Tariff points

October 20, 2011

Times Higher Education's coverage of the report on the plagiarism reference tariff was titled "Stock plagiarism penalties don't always fit the crime" (13 October). However, the facts do not necessarily support this claim.

First, we thought it reassuring that even in an unrepresentative sample, the majority of cases examined were assigned penalties consistent with the tariff's recommendations (despite the fact that it was not used in formulating these penalties). This suggests that it is performing reliably in its principal aim of providing a benchmark of the penalties that would "most typically" be applied for a particular offence throughout the sector.

More interesting, of course, are those cases where the assigned penalties did not agree with the tariff's recommendations. For the majority, the reason for the mismatch appears to be due to the assignment of "off-piste" penalties - ie, those that were not included in the tariff because (according to our research) they were only rarely available or infrequently applied across the sector. These are not necessarily more or less harsh than those that the tariff recommends, but we did not feel they were appropriate for a pan-institutional tariff that aims to promote consistency.

Only 20 per cent of the cases examined were assigned a bona fide harsher or less harsh penalty than the tariff suggests, and there is no evidence this was biased in any direction. It is interesting to observe that the standard interpretation is that this highlights flaws in the tariff, but it seems equally plausible that such cases involve students who received penalties of a different scale from those given to their peers. Regardless, we are delighted to see the tariff being scrutinised. Such work and the debate it elicits can only help us move towards the goal of more consistency across the sector.

Peter Tennant, Newcastle University

Gill Rowell, PlagiarismAdvice.Org

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