Academic misconduct in legal education
UKCLE PDF project
Project team: Vera Bermingham, Kingston University (e-mail: V.Bermingham@kingston.ac.uk), Martin Jones (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Susan Watson (Thames Valley University)
Project summary: an investigation into academic misconduct in legal education, examining levels of detection, procedures and penalties in UK law schools
Completion date: October 2008
UKCLE funding: £4,000
Project latest: final report – Plagiarism in UK law schools: policies, procedures and penalties | recent comment on plagiarism in law schools – Can law students get away with plagiarism (The Times) ‘1 in 2’ admits to plagiarism (Varsity)
Media reports of the exponential growth of Internet plagiarism have given rise to a real concern about how law schools should respond to what appears to be a problem of epidemic proportions. Research suggests that the number of reported cases of plagiarism in UK higher education is only the tip of the iceberg, and if the number of ‘essay bank’ sites offering work for sale is an indication of demand, law is one of the disciplines where such activity is more frequent.
Research on academic misconduct in legal education tends to focus on the nature of plagiarism, what it is and how to avoid it, but there is little information on levels of detection or the penalties imposed. This project aimed to fill this gap, examining the possible reasons for the general perception of inconsistency in dealing with academic misconduct across UK law schools, as well as definitions of plagiarism, levels of detection, procedures and penalties.
This project aimed to:
- discover the attitudes of staff and institutions to several clearly identified types of conduct in order to define categories of academic misconduct and degrees of seriousness
- highlight the disparities in policies and procedures for dealing with plagiarism and the ramifications for law students, particularly those seeking to enter the legal profession
The research took place in two separate phases. In phase 1 (October 2005 to February 2006) information was gathered from websites about definitions of plagiarism and academic misconduct and the way in which it is expressed. In addition data was gathered by questionnaire about:
- types of academic misconduct and the frequency with which they occur
- whether trends in particular types of conduct are increasing, decreasing or remaining the same
- examples of misconduct referred to in formal institutional procedures, dealt with at module level (for example, marks deducted depending on the extent of the misconduct) or ignored
In phase 2 (March 2006 – August 2006) a survey of law schools was undertaken through interviews with staff in 24 law schools, consisting of 12 pre-1992 and 12 post-1992 institutions across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to find out how institutional academic misconduct policies operate in practice and to illuminate staff perceptions of what constitutes plagiarism.
The project examined:
- the types of institutional policies on academic misconduct in undergraduate courses
- the range of penalties currently applied
- the extent to which lecturers and tutors (including part time staff) were aware of institutional policies
- the attitudes of staff to several clearly identified types of conduct in order to find out where the line was drawn between acceptable and unacceptable practices
- whether institutional policies were routinely followed in dealing with suspected plagiarism and misconduct, and if detection of academic misconduct was monitored across courses
Our research revealed varying degrees of discretion applied by law school staff, either by the regulations themselves or through a willingness to depart from the regulations in order to apply discretion. Many institutions adopt a two tier approach, differentiating between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ instances, but there is little consensus over the definition of such terminology. In addition, these thresholds might not necessarily be absolute – some institutions consider wider issues such as academic naivety before determining the classification of the offence.
A number of institutions identified pressure to meet centrally imposed marking deadlines as a barrier to taking time to investigate suspicions of plagiarism. Respondents also reported that the use of electronic detection methods was varied, because its use was entirely at the discretion of module leaders.
For full details of the project findings and conclusions see the final report, Plagiarism in UK law schools: policies, procedures and penalties.
The project was endorsed by the professional bodies and by the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools (CHULS). It formed part of the Association of Law Teachers’ ongoing research into legal education in Britain, the Legal Education Research Network (LERN), and the project team wishes to thank the Directors of LERN, Professor Patricia Leighton and Professor Phil Harris, for their support and guidance.
The research has not only been funded by UKCLE – we are also very grateful for the contribution made by Tracey Varnava (UKCLE Associate Director) at the design stage of the project. We also wish to thank Melissa Askew (Manager, Quality and Standards, the Law Society) and Fiona Tolmie (Director of Undergraduate Programmes at Kingston University) for their valuable assistance with the questionnaire design and general support for the research.
Finally, we express our gratitude to the staff in the participating law schools, who gave generously of their time in responding to questionnaires and taking part in interviews.
Last Modified: 4 June 2010