Plagiarism in UK law schools: policies, procedures and penalties
UKCLE’s Academic misconduct in legal education project, led by Vera Bermingham (Kingston University), investigated the policies, procedures and penalties used to combat plagiarism in UK law schools during 2005-06. Below is the final report from the project – for details of background and methodology see the project page.
How widespread is plagiarism?
Figures gained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that in the 2003-04 academic year almost half of Britain’s universities (out of a survey of 64 institutions) reported plagiarism (Tysome, 2005). The number of reported incidents was 6,672, and almost 100 students were excluded for cheating. The University of Westminster was reported to have the most instances of plagiarism, with 707 of its students found to have copied work without declaring it.
More recent information showed that in 2006-07 cheating at London Metropolitan University was worse than at any of the other 73 universities in the survey. Westminster was next worst, with South Bank third, while at Oxford just 17 students were found guilty of plagiarism (Times Online, 2008). However, according to what the students themselves say about the extent to which plagiarism is taking place, there is no difference between students at pre- and at post-1992 universities.
The figures outlined above refer to reported incidents of plagiarism, and are inconsistent with research in 2003 which found that more than half of the academics in higher education ignore suspected cheating by their students (Cox & Barton, 2005).
In 2005 the Freedom of Information Act was used by Norman Baird, publisher of the QED Law website, to obtain information on plagiarism in law schools, specifically details of the number of instances of plagiarism in the previous academic year and action taken (Baird, 2006). Responses from 78 law schools showed that virtually all of those reporting the highest number of plagiarism cases were from post-1992 institutions, whereas almost all the institutions reporting no cases were from the pre-1992 university sector. The Open University, with 4,773 law students, stated that it had no reported cases of cheating in respect of examinations, but that alleged misconduct in tutor marked assignments was dealt with at a regional level, with no overall statistics available.
These findings appear to indicate higher levels of cheating among law students from post-1992 institutions, however another UK-wide poll of 1,022 undergraduates at 119 institutions presents a different picture (Shepherd, 2006). In this survey one in six students admitted to copying from friends, and one in 10 confessed to looking for essays online. The survey also reported that about 7% of students at Russell Group universities admitted to copying work, with about 43% of these students confessing to knowing at least one cheat at university. About 4% of students at other old research universities and students at new universities say they cheat, with 40% of students at pre-1992 institutions knowing at least one cheat, while this figure is 42% for students at post-1992 institutions.
It is a concern that information on the levels of plagiarism among law schools suggests that students from post-1992 universities are more likely to be dishonest than those from old universities. The most academically selective universities recruit disproportionately from privately educated, white, middle class students, and graduates from these institutions are favoured by the legal profession (Bermingham & Hodgson, 2001). Students from working class backgrounds and ethnic minority students, over-represented in the post-1992 universities, are potentially further disadvantaged if their law degree is devalued because the university from which they graduate is perceived to have higher levels of plagiarism than the preferred institutions. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the majority of the published research into plagiarism appears to have been undertaken by researchers in post-1992 universities.)
The professional bodies are increasingly concerned about the consequences resulting from the confusion about plagiarism and how it is dealt with across institutions. Law schools which have clear policies and routinely follow procedures are likely to record and hold such data for reporting to the professional bodies and elsewhere, while recorded information about cheating students may not exist or be available for reporting by law schools where cheating is dealt with informally, or where the matter is dealt with by module leaders reducing marks according to the level of misconduct.
Law school policies and procedures
Most universities have academic misconduct and plagiarism polices which are widely publicised to staff and students, but there is considerable variation in defining the type of activity that constitutes plagiarism. Although there is a generalised notion of academic misconduct and an assumption that there is a common understanding of the offences across law schools, a variation in attitudes to plagiarism exists, even within module teams. Conduct regarded by one staff member as poor academic practice rather than actual misconduct may be considered by another to amount to plagiarism.
