Too often, I’ve found myself sitting as part of an academic misconduct panel, hearing tenuous student appeals against findings of misconduct that do not align with the stated grounds for appeal, but would have been legitimate reasons for an extension or acceptance of mitigating circumstances.
In each case, it frustrated me that students knowingly submitted work that was incorrectly or incompletely referenced – or even wasn’t their own – rather than making use of these policies. We need to make those policies clearer, thereby preventing those referrals in the first place.
With the global scale of contract cheating starting to become apparent – one study concluded that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have recruited someone else to undertake an assignment for them, potentially representing 31 million learners around the globe – universities need to act urgently on academic integrity.
At the University of Northampton, our work has focused specifically on educating students about the need to develop their own voice in their work and substantiate their assertions with appropriately referenced sources, as well as on prevention of academic misconduct. A final focus has been helping students to better understand the complex policy and regulatory framework if a referral is made.
The Northampton Plagiarism Avoidance Course, launched in 2017, tackles all of these. Produced by our learning development team in conjunction with the student union, it comprises videos about academic integrity, plus written explanations and examples, before concluding with short quizzes to test understanding. Students are directed to the course by an academic integrity officer after a finding of misconduct – and if they do not complete the course, that will form part of evidence that a student has not learned from their case and will impact the penalty in any subsequent referral.
Although initially designed as the equivalent of a “speed awareness” course for drivers, for those found to have engaged in misconduct, it quickly became clear that the course was also useful as a stand-alone resource to help with prevention. It also fitted well as part of the preparatory work for our second student-facing course, Academic Integrity and Misconduct for Students.
This course enables academic colleagues to educate the general student population about academic integrity. Ideally, AIMS is run in the middle of the first term, around the time that the first assignments are set.
AIMS provides learning opportunities through discussions as part of a team quiz on the content, with questions on common pitfalls crowdsourced from our academic integrity officers. Some of the issues highlighted here include misunderstanding definitions of misconduct, self-plagiarism and referencing social media.
The course also includes comparisons of source material with example student essays, asking students to judge whether the example is misconduct. Tutors help to shape subsequent discussions and clarify misunderstandings. The course concludes with a series of scenarios that explore common situations when students may be tempted to commit misconduct, either knowingly or unknowingly, with a view to identifying the most appropriate course of action.
Finally, university policies deliver a holistic approach that closes any gaps and enables us to deal appropriately with contract cheating in particular, signalling the seriousness with which the university views this behaviour. It is important that any policy changes at the top filter down to the students.
In 2018, we introduced an academic viva to help tutors who suspect contract cheating to gather the evidence for a referral. Hard evidence, such as receipts for purchased essays, is practically impossible to collect. The academic viva allows a tutor to have a conversation with a student to determine whether they are the true author of the submitted work.
Questions for consideration include whether the student can discuss the content, remember the essence of the argument, show how the argument develops, discuss the work and the resources cited, or produce hard evidence that the work is theirs.
Other changes that we have made include tightening provisions to deal with student ghostwriters. Currently, the application of penalties is tied to the suspicious assignment or to the associated module, but as student ghostwriters don’t actually submit any work for credit themselves, the policy was insufficient.
Such cases previously had to be cross-referred to our student code of conduct and disciplinary policy, an expensive process that delayed outcomes. The introduction of a “final written warning” for all who facilitate contract cheating, tied ultimately to a possible termination of studies for the most serious cases, will remedy this.
It is not possible to immediately demonstrate the impact of these initiatives and adequate resourcing of investigations into misconduct cases is still essential, particularly for contract cheating. However, at Northampton, supportive approaches that seek to reduce the need for referrals in the first place remain a key strand in a holistic approach to tackling academic misconduct.
Rachel Maxwell is head of learning and teaching development at the University of Northampton.
Print headline: Prevention is better than plagiarism
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