Cheating at University

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Justine Rogers

Last week I was asking students in my ethics class to discuss legal values and what ones they’d picked up from law school. They raised a range of things, from compassion to competition. But one student said, “No plagiarising, no cheating, being honest in your work!”. “It’s drummed into us from Day 1”, one added.

I was rather chuffed to hear this, but I am not sure I can or should be too pleased. The research shows that these are problems affecting all Australian universities, though unevenly across them and within the disciplines. Sydney University has just released part 1 of report, ‘an approach to minimising academic misconduct and plagiarism at the University of Sydney. Its focus is detection and prevention. The Report shows that most instances of misconduct were categories of negligence (lack of understanding or carelessness about how to cite and reference). The rest, the active fraud, is where it gets disturbing.

There’s the less-straight-forward (as far as severity of categorisation goes) collusion and recycling, but most of it is outright dishonest plagiarism and ghost writing, or getting someone else to do the work and submitting it as your own. Ghost writing, in particular, is becoming more prevalent and difficult to regulate. Students are taking advantage of sophisticated and therefore hard-to-detect online services, marketed to them, ones like MyMaster. These fraudster strategies affect most directly take-home assessments, but now students are adapting the technology available to cheat in exams. They are using their phones and watches to bring in material, using loo breaks to quickly check the internet, taking photos of confidential papers, and one I hadn’t thought of in my old cheating (paper-based) days:* paying impersonators to come and take the exam on their behalf. Other categories found in the report were fraudulent medical certificates or other bad faith uses of special consideration.

A summary of the Report’s recommendations (produced by the Academic Misconduct and Plagiarism Taskforce, Sydney University, 2015: 2):

Recommendation 1 is that mandatory academic honesty education and an early focus on written communication skills be embedded into all undergraduate and postgraduate coursework award courses should.

Recommendation 2 is that for each unit of study, consideration should be given to the academic integrity of the assessment tasks to ensure that they limit the opportunities for academic dishonesty. The Taskforce recognises that, due to the diversity of discplines and assessment types within the University, this cannot be done through a one-size-fits-all solution. Using similarity-detection software such as Turnitin should be a basic line of defence for all written assignments. However, it is only effective for certain types of academic dishonesty and there are some examples of good and relevant assessment tasks across the University where the use of Turnitin would not be sensible.

Recommendation 3 is to provide an accessible, searchable and complete recordkeeping facility across the University. Effective recordkeeping is an essential part of ensuring that cases of repeated misconduct are detected and dealt with appropriately.

Recommendation 4 is to develop within the Education Portfolio a liaison and coordination point to support staff and students. This could be an office of educational integrity which would champion academic integrity for coursework students in the University, support students and staff and track trends. The office would provide a single point of contact at the University for matters relating to academic misconduct in coursework and allow the University community to seek authoritative information on policy and procedures and best practice prevention and detection strategies.

Recommendation 5 is to make changes to the University’s policies as appropriate to implement best practice prevention and detection. These changes are suggested as a result of policy inconsistencies raised in faculty discussions; to support the other recommendations made in this report, and to suggest policy improvements.

Later this week we’re looking at the Re OG case (2007) which deals with a revocation of admission to the profession on the basis of a failure to disclose academic misconduct (here collusion) to the Board. It’s pretty clear what the Supreme Court of Victoria’s position is (and with our jurisdiction – NSW – now merged with theirs, our students might soon face a stricter approach to disclosure, including academic misconduct or even suspected misconduct):

As OG was taught…that obligation of disclosure requires that an applicant be frank and honest with the Board of Examiners, and so with the court, about anything which might reflect adversely on the fitness and propriety of the applicant to be admitted to practise. Nice questions sometimes arise as to how much that entails. Increasingly, there is an expectation that even ancient peccadillos should not be left out.[10] In the past, perhaps, the obligation was not always seen as going quite so far. But the need for honesty has never been in doubt. Admission to practise is conditioned upon an applicant having a ‘complete realization … of his obligation of candour to the court in which he desire[s] to serve as an agent of justice’.[11] An applicant must at least disclose anything which he or she honestly believes should not be left out. Plainly, candour does not permit of deliberate or reckless misrepresentation pretending to be disclosure. (para 123)

It’s a huge issue for all universities, but perhaps even more immense for law schools and legal academics. What are your thoughts on this? Is the problem of academic misconduct getting worse and/or better detected? What is driving it? What prevention strategies are working?  What do we need to do, or do better?

*I am joking and relying on this being read in the spirit of a blog.

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