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Plagiarism in the UK

In the United Kingdom, the Channel 4 news program Dispatches aired a segment entitled “Exams: Cheating the System”, which looked at cheating and unethical behavior by students in primary, secondary and postsecondary schools in the country.

Though much of the segment focused on cheating on standardized tests, the network used Freedom of Information requests to also gain access to statistics on plagiarism at universities in the country.

According to the report, some 60,000 university students have been accused of plagiarism in the past four years, of which some 40,000 were disciplined. Of those disciplined,  400 were expelled (excluded) and another 12,000 had a deduction in their grades.

Those statistics are interesting for a variety of reasons. First is that, while the majority of plagiarism cases did result in disciplinary action, a full third did not. How many of these cases were because of the student being exonerated versus a decision that it didn’t warrant disciplinary action is unclear.

Still, this means that, in the UK at least, punishment for an alleged plagiarism infraction is far from automatic, resulting in a punishment rate of 67%. While those odds don’t favor students accused of plagiarism, they are more favorable than those faced by those accused of actual crimes. District attorneys in the United States, for example, routinely see conviction rates well above 90%.

It’s also worth noting that only one fifth of the students accused of plagiarism suffered a reduction in their grades and only .6% of all students accused of plagiarism were expelled. This means that, in the UK, an allegation of plagiarism does not automatically mean a grade reduction, much less an expulsion. Those are actually very unlikely outcomes.

However, perhaps most interesting is that the number of students accused of plagiarism is significantly smaller than the number who likely actually do it. A recent survey of college students in the U.S. showed that 38% of undergraduates and 25% of graduates admitted to copying or paraphrasing content without citation.

While the United States is a different country, even if the UK rate of plagiarism is just 20% that means the vast majority of students who plagiarized never even faced an accusation. This is because there are approximately 2.3 million university students in the UK, which means approximately 2.6% were accused of plagiarism.

That number, 2.6%, feels both extraordinarily high and extraordinarily low at the same time. On one hand, it’s stunning to think that, on average, in every class of 38 students, one will face allegations of plagiarism. On the other hand, given the high rate of admitted plagiarism, it means that the amount detected truly is just the tip of the iceberg.

More than anything, the Channel 4 report shows just how complex the problem of plagiarism in universities is and. more importantly, how deep the issue runs.

Fortunately, while there are no easy solutions to this problem, universities in the UK have made great strides in the fight. Not only have they adopted plagiarism policies and the use of plagiarism-detection software nationwide, but they’ve nearly cut in half the number of papers with high similarity rates turned in over the first 10 years of the program.

Still, as these statistics show, the battle against plagiarism is not a sprint, it is a marathon and it is true in the UK and for every country. That marathon requires not just an emphasis on detection, but all areas of plagiarism policy. Further, it requires regular analysis to ensure that it’s working as designed so that adjustments can be made as time goes on.

Fortunately, that is what the UK is doing and that’s why we have such powerful statistics from it. That data, in the end, is powerful and, as shown above, indicates the UK is turning the tide against plagiarism, even if there is still much work to be done.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of WriteCheck.

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Published on by jbailey.