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The Committee is asked to comment on and recommend for approval the process and policy for the handling of plagiarism related issues at the University as outlined in this paper.




The issue of plagiarism and the wider context of academic conduct is a topical issue throughout HEI’s in the UK at present. Increased pressure on students to succeed at any cost, the availability of essay mills along with the increased use of internet sources has led to a rise in ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism.


At the International Plagiarism Conference in 2006, Baroness Deech highlighted the inconsistent application of penalties across HEI’s in the UK. Subsequently, the JISC sponsored ‘Academic Misconduct and Benchmarking Research Project’ (AMBeR) report concluded that there is a wide variety of penalties in use across the sector and their application is inconsistent.


The increased use of the eTMA system at the OU and the introduction of plagiarism detection software have raised new issues around processing of cases identified by the software that is not covered by current policy.


The Open University set up a review of plagiarism policy during 2006 to explore whether the same issues were apparent within the University and to assess how our practices fitted with other HEI’s. Additionally, the requirement that all cases of plagiarism involving ECAs were dealt with by the Central Disciplinary Committee (CDC) was becoming unmanageable and an alternative option was required. The review team reported their recommendations to APC in October 2006.


The review team reported that there was a lack of consistency at the Open University, both across Regional Centres and Faculties. The application of the policy varied depending on the subject the student was studying and the location they were based. Additionally it was felt that the information provided to students about good academic conduct was varied and did not always give a consistent picture to students.


The review team recommended the appointment of Academic Conduct Officers to act as ‘champions’ and promote good practice throughout the University.


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Phase 2 of the Plagiarism Project commenced in September 2007 and aimed to explore further the recommendations made by the Phase 1 review team in October 2006.


The project is expected to last two years. This report summarises the work undertaken during the first year along with recommendations for a policy to encompass academic conduct.


Across the University there is no simple common view of the process at present. At one extreme is the sympathetic view that students need to be taught more about good academic conduct and at the other there is the harsher view that any student found to have plagiarised should be punished. While both views have their merits, the project aims to find a middle ground that both stances can be comfortable with. There are times when the learning and development approach is appropriate; there are other occasions when a penalty is the only answer. This approach needs to be consistent across faculties and regions.


The project has focused upon three main strands. Education; what do we tell students about plagiarism and how do students know not to plagiarise? Detection; the improvement of methods and application of detection via ALs/markers or software and the integration of these into the process. Penalties/Processes; when a case has been detected and confirmed, what process must be followed to ensure students are treated fairly and consistently across all Regions and Faculties? What sort of penalties should be given and how should they be applied?


The project has provided several interim reports to APC throughout the first year and reports to a Steering Group comprising PVC(CA), Director, Students, the Head of ACA and the Leader of the Plagiarism Project.


In order to track the number of cases occurring at the OU and monitor the frequency of them a method of recording them needs to be established. Currently extreme ECA cases that are referred to the CDC are recorded offline by the CDC. For TMA related cases, Regions record locally. The result is that it is difficult to get a picture of a student’s record with regard to plagiarism across their academic career. In order to ensure students are treated in the appropriate manner a method of being able to view previous offences is required.


Role of the Academic Conduct Officer


One of the primary recommendations from the Phase 1 report was the introduction of Academic Conduct Officers. Each Faculty, Regional and National Centre was asked to appoint someone to this role.


The role of the ACO is varied and will develop further as the project progresses. Initially the group of ACOs are members of the project team and are developing the policy to the stage it has reached in this report. Together they have created a community of practice who have joint ownership of the policy and its implementation.


Regional and National ACOs are responsible for the administration of the handling of TMA related cases within their centres.


A key role will be embedding good practice throughout their Faculty, Awards and Courses. In particular Faculty Academic Conduct Officers are responsible for advising course teams about best practice with relation to assessment generation; course advice about good academic conduct and the handling of ECA related cases.