Anecdotal evidence from Association of Law Teachers members, particularly those with external examining experience, shows inconsistency in approach to dealing with this issue – ranging from universities which adopt rigorous detection procedures and follow institutional processes for hearings and application of penalties, to those where less emphasis is placed on detection, and, when academic misconduct is found, the matter is dealt with at module level, with module leaders deciding on the issue and adjusting marks depending on the degree of misconduct (Maguire, 2003).
There was also a lack of information on whether findings of academic misconduct were routinely recorded on student files and whether law schools took positive steps to inform the professional bodies of students found to have cheated. However, it is worth noting that even where a law school takes positive steps to inform the Law Society of students found to have committed an act of misconduct, unless the student is, at that stage, either a student member or applying for student membership, the Data Protection Act prevents the Law Society from retaining the information on file for future reference.
In addition to the confusion surrounding the detection and reporting of cheating students, there is further inconsistency surrounding the provision of student references for those applying for membership of the professional bodies. The Law Society’s student reference form gives applicants the option of finding a referee from either an education, social or employment category (enabling those found to have committed academic misconduct to seek references outside their educational institution), and asks the referee: “Are you aware of any occasion where the applicant has been dishonest under examination conditions, or has been found guilty of plagiarism during a course of study?”. This question requires a yes/no answer, and leaves it to individual referees to provide further details with some follow-up investigation undertaken by the Law Society. For students wishing to join the Bar, the Bar Council requires an academic reference, but if academic misconduct is not routinely recorded on student files those writing references may be unaware of such findings.
Plagiarism in the electronic age
The particular problem of Internet plagiarism also needs to be addressed. Here the categories of seriousness of offence range from a deliberate intention to deceive when an essay purchased online is submitted as the student’s own work to the more marginal cases of poor scholarship in the failure to make proper reference or attribution.
A growing proliferation of ‘essay bank’ websites provides downloadable student law essays. These sites promote themselves as student aids, harnessing real student concerns about heavy workload and time management. One of the companies providing bespoke online law essays claims to employ 500 law writers drawn from freelance academics, trainee solicitors and students. The owner of one such company interviewed for this research claims this number is growing all the time, and that he employs specialist writers on every area of law – even on German law. One of his writers, a trainee solicitor, earns £25,000 as a trainee in the City – and £36,000 writing law essays.
University quality assurance systems governing assessment and plagiarism policies have been criticised for failing to keep pace with the threats to academic integrity that plagiarism in the Internet age has brought, and Baroness Ruth Deech, Head of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, has condemned the “indefensible inconsistency” of punishments imposed on cheating students (Baty, 2006a). Nevertheless, even before procedures and penalties are invoked, academic misconduct must first be detected and reported. In a survey of more than 3,000 students, the Plagiarism Advisory Service reported that 53% of students did not believe their tutors would be able to spot material copied from websites (Baty, 2006b), and defining precisely what is being detected appears to be at the heart of the matter – if there is widespread confusion and disagreement among staff in defining plagiarism it is difficult to see how students can be given a consistent message about what plagiarism is.
Findings from the Questionnaire Survey
From the data collected in our survey it is clear that all law schools, in both pre-and post-1992 universities, are trying to tackle the issues. Although there is widespread inconsistency in approach in all stages of the process, plagiarism is treated as a serious institutional matter and there is a genuine interest in combating the problem.
The adoption of a two tiered approach to academic dishonesty is common across the higher education sector, and is reflected in the regulations of many universities. Tennant et al (2007) identified 25 different penalties for plagiarism, ranging from ‘no further action’ to ‘expulsion’, and highlighted inconsistencies both across the sector and within institutions. 86.7% of institutions provided some advice on the application of the available penalties within their guidelines, while only 76.4% made explicit how certain factors should affect the penalty.
There was also a lack of consistency as to what constitutes a major or a minor offence, a difference which may be one of degree. It may be, for example, that two essays contain unreferenced material paraphrased from a book, but that one essay is comprised of a much higher proportion of such material. For the purposes of our survey, respondents were asked how they would deal with a range of student plagiarism activities of both a major and a minor nature. The types of academic misconduct were defined following consultation with legal academics across the sector.
