A student recently posted an assignment in the form of a problem question on an internet forum, asking forum participants for advice as though his facts were a real case he was researching. When this came to light the student claimed he’d done nothing wrong, while the teacher claimed it was a case of academic misconduct. It made me think about students discussing their assignments with their lawyer parents, or with tutors who set them on the right track, or whose barrister mates comments on their papers prior to submission. Meanwhile, we ask students to use scholarly academic research methods. We would like them to use formal research tools such as library catalogues, digests, citators, bibliographies and current awareness services to locate text books, monographs, legal encyclopaedias and journal articles. We would like them to cite cases from the best sources, ie, authorised reports, and to use only official versions of legislation.
But where does academic misconduct begin and end? I mean, wouldn’t lawyers ask their friends where to start? Wouldn’t they ask another lawyer who has dealt with a similar case before? Or, heaven forbid, perhaps they’d even post their facts on an internet forum, hoping to get some quick advice. So, is informal legal research OK? If not, how do we get students to appreciate the importance of formal research methods and the place of more informal methods?