Ask the panel

October 19, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel. 'I have come across several cases of plagiarism in students' work, which I have reported to my head of department. However, each time I have been told not to rock the boat because following up accusations of plagiarism is time-consuming and, in any case, not good publicity for the department. I feel that this is unfair and bad academic practice, but I do not see how to move forward. I am worried that if no action is taken, the problem will only increase'.

The University and College Union says: "All institutions should have a proper procedure for dealing with reports of plagiarism.

"If the head of department fails to investigate these reports, you might contemplate reporting your concerns under the university's whistleblowing procedure. This is a policy designed to allow employees to raise high- level concerns that the individual believes show malpractice, criminality or unethical behaviour.

"The whistleblowing procedure may involve reporting the allegation to the vice-chancellor or another senior member of the university, who should convene an independent panel to investigate. Procedures should also provide for the identity of a discloser to be kept confidential. If you are concerned about preserving anonymity, approach your local UCU rep to ask about the institutional procedure - she or he will treat your approach in confidence."

Gill Evans , project leader of the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded Dispute Resolution Project ( www.staffs.ac.uk ), says:

"Your university should not only have clear procedures for dealing with alleged plagiarism by students, it should also insist that they are followed rigorously and fairly. It should provide procedures for staff to follow when they suspect plagiarism to ensure that concerns are put on the record. You have a duty to ensure that students are treated fairly and consistently and an overriding duty to ensure that the standards of the degrees your university awards are unimpeachable, otherwise there is a danger of compromising its degree-awarding powers."

A pro vice-chancell or says: "Plagiarism is a serious and growing issue. Allowing it to continue will have a negative effect on the quality of education provided, so it is important to ensure that it is not swept under the carpet.

"Sound out other colleagues. If several of you confront the head of department together to demand that the problem is dealt with, ideally eliciting the support of your subject Staff-Student Liaison Committee members, then progress should be assured. Students who work hard deplore plagiarism as much as lecturers, so get them on board."

Will Murray , director of the Joint Information Systems Committee's Plagiarism Advisory Service , says: "A blanket ban on investigating any form of malpractice would be unacceptable. If it should come to light that an institution allowed malpractice because of a desire to reduce workloads, it would generate more publicity than taking appropriate action now.

"If there is concern about an increasing plagiarism problem, the solution may not be straightforward, and there may be a variety of measures that need to be taken to address it: course and assessment redesign, use of plagiarism detection solutions and emphasising student research skills and information literacy skills. (Visit www.jiscpas.ac.uk  for resources.)

"The institution may need to review procedures for dealing with plagiarism if they are seen by staff as too onerous. Some institutions have dedicated academic conduct officers that help address such issues. The question here appears to be about a senior member of staff avoiding university regulation (although there may be an underlying issue).

"If the individual is unable to persuade the head of department to follow existing regulations, the institution's human resources department should be approached to help resolve what may be a staff management issue."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded Dispute Resolution Project. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk .

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