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17th June 2013

OIA’s decision on plagiarism upheld

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The availability of information and material, including draft essays, on the internet is a real challenge to education institutions ensuring that the integrity of their qualifications is not impugned by plagiarism. Any student suspected of engaging in such activity can therefore expect to be the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings of their teaching institution.

In most instances of misconduct in a higher education institution, a student may raise a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in respect of a finding of misconduct and/or penalties imposed. However, the OIA scheme operates on the basis that it does not cover a complaint to the extent that it relates to a matter of academic judgment.

One student at Queen Mary University of London studying for a Masters degree in project management, Hazim Mustafa, was found to have committed plagiarism on the basis that, in breach of the university’s regulations, his coursework essay included extensive quotations without proper acknowledgment. His appeals within the university were unsuccessful. Mr Mustafa complained to the OIA which rejected his complaint on the ground that the existence or extent of plagiarism is a matter of academic judgment. This meant that the university’s finding of plagiarism could not form the subject of a complaint to the OIA. Mr Mustafa asked the court to quash the decision of the OIA.

Like many higher education institutions, the university had used specialist software to compare students’ work with the contents of a database of published material and other papers. This resulted in "originality reports" which gave figures, in percentage terms, for the similarity of a student’s work to the contents of the database. These reports were reviewed by academic or administrative staff to identify any cases of concern, which were then considered by academics for a decision.

This process led to an allegation that 32% of Mr Mustafa’s essay matched with a particular website and that other sections matched other websites without appropriate referencing.

In the court proceedings, Mr Mustafa’s position was that whether plagiarism exists is not always a matter of academic judgment and that, in his particular case, whether his work amounted to plagiarism was not a matter of academic judgment, but simply of applying the university’s definition of plagiarism to his essay. The OIA contended that the assessment of a piece of work will always entail a question of academic judgment and, in this particular case, the university’s decision was a matter of academic judgment.

In its judgment, the court recognised (in line with previous authorities) that there is an "exclusion area of "academic judgments” into which the courts will not intrude”. It described the issue of what mark a student should be awarded as “the paradigm case of an academic judgment”.

The court considered the scope of an “academic judgment” in the context of the rules applicable to the OIA’s jurisdiction. The court noted that it is the nature of the judgment which determines whether it is “academic”. The question of whether plagiarism has been committed will often – perhaps usually - require an exercise of academic judgment, but this is not necessarily the case. For example where the computer software identifies that a student’s work has been copied 100% from another source, no judgment is required to determine that there has been plagiarism. The court concluded that the OIA’s decision in Mr Mustafa’s case was "not that any determination of whether plagiarism existed was necessarily a matter of academic judgment, but that on the facts this particular determination was".

The judge agreed that the university’s determination involved an exercise of academic judgment and therefore was not one on which the OIA was entitled to adjudicate. The question in the case was whether there had been a “proper acknowledgment”. It was necessary to have knowledge of academic conventions for making such acknowledgments and to apply that knowledge to what Mr Mustafa had done. As the judge remarked, this required an exercise of judgment and the nature of that judgment was academic.

Mr Mustafa therefore failed in his attempt to quash the OIA’s decision. Whilst perhaps not surprising in its outcome, the decision highlights the types of cases that fall outside of the remit of the OIA.

For further information, contact Stephen Cole on 01604 233233 or click here to email Stephen.