Cheats are more likely to get a verbal warning than expulsion
University students who are caught submitting plagiarised work are very rarely expelled, shows a survey.
A study found only 143 students caught cheating were expelled out of 9,200 cases - despite almost all universities threatening expulsion as a sanction.
Researchers warned of "inconsistent" penalties, the most common sanction imposed being to re-submit work.
The study of 86 UK universities also found a much higher rate of plagiarism among postgraduate students.
The report, from the Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee, shows that despite the repeated warnings to students not to cheat by using someone else's work, those caught are unlikely to face particularly severe penalties.
More than 98% of students caught cheating were allowed to stay at their university - even though some of these students had been caught before.
Almost eight out of a hundred students caught plagiarising had already been caught on previous occasions.
"Concerns that the application of penalties for student plagiarism is inconsistent across the higher education sector would appear to be upheld by the findings of this research," says the report.
There have been widespread concerns about students copying work from the internet or buying essays from online essay writing services.
This study, which does not name any of the institutions which have provided data, found that the threat that cheating students would not be awarded a degree was rarely applied.
Instead, the most common penalty was to have to re-submit work, with a cap on the mark that could be achieved. The second most common sanction was a reprimand.
Other consequences for those caught plagiarising were an "informal" warning, a lowered mark or having to re-submit work without any capping on the mark.
Three times as many students were given an "informal warning" after being caught than were expelled.
This study also found that plagiarism was more frequent in postgraduate courses.
"It was surprising to observe that the recorded level of plagiarism among postgraduate students was so much higher than the recorded level among undergraduate student," says the report.
Across the universities as a whole, the cheating rate was about seven cases for every thousand students.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Plagiarism is rife and many lecturers turn a blind eye to the problem. Systems make it hard and require considerable effort to prove and put a case through the system. I was in a situation where nine students copied course work off each other, my Head of Department wasn't interested, as overseas students pay the wages. I was told not to pursue the case, if you know what's best for you.
Ian, Edinburgh, Scotland
As always the impulse is to blame the system for not being harsh enough. Frankly, you try expelling a student who has rich parents and powerful lawyers behind them. I caught a student red-handed who had paid someone else to write their course work for them but I could not get her expelled as it was blatantly obvious she would have challenged such a decision in the courts and we could not absolutely prove that what she had done was not simply "misinterpret the rules regarding help".
It is not the lecturers' fault in this matter, or at least, it is their fault only insofar as they sometimes set bad assignments which are possible to plagiarise. As with everything else to do with education, the context is set by the government, and frankly, universities have been left to sink or swim here with no guidance or support whatsoever from Whitehall.
Andrew Whitworth, Hebden Bridge
I have been caught plagiarising before and received a mere warning, even though university policy dictates that plagiarising is an expellable or at least suspendable offense. Lecturers don't want the hassle of paper work and it looks bad on the University if a student fails - one must remember that a university is a business and there to make money.
Jack D, Kingston
Looking at the issue from a student's point of view; Universities do not place enough emphasis on referencing of other peoples work. Obviously we have to find information from somewhere therefore we need to read other's work. We also need to make clear where we got this information from, but many students aren't taught how to reference adequately, or the use of computer programs to help them. They rarely hold course-wide classes on referencing, opting instead for cheaper seperate courses that need to be signed up for. These usually have 30 places on them and are ran 3-4 times a year. Clearly not adequate when you have student numbers of several thousand.
Before I had learned the correct way to give attribution, I accidently plagarised and was disciplined with a warning at college. I was horribly embarrassed and never made that mistake again. The colleges I attended had strict honor codes and the one individual (a top student) who was found to have intentionally cheated on a test was reported by classmates and harshly judged as all were working very hard and it was quite competitive. I would think that a culture of cheating would undermine moral.
K.C., Boston, Ma USA
I am the Head of a University Department. Please be in no doubt, I and all my colleagues would not hesitate to expel all cheats, who contrary to Paul's disengenuous posting, are given full information on how to avoid cheating. The problem is - funding. If we expel a student we have to spend hours dealing with spurious appeals and ultimately lose income. Why should we do that? I have just had an appeal entered because I had some other essays from the cheating student on my desk when I interviewed him/her. Of course, the University has dismissed the appeal, but it all takes time and money.
I regret to say that the attitude amongst staff is now tending towards 'Let them in, give them a degree (any degree), collect payslip, go home.' The solution is threefold - to increase funding for Universities, to pay students a grant (because at the moment they say 'we are customers, we are paying for our degrees'), and, to cut the number of students. Many of our students do not really want to be here and they are not really capable of learning that which we endeavour to teach them. For many students education has become an obligation rather than a right, or, more strictly speaking, a privilege.