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APC/08/3/9 2.5

In both cases, it is hoped that the ACOs will provide a point of contact within their areas that other staff can approach for advice about best practice. The membership of the main ACO group will provide ACOs the support of others when difficult cases arise, but also help instil consistency across the University.


Currently each RACO and FACO is allocated 0.1 FTE to undertake the requirements of their role. Currently it is difficult to establish the amount of time that is actually required for a number of reasons. The spread of cases is disproportionate across the Faculties. Some ACO’s are finding that 0.1 FTE is not adequate for cases they are dealing with, whereas other ACO’s have had few cases to handle. It is felt that once the recommendations for the new process is in place, the time taken dealing with cases will decrease as more robust systems will be set up. Further analysis on the time cases take to handle will be gathered so an appropriate recommendation can be made.


There is a case for each ACO to have a deputy who will be responsible for handling cases in the absence of the primary ACO. Whether this could be another ACO who would just fill in, or another member of staff from within the Region or Faculty will need to be explored further.


A major part of the ACO role is to act as a disciplinary authority. This will mean the decision about plagiarism related cases and the application of the penalty will no longer be the responsibility of the Regional or National Director. Currently, all decisions regarding plagiarism cases and the penalty that should be applied rests with the Regional and National Directors. They would no longer be expected to fulfil this function. The ACO role as a disciplinary authority would also include the creation of a new Disciplinary Authority within a faculty. The FACO will be able to handle cases of ECA plagiarism and authorise any action required (from a specified list) therefore reducing the number of cases the CDC is required to deal with.


A specified appeal authority would handle appeals against an ACO decision. The assumption is that two people, who would act on delegated authority of the CDC, would fulfill this role. This role could be fulfilled by the ACOs or CDC delegate authorities who would review appeals to clarify that the appropriate process was followed, that the policy was applied correctly and review any extreme decisions.


CDC would retain final authority, as now, for discipline.




The education of students about good academic conduct is key to reducing the cases of plagiarism throughout the University. Many of the cases of plagiarism that occur are a result of the students lack of understanding about what plagiarism actually is, and concentrating on penalising students who fall foul of this does not solve the problem.


This strand has focused on what the University tell students about plagiarism. It was found that different faculties and subjects and even courses tell students differing, sometimes, conflicting advice and this might well lead to cases of plagiarism where students cannot determine the correct way to do things. The OU has many useful resources to assist students in their understanding of this area, but there is no regulation of them and as such, many students may find them difficult to locate without guidance.


A dedicated working group was set up to look closely at this area. The group comprises several ACO’s with a specific interest in this area, members from the Library, the Research Office and the Learning Design and Technology group in Student Services as they all contribute to current utilities in this area.


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APC/08/3/9 3.4

The group have undertaken a number of activities since the start of the year. The main activity is the development of a training tool to help students learn about academic integrity and what is expected of them at the OU. Alongside this, it is recognised that there is a need for co-ordination of the information given to students by courses, as there are differences between faculties and even subjects within faculties. The group are also looking at the development of good practice across the broad with respect to AL development, course teams and the faculties themselves, including the design of assessments.


The primary aim of the training tool is to ensure that students have access to the information they need and are aware where they can get advice. Initial findings have found that the University houses a plethora of information and advice about plagiarism, but it is not ‘joined-up’ resulting in mixed messages going to the students.


The content of the site is currently with LTS for editing but an example of what the site could look like can be found via this link:


Key terms within academic conduct will be defined, such as academic integrity, plagiarism, collusion, collaboration, common knowledge. Students will be clear about the level of understanding expected of them.


Initially the site will be reasonably generic, not aimed at any specific faculty or level of student study. Once the basic site is in place, the areas where faculty and/or level specific information needs to be can then be established. For example, at Level 3, the expectation would be that a student understands what good academic conduct is, whereas a new student starting at Level 1 would not be expected to have the same level of knowledge about this.


