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Plagiarism at university

It has recently been reported that cases of plagiarism in universities have increased by 20% in the past year. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which deals with student complaints against Universities revealed the findings in their annual report, and placed some of the blame at the door of unclear rules meaning that students were unsure as to what constituted plagiarism and to what sanctions were in place for those found to have committed the academic offence.

Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon but has become increasingly more common with the advances in technology and most notably the internet. Websites have been created with the sole purpose of providing precedent answers to common essay questions, which can be accessed for a fee. Whilst this is the seedier side of plagiarism, the most contentious area for Universities concerns those students who produce a piece of work containing excerpts from existing literature with either incomplete referencing or without any referencing whatsoever.

In the case of students who have copied entire pieces of work, it will often be very easy to prove a guilty mind, but for the students who have seemingly misunderstood the rules as to plagiarism, the task is far harder. The starting point for Universities must be to ensure that an effective and transparent policy is put in place from the outset. Additionally, students must be made aware of the limits to which opinions from other texts can be used in their own work, and also how they must show where they have taken passages from other pieces of literature.

Many Universities have a readily accessible policy in place, but it may be advisable to go through such policies with first year undergraduates at the start of the academic year, so that any questions can be fielded and any concerns identified. It is no good relying on them to have read and understood the policies, only to find that at the end of the first assignment, there has been common misunderstanding amongst a group of them.

The impact of plagiarism upon a student’s degree also needs careful consideration. Whilst plagiarism in a first year essay may give scope for a warning to be given alongside a fail mark, a final year dissertation or a Masters essay could warrant more stern treatment as by that stage, the student should know better and have had the chance to ask any questions of which they were unsure. There could also be legal implications for the University, particularly if the piece of work was published, perhaps in recognition of the work being done by the University in the field of research, on the back of which a grant is awarded. The University in this scenario could be open to allegations of misrepresentation and fraud, and could also face an action by the author of the material, which was copied.

Although in most circumstances involving Universities, plagiarism will not equate to a breach of Copyright, there is scope for a claim where substantial parts are copied. In this circumstance, the fact that there are appropriate references may be irrelevant. It is therefore incumbent upon the University to ensure that any material, which it chooses to publish, is first checked to ensure its originality. It goes without saying that many pieces of work will have taken inspiration or ideas from a preceding oeuvre, but there is a stark difference between an acknowledgement of someone else’s idea upon which additional opinion/analysis is added, and the verbatim lifting of pages without prior approval being sought.

Universities must also ensure that students are fully aware of the procedures that will follow where allegations of plagiarism have been made, including any possible avenues of appeal. Where hearings are to be conducted, thought should be given to obtaining the views of the student in question, and all measures should be proportionate. It is submitted that where a University has provided seminars and/or workshops to all first year students about the issues of plagiarism, with particular reference to their courses, they should be in a position to justify the failing of students who are found to have plagiarised work later on. Subsequent and repeated breaches could then warrant an adverse impact on degree grades and potentially lead to expulsion from the course.

It remains however, for each institution to establish a clear policy, which is communicated to all students at the very start of their degrees. A thorough approach would mean doing the same at the start of Masters degrees and Doctorates, especially where students are coming from other institutions or abroad and may not have had the same rules applied at undergraduate level. Whilst slightly onerous, this would avoid any future argument by students that they were unclear as to policy and not adequately warned about likely sanctions.

© RadcliffesLeBrasseur


This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.