Head of Department, UK
As a postgraduate student who helps with teaching undergraduates, I have found the plagiarism issue extremely difficult. Many students, particularly those from other countries, simply do not understand the principle of formulating an argument supported by referenced evidence. They instead, scour the resources available for the 'correct' answer, and often do not realise they are committing plagiarism. I think that these issues should be made more clear, but we should also remember that an important part of university is learning to be self-motivating and self-directed. Students should not be spoon-fed their degrees.
Laura Mitchell, Lancaster, UK
I along with three of my friends was caught copying coursework from someone else. Others also did this but didn’t get caught. The tutor (looking back now) was quite cool about it. He didn't make a federal case about it, but instead just gave us zero marks for the assignment. He could have taken it further but didn't which I was glad of. One of my colleagues had to re sit the module again because the zero mark put them below the pass mark for the module. One thing we learned about the episode was that yes, we were let off leniently, but if we ever did it again, we knew we were in trouble and none of us did do it again.
In response to Paul's comment regarding referencing, I am a postgraduate student who teaches undergraduate courses and feel that plagiarism cannot be entirely blamed on lack of education on referencing. Students are told time and time again about how to reference correctly. In my department, we constantly refer students to the departmental guide to writing essays (which includes a substantial section on referencing), the library runs essay skills sessions (which are poorly attended) an I even printed a copy of a referencing guide and gave it to each of my students. Even with all this, we still get plagiarism, and with most of the cases I have seen, it has not been a mere matter of bad referencing. As tutors, we can only help students so much, and we must remember that these kids are at university now and they shouldn't be wet-nursed. If we provide them with information as to where to go to learn how to reference, whether it be the departmental website, or within the course documentation, then they should go and find it out themselves, they are all at least 18 after all.
Lisa , Leeds
Plagiarism serves the interests of both the universities and the students. It allows the weaker students to pay their fees and get through the course without too much difficulty. Some academic staff try to address the issue but as several commentators have made clear in doing so they face a very adverse reaction from their employer. You do not enhance your promotion prospects by uncovering such cases. Students are all too ready to take legal action and university staff know that they will not be backed up by the employer.
Jane Smith, London
when I was at university studyin law a group of 5 students all copied off each other and admitted to buying essays and using older siblings work with the mistakes corrected. They all came out with first degrees. The lecturers were aware that it was going on, that the work submitted was not consistent with their work in class or exams but did nothing. I came out with a respectable 2:1 having earned it by my own hard work. I am now in a job that pays well above average for the area I am and have shown my capabilities- so far none of these five have actually got either a training contract or a well paid job- one must assume that they peform very badly at interview, as not having actually completed the work themselves, they probably have no idea of the issues and can not give a good enough account of themselves to prospective employers to convince the employers their first is justified... Cheeters will be found out at some point that actually matters!
anon, Coventry, UK
It appears that our department is harsh when it comes to plagiarism. We give the student a zero on the work, with a right to appeal (very few are ever overturned). There is no warning system, and no right to resubmit.
After reading about this report, I expect that our central administrators will tell us that we are out of line with the academic community and that we need to lighten up.
Surely the fact that there are a range of punishments, from warnings to expulsion, is a good thing. As a lecturer I see examples of plagiarised work which range from the poor use of quotations through to deliberate attempts to cover the fact that large chucks are copied. We have a proper system for dealing with these and every offence is recorded, so repeated offenders can expect the punishments to become rapidly more serious. The idea that you get expelled for a first offense, especially having been taught in some schools that copying is a good thing, is just stupid.
Andrew, Birmingham, UK
I have taught in the USA for many years, as well as in the UK. In the USA plagiarism is taken far more seriously -- failing the course is the least you can expect. This is in spite of the fact that there is a culture of litigation and universities often are run as businesses. The difference is that acedemics in the US have vitually complete control over the courses they teach. Here numbskull adminstrators tie our hands. As in other part of public service, the answer is simply to let qualified professionals do their job without interference.
Senior Lecturer, UK
I am due to graduate from uni next month. The uni I went to have a high number of overseas students and is heavily reliant on the income generated from overseas students fees. In almost every exam I had with overseas students several students could clearly been seen to be cheating - with bits of paper in their dictionaries, sometimes full sheets with pre-written answers on them. However, the staff seemed to turn a blind eye and ignored complaints from student about the situation. In one instance a number of students did have their dictionaries removed. However, they were allowed to continue with the exam and no disciplinary action followed.