'Co-operation or collusion' debate divides specialists

February 18, 2005

When does acceptable student co-operation become unacceptable collusion? writes Phil Baty.

The question came to the fore this week as a university plagiarism watchdog told how his daughter was punished after innocently showing work to a friend. The story has split the plagiarism detection community and highlighted the worrying grey area between what is deemed acceptable.

Peter Armstrong, an information services manager at Sheffield University, told a plagiarism discussion forum that his daughter had handed a completed degree assignment to a friend who had said that she was unsure of the format the work should take.

When it later emerged that the friend had copied it in full, both students were punished. Mr Armstrong's daughter's work was given a zero.

"My daughter was shocked, both by her friend's action and by the robust response. She felt she had done nothing wrong - indeed (she was) was trying to be supportive - and felt very hard done by," Mr Armstrong told the email discussion forum.

Speaking to The Times Higher this week, Mr Armstrong, who manages Sheffield's plagiarism detection service, said the incident took place three years ago and concerned "two naive first-years".

He said he would not like to see it cited as an example of current practice.

But while several plagiarism specialists confirmed that both students would, and should, have been punished at their institutions, others disagreed.

Matthew Hughes, an e-learning expert at the University of the West of England, told the forum: "I'm dismayed. I think the onus is on the organisation to show that it was beyond reasonable doubt that (Mr Armstrong's daughter) intended the work to be copied.

"How do we encourage collaboration if we lay such vicious, defensive penalties on our students?"

Jo Tomalin, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "Surely, for the purposes of education, it is good if students share work and learn from each other."

But others argued for a firmer approach.

Discussing a hypothetical case similar to that of Mr Armstrong's daughter, Mike Reddy, of Glamorgan University's School of Computing, said: "Clearly, we could have the cunning preying on the gullible here.

"If the assignment had clear guidelines for what was expected, an example format and adequate academic support, the 'lender' would have heard alarm bells, surely?"

Lynzie Gadd, assistant registrar (examinations) at Bristol University, said there should be room for case-by-case discretion.

"At what point does co-studying become collusion? By that, I mean when students 'work together' in actively discussing and considering the topic."

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