Vague policies derail effort to rein in student cheats

April 13, 2007

Many staff are unsure of plagiarism policy and what punishment should be invoked, writes Chloe Stothart

The majority of universities are undermining their efforts to combat cheating among students because their anti-plagiarism procedures are too vague.

A survey of plagiarism policies at 151 higher education institutions by the Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service found that about half could impose a variety of penalties, ranging from a verbal reprimand to expulsion for exactly the same offence.

The best policies narrow down the range of penalties and use sliding scales of punishments to reflect the seriousness of an offence and on how many times the student had committed it. But such policies are only in force at a third of the institutions surveyed.

Staff can be reluctant to enforce procedures that do not properly define offences and penalties, warned Fiona Duggan, head of advice and guidance at the advisory service, at a conference in Oxford last week.

She told The Times Higher : "People are not willing to engage with regulations that are so vague. They do not know what they should be doing, and at a lower level they might not be willing to invoke procedures if they think the students could have something draconian done to them."

But she added that most institutions were rewriting their policies to deal with the problem. Further research by the advisory service will look at which penalties universities impose in practice. The project will be completed in the autumn, and the findings will be shared with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

The project was triggered by a speech last June when the adjudicator, Baroness Deech, said she was concerned about inconsistency between universities in the handling of plagiarism cases.

Dr Duggan said older plagiarism policies might not deal with newer forms of cheating and the increased volumes of cases that universities were now seeing.

Another plagiarism expert backed the call for updates to policies. Speaking at the same conference, Jude Carroll, deputy director of the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange at Oxford Brookes University, said universities often took too long to resolve plagiarism cases, and this could leave them open to challenge under human-rights legislation.

She said that sufficient evidence for a decision could be assembled in hours for most cases, yet staff would often spend weeks gathering material.

"We are operating under civil law that, unlike criminal law is, about the balance of probabilities. As soon as you have enough evidence to make a decision under the balance of probabilities then stop collecting. You do not have to find the original source," she said.

She added that only a minority of cases are fraught or involve deliberate fraud.

Seen it all before?

What to do next

Use academic conduct officers. Keele University is one institution that has at least one academic in each school who volunteers to examine cases.

They will hand out penalties specified by a university code in minor cases; more serious breaches go to committee.

The system is designed to improve consistency in the way cases are evaluated and penalised and to take the load off individual academics

* Spread out assessment, so students aren't tempted to cheat because of tight deadlines

* Be clear on the difference between collaboration and collusion and about the purpose of the assignment

* Give out novel tasks that make it harder to copy and simply regurgitate knowledge. For example, Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University, said that rather than ask students to describe how the liver works, a lecturer could ask them to produce a pamphlet on liver dialysis for children

* Ask for drafts of the work or a description of how it was put together

* Do a Google search for any phrases you think have been plagiarised and ask the student for an electronic copy of their work

* Ask open, neutral questions and do not assume the student is guilty.

Tips from Stephen Bostock, head of the learning and development unit at Keele; Jude Carroll, deputy director of the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange at Oxford Brookes; and Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes.

Love, guilt and friendship at the end of a lead

At any one time, up to half the UK population is embroiled in complex relationships in which guilt, love and friendship are experienced regularly - and that's just with their pets.

A paper being presented to the British Sociological Conference considers the importance of pets in everyday human relationships, identities and lives.

According to Rebekah Fox of Royal Holloway, University of London, in the past social scientists were guilty of studying only humans, ignoring interactions with anything else.

She argues that for most people in western society, pet keeping is their closest means of interaction with the animal world. Dr Fox said: "It is an important form of everyday social relationship, involving love and friendship, as well as guilt, responsibility and control."

Through living intimately with another species, humans come to attribute pets with "personhood" or recognising them as a member of the human family.

She added: "This provides an important means through which to consider alternative forms of cross-species 'social connections' that take account of the complex, intimate and often problematic relations between humans and their pets."

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