An academic's error has led to a fierce debate on what constitutes plagiarism. Phil Baty reports
An expert on student plagiarism has himself been accused of copying material "verbatim" from another source without properly acknowledging it.
The allegations have divided the UK's plagiarism experts over what actually constitutes plagiarism and how strictly even minor lapses should be punished.
In a further twist, the academic paper under the spotlight is itself about the overzealous policing of plagiarism in higher education.
The case highlights a major headache for the academic sector: the lack of consistency in the approach to student cheating and the risk of unfairness to students.
The accusation centres on a paragraph in a 28-page paper published this month, "Why the writing is on the wall for the plagiarism police", by Peter Levin, an educational development professional at the London School of Economics. The paragraph was not shown to be a quote in the text but it was correctly acknowledged as being from another source in the author's footnotes.
Dr Levin denied any wrongdoing and said that his accusers had been "overzealous". He explained that a "simple error" in the electronic formatting of the paper, now corrected, had meant that the passage was not indented to indicate that it was a quotation.
But this view is not shared by some of Dr Levin's colleagues debating in an electronic discussion forum, ahead of a meeting in Gateshead next week organised by the Joint Information Systems Committee's Plagiarism Advisory Service.
Dr Levin's key accuser is Jon Appleton, himself an expert on plagiarism from Oxford Brookes University. Mr Appleton says in the forum that it is not clear what is and what is not Dr Levin's work. He writes: "On checking the reference, it can be found that, in fact, the whole paragraph is a direct quote from the source but this is in effect hidden from the reader.
"In other words, it gives the appearance that the author has developed certain ideas when, in fact, they were simply copied verbatim from the work of someone else. At Oxford Brookes, we are clear that this would be regarded as plagiarism."
Dr Levin replies: "I am indebted to Jon Appleton for a beautiful example of how a simple error in setting up a document can lead to the writer being accused of plagiarism. Just as well that I'm not a student at Brookes. Just possibly a slight excess of zeal here?"
Mr Appleton acknowledges that the error is not a "heinous" breach, but says that all plagiarism, no matter how minor and regardless of intent, should be taken seriously and penalised, to protect hardworking students from determined cheats.
Duncan Williamson, an education consultant, asks the forum: "Is it really fair to accuse Levin of having committed plagiarism simply because he didn't indent a paragraph or missed off the quotation marks even though he did supply a footnote?"
Derek Ord, head of student administrative services at Hull University, writes: "I wonder how on earth we manage to advise our students at all if academics have the problems (discussed on the forum)?"
Dr Levin told The Times Higher that the row "illustrated the mindset" of the plagiarism police, which he has castigated in his paper. He said that they focused on the possibility of minor infringements, not on the student's learning.
Ruth Deech, the student complaints ombudsman, will tell delegates at next week's plagiarism conference that 2.8 per cent of complaints to her office are about consistency and fairness in handling plagiarism allegations.
Research to be presented to the conference, from the University of Central England, will highlight a new form of student plagiarism.
The researchers found that students were putting their coursework assignments out to tender online, with suppliers bidding to undertake the work. One in ten of all requests to one software outsourcing website were from students from 46 universities, and most students had made multiple requests.