Plagiarism, late submissions policy reviews “encouraging a change in behaviour”, says UCDSU

Discussions are ongoing over the review of certain academic policies, specifically UCD’s plagiarism and late submission policies among sub-committees of Academic Council, the University Observer has learned. According to minutes from the 8th executive forum meeting, which took place on at the beginning of semester two, UCDSU Education Officer Stephen Crosby told members present, that UCD was looking at a “points based plagiarism service, as opposed to definition based plagiarism system.”

Under the current plagiarism policy’s scope, when an examiner detects plagiarism in a student’s coursework, the student should be informed and given advice on using correct citation to avoid future instances of plagiarism and may be asked to resubmit the assignment. The plagiarised coursework is then referred under each school’s individual plagiarism advisory arrangements, with the school making a decision as to whether to handle the incident at a local level or “whether it merits being handled as a disciplinary matter by the Registrar or their nominee.” In cases where the plagiarised coursework is referred to the Registrar, UCD’s disciplinary procedures allow for the possible penalties of re-submitting the coursework with a D- grade cap, exclusion of the student from the module or exclusion of the student from the programme.

In an interview with the University Observer, Crosby said that discussions on the review of this policy was being overseen on the Academic Council Committee on Student Conduct and Capacity, a subcommittee of Academic Council that specifically deals with “student-related conduct and capacity policies, like the Student Code.” The points based system, if implemented by Academic Council, will “mean that there is less leeway in terms of interpretation. It’s more akin to a certain set of criteria that have a certain number of points attributed to them and then there is a certain amount of thresholds,” to determine what punishment is most suitable. Under this points-based system, a first year student on their first reported plagiarised piece of coursework will acquire less points than a final year student who plagiarised their thesis.

NUI Galway operates under a points based system for plagiarism, with the policy outlining specific scenarios of plagiarism and the points that are attributed to these actions. For example, “submission purchased from essay mill or ghostwriting service” warrants