Assessment handbooks exist for all levels of study at the OU. Each handbook reiterates the main OU wide policy for students about plagiarism. Within individual courses, some courses guides and TMA booklets also repeat this information, some do not. Similarly, some courses provide further information about plagiarism, from a small note to remind students not to do it, through to entire sections explaining to students how to reference correctly and where to find further information.


The inconsistency of this approach can confuse students. They receive mixed messages about what they should and should not be doing. The differences in the requirements of specific subjects can result in students unsure of the correct method of referencing and what constitutes plagiarism.


Both the main project team and the smaller working group have looked at the range of information provided by courses to students and are working on providing a ‘best practice’ guide for courses to work with. That way a consistent approach can be achieved, but still recognising that different subjects do have specific requirements. The training tool mentioned above can help with this, giving the student an overall generic view, but also indicating to students that course specific advice also exists.


The current OU plagiarism statement will be reviewed and replaced by a resource embedded within the Academic Integrity VLE and will be owned by the ACO Group. The new version will refer not only to plagiarism, but also to collusion, buying assignments and transcribing audio material. The statement will be an educational tool that will be available to both students and ALs and will reinforce the specific regulations in the Code of Practice.


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The introduction of the eTMA system has allowed students to submit their assignments electronically. Over 70% of all assignments received by the OU are now submitted this way. More courses are using online sources as course materials and making use of the internet. In line with this change, tools to detect plagiarism electronically have also increased.


There are two main detection strategies at the Open University because of the two methods of submission of assignments by students. Hard copy TMA/ECA submissions rely on the vigilance of the marker/AL/monitors to detect signs of plagiarism. eTMA submitted assignments have the additional option of utilising plagiarism detection software.


Two types of software are in use presently by the OU. CopyCatch is the main system and is predominately used for collusion detection as it can compare vast amounts of assignments against each other. The other system is Turnitin. This commercial software compares assignment text against sources on the internet.


CopyCatch is particularly useful to a university like the OU that is spread across a number of regions. The increased use of online forums has meant students at opposing ends of the country can converse about their course, unfortunately a number go too far and collude on their assignments. ALs would only see assignments from students within their own tutor group and there would be no way of them detecting this type of collusion. CopyCatch compares all assignments for an entire cohort meaning any issues are likely to be picked up.


The nature of CopyCatch means that it is particularly suitable to be used with a large number of assignments. It is recommended that all eTMAs submitted online should run through CopyCatch. This will ensure that there is equity across all courses and act as a deterrent for students who may think about plagiarising. This will require development by AACS to enable this to run automatically.


Turnitin has a more limited use. As such it is not suitable for all courses to use for a number of reasons, a) the cost of using the software can be quite prohibitive and b) it is only really of any use to courses that utilise the internet as a resource c) analysis of the outputs can be time consuming. It is recommended that 15% of all electronic assignments should run through this software. This figure is equivalent to the level of examination paper monitoring and it would seem sensible to keep this the same. This may increase in the future if the cost of using the software reduces or it becomes more usable. Its primary usage is as a deterrent. This would be a mixture of courses that have a specific concern that their assignments may be open to plagiarism from internet sources and ad-hoc assignments where AL’s/markers feel an issue should be investigated further. Students found guilty of plagiarism may be targeted more frequently. This would include all electronically submitted ECAs.


It is recommended that hard copy TMAs would be scanned/transcribed and run through detection software to act as a deterrent to any students that may try such a route to avoid detection. Courses who have a choice of electronic or hard copy submission, that have a large proportion of students who submit via hard copy would be targeted. Students would be informed that all hard copy TMA submission could be subject to conversion to electronic form and run through software as a deterrent. A facility will also exist whereby ALs that are suspicions of a hard copy TMA can request it is transcribed into an electronic format and check by detection software.


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Detection of plagiarism in hard copy TMAs relies on ALs/markers. The ability to detect plagiarism varies widely across the board and the development of these skills for manual detection will need to be addressed. Several ACOs have already started to run workshops for both ALs and Staff Tutors, but a clear strategy of staff development will be initiated so new staff entering the OU are aware of what is expected of them in this area as well as assistance in the development of these skills.


