Today’s post is by Debbie Wilson, who is the Senior Academic Integrity Officer in the Academic Standards and Quality Office (ASQO) at the ANU. Debbie advises and trains staff on the ANU’s Academic Misconduct Rule, supports staff throughout the various stages of the procedures, and manages the central academic misconduct breaches database.
Take it away, Debbie!
Understanding Academic Misconduct
Maintaining academic integrity in higher education is the responsibility of both staff and students. Universities have a responsibility to educate students on both the importance of academic integrity, and how to demonstrate it in their work. Students are responsible for ensuring they understand the academic integrity policy of their institution, and seek assistance if they are unsure of what is expected of them. Staff have a responsibility to maintain academic integrity in their own work and model good practice in their teaching, educate students on the importance of academic integrity in their assessments, and also deal with any breaches of academic integrity which are brought to their attention.
What is a breach of Academic Integrity?
Each institution have their own, fairly similar, definitions of what constitutes a breach of academic integrity. The most common breach is Plagiarism. The Australian National University defines plagiarism as copying, paraphrasing or summarising, without appropriate acknowledgement, the words, ideas, scholarship and intellectual property of another person. As plagiarism is the most common type of breach, it is not surprising that most universities are investing in text matching technologies, such as Turnitin, to make assist with detecting, and also educating students on how and where they need to improve their academic writing.
The following are also breaches of the Australian National University’s Academic Misconduct Rules:
- Colluding with another person;
- Acting or helping someone else act dishonestly or unfairly in relation to an examination;
- Taking prohibited documentation into an exam;
- Not following examination or assessment rules or direction;
- Engaging in conduct related to an assessment with intention of gaining an unfair advantage;
- Submitting work that is not original.
Dealing with Academic Integrity Breaches
There is no hard and fast guide as to when a particular breach of academic integrity might be considered very minor, which is a ‘very minor mistake’, minor, which is known as ‘Poor Academic Practice’, or major, which constitutes ‘Academic Misconduct’.
There are, however, a number of factors which can indicate whether a case is likely to be very minor, (very minor mistake), minor (poor academic practice) or major (academic misconduct). These factors may vary from discipline to discipline, and institution to institution, so we encourage you to discuss any cases you have with an appropriate colleague, such as your Head of School to seek guidance. For ANU staff, ASQO are also able to provide you with information, please send us through your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the ANU very minor mistake relates to very minor, unintentional referencing errors, for example not using quotation marks, or a missed or incorrectly appropriated reference. Very minor mistakes may be resolved through advice, and/or a reduction in the awarded mark of an assessment piece of between 0 and 10% of the total marks available, and are not required to be up for a review or inquiry under the ANU Academic Misconduct Rule, however must meet the relevant criteria in the Rule.
So, if you can see that a breach has occurred, which does not fit the definition of a very minor mistake, but looks to be more serious what are the factors that you should consider in making a determination?
Are there reasonable mitigating circumstances?
If there are mitigating circumstances that are provided in an explanation from the student, these can be taken into account, in conjunction with other factors. Some examples of mitigating circumstances might include:
- The student is at an early stage of an undergraduate program of study, and was not aware, through no fault of their own, that their actions constituted a breach of academic integrity;
- The student is at an early stage of their studies and has previously studied in a foreign culture that may have had different approaches to academic integrity;
- The student had a personal, emotional, or health issue that can go some way to explaining the actions, and/or is likely to make the breach a one-off.
How significant is the breach?
If the breach is plagiarism, how much was plagiarised? One or two short references that weren’t appropriated correctly might be a very minor mistake, however large swathes of text that form the core part of the argument in an essay or the response to a set of questions might be seen to be more serious.
Does the breach appear to be intentional?
This can be a difficult question to answer, however it is one worth giving at least some small consideration to. Could it reasonably be argued that the breach was unintended, careless, inadvertent or uninformed? Do they appear surprised and apologetic, and willing to engage in redemptive behaviour, or simply distressed that they were caught and argumentative?
Has the student made a breach before?