What was particularly notable about the responses was the variation in procedures adopted to deal with minor and major incidents of plagiarism and the extent to which informal procedures were used. Unsurprisingly, over 80% of law schools used formal procedures to deal with major incidents of the most common types of plagiarism, but a significant minority indicated that such activities would be dealt with informally. Such inconsistency, within the context of an increasingly quality assured system of education, may lead plagiarists at some institutions to be unwitting recipients of good fortune.
In the context of minor instances of plagiarism, the number of institutions adopting formal procedures fell markedly. In the main, there appeared to be a shift in emphasis towards the matter being dealt with at a module level – the proportion of law schools reporting that the matter was dealt with informally does not vary as greatly between major and minor instances.
The two tables below show the types of major and minor academic misconduct identified in coursework and the manner in which they are dealt with by institutions.
Procedures used to deal with major incidents of academic misconduct (n=48)
|type of misconduct||formal procedures||dealt with at module level||not dealt with formally||did not answer|
|unreferenced paraphrasing from books, journals and cases||80.9%||12.8%||6.4%||0|
|unreferenced downloaded text||83.0%||8.5%||6.4%||2.1%|
|fabrication of references, bibliography or data||76.6%||8.5%||6.4%||8.5%|
|unreferenced copying from books, journals and cases||89.4%||6.4%||4.3%||0|
|copying from other students’ work||89.4%||4.3%||6.4%||0|
|‘cut and paste’ plagiarism||85.1%||4.3%||6.4%||6.4%|
|use of ‘cheat’ websites||83.0%||0||6.4%||10.6%|
|copying from the Web||85.1%||4.3%||4.3%||6.4%|
|submission of ‘ghost’ written websites||83%||0||4.3%||12.8%|
Procedures used to deal with minor incidents of academic misconduct (n=48)
|type of misconduct||formal procedures||dealt with at module level||not dealt with formally||did not answer|
|unreferenced paraphrasing from books, journals and cases||34.0%||55.3%||10.6%||0|
|unreferenced downloaded text||34.0%||53.2%||8.5%||4.3%|
|fabrication of references, bibliography or data||46.8%||36.2%||10.6%||6.4%|
|unreferenced copying from books, journals and cases||36.2%||57.4%||6.4%||0|
|copying from other students’ work||59.6%||36.2%||4.3%||0|
|‘cut and paste’ plagiarism||38.3%||53.2%||6.4%||2.1%|
|use of ‘cheat’ websites||53.2%||23.4%||8.5%||14.9%|
|copying from the Web||44.7%||42.6%||6.4%||6.4%|
|submission of ‘ghost’ written websites||57.4%||21.3%||8.5%||12.8%|
Respondents were also asked to comment on trends in different types of academic misconduct (see the table below). Although the majority of institutions reported that instances of copying from the Web, ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism and the use of unreferenced downloaded text were increasing, research in 2006 suggested that staff do not feel able to deal with plagiarism when they are not able to identify the source.
It is of interest to note the trends reported in the use of ‘ghost’ written assignments and use of ‘cheat’ websites, where compared to the other reported trends there is a significantly lower level of increase. This may seem surprising in the light of reports on the proliferation of these sites and the number of essays purchased from them, and should perhaps be viewed in the context of the problems of detection in relation to these bespoke essays.
Trends in academic misconduct in coursework (n=48)
|type of misconduct||increasing||remaining the same||decreasing||did not answer|
|copying from the Web||74.5%||17.0%||2.1%||6.4%|
|‘cut and paste’ plagiarism||63.8%||27.7%||2.1%||6.4%|
|unreferenced, downloaded text||53.2%||27.7%||8.5%||10.6%|
|unreferenced copying from books, journals and cases||0||44.7%||4.3%||4.3%|
|unreferenced paraphrasing from books, journals and cases||40.4%||46.8%||8.5%||4.3%|
|collusion in the production of individual work||21.3%||66.0%||4.3%||8.5%|
|use of ‘cheat’ websites||14.9%||59.6%||0||25.5%|
|fabrication of references, bibliography or data||14.9%||61.7%||4.3%||19.1%|
|copying from other students’ work||12.8%||66.0%||14.9%||6.4%|
|submission of ‘ghost’ written websites||12.8%||57.4%||0||29.8%|
Findings from the interviews
Minor or major?
