Students found guilty of plagiarism could be punished too harshly under proposed penalty guidelines, a study has warned.
In the first analysis of a draft plagiarism reference tariff, academics examined how existing penalties for cheating compared with those suggested by the proposed sector-wide set of rules and punishments.
The standardised tariff system has been created by Peter Tennant, a Newcastle University research assistant, and Gill Rowell, academic adviser at plagiarismadvice.org, with the aim of addressing the high level of inconsistency in penalties meted out to student plagiarists, even within the same institutions.
Under the tariff, instances of plagiarism would be assessed on a sliding scale relating to the amount of work copied, the student's history of offending, the level of study and the value of the assignment.
Recommended punishments range from informal warnings to expulsion, with the tariff intended to be used by universities as a benchmark against which to compare their rules.
But the inflexibility of the tariff could disproportionately penalise some students who plagiarise work, according to the report, which looks at 155 cases reported at seven UK and two non-UK universities.
The report, titled Investigating the use of the Plagiarism Reference Tariff, was prepared by Jon Scott and Jo Badge, respectively academic director and web resources development officer at the University of Leicester's School of Biological Sciences, and Margaret Green, programme director at the University of South Australia's School of Health Sciences. It was presented last month at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Educational Integrity.
It found that "the calculations of penalties for project work were problematic". Relatively minor infractions on big projects, resulting in a 0 per cent grade, could destroy an individual's final degree mark, it warns, while a similar offence in a module would have limited effects.
"Large-scale pieces of work are where a penalty could have a huge impact," said Dr Scott.
The report identifies further limitations. For example, "the tariff does not deal with the issue of collusion. You sometimes have friends swapping ideas at university or even between different institutions," Dr Scott added.
The tariff's failure to consider "extenuating circumstances", guilty pleas and student remorse was a "vexed issue", the report adds.
Staff also raised concerns about the issue of "double jeopardy" if they were obliged to report plagiarism to other academic and professional bodies, such as the Law Society or the General Medical Council, the report notes.
If this information, "regardless of how minor, affects the student's ability to register in their chosen profession...then this may affect (decisions)", the report states.
Overall, penalties given in 54 per cent of the plagiarism cases examined by the report matched the punishments that would have been meted out under the tariff.
Dr Scott said the tariff was "a good first attempt and (has) covered lots of points effectively. We now have some data and we need to extend that research to see what needs developing."