Inconsistent penalties raise risk of legal action, Deech says

June 23, 2006

Phil Baty reports from the international plagiarism conference

The student complaints ombudsman has attacked the "indefensible inconsistency" of punishments meted out to cheating students by universities.

Ruth Deech, head of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, told the international plagiarism conference that universities were being unfair to students because the procedures and punishments in plagiarism cases varied dramatically between, and even within, institutions. She said such inconsistency left institutions vulnerable to legal action.

Baroness Deech also risked criticism for being weak on the issue of academic standards when she suggested that institutions who routinely expelled students over plagiarism were possibly being too harsh.

"I urgently call for a consensus on the levels of punishment and hopefully on procedure as well," she said in her keynote speech to the conference, organised by the Plagiarism Advisory Service at Northumbria University.

"The complainant will ask, 'Why have I been thrown out while my friend in a different department who did the same thing was not?' It is indefensible,"

she said. "It cannot be impossible for the sector to come together and share levels of punishment."

She said that universities would risk legal rebukes, or unfavourable rulings from her office, if they failed to ensure that their definitions of plagiarism had been made clear and that their punishments were well defined and applied consistently and proportionately.

She said one case had reached her office where a student had been pursued for having plagiarised 12 words in a dissertation of many thousands of words.

She said that she "might well have said that this was beyond the bounds of reasonableness" had the institution not agreed to drop the case.

Baroness Deech also gave an example of a final-year student getting expelled and having his entire history of academic credit cancelled as punishment for plagiarism. "Is this so harsh that we should interfere, on the grounds that it is disproportionate?" she asked.

In a research paper presented at the conference, Martin Jones of Glasgow Caledonian University argued that the quality assurance systems governing assessment and plagiarism policies had failed to keep pace with "the threats to academic integrity that plagiarism in the internet age has brought".

John Hull, a partner at education law firm Eversheds, said that universities could be as harsh or as lenient as they liked over plagiarism without fear of legal challenge, as long as the policies were clearly communicated to students and were followed carefully.

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