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A recent article in the Daily Mail has placed Lancaster University at the top of a table for recorded “student cheating” amongst UK universities.
The table, published on March 2nd 2012, reported 194 incidents at Lancaster, placing it above East Anglia and Bath Universities, which had 187 and 182 incidents respectively. The figures were attained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the Daily Mail to the UK’s top 30 universities, of which 20 replied.
Lancaster University has confirmed that the figure is accurate, but disputes the conclusion reached by the article, that the University has “the worst record […] of cheating during the last academic year.”
In a statement to SCAN, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) Professor Amanda Chetwynd said that “half of the cases relating to the [Daily Mail] FOI are minor.”
All of the universities who responded to SCAN’s own FOI request also confirmed that the Daily Mail figures were accurate, but misconstrued.
The University of St. Andrews were particularly critical of the conclusions reached by the Daily Mail, telling SCAN that “the presentation in the piece of a league table of institutions is […] enormously simplistic and misleading […] No attempt has been made to factor in the different sizes of the institutions featured, or to explain that variations in levels of plagiarism between institutions may be due to how hard universities look for it in the first place.”
LUSU Vice President (Academic) Alex Carlin was similarly critical of the Daily Mail’s conclusion and overall attitude and understanding of academic misconduct.
In an interview with SCAN, Carlin argued that “Without the context of the data […] it’s very difficult for them to have reached the conclusion that they have done.
“That said, I still think they have the wrong conclusion.” He added, “to have a high record of plagiarism indicates that you’re quite good at detecting it, whereas the Daily Mail seems to have taken completely the [wrong approach].”
Carlin also pointed out the anomaly of the Daily Mail reporting only one instance at both Cambridge and Bristol Universities (ranking 18th and 19th respectively), which given both the number of students and standing of these institutions, is highly improbable.
The general tone of the article in the Daily Mail is suggestive of a punitive approach to academic misconduct, indicated by the headline phrase “student cheating” and foregrounding serious offences resulting in expulsion, suspension and fines.
Lancaster’s approach, our investigation suggests, is more educational in its intentions.
Dr. Graham M. Smith, an academic in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion (PPR), told SCAN that “the basic premise that the marker has is that the student has acted honestly, and they proceed on that basis. The marker isn’t there to primarily catch people out as it were.”
Smith stressed that “honesty and decency has to work both ways.”
Alex Carlin corroborated this, seeing Lancaster’s attitude as “trying to encourage the highest academic standards.”
Carlin added that “I think the attitude is very much is ‘this is how your write in an academic environment and we encourage you to do the same, or we expect you to be doing the same.’”
Lancaster’s handling of academic misconduct is based upon the University’s Plagiarism Framework. This document outlines key areas in the context of plagiarism, first among which is ‘the education of students’.
The Plagiarism Framework places types of academic misconduct into two separate categories – minor and major offences.
Minor offences would, according to the Framework, include “poor referencing, unattributed quotations, inappropriate paraphrasing, incorrect or incomplete citations, or […] up to several sentences of direct copying without acknowledgement of the source.”
According to Dr. Smith, there are two ways in which such offences are spotted.
“[Minor offences] are spotted partly through the marker, [who] will know material, or the style will change or the tense will change.
“Sometimes fonts will change, which is a big giveaway.” he added.
Source copying may also be spotted through the use of Turnitin, a piece of computer software into which a marker may input a piece of work. It will then produce a report on the submitted piece, highlighting sections that match pieces of text available on the internet.
All of the universities contacted by SCAN responded that they employ Turnitin software.
However, the academic misconduct framework states that the categorisation of these offences as ‘minor’ or ‘major’ is based on the judgement of the marker. The University’s online guide to using Turnitin stresses that “when the software finds something, it may not be plagiarism,” and that such judgements should be taken by the marker, rather than the software.
This is corroborated by Dr. Smith, who emphasised that a match found by Turnitin does not necessarily mean that a student is guilty; “when academics look at pieces of work, if there are small slips, they take that in the context of the overall piece of work.”
The framework goes on to define what constitutes an exclusively ‘major’ offence; “copying multiple paragraphs in full without acknowledgement of the source, taking essays from the internet […] submitting the same piece of work […] under multiple modules and cheating in a class test.”
While minor offences are largely dealt with through essay feedback, instances of major offences are referred to the Academic Officer, and an investigation into the academic record of the offending student is carried out, and the student is summoned to a hearing, at which another member of staff from the department is present, to take a record of the hearing.
The framework goes further to state; “[the student] should be encouraged to be accompanied by a friend,” such as a LUSU representative or college personal tutor.
After a discussion with the student has taken place, a hearing can have three possible outcomes.
The offence may be deemed as ‘minor’, and the relevant sections of the work are struck out and marked accordingly.
If, however, the offence is deemed to be ‘major’, the offending student may be asked to resubmit the work, which will then only be eligible for a minimum pass mark. In more serious circumstances, such as a repeat offence, the case may be referred to the Standing Academic Committee, the highest academic disciplinary board of the University.
Heather Lambert, a third-year Geography student from County College, was penalised for plagiarism in an essay in February 2012.
33% of Lambert’s essay had been found to be material reused from a piece of work submitted during her second year, which she told SCAN she was unaware was an offence.
“I’d just finished my dissertation and I had two other reports due in and I wanted to relax from doing the dissertation and so I rushed these two reports […] I basically thought […] copy parts of this because it was relevant to the essay I was doing,” she said.
Lambert added, “I honestly wouldn’t have done it if I knew it was a form of plagiarism.”
Lambert’s offence was judged to have been a minor plagiarism offence because it was her first such offence and the material plagiarised was her own. She was penalised with a 10% deduction, bringing her mark down from 50% to 40%.
Lambert felt that decision was “the best result possible” in her case, given that she had not been forced to resubmit her essay.
LUSU VP Carlin explained how the plagiarism framework may be applied to the student’s advantage, such as when repeated minor offences are judged as major and the student is obliged to resubmit the work, instead of offending passages being removed and the work marked based upon the remaining material.
“The bonus here obviously is that even if something technically was minor but there was lots of minor text and it was marked based upon what was there, someone might have only got 20%, whereas if they had the opportunity to rewrite the whole thing they could probably pick up the whole 40%,” said Carlin.
The input offered by both LUSU and the University points to a positive, educational mentality when dealing with academic misconduct as suggested by Dr. Smith: “What should be said is that markers aren’t ‘police officers’, and students aren’t ‘villains’.”