Litigation fear lets cheats off hook

October 13, 2006

Phil Baty uncovers concerns that academics are prevented from investigating suspected plagiarists.

Some lecturers who suspect that their students are guilty of plagiarism are being prevented from taking disciplinary action by rigid university rules and a fear of student litigation, it was claimed this week.

Academics taking part in an online discussion forum raised concerns that the rules of their university prevented them from acting on their professional "intuition" to investigate or initiate formal proceedings against suspected student cheats.

One expert expressed "astonishment" at the revelations and claimed that many of those people responsible for setting, monitoring and maintaining academic standards in universities appeared to be "unfit to do so".

The debate, which took place ahead of next week's conference on plagiarism hosted by Universities UK, was sparked by John Beech, head of sport and tourism applied research at Coventry University. He said that no matter how strong their suspicions, academics at Coventry could take action against students only if plagiarism was first detected by the electronic detection software, Turnitin. The program checks a student's work against a massive electronic database of previously published work or "model" essays, many of which have been purchased online.

But the database is not exhaustive, does not cover all material that may be protected by internet firewalls and cannot detect collusion between students or students passing off bespoke essays as their own.

Mr Beech said asking students to take an oral viva to explore an academic's suspicions was deemed to be "discriminatory".

"It would follow by the same argument that fixed-speed cameras were OK as a basis for evidence but evidence from a traffic policeman's camera would not be: 'He only assessed a sample, your Honour, and one chosen at his whim!'"

Simon Starr, a "learning technologist" at Canterbury Christ Church University, said that staff at his institution are allowed to use electronic plagiarism detection software only on a blanket basis. They cannot apply it selectively to students even if they suspect individuals of cheating.

Dunan Williamson, a freelance education consultant, said: "Is it not astonishing that there are highly qualified and experienced academics and administrators who are setting, monitoring and maintaining academic standards - and yet they appear to be clearly unfit to do so?

"If someone is suspected of having committed a crime, then it is right and proper by the rules of natural justice that this person be investigated and prosecuted and then punished if found guilty."

Donald Pennington, pro vice-chancellor of Coventry, said: "Although we have specific software that we use to detect plagiarism, we rely heavily on the judgment of our academics in the first instance and would expect them to provide the relevant evidence to demonstrate their concerns.

"Coventry employs a hardline policy when it comes to such issues. We decided we had to tackle the issue head on to prevent students from assuming they would get away with it. We're not happy to have caught nearly 240 people cheating, but we're pleased to be so active in trying to stamp out this problem. It was a conscious decision to make it a high-profile issue."

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