come out like a normal student."

A review of Mr Gunn's work by Kent has found extensive plagiarism - often blocks of text used over several pages - in essays dating back to his second year.

David Nightingale, deputy vice-chancellor at Kent, said: "The external examiners' meeting for the School of English will not take place until next week. It is therefore inappropriate for the university to comment on any individual case. However, I would stress that the university has robust and well-established procedures in place to combat plagiarism and that our students are given clear guidance on this issue... in the faculty and department handbooks. Departments also supplement the formal documents with detailed advice and guidance to students."

He said the university aimed to use specialised plagiarism detection software across the university from this summer.

Garry Attle, senior partner at education law firm Mills and Reeve, could not comment on the specifics of the case. But he said such a claim could have "some mileage" in the courts, albeit rather limited. "There was a case not a million miles from this where someone argued that a university did not do enough to explain what plagiarism was. It was settled out of court."

He said: "There is a question of how far universities go to drum it into students about what is and is not acceptable. But under basic contract law, if it's in the student handbook, that should be sufficient, as the student should have read it."

He said that there were also legal precedents where schools have been found negligent for failing to spot special needs in pupils that could apply to cases of universities failing to spot problems with students' work early enough. "But in higher education, students are adults and should read the rules," he said. "There is a bigger social issue about whether students are properly equipped for the rigours of higher education."

Specialist education lawyer Jaswinder Gill of Gills Solicitors in London said there could be a claim for neglect where tutors have failed to spot problems that seem obvious in retrospect, but he said it would be difficult to argue.

A spokesperson for the National Union of Students said that the NUS did not condone plagiarism, but said that with new research sources increasingly at students' fingertips, there was a general need for universities to spell out what is and is not acceptable practice. "We have more people in university who have less time with their lecturers, so the problems need to be nipped in the bud and highlighted early on."

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Reader's comments (1)

As a university professor, an accomplished writer and an expert teacher of academic and research writing, I actually will side with the student. I have a lot of experience with college students in The Middle East whose religious culture includes 'helping each other'. Interestingly, I have run into an attitude from local instructors, no less, that lots of Arab students are 'cheaters'! However, ultimately I learned that too many students, world-wide, really don't know what plagiarism is. Similarly, I find that too many college instructors--of all levels of experience--really don't know the proper use of Turnitin. These together are like a perfect storm to create confusion and accusation. Assuming that the student in this story is going to 'read the handbook' is either naive on the part of the university or just a way to cover their.... It also says above that "Departments also supplement the formal documents with detailed advice and guidance to students", but this falls short of giving any details, or saying what happened in this student's case, so I am left with a feeling 'maybe so and maybe no'. Finally, shouldn't it be the university's mission to sort these things out AS they happen? I don't say this to overly criticize the university, but to suggest that such attempts to stop 'cheating' might better be reformulated into a student-centered opportunity to give real-time guidance using a combination of one-to-one academic counseling and the results of Turnitin. My rule is that if duly-apprised students then repeat what they knew was an unacceptable lack of giving due credit regarding one or more substantial ideas that came from outside sources, then I inform them that I must report their conduct to the proper authorities. However, I never do this with a sense of relish, which is what I have seen far too many times among university professors. As proof in the pudding, my system of making no assumptions about the fore-knowledge of students and general syllabus information about plagiarism, combined with that of using actual work product mistakes as teachable moments facilitated with Turnitin results--has worked very well. Part of it is that I don't act as a 'gotcha!' warden who is ferreting out cheaters(!); instead I act as a source of knowledge and a guide for the whole student experience. 'Who knows' about the above student. Nonetheless, I know what has worked very well in my case and has helped avoid many situations created by what I think is too often a policing attitude on the part of the university combined with students who are too put off or scared to ask for help, especially if they 'didn't get it the first time'. Finally, I see 'Plagiarism', 'Cheating', 'Academic Integrity' splashed all over university web sites, student handbooks, required seminars, and posters on classroom bulletin boards. To me, these mean nothing without the follow-through, and that follow-through shouldn't be looking for criminals, but attempting to disseminate at least a reasonable sense of proper scholarship to students who will often never have a need to 'write a paper', but may remember the experience with fondness or anger...often we can determine the difference.