Leader: Ensuring cheats do not prosper

April 13, 2007

A couple of years ago, one university, in a desire to be seen to be taking the issue of plagiarism seriously, took the commendable step of spelling out exactly what did and what did not constitute cheating, overhauled its procedures and posted the guidelines prominently on its website. A few weeks later, a second institution, without a hint of glee, pointed out that the imposing document had been lifted from its site without attribution.

Plagiarism is not a simple issue to tackle: it has to be defined, spotted, calibrated and punished. Let us first dispense with the argument that it doesn't matter because everyone cheats, we live in a culture that celebrates ends over means, students should not be punished unduly for it and that ultimately they are only shortchanging themselves. Cheats shortchange more than themselves - not least those students whose good grades reflect good minds and institutions whose degrees are an indication of excellent standards honestly attained. Cheats may sometimes prosper, but it would be a dereliction of duty to make it easy for them.

Almost all universities do a reasonable job of formulating guidelines for students about the proper use of sources and how to reference properly.

However, they are not equally good at publicising that information or determining what transgressions merit which penalties. In that light, the Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service's analysis of higher education institutions' procedures can only help to spread good practice.

Fears that students could use discrepancies between university plagiarism codes to overturn rulings appear misplaced. What counts, according to the lawyers, is if the policies in any given university were clearly communicated and followed. And here universities are vulnerable. In particular, there is often confusion about who is responsible for examining cases of plagiarism and how long the process should take. Institutions should imitate Keele University, which has a nominated academic in each school to handle all plagiarism cases, and heed the advice of experts at Oxford Brookes University. A long drawn out process is not only disproportionate to the offence, it is unnecessary and could leave institutions open to legal action - an unjust fate for universities and plagiarists alike.

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