In order to assist ALs guidance about detecting plagiarism will be made available on TutorHome. Resources to assist them will be created and will be used alongside a programme of staff development for both ALs and Staff Tutors.


Outcomes Penalties/Process


Despite the increase in support and advice for students to prevent plagiarism, inevitably some will always fall foul of the regulations, be it through a lack of understanding or dishonesty. As such, there is a requirement to have a transparent process to deal with such cases in a timely, consistent and appropriate manner.


There is a need to demonstrate that the OU does not tolerate plagiarism, but also recognising that some students may be in need of further development in order to understand what they have done is wrong.


To assist this distinction, three levels of plagiarism are defined, ‘inadvertent plagiarism’, ‘plagiarism’ and ‘serious plagiarism’.


Students, who are new to the OU at Level 1, will be handled under the ‘inadvertent plagiarism’ banner, as long as the plagiarism is not significant. The consequences of this level of plagiarism will enable the student to receive assistance to enhance their understanding of good academic conduct. Throughout this initial stage of study a series of development activities would be offered each time they are found to have plagiarised. As long as an improvement in their development is apparent, they will not be subject to harsher penalties, but will have the opportunity to continue to develop their skills until they understand what the University expects of them.


Students, who are new to the OU at Level 2, will get one opportunity to develop their skills further if they are found to have plagiarised inadvertently. However, any further reoccurrence would be treated at a higher level.


Students who are new to the OU at Level 3 or Post-Graduate level would be expected to know the requirements of the University and would be subject to actions at a higher level, regardless of whether there is intent or not. Students would have been informed prior to study the expectations of them.


The next level of plagiarism is referred to as ‘plagiarism’. Any cases not covered by the three scenarios above would be treated under this banner, unless the level of plagiarism is serious (or a serial offence). By the time students fall under this category they are expected to have understood the requirements of good academic conduct. Actions under this category would be a capped mark, for example 40% or 0% for a second or more serious case.


Students who are serial offenders – i.e. have already received the actions listed above, or show evidence of dishonesty would be dealt with under the ‘serious plagiarism’ category. Students may find their work receives a zero score, and receive a referral to the CDC in addition to the score deduction if serious enough. In some extreme cases, the ACO would


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APC/08/3/9 be able to refer the case directly to the CDC, without the need to have worked through the separate actions prior to this. 5.9

The application of these actions will fall within the remit of the AL/ST or ACO, depending upon the category. Students dealt with at the inadvertent level would be handled by the AL in conjunction with the Staff Tutor. Where detection software is involved, the Staff Tutor would be in a better position to deal with the case.


All other cases within the ‘plagiarism’ and ‘serious plagiarism’ categories will fall under the remit of the Academic Conduct Officer. The ACO would be the disciplinary authority and would have the remit to apply the actions as detailed above. For TMA related cases the Regional Academic Conduct Officer would have responsibility, whereas the Faculty Academic Conduct Officer would be responsible for ECA related cases. FACOs would also have responsibility where detection software has highlighted a collusion case with students from different regions.


As the number of ACOs is quite small, it is envisaged that a consistency in the application of the actions listed above will be achieved. The choices of actions are also limited so there is less scope for inconsistent decisions to be made.


In all cases, the potential actions are not sequential. Should a serious case occur with a Level 1 student, then the ACO is able to refer the case to the CDC if that is deemed the most appropriate action. For most cases, it is felt that students would probably work through the different stages of the tariff as outlined in the Appendices, but in extreme cases it is not necessary that an action follows this route.


The actions can be applied to both TMAs and ECAs, with some extra considerations to take into account the importance of the ECA as opposed to a TMA and the point at which a student takes it in the course.