If the student has breached academic integrity previously, then it is more likely to be academic misconduct rather than poor academic practice. The only time it might be minor, is if the breaches are for completely different offences.
Has the student received any instruction on appropriate academic methods?
Particularly for first year students, was there any instruction provided in the course on appropriate academic methods? Could it be possible that a student genuinely was not aware of appropriate academic methods?
Possible academic misconduct
It may be appropriate to escalate a case as potential academic misconduct, rather than find poor academic practice, where no mitigating circumstances appear to apply.
The goal of finding ‘poor academic practice’ is to try and educate the student to succeed in their studies and not repeat a mistake. If academic misconduct is found, the penalties are more punitive.
Please read the two case studies below and discuss the potential findings for each case.
An undergraduate student in their first semester in their first year, borrows a paper and some lecture notes from another student who took the same subject last year. The student then completes their assignment, and upon submission, the Turnitin report returns a similarity report of 54% with another student’s paper. The convener meets with the student, and the student admits to looking at their friend’s paper, but only to “make sure they were on the right track”. The student insists that they wrote their own paper, and that as both students had used some similar references that is why there were so many similarities.
What might be a possible finding in this case?
An undergraduate student completes their assignment, and asks their brother to proofread it before they submit it. The students’ brother notices that some of the sentences structure is not very well done and offers to re-write a few sentences so that they make a bit more sense.
Is this acceptable? Is it appropriate to ask someone to proofread your assignment? How much help is too much help?
Share your thoughts
What do you think of the cases above? What type of academic misconduct might they be, or are they not issues at all? How would you deal with this situation? Feel free to respond to the post of other participants.
In the first example, I would ask the student whether they understand that they committed a breach of academic integrity. If they have a reasonable claim that they had not been made aware of the AI rules, I would give them the benefit of doubt, explain the rules and give them an emphatic warning. They may not need to be penalised by a reduction of their mark.
I would, nevertheless, make a record of this for future reference by my fellow educators, confirming that the student was informed of the rules and warned of the consequences of a breach. If the same student is known to have breached academic integrity before, it may be appropriate to impose a sanction.
In Case Two, I would not consider it a breach that the brother proofread the paper before submission and mentioned to the student some perceived issues. However, it is unacceptable to allow another person to rewrite a paper which would then be submitted as the student’s own work. Therefore I would consider this issue a breach of academic integrity. The amount of mark reduction and the severity of the penalty would depend on the student’s previous history of breaches, any acceptable mitigating circumstances and the extent to which the interference impacted on the paper overall.
Thank you Gabor.
Your responses are in line with the outcomes of these two cases. For case one, first year students may need more guidance and like you mentioned if they have reasonable mitigating circumstances, in they did not have a clear understanding of what was expected of them, it would be fair to counsel them, and give a warning.
I like your response to case two. think there is a fine line between proof reading and making changes to someone’s assignment. This is something that students seem to need a bit more of an understanding about.
I agree with Gabor’s interpretation and suggested way to deal with the issues raised in the two cases.
I was not that familiar with the three levels of breeches. This has been the most important learning experience for me today.
I think when considering penalties the student’s academic history and input from other academics involved with the student is essential.
Hi Michael, I’m glad this information was helpful – it was all new to me too when I first heard of it! I think the section on mitigating circumstances in particular influenced how I might approach future problems with student work.
Today’s session has really given me a good understanding the way Turnitin is assessed and monitored.
Did not realize how breaches were dealt with and the impact to the student. Certainly has made me understand and aware of situations when they are penalized and how it affects their academic history.
I think in Case one, I will not consider it as a breach of academic integrity as I will understand that the student was not aware of the matter. I think the chat between the teacher and the student would be really useful for the student to understand what academic integrity is and do the right thing next time.
As for Case two, I think that asking another person to proofread the assignment before submission is acceptable, as a fresh pair of eyes will be able to see what the author may not see. However, I would think it is not acceptable for the brother to write for the student. I think this would be breach academic integrity. I think it would have been more appropriate for the brother to point out what could be improved and the student should edit the assignment him/herself.
