WriteCheck Blog

When Academic Cheating Becomes a Legal Issue

Cheating in academia, whether it’s in the classroom or in the field of research, is typically a matter handled internally. Academic institutions prefer, typically, to handle such matters through honor courts, editorial boards or internal investigations rather than turn to the legal system for help.

However, increasingly plagiarism and other ethical issues have started to spill out of the academic courts and into the court of law.

The trend has been especially common among students who feel that they have been wrongly punished for plagiarism. This has included students suing their former schools for false representation, breach of contract, emotional distress, negligence and violation of equal protection rights to name a few of the arguments.

Though students rarely win these cases in the U.S., in countries such as China, students are often successful in getting the courts to force the school to withdraw their decisions, often under the grounds of a mandated right to education.

But students aren’t the only ones turning to the courts for help. Professors fired over allegations of plagiarism or unethical behavior have also routinely filed lawsuits. This famously included the controversial professor Ward Churchill who won his lawsuit against his former employer, the University of Colorado, after being fired over allegations of plagiarism. However, Churchill was only awarded one dollar ($1.00) in damages and ended up not being reinstated.

But while these lawsuits have been filed with regularity for some time, more recently universities have started going on the offensive when dealing with cheating. Last week, the University of Phoenix filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Chegg Inc., the company that owns the site Student of Fortune. According to the University, Student of Fortune offers a large amount of the school’s material for sale even though the site bills itself as a “tutorial marketplace.”

According to the school, the lawsuit was part of its anti-cheating efforts.

But it isn’t just civil courts dealing with ethical violations. In 2010, criminal fraud charges were sought against a professor who accepted duplicative grants for the same proposal. Though the professor eventually escaped prosecution, he was still disbarred for two years from receiving funding.

The result of all of this is pretty clear, though it’s easy to think of academia as an island unto itself, it’s nothing of the sort. Academia may be a fairly enclosed community with its own rules and justice system, but disputes within academia  routinely spill outside of it.

This means that editors, deans and others in position of authority need to consider not just their internal processes for handling unethical behavior, but how those processes may align with the regular legal system.

This can be especially difficult when conducting investigations as evidence that may be acceptable in an academic setting might not be adequate in a court of law. Likewise, rules that students and researchers are expected to follow might not mesh with the rules that the courts expect of them.

In short, it’s not enough to simply write strong editorial policies and honor codes. It’s also crucial to perform investigations up to standards that can hold up in a court of law, using methods that can be understood by academics and jurors alike.

Given the likelihood that these disputes will spill over into the courts at some point, it’s important to treat them as potential legal cases from day one and not think of them as purely academic matters.

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Published on by jbailey.