This will enable the vast majority of cases that would normally be referred to the CDC to be handled by the Faculty Academic Conduct Officer. If the case is deemed to be serious enough, either by intent or frequency, there will always be the option for the ACO to refer to the CDC directly but overall should significantly reduce the number of cases the CDC are required to deal with.


Two types of decision regarding a case can be made. Initially an academic decision will be made about whether plagiarism has occurred or not. If the decision is that plagiarism has occurred, prior to any marking taking place, the plagiarised sections should be discounted. If the plagiarism is significant enough that the ACO feels further sanctions should take place a disciplinary decision will need to be made as to what that penalty is.


ACOs will contact students as part of their investigation to explain the issue that is of concern, the handling process that will take place and the potential outcome of the investigation. It is at this point that the ACO may ask the student for an explanation as to how the alleged incident could have occurred. It will be important for this request to make it clear that it is the actions undertaken by the student that resulted in the plagiarism that the ACO will need to be aware of, not of any special circumstance that may have contributed to the issue. It is possible that some students will no doubt cite mitigating circumstances in their defence after a case of plagiarism is raised against them. However, it is assumed that ACOs will deal with the facts of the case in hand. The ACO will need to be able to understand how the plagiarism may have occurred, not the circumstances that led to it. Any mitigating circumstances that a student wishes to be considered would be raised via the normal Special Circumstances process so that the EAB can consider these when determining a result for the student at the end of the course.


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APC/08/3/9 5.17

It is intended that further modelling of cases will be undertaken to determine the best way of enabling students and ACOs to distinguish between actions that led to the alleged plagiarism and circumstances that may have led to the actions. There will need to be a consistent approach to this by all ACOs.


Students who raise mitigating circumstances at the point an ACO makes a decision about a case would be advised to submit a PT39 or E39P (if TMA or ECA) to state any circumstances that they want the EAB to take into account. It is anticipated that the EAB would be aware via a report from Examinations and Assessment of any cases of plagiarism that have occurred throughout the year. If a student is on a borderline and would be considered as a result of their special circumstances, they would be able to take into account the students mitigating circumstances if they felt they were strong enough. Although the actual scores would not be changed – the penalty would still stand, the EAB is at liberty to amend the final result.


If a student wanted to appeal against a decision and/or penalty an ACO appeals authority would review the case and decide whether the policy has been applied correctly. Students would be made aware of the appeals process when informed of any decision about their case. The appeals authority is described in section 2.9.


Recording of Cases Recording of Data


In order to ensure that students are treated fairly, there is a need to record cases appropriately. Under the current system, there is no official record to follow students through their academic life at the Open University. This makes it difficult to deal with students who repeat the same offence on different courses as there is no way of tracking this information down.


The nature of this information is classed as ‘sensitive’ under the Data Protection Act so the normal recording methods are not readily available to us. However, VOICE was recently modified to restrict what users could see with respect to Complaints and Appeals and similar system will be utilised with respect to plagiarism cases.


The VOICE Programme Team are working jointly with the Plagiarism Project and the CDC Review Group to implement a system that will record all conduct related cases. Plagiarism will be a category within this system. By working with the CDC Review Team, the project can ensure that methods for recording cases will be consistent with other cases of a disciplinary nature.


The ensure these cases do not fall foul of the Data Protection Act, access to the restricted information about cases will be limited to Academic Conduct Officers and a small number of additional staff. All OU staff with access to VOICE will be able to see a plagiarism case exists, but will not have access to any detailed information.


Under current VOICE set up, ALs would have no site of the Service Requests as they do not have access to VOICE. Staff Tutors would be able to view the Service Request, but would see nothing more that the fact the SR exists for a specific student and the course it relates to. Academic Conduct Officers would have the ability to create Service Requests, amend them and view any attachments linked to them. A note in the SR description would direct those without read access to the relevant ACO that is handling the case.


