Staff are confused by wide range of penalties - from £100 fines to outright expulsion - available for use against plagiarists. Rebecca Attwood reports.
Concerns that many staff face vague policies on plagiarism were heightened this week as new research revealed that a total of 25 different penalties are available for the offence across the sector.
Punishments ranging from "no further action" to expulsion from the institution are in use, an analysis of guidelines at 153 institutions shows.
Yet almost a third of higher education institutions use guidelines that fail to offer academic staff guidance on which punishments are appropriate for different cases, the research for the Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service says.
The results substantiate concerns expressed by Baroness Deech, the student complaints ombudsman, who has argued that the variation in penalties for plagiarism across the sector is "too great to be defensible" and might not stand up to legal scrutiny.
At an international plagiarism conference last year, she quoted a characteristic student inquiry: "Why am I being thrown out when my friend down the road at another university did exactly the same thing and only got fined £50?"
Lady Deech this week welcomed the research. She told The Times Higher : "The mere fact that this research has been carried out will alert all universities to the need to be fair and equitable in the way that they handle these offences and how they punish them."
She said that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which she leads, believes that students "must have a sense that their cases are looked at individually, and that there is a consensus across the sector.
"What is very good to see is that most universities are now tailoring the punishment to the offence. There is a world of difference between someone who quotes a few words - perhaps a foreign student who doesn't understand the regulations - and someone at the other end of the scale who unashamedly borrows large amounts of material."
The research found that for exactly the same offence, most universities list a wide range of possible penalties - on average, the list of potential punishments for a single offence varies by 14 points on a 25-point scale.
Nineteen institutions have the option of using financial penalties as a punishment, the research found, with fines ranging from a minimum of £100 up to £1,000.
But expulsion was by far the most frequently cited punishment in university guidelines, listed as an option in nearly 99 per cent of regulations.
Chris Willmott, senior lecturer in biochemistry at Leicester University, said it was concerning that some universities appeared not to have clear guidelines in place.
He said: "I think Leicester is at the clearer end of the scale. Going back a few years, anecdotally, I think a lot of things got deliberately missed because of the potential aggro for staff. I think it is very important for both students and staff to have clear guidelines in terms of how to respond."
But George MacDonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University, said that while it was important to be fair, at the same time institutions needed to allow a degree of flexibility.
"It is very difficult to get a happy medium between, on the one hand, having a rigorous tariff system and, on the other, not giving staff sufficient guidance," he said.
Mike Reddy, a member of the steering committee for Jiscpas,Jsaid his personal experience had told him there was disagreement between lecturers, departments and even institutions on penalties for academic offences, and particularlyJon plagiarism.
Dr Reddy,Ja lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport,Jsaid: "University policy and practice should be more open, with student involvement and full disclosure of the results and process to ensure universities abide by a consistent approach to common justice."
Fiona Duggan, the head of advice and guidance for Jiscpas, said the project would inform national policy and help UK institutions to achieve consistency, transparency and fairness.
JISCPAS KEY FINDINGS
Almost a third of higher education institutions use guidelines that fail to advise academic staff about which penalties are appropriate for particular cases
* Twenty-five different penalties for student plagiarism were available across the sector
* Expulsion is the most frequently cited penalty for plagiarism, contained within the guidelines for nearly 99 per cent of institutions
* Nearly 90 per cent of university regulations listed the different circumstances involved as being important