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Ask the man in the street for a definition of plagiarism and he’ll probably say something along the lines of “taking another person’s work and pretending it’s your own.” He might even talk about “stealing.” The term brings to mind shady practices like handing in a friend’s essay, or doing a copy and paste job. Crucially, for most of us, plagiarism involves an element of dishonesty.
And yet, for university academics plagiarism covers a lot more, or a lot less depending on which way you look at it. It is not unusual for students to be hauled in front of misconduct panels for nothing more than poor footnoting techniques or confusion between paraphrasing, quoting and citing. In some cases, the offenders will be undergraduates in only their first few months of study.
Of course, acknowledgement of sources is an important aspect of scholarship and it needs to be done properly. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. And yet there is clearly a difference between poor referencing on the one hand and malpractice on the other. The difficulty is that, all too often, this is a distinction that universities fail to recognise, let alone apply. This means that, although sanctions may vary in severity, a student who puts a footnote in the wrong place is essentially committing the same offence as one who submits an essay they have bought online. It’s a bit like filing a parking offender in the same pigeonhole as a bank robber.
The above is highly unfortunate. The stigma attached to a finding of plagiarism cannot be overstated, nor can the problems that arise for a prospective employee whose academic transcript mentions or alludes to plagiarism. And, let’s not forget that referencing is extremely difficult, especially for students with Specific Learning Difficulties or even those who, due to the pressures of life, find themselves completing work in a hurry in order to meet a deadline.
In view of all this, it is high time that universities began paying greater attention to the distinction between deception on the one hand and sloppy academic practice on the other. Whilst the former will, quite rightly, be treated as a disciplinary matter, the latter should be seen for what it is, namely poor work, and awarded nothing more than a low mark.
The acid test should be whether, looking at all the circumstances, it can reasonably be said that the student in question intended to pass off the ideas of others as his or her own. This should include consideration of the role played by any special educational needs the student may have.
At the moment, there is no universal definition of plagiarism, and certainly no formal legal one. A detailed and carefully thought-out definition, enshrined in statutory guidance, could remove a lot of injustice, especially if it was to include an element of intent and reduce the role of academic judgement (and the arbitrariness this judgement often brings) with a more objective test.
In the meantime, any student accused of plagiarism should insist that the academics involved explain why the submission has been treated as misconduct rather than simply as a poor piece of work, especially where the relevant mark scheme already provides for deduction of points for inadequate referencing or over-dependence on the ideas of others. Importantly, there is case law to the effect that, whilst decisions regarding plagiarism involve academic judgement, they nevertheless have to be procedurally fair, which in turn gives rise to a duty to give reasons.
Finally, if universities are going to respond so fiercely to instances of poor referencing, it is only right that they do more to instil sound academic practice in their students. Running a brief session on plagiarism at the start of a course, referring students to an online document they will probably never have time to read and then leaving everyone to fend for themselves is not good enough. Academic skills need to be integrated into a course, the subject of regular feedback and instruction from tutors. Honest mistakes should be corrected rather than punished, it’s called education.