Analysis: be vigilant, avoid plagiarism


Daily Mail places Lancaster top of academic “cheating” league table

Synonymous though the phrase is with The Daily Mail, the story we have reported on can safely be described as ‘typical Daily Mail nonsense’, and part of the publication’s never-ending tirade against students and the very idea of using taxpayer‘s money to prepare yourself for a career and subsequently pay taxes.

One could say that the figures contained in the Daily Mail’s table are at least accurate, but the article does not delve beneath the surface of the numbers. If they had bothered, they would know that the distinction between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ offences is the same distinction between genuine cheating and a genuine mistake. The Daily Mail’s emphasis on major offences over minor ones is fairly indicative of the incorrect point they tried to make.

In the course of this investigation, in an effort to give weight to Amanda Chetwynd’s claim that Lancaster’s 194 offences are indeed ‘minor’, I lodged an FOI request of my own, asking for the exact nature of each individual recorded offence at Lancaster. The University was unable to offer this information, on the basis that, legally, they are allowed to avoid collating any information that would take more than 18 hours to find. One wonders on what basis Professor Chetwynd made this claim.

However, Dr. Graham M. Smith was confident that Professor Chetwynd’s assertion was indeed the case; “I’ve only come across one or two cases where a student has copied wholesale from someone else,” he said.

In the same FOI, I asked for the departments to which each individual student belonged, to see if any subjects were particularly rife with misconduct. In response, the University offered me an extremely ‘helpful’ list of departments in which offences had taken place (ie. A list of all the University’s departments), with no numbers.

Perhaps a proper answer to this would have been equally time consuming, but it would certainly serve the University well to implement better systems of retrieval. Indeed, it would be particularly helpful in pinpointing exactly where we are failing, in order to facilitate improvement.

It was difficult to work out how, exactly, Bristol and Cambridge universities were found to have only one offence in 2010-2011. Are we to believe that, in two universities which both have higher numbers of students than Lancaster, there were so few recorded offences? Maybe Lancaster are better at spotting plagiarism. Maybe Bristol and Cambridge were equally manipulative of FOI legality. Who knows?

Despite the difficulties, our investigation is at least indicative of well covered procedures. While Heather Lambert’s case was unfortunate, there is no evidence of any poor communication on the University’s part, especially when the essay cover sheets that you sign clearly state that you are pledging that you have not submitted the work previously.

The issue here is not a lack of transparency, but rather, a lack of vigilance on the part of students. You don’t have to subject yourself to the study of reams of tedious documentation – read what you sign and make yourself aware of how to reference correctly (it’s fairly simple). That way, you’re not losing marks, and the Daily Mail won’t have such a low opinion of the University. Not that their opinion on anything particularly matters.

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