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Universities and plagiarism: who copied who?

  • 26 October 2021
  • By Daniel Sokol

This blog was kindly contributed by Daniel Sokol is a barrister and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, where he leads a team of 15 barristers who act for students accused of misconduct. He was formerly a university lecturer. Daniel is on Twitter @DanielSokol9.

John and Amy were best friends. They lived together and studied the same course.

Last summer, they each completed an assessment for their final-year exams. Hours before the deadline, John sent Amy a copy of his essay for proofreading. Amy, who had yet to finish hers, made a few corrections to the punctuation before submitting her own essay a few hours later.

Weeks had passed before the friends received a letter alleging academic misconduct. A large chunk of the essay, approximately 20 per cent of the total, appeared in identical form in both submissions.

During the investigation, John and Amy maintained that their essay was theirs alone. John explained that he had sent Amy a copy of his essay for proofreading hours before the submission, which included the allegedly plagiarised passage. Amy said that, tired and in a hurry, she had not spotted the similarities. She remarked that, during a toilet break the previous day, John could have taken a photo of her essay and used it to copy her work.

John and Amy were thus accusing each other of stealing the other’s work and using what criminal lawyers call the ‘cut-throat defence’. They were no longer on speaking terms and moved out of their apartment.

The investigator concluded, on dubious grounds, that John had copied from Amy, probably during Amy’s toilet break. John was found guilty of plagiarism and, if seeking to fulfil his ambition of practising as a solicitor in the future, he would have to disclose the finding of academic misconduct to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Unimpressed with the slow and generic advice of the Student Union, John came to me, a higher education barrister, in a state of shock. He was accompanied by his father, who was a high-ranking university administrator from another institution. They wanted to prove John’s innocence.

The Appeal Strategy

New evidence

With only 10 days to appeal, we instructed urgently a forensic linguist with expertise in authorship disputes. We sent the expert many of John’s recent essays for comparative analysis. Using a methodology of author verification called the ‘General Impostors’ method, the expert produced a 14-page report which concluded that ‘the analyses reported offer very strong support to the hypothesis that the disputed part of the essay was authored by John.’ This was the highest level of certainty within the scale of probability.

To minimise the risk of the Appeal Panel failing to appreciate the probative value of the linguist’s report, I asked the expert to attend the appeal hearing as a witness.

Procedural irregularity

When John was informed of the guilty verdict, he was presented with dozens of pages of Amy’s essay drafts, notes and e-mails. He had never seen these documents before. We argued that the university’s failure to provide them in advance of the decision was unfair and procedurally irregular. John should have had an opportunity to comment on this evidence prior to the finding of guilt.

Unreasonable decision

Finally, we argued that the investigator’s decision was unreasonable. Why would John send a copy of his essay containing a large section of plagiarised material for proofreading to the very person from whom he allegedly plagiarised?

The Hearing

At the hearing, which lasted around 90 minutes, I took the expert witness through his report and highlighted the flaws in the earlier decision. One committee member was initially sceptical of the report but the expert succeeded in allaying his concerns. The decision to invite the expert as a witness paid off. Without him, the committee member may have dismissed the report as unsound.

The Outcome

The Committee upheld the appeal and found John not guilty of plagiarism.

The Cost

John and his family experienced considerable anxiety and stress during the academic misconduct process, which lasted nearly 5 months.

In addition, John spent nearly £6,000 in legal and expert fees to overturn the original guilty verdict. He was not reimbursed a penny by the university.

Comment

John would probably not have succeeded without the assistance of the forensic linguist. There are only a handful of such experts in the UK and, for many students, they are prohibitively expensive. The expert’s report alone cost nearly £2,000.

Without a lawyer, John would not have known about the existence of a suitable expert and how to instruct them. He would not have identified all the flaws in the investigator’s reasoning. His written statement and his performance in the appeal hearing would have been less persuasive.

The current system advantages those students who can afford professional help and lets down those who cannot. Universities could mitigate this injustice by providing professional help to all students. Students’ union officers may be able to fulfil this role if available in sufficient numbers, better trained and supervised by qualified, practising lawyers. Universities could also reimburse students whose appeals are upheld.

The investigator misguided himself in his decision-making, resulting in a perverse decision. Again, it would be surprising if the investigator received much training in the art of adjudication. The qualifications, training and salary of investigators must reflect the importance of their role.

Justice was eventually done in John’s case, but it came at a high emotional and financial cost. There is no doubt that many other students in John’s position are not so lucky, with significant consequences for their degrees, job prospects and mental health.

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