The existence of these records mean the University can track students who are serial offenders and deal with appropriately. Each record will record the outcome of a case, so an ACO dealing with a subsequent case can be sure that an appropriate action is applied. Similarly, for cases that proceed to the CDC, the history of the student can be reviewed to ensure the student is treated appropriately.


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Developmental activities would also be recorded where students taking their first Open University course at Levels 1 or 2 are provided with additional support rather than any penalty. The use of the existing Student Referral Form will enable an AL to flag to their region that an action has had to take place. This can then be logged under an appropriate ‘Study Skill’s category and will be a useful record to refer to should any future plagiarism related cases occur.




This project is currently funded on a two year basis which will complete in July 2009. The project has financed much of the work undertaken to date including the Academic Conduct Officer roles, development of the educational website and other related costs.


In order for the policy and process to be fully implemented further resource allocation will be required to ensure that continuity of the work started by the project is possible. The amount of resource required has yet to be determined.

Plagiarism Project Group October 2008


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Appendix 1 Handling of Cases TMA Handling Process – Type 1a (New students – Level 1, Inadvertent)

AL detected plagiarism (inadvertent)

SW detected plagiarism



SW detected collusion

CTC ns ult





E&A *check if new student

Detection Software Process

Apply Stage 1a development tariff

Send eSRF to Region to log action on VOICE

Course Teams will define 3 levels of similarity: 1) over nn% - assignment blocked on eTMA system, referred to ST 2) under nn%, over xx% - assignment blocked on eTMA system, CTC reviews, refer concerns to ACO/ST, release non-concerns 3) under xx% - no blocking - scores released as normal

KEY AL – Associate Lecturer CTC – Course Team Chair SW - Software E&A – Examinations and Assessment eTMA – Electronic TMA ACO – Academic Conduct Officer eSRF – Electronic Student Referral Form ST – Staff Tutor



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Stage 2


TMA Handling Process – Type 1b (New students – Level 2, Inadvertent)

AL detected plagiarism (inadvertent)

SW detected plagiarism



SW detected collusion

CTC ns ult




E&A *check if new student


Detection Software Process

Apply Stage 1b development tariff

Send eSRF to Region to log action on VOICE

Course Teams will define 3 levels of similarity: 1) over nn% - assignment blocked on eTMA system, referred to ST 2) under nn%, over xx% - assignment blocked on eTMA system, CTC reviews, refer concerns to ACO/ST, release non-concerns 3) under xx% - no blocking - scores released as normal

KEY AL – Associate Lecturer CTC – Course Team Chair SW - Software E&A – Examinations and Assessment eTMA – Electronic TMA ACO – Academic Conduct Officer eSRF – Electronic Student Referral Form ST – Staff Tutor



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Stage 2


TMA Handling Process Type 1c (New students – Level 3/PG, inadvertent) Type 2 &3 (All continuing students – inadvertent, plagiarism or serious plagiarism)

SW detected plagiarism

AL detected plagiarism

SW detected collusion


E&A (record on VOICE) Check if new student

New student at L3 or PG?

Multi-region collusion?



ST handles case RACO owns case

Stage 1a or 1b





Student(s) YES

Treat as per plagiarism or serious plagiarism but also undertake development activities



RACO applies action




FACO applies action

KEY AL – Associate Lecturer CTC – Course Team Chair E&A – Examinations & Assessment EABC – Examination & Assessment Board Chair eSRF – Electronic Student Referral Form eTMA – Electronic TMA FACO – Faculty Academic Conduct Officer RACO – Regional Academic Conduct Officer ST – Staff Tutor SW – Software

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Appendix 2 Tariff


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Stage 3 Tariff

Is this the students first ‘serious plagiarism ’offence or third ‘plagiarism’ offence?*



*If the case is very serious ACO can refer direct to CDC

Stage 3(a) 0%; warning that next offence will be treated at Stage 3(b)

Stage 3(b) 0%; referral to CDC



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1.2 At the International Plagiarism Conference in 2006, Baroness Deech highlighted the inconsistent application of penalties across HEI’s in...