Hi Katherine – I would tend to agree with you on both of these. I know there has been a lot of concerns around students who speak English as a second language who hire proofreaders or get friends to make some pretty significant changes to their expression. This is a tough area for me – I have a lot of empathy as I studied French in school in Canada for 10+ years and would have struggled to write a university-level essay in French! But at the same time I’m unsure where the line is regarding proofreading and changes to a student work.
Case One: The student intentionally conspired to commit fraud by seeking out another student’s work. Being a first year student and for their first breach they should be given a warning.
Case Two: Brotherly love!. I am asked frequently to proof read my children’s school work. Fixing grammatical errors does not constitute plagiarism.
I agree with everyone’s comment. Case 1 is a clear case of academic misconduct while Case 2 may be categorised as poor practice. I find colluding with others difficult to detect although Turnitin can be useful in some incidences. In both of these cases, I think it is important to: (1) counsel the student and find a resolution (with a formal warning or some other form of punishment); (2) remind students of ANU Code of Practice and policy on academic integrity; and (3) take appropriate steps to implement training regimes for students and teachers.
I agree with Er-Kai on his summary.
Although I must add, we must be careful about case 1. I think we can fall into the same trap of many of our students and just look at the percentage. What is the “54%” that is common. I had one case, where the number was something like 15%, but the 15% included the other students name and ID!!! I’ve also had cases where the thing copies applies to last year’s assignment but not this year’s. This way, if I see that the similarity is in regard to these elements it is clear that the student is not “accidentally” similar but simplying copying and pasting somebody else’s work
I agree with everyone that Case 1 is misconduct while Case 2 might be not.
One important thing we should consider is how to balance the penalty and the effect on the student’s future. I heard the story where a student was forgiven for the first time then caught again one semester later. The student acted so hysterically that the school found it difficult to carry out the penalty. I would like to seek suggestions from senior members.
Another possible approach could be to help the students to realize the real goal of education. I could understand that all students are hoping for a higher grade. But now I see education as a process rather than merely a result. If the students could enjoy the process, they may have less incentive to achieve a higher mark with improper methods.
I believe the response for both cases is “it depends”. In case 1, the 54% doesn’t mean anything on its own. Is the 54% exactly the same text match in large chunks, or is it smaller arguments and citations scattered throughout? Are the questions the same, and research drawn from limited sources (I know a lecturer who requires students to only use course materials and not conduct external research)? It might be that the student is genuine, and this is a non-issue. Alternatively, it might be poor practice. Based on the information provided, there is not enough information to make this call. Either way, during the meeting with the student, I would remind them of academic integrity.
Similarly, there is not enough information for case 2. How much did the brother re-write? Was it merely proofreading and editing typos and grammar? Or, was it substantially rewriting large amounts of the essay, or possibly even changing the argument? I think proofreading is good practice. Not enough students proofread their own work anymore, let alone getting a fresh pair of eyes to check over it. As for where the line is? When it is no longer your own work (words, ideas, and argument).
My responses to both cases are pretty much the same as everyone else’s. I imagine that the first student might know that their actions were plagiarism or “cheating” but not realise how serious this is in a university context. I would take time to explain the problem and the AI policies, and I would probably alert my colleagues to what has occurred, but I would be reluctant to penalise them. In the second case, it would depend on the extent of re-writing. I agree with other commenters here that students should get someone to proofread their work. In fact, I really wish that they would!
Definitely have to agree with you about the proofreading!!
For case 1, I feel this could be a case of genuine accidental plagiarism. It seems the student didn’t really understand what was expected of them for the assignment and so turned to someone who had completed the course previously for guidance. However, while I don’t believe they should be punished as such, being firm with them about the seriousness of their actions and potential outcomes if this happens again will ensure that in future they ask for guidance from their lecturer before seeing out other students who may have the wrong idea anyway.
For case 2, it can be difficult to know to what level some of their work has been edited by a third party – unless it varies largely from other submitted work and writing style. Personally, I would feel that proof reading by another person is okay, encouraged even, to pick up small spelling or grammar errors and flagging these with the author. But re-writing of sentences or adding in new information is definitely over-stepping.