In both the U.S. and elsewhere, there has been a growing trend of plagiarism disputes in academia spilling over to the courtrooms. Whether it’s a student unhappy about about being expelled or a professor unhappy about being put up for termination, more and more are turning to outside adjudicators and even the court system for relief.
Fortunately, a recent ruling in the UK may help curb that trend, at least in that country. According to the Times Higher Education, a student named Hazim Mustafa failed to graduate from Queen Mary, University of London college in large part due to a plagiarism claim against him made during the 2007-2008 school year.
However, Mustafa felt the charges against him were unfair saying that square-bracketed references to sources were adequate to indicate he was quoting from them. The school disagreed and Mustafa appealed the case to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), an independent body in the UK to hear student complaints.
In 2010, it too ruled against Mustafa prompting him to take his claims to the courts.
However, the judge went farther than other courts had saying that neither the courts nor the OIA can overturn a plagiarism ruling in cases where “academic judgment” is required.
According to the ruling, only in cases where there was no “academic judgment” necessary should any outside body be able to overturn a school’s decision and those cases were limited to ones such as a judge lifting wholesale an article from the Internet. The judge went on to say that academic judgement was “often (and perhaps usually)” required in such cases.
While this particular case dealt only with a lone student, it’s easy to see how it could impact other areas of academia and research. For example, it could be used to limit a researcher’s ability to sue a publisher over a plagiarism finding or a professor to sue for reinstatement to a school after a dismissal over plagiarism.
This is because the main thrust of the ruling is simple: To put the decisions about what is and is not plagiarism in the hands of the experts that know best.
Judges and jurors, though well-versed in the law, are generally not experts in the academic field in question and their ability to determine what is or is not plagiarism is more significantly limited than academics who have worked in the field their entire lives and plagiarism experts dedicated solely to the topic.
Still, the ruling leaves the door open for lawsuits over plagiarism cases, so long as the issues are not of an academic nature. This means that students, researchers, etc. can seek protection of the courts in cases where they are truly being treated egregiously, but not cases where they are just hoping that there will be a different finding of facts.
While this is great news for UK schools that will have less concern about their judgments being second-guessed by non-experts, it does mean that schools and other institutions have to rise to the challenge and ensure that their process for handling plagiarism is impartial and proportionate.
There’s never been a better time to review one’s own ethics process than right after such a potentially significant court decision.