Thursday, June 17, 2010

Plagiarism tariff: let the punishment fit the demerit points

By Rebecca Attwood

Benchmark for addressing student misconduct may have global applications. Rebecca Attwood writes

Academics in the UK have drawn up a national tariff covering penalties for student plagiarism, which could be adopted as a worldwide system for dealing with offenders.

Studies in this area have found high levels of inconsistency in the penalties universities employ to punish students who are found guilty of copying, with wide variations between, and even within, institutions.

Now researchers from the advisory service have created a points-based system designed to act as a sector-wide "benchmark". Setting out a range of penalties from informal warnings to expulsion, it allows staff to calculate a score for the seriousness of the offence and use this to select an appropriate penalty.

Universities will be able to compare the tariff against their own systems, which researchers hope will lead to greater consistency in the penalties applied across the sector.

Peter Tennant, a Newcastle University research assistant, drew up the tariff with Gill Rowell, academic adviser at, as part of the Academic Misconduct Benchmarking Research (Amber) project. The final version is to be launched at the Fourth International Plagiarism Conference in Newcastle next week.

Mr Tennant said the tariff was based on extensive research and was meant as a guide, not a set of rules.

"What we're doing is trying to provide a benchmark - we're not trying to be prescriptive," he said.

"We recognise the role of academic judgement. Large elements of deciding plagiarism cases are not objective, but this is about trying to maximise transparency and consistency by 'tying down' the more objective elements."

The tariff allows flexibility by listing more than one penalty option at each level of offence (see box, right). The most serious penalties include expulsion, a zero mark for the module and a bar on resits, or the classification of the offender's degree being reduced.

In 2006, Baroness Deech, the former independent adjudicator for higher education in the UK, warned that universities were leaving themselves vulnerable to legal action as a result of their inconsistent handling of plagiarism cases. The Joint Information Systems Committee, the IT body for UK universities, and other organisations funded to conduct research on the issue.

Variation and consensus

Earlier stages of the Amber project examined universities' plagiarism policies and the penalties applied, and confirmed that there was "vast" variation. In the final stage, 104 university staff were asked for their views on a draft tariff and the penalties they felt were appropriate for a series of theoretical incidents of student plagiarism.

Mr Tennant said that when staff were asked to look beyond their institutions' policies and give their personal opinions, there was a surprising level of agreement on the appropriate outcomes.

The majority thought the most significant issue was whether the student had a history of plagiarism, followed by the amount of plagiarised material and the level of study.

The final tariff draws upon all stages of the Amber research.

Jude Carroll, a plagiarism expert at Oxford Brookes University, described the tariff as "evidence-based, consultative and realistic", and said it could be adopted internationally.

"It provides a framework that should be flexible enough to fit many different contexts yet deliver reasonably consistent outcomes," she said. "The tariff is also unique in the world, I think."

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator, also welcomed the model. "It is an important example of evidence-based cross-sector work in an area where there is a lot of poor practice. It will provide a proportionate, consistent and fair-minded approach to sanctions," he said.

But Mr Tennant acknowledged that the tariff would not help with determining whether a student had plagiarised material in the first place.

Debora Weber-Wulff, professor of media and computing at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, said the most important thing was for universities to do all they could to prevent plagiarism by helping students to understand the issue.

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