Plagiarism, academic judgment and the OIA

June 11th, 2013 by Paul Greatorex

The subject of plagiarism always brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s brilliant song “Lobachevsky”, and the same seems to go for Males J as shown by the opening paragraph of his recent judgment in R (Mustafa) v Office of the Independent Adjudicator [2013] EWHC 1379 (Admin):

“The Harvard academic and songwriter Tom Lehrer recommended plagiarism as the route to academic success, wealth and fame, but his tongue was firmly in his cheek.  For universities and other educational bodies plagiarism is no laughing matter, especially with the vast scope for such activity presented by the internet. Nor is it for those students who are accused of having committed plagiarism, perhaps wrongly, and who may wish to appeal against any such finding. The question raised by this case is whether a university’s decision that a student has committed plagiarism is final or whether it can form the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (“the OIA”).”

The Claimant was studying for a Master’s degree at Queen Mary University of London and was awarded no marks for an essay submitted on the grounds that parts of it were plagiarised.  His complaint to the OIA was rejected on the ground that the existence (and if so, the extent) of plagiarism was a matter of academic judgment and so outwith the OIA’s jurisdiction: see section 12 of the Higher Education Act 2004 and rule 3.2 of the OIA rules.

Males J held that such complaints are not automatically excluded because “the question whether plagiarism has been committed often (and perhaps usually) will require an exercise of academic judgment, but that it need not necessarily do so”: para 54.  However, the claim failed because the OIA had not approached the matter otherwise, but had correctly considered whether the complaint related to a matter of academic judgment: para 56.

The judge found that even if he was wrong about this and the OIA had proceeded on the wrong basis (and it is worth noting that the position of the OIA and the university was that decisions about plagiarism always involve academic judgment: see paras 37 and 39), such an error was immaterial because the complaint clearly did relate to a matter of academic judgment, namely whether there had been “proper acknowledgment” by the Claimant of what he was doing: paras 59-61.

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Paul Greatorex

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