Muddled thinking by academics has exposed "conscientious, hard-working and law-abiding" students to accusations of cheating, according to a plagiarism expert.
Educational developer Peter Levin says that students accused of plagiarism face expulsion from some universities, while others simply give them a fail grade. In a pamphlet, Avoid the Witch-hunt: Avoiding and Rebutting Accusations of Plagiarism , he argues that plagiarism should be recognised as distinct from deliberate cheating.
Dr Levin, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, told The THES :
"There is a failure to appreciate that plagiarism, in the sense of appropriating the learning of others, is actually integral to the western system of propagating knowledge and ideas.
"The fact that academic learning is done primarily from other people's writing and lecturing and through class and seminar discussions has important consequences for students. When you're learning something new, you necessarily have to start by selecting and copying other people's work.
"Much academic writing is not easy to understand at first reading.
To make head or tail of it, students are forced to translate it into language that they can understand. The standard is such that it, too, positively forces students to begin plagiarising."
Dr Levin surveyed the plagiarism policies of seven higher education institutions after hearing reports that students at the LSE were failing assessments because they had not credited others with ideas expressed in their essays. He found that rules on plagiarism were ambiguous and inconsistent between institutions, and that students faced different punishments at different universities.
Moreover, the language in which these rules were expressed was often emotive, resulting in the impression of a moral panic within academia. Dr Levin argues that terms such as "cheating", "theft" and "dishonesty" are inappropriate to a rule book.
He said: "It's high time that academics and administrators recognise that some unconscious plagiarism in students' work is inevitable and perfectly reasonable, and focus their efforts on preventing the minority from deliberately passing off other people's work as their own."