Conference reveals full extent of plagiarism and how the UK system is partly to blame. reports Phil Baty
Academics are turning a blind eye to the growing problem of plagiarism on degree courses because many of them believe that universities will "wimp out" and let students get away with cheating even if they are found out, the conference of the Plagiarism Advisory Service heard this week.
Experts warned that lecturers felt alienated by time-consuming and bureaucratic procedures for dealing with allegations of plagiarism.
Academic staff were also reluctant to make targets of themselves and to put themselves through the emotional trauma involved in bringing cases of plagiarism to the authorities, delegates at the conference were told.
Speaking at an experts' panel discussion, Jude Carroll, a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and author of A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education , said that the single most important factor staff gave for not acting against plagiarists was a perception that the university would back the student against them. "When a lecturer takes a case forward and wants something done but the university says 'shut up and back down', it causes so much pain," she told the conference, which was held at St James' Park, Newcastle United's football ground.
Another panellist, Michael Hammond, research and development manager at Dudley College, said he knew of a lecturer who was so incensed by his college's failure to act when he notified it of an act of plagiarism that he called in the police fraud squad. "They soon took action after that," he said.
Abbi Flint, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University's Learning and Teaching Institute, revealed preliminary findings from a series of staff interviews at her university. She said that academics often felt bitter that the university vetoed their academic judgement and let students off.
She quoted one humanities lecturer, who had told her that the case of one plagiarist "went to the exam board and we, on the staff, just assumed he was going to get thrown off the course. But somehow he wasn't. I'm not sure how or why. There are a few people who feel bitter about it."
She said that staff also found dealing with cases too time-consuming. One interviewee said: "I think, 'Oh ****, I've read this before', and then I know I've got to go and find the source, which can take ages."
There was also a sense that tackling plagiarism head-on was an experience that staff wanted to avoid. One staff member described confronting a plagiarist as "a totally miserable experience". Another said it was "the most uncomfortable and emotional feeling that I've experienced".
Ranald Macdonald, director of Sheffield Hallam's Learning and Teaching Institute, said in a keynote speech that his university had dealt with more plagiarism cases since it introduced new, more transparent procedures after full consultation with staff.
"Our regulations were inappropriate. Staff are now more prepared to deal with the issue because it is not bureaucratic and long-winded. And we now deal with it as an academic issue, not something to simply police and punish."
Professor Macdonald said the university had introduced a two-stage process that allowed minor infringements to be dealt with faster and less formally. All serious cases were now referred to new school-based academic conduct panels.