University 'will struggle' to prosecute plagiarism

Katie SpenceleyMatt Horrocks 23 October 2008

The withdrawal of a new regulation on plagiarism has thrown the University’s ability to prosecute plagiarism has been thrown into doubt.
The rejected amendment – only a week old – came in the form of a Grace, an instrument by which the Statutes and Ordinances of the university are amended.

In practice, what this means is that there is no working definition for what plagiarism actually is.

This absence of an explicit definition in the University’s disciplinary rules has sparked fears that the university will be unable to prosecute those they suspect of plagiarism.

An anonymous member of the General Board of Education told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that, “given the University’s own inability to institute a working definition of plagiarism, it is hard to see how they could successfully prosecute someone for it.”

However, university officials have been quick to deny that this rejected definition will have any real impact in the university’s monitoring of plagiarism.

The University Advocate, Dr Pippa Rogerson and her deputy Dr Christopher Forsyth – the two officers responsible for following up charges of plagiarism through the Court of Discipline – were adamant that the failure to define the term in the Statutes would not affect the university’s ability to punish those suspected of plagiarising.

Dr Forsyth told TCS: “It will make no difference to the university advocate’s ability to prosecute for plagiarism or the power of the Court of Discipline to punish for plagiarism. The grace simply makes express what is currently implied – whether the current grace is passed or not there will be little difference in plagiarism prosecutions.

“Of course, if the grace returns it might be in a different form and make a substantive change,” he added.

But a university spokesperson said that a change to the existing Statute would be “helpful” in clarifying matters rather than ineffectual. For Dr Forsyth, however, there is no confusion to be worked through:

“There is in my view no lack of clarity: anyone who knowingly puts forward for examination the work of another as their own uses unfair means in an examination and is liable to prosecution before the Court of Discipline.”

The current disciplinary rules refer only to candidates “knowingly use of unfair means in any University examination” – a definition that exists without any reference to plagiarism at all.

After years of discussion formulating a new plagiarism policy, a change to the Statutes and Ordinances explicitly defining the offence was published in The Cambridge Reporter on the 1st of October. But in a dramatic turnaround, the Grace was withdrawn a week later on the 8th of October.

The intended changes to the General Regulations for Discipline defined plagiarism as “submitting as one’s own work that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement.” But following opposition from figures within the university regarding a technicality in the new wording, the Grace was withdrawn. Its future now hangs in the balance.

The lack of strict regulation in the University’s guidelines has created uncertainty over the procedure in a case of suspected plagiarism. Instead of challenging suspected plagiarists through official offices, concerns have been raised that examiners may lose faith in their ability to prosecute and may well engage in a form of “academic vigilantism”.

CUSU Education Officer, Ant Bagshaw told TCS: “It’s not a totally ridiculous suggestion to posit that examiners might lose faith in the disciplinary process and take matters into their own hands.

“Under the current rules this sort of unilateral punishment is explicitly outlawed. If punishment does take place behind the closed doors of the examination system, masked as ‘academic judgement’, then there’s almost no chance of proving or stopping it.”

Bagshaw has also been scathing over the bureacratic confusion that has been caused by the introduction and subsequent withdrawal of the Grace: “It’s frankly embarrassing,” he told TCS.

“It shows that in Cambridge having a good, simple idea isn’t the same as having a sensible policy from which everyone can get to work.”

Katie Spenceley
Matt Horrocks