The finding from the survey that approximately 60% of institutions deal with the most common types of minor incidents of academic misconduct on an informal basis led us to examine more closely the definition of a ‘minor’ incident.
There was difficulty and some reluctance in attempting to quantify or define a minor incident of plagiarism. Some institutions defined ‘minor’ by means of a threshold of unreferenced material. Whilst this might be helpful, it is clear that there is little agreement as where this threshold should lie, and the figure on the amount of work coming from unreferenced sources that is viewed as ‘minor’ varied considerably.
A number of institutions expressed the threshold to be about 20%, others estimated a figure of 30%, but overall the amount of text considered to constitute a minor incident of plagiarism ranged from less than 10% to less than 50% of the work being unreferenced. Even then, one institution described the difference between 10% of unreferenced material dispersed through an essay being less serious than 10% lifted straight from an unreferenced source.
The law school in which less than 50% of unreferenced material is treated as a minor incident explained this as due to the fact that their institutional plagiarism policy requires the offence to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – as a consequence very few cases are upheld when formal procedures are invoked. It was emphasised during the interview that this does not mean that staff at this particular institution ignore plagiarism, but, where it is found, rather than invoke formal procedures, staff reduce the marks for the piece of work to reflect the amount of plagiarised material. Although in these cases staff feel that some level of justice is achieved, the effect of this approach is that the plagiarism goes unrecorded.
Many respondents who were unwilling to quantify a minor incident in terms of percentage appeared more comfortable with providing examples of the factors taken into account in defining the conduct. In virtually all cases the tendency was to avoid formal procedures and to treat academic misconduct as a minor case to be dealt with informally, either within the school or within the module team.
It was striking to discover that even in those institutions where institutional policy defined academic misconduct as an offence of strict liability, the factors below were considered when a case of suspected plagiarism or cheating was initially identified. It is also apparent that where the institutional academic misconduct policy was considered to be harsh, individuals strayed away from its strict implementation. One respondent from an institution said: “although it is a strict liability offence, if the student made a genuine mistake or if there are serious mitigating circumstances, the matter may be treated lightly”. When probed further about this the respondent said that this approach was adopted because “the institutional policy is a blunt instrument”. In only one case did we find the institutional strict liability policy to be rigorously enforced – in all other cases the initial stage of the investigation considered whether there was a deliberate intent to cheat. In determining the issue the following factors were identified as relevant considerations:
- whether it was a case of negligence rather than plagiarism
- whether it is considered to be academic naivety or poor academic practice
- whether the student can explain the incident
- whether the contribution was ‘slight’ or ‘limited’
- whether the student was confused
- whether there were previous offences
What becomes clear from these findings is the extent to which individual discretion is exercised in determining whether an incident is treated as major or minor and the striking lack of parity that students experience at different institutions.
From some of the responses it was possible to perceive a variation between the published institutional practice of the regulations and the practice of the academics. In one institution, it was reported that less than 20% of plagiarised material is treated as a minor incident, yet their definition of a major incident is more than 10%. Of the 24 major incidents of plagiarism reported across all law schools, only one of these was reported by a pre-1992 university.
As far as treating cases of plagiarism as major or minor in the initial stages is concerned, the tendency to treat the majority of cases as minor instances may be explained by the number of respondents who gave examples of acts of misconduct treated as major incidents at law school level but overturned by the institutional appeals process. The factors taken into account in defining major incidents were:
- whether there was a deliberate intention to deceive
- stealing the work of another student
- if the misconduct is termed to be ‘severe’
- where the passages make a ‘significant or crucial contribution’
- whether the unattributed material is the ‘words’ or ‘ideas’ of another
- whether the incident is ‘substantial or wholesale copying’
- where the breach is blatant and deliberate
- whether it is a repeated offence
- the students’ level of study and exposure to the regulations
Issues of detection
The existence of confusion and disagreement over how plagiarism is defined within and across law schools was confirmed by the responses to a question about whether the detection of academic misconduct was routinely monitored across modules. There is no evidence in the findings that levels of detection are monitored, although it was generally acknowledged that there is much disagreement about what may or may not constitute an incident of misconduct. One respondent said that even after a number of staff development events on plagiarism there was still disagreement among staff about where the line between poor academic practice and misconduct was drawn. In another law school, disagreement about what constitutes plagiarism appeared to be accepted as a valid academic difference of opinion. Another respondent said: “as far as law is concerned, when it comes to plagiarism there are certain occasions when a student is expected to reproduce the words of another, and it is questionable as to whether this should be viewed as misconduct”. The lack of institutional will to take forward the issues arising from the wide variation in the definition of plagiarism among staff was also noted.
Anonymous marking was also cited as a reason for the failure to detect misconduct – it is not always possible to identify work which might be inconsistent with a student’s contribution in class or performance in other subjects. One respondent reported a case in which it was suspected that the student may have bought or commissioned the coursework essay. The piece of work, which was very sophisticated and well written, had been submitted as part of a level 3 assessment. Although the work was marked anonymously and awarded a first class mark, as the marker was recording the grade and noted the identity of the student, suspicions about the wide discrepancy between the essay and the student’s language ability were raised. In that particular case, although it was not possible to identify a precise source from which the work had been plagiarised, during a subsequent interview to discuss the work the student was unable to demonstrate that the work was his own. On the basis of this interview and an examination of the quality of the other work produced by the student, a finding of academic misconduct was made.
Many of the respondents felt that the time and effort in pursuing formal academic misconduct procedures deterred colleagues from reporting suspected misconduct, however this did not mean that cheating was ignored. In most cases it was felt that the matter was dealt with by the marker, and the mark reduced or the module failed depending on the amount of plagiarised material. A number of institutions (both pre- and post-1992) reported that institutional deadlines within which marked work must be returned to students had been introduced (one commented that these deadlines were rigorously enforced) and expressed the view that there is a possibility that this prevents staff who may suspect plagiarism from trying to locate the evidence to pursue the matter.
A number of institutions commented that some module leaders were more diligent than others in addressing academic misconduct. In one case the respondent expressed the view that inconsistency in reporting levels of misconduct has more to do with assessment design than a failure to detect or report cheating. In that particular law school instances of cheating occurred mainly in traditional essay style assessment questions, and was less of an issue when problem-based assessments on current or topical issues were set.
A number of institutions expressed concerns about litigation and negative publicity – a fear which is also reported by Baty (2006c). Other institutions reported that successful appeals by students found guilty of misconduct at school level have acted as a disincentive to reporting suspected misconduct, particularly since any cases actually referred to formal procedures will have been considered by staff as serious breaches. One respondent said that the consequence of a finding of academic misconduct on a law student’s file was so far reaching that he suspected that staff would deal with the matter informally by reducing the mark for the work and perhaps having a ‘quiet’ word with the student. One institution reported that it does not have any real problem with academic misconduct as students are fully briefed about proper scholarship in the first year, and support is available to help them to develop proper research and legal writing skills.
What did come across from the interviews was the extent to which law schools are concerned about the problem and are keen to find solutions – a number of law schools have already developed assessment strategies to design out plagiarism. The evidence from this research does not suggest that cheating is ignored but, for the reasons given above, the majority of cases of suspected academic misconduct are dealt with informally. Although this finding confirms other studies that indicate that there is a general reluctance among academics to report plagiarism (Raeburn & Mainka, 2006), in the case of law students, the failure to routinely report and record cases of academic misconduct is a serious matter for all concerned about the integrity of law students and the reputation of UK legal education.
Most of the institutions did use some form of electronic detection software such as Turnitin UK, but, at best, this is either used on a random basis or left to the discretion of the module leader. Two institutions reported that where a student is found to have cheated in a piece of work, all their other work is submitted for electronic detection. A number of institutions found this type of software to be unhelpful, as it brings up large numbers of case names that are a legitimate part of the answer. Another respondent said that it is not reliable where students have reworded the material. Furthermore, electronic detection software does not always identify collusion.
These findings are consistent with recent reports from one institution that 52% of staff did not use detection software, and from another university which introduced new anti-plagiarism software in 2005 and discovered that by the second term six out of 15 schools had only one or no academic staff using it (Raeburn & Mainka, 2006).
For one of the most serious and worrying forms of cheating, the purchase of customised essays from online services, electronic detection may not provide any answer (Higgerson, 2008). Some of these sites are so confident that the essays supplied by them will not be detected by such software that they offer money back guarantees (Taylor & Butt, 2006). It may be interesting to note that no institution reported detection of a customised essay, which is somewhat worrying in view of the reported numbers of students availing themselves of the services on online essay banks.
Our research has clearly revealed the variety of institutional approaches to the problem of plagiarism in law schools across the UK. Whilst the examination of plagiarism issues in the literature to date has largely focused on teaching and learning issues or detection, the disparities in policy, procedure and penalties and their ramifications have to some extent been overlooked.
Most strikingly, whilst many institutions adopted a two tier approach, differentiating between instances that are minor and major issues plagiarism, there is little consensus over the definition of such terminology. The threshold for a major offence varied from over 10% to over 50% of the text in question containing unreferenced material. In addition, these thresholds might not necessarily be absolute, with some institutions considering wider issues such as academic naivety before determining the classification of the offence. With one respondent reporting a lack of staff consensus as to where to draw the line between poor academic practice and plagiarism, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect consistency where discretion can be applied.
There are other significantly diverse approaches reported in institutional policy which may ultimately affect the student outcome. Pressure to meet centrally imposed marking deadlines was identified as a barrier to staff seeking time to investigate suspicions of plagiarism. It was also widely reported by respondents that the use of electronic detection methods was entirely at the discretion of module leaders.
The picture that has emerged from law schools in this study is one that no doubt would be repeated across other subject areas. There are, of course, obvious differences in inter-institutional policies and procedures, but this study has also revealed that there are varying degrees of discretion applied either by the regulations themselves or through a willingness to depart from the regulations by staff. This discretion might be applied in the context of whether an allegation is ultimately proven or, in the case that it is, the extent of the penalty to be applied. The detail of the latter goes beyond the scope of this research, but it is stated as a concern by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. In the context of a highly regulated career destination such as the legal profession, this continued diversity of approach is one which may become increasingly untenable.
- Baird N (2006) “Plagiarism data 2005-06” QED Law 16 October
- Baty P (2006a) Inconsistent penalties raise risk of legal action, Deech says Times Higher Education 23 June
- Baty P (2006b) Students still hazy on correct procedure Times Higher Education 23 June
- Baty P (2006c) Litigation fear lets cheats off hook Times Higher Education 13 October
- Bermingham V & Hodgson J (2001) ‘Desiderata: what lawyers want from their recruits’ Law Teacher 35(1)
- Cox A & Barton R (2005) ‘At least they’re learning something: the hazy line between collaboration and collusion’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education April
- Higgerson D (2008) ‘University of Liverpool students in cheating scandal’ Liverpool Daily Post_ 16 January
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- Shepherd J (2006) 1 in 6 admits to cheating Times Higher Education 17 March
- Taylor M & Butt R (2006) Q: How do you make £1.6m a year and drive a Ferrari?
- Tennant P, Rowell G & Duggan F (2007) The range and spread of penalties available for student plagiarism among UK higher education institutions (PDF file; full report from the first phase of the JISC-iPAS AMBeR project)
- Times Online (2008) University had 65 cheats and 801 plagiarists Times Online 29 September
- Tysome T (2005) Fraud booms worldwide Times Higher Education 5 August
Last Modified: 4 June 2010