The starting point for any academic misconduct process is an allegation: this is a charge that must be answered by the student. You must keep appropriate records of the process; it is not good practice to consider a misconduct matter on an entirely informal basis without keeping any record.
Where there is an allegation of misconduct, you should first consider whether the matter should be considered under its academic misconduct procedures or under another process. It may be more appropriate to refer the student to a different procedure such as non-academic misconduct, fitness to practise or fitness to study procedures.
In all cases, you must tell the student the specific offence(s) they are suspected of committing at the earliest possible time and must give them the opportunity to answer the allegations against them. If you bring additional or alternative charges against the student during the process, it is important that the student is told about the new or amended allegations and offered the opportunity to respond.
You should keep comprehensive records of each stage of the procedure including correspondence with the student, documents and information received, evidence considered, notes of meetings or discussions held, and the reasoning for any decision reached and for any penalty applied.
Burden of proof
The “burden of proof” determines whose responsibility it is to prove an issue. In an academic misconduct case we would expect the burden of proof to be on the university: that is, we must prove that the student has done what they are accused of doing. The student should not have to disprove the allegation. So, for example, if a student is accused of taking a mobile phone into an examination, it will be for the university to prove that they had the phone with them during the examination. Sometimes the student will need to prove that they have or have not done something, or that something has happened. For example, if two students are accused of plagiarism, and one student provides evidence that the original work was theirs and the other student copied it, the other student will need to rebut that evidence. Students will also need to prove any mitigating factors that they rely on when you consider the penalty.
Standard of proof
The “standard of proof” is the level of proof required. In legal proceedings the standard of proof in criminal cases is normally “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is a very high standard. In civil cases, it is normally “the balance of probabilities”: that is, it is more likely than not that something happened. Although the “balance of probabilities” standard is lower than “beyond reasonable doubt”, decisions must still be supported by evidence. The standard is higher than simply believing that something is likely to have happened.
Section 112 of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 says that the civil standard of proof must be used in fitness to practise procedures. This standard should also be used in academic misconduct cases which may lead to fitness to practise proceedings against a student.
The question of intent
Many institutions apply the principle of “strict liability” to academic misconduct offences. Strict liability means that a student’s intentions are not relevant to whether or not they have committed the offence. For example, if a student accidentally takes notes into an exam they are still guilty of an examination offence, even if the student did not take the notes out of their pocket during the exam. Whether or not the student intended to use the notes during the exam is not relevant to the offence. Some procedures require the student to have acted intentionally for an offence to be committed. This is sometimes referred to as “premeditation”, “deception” or “dishonesty”. It is a question of fact whether the student intended to cheat or gain an advantage. In such cases the decision makers should consider the evidence regarding intention, including the student’s own account, and record the reasons for their conclusions. The student’s intention may not be relevant to whether they committed the offence, but it is likely to be a relevant consideration when the penalty is decided.
Identifying suspected academic misconduct and making decisions on disciplinary cases will often, but not always, involve academic judgment. Where an academic judgment is made, it should be evidence based. For example, an academic member of staff who says that the standard of an assignment is out of line with the student’s other work should be able to support that with examples from the student’s other work. The interpretation of academic misconduct detection software reports will involve academic judgment. It is good practice to share the academic analysis of such a report with the student as well as the report itself. Deciding questions of fact does not involve academic judgment.
Questions normally involving Academic judgment
- Is the standard of work so out of line with the student’s other work that it suggests cheating?
- Are the ideas copied from someone else’s work?
- Is the plagiarism serious or minor?
- Do the student’s working notes support their case that the submitted work is theirs?
- Are the ideas the student is referring to in such common usage that it is not plagiarism?
Questions of fact that do not normally involve Academic judgment
- Did the student advertise for someone to do the work for them?
- Did the student buy an essay online?
- Did the student take notes into the examination?
- Are the quotations marked by indented text or quotation marks?
- Did the student intend to cheat?
Decisions on the penalty to apply in academic disciplinary cases will not normally involve academic judgment.
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