Universities’ plagiarism verdicts against students can be overturned by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator or the courts - but only on the rare occasions when they do not require academic judgement, a judge has ruled.
The conclusion relates to a student’s application for a judicial review of the OIA’s refusal to overturn a ruling by Queen Mary, University of London that he had committed plagiarism in a piece of coursework for his master’s degree in project management in 2007-08.
According to court documents, the student, Hazim Mustafa, did not dispute the finding that substantial portions of his essay on the Dubai Metro system contained verbatim reproductions of material from several websites.
But he argued that the square-bracketed references to the sources he had placed at the end of paragraphs were enough to indicate he was quoting from them.
Mr Mustafa, who also failed several exams and did not graduate, added that since the passages were included only in the introductory section of his essay, which did not contain any statistical data, he did not need to reference them in the same way as in the main body.
Queen Mary’s examination offence panel rejected this argument, noting that “the essay read as a continuous…narrative and without the proper use of quotations it was not possible, or very difficult, to determine which text was taken from an external source and which was Mr Mustafa’s own work”.
The student’s appeal against the plagiarism finding plus other complaints about his treatment by Queen Mary were rejected by the OIA in 2010.
However, the Court of Appeal gave him leave to appeal to the High Court against the plagiarism verdict in order to test the OIA’s apparent argument that all findings of plagiarism are necessarily matters of academic judgement and therefore beyond its remit to overrule.
‘Often (perhaps usually) required’
In a ruling issued on 23 May, Mr Justice Males notes that “not all judgments which academics have to make will qualify as academic judgments”. If a student “lifts wholesale an article from the internet which he presents as his own work without attribution”, then no judgement - “academic or otherwise” - would be necessary to deem it plagiarism.
Academic judgement in plagiarism cases is only “often (and perhaps usually)” required, he says.
But the judge also states that the OIA had argued only that the question of Mr Mustafa’s plagiarism - as opposed to plagiarism generally - was a matter of academic judgement. And he agrees with that conclusion since it would be necessary to “have knowledge of academic conventions” to determine how the student’s square-bracketed endnotes “should be understood”.
Mr Justice Males therefore dismisses Mr Mustafa’s appeal. However, he notes that this is not a finding of “moral turpitude” against the student since Queen Mary had not investigated whether he had sought deliberately to mislead.
Felicity Mitchell, deputy adjudicator at the OIA, said: “This is an important judgment that confirms the centrality of academic judgement in decisions relating to plagiarism. The OIA’s role is to review the process and fairness of plagiarism investigations, not to interfere with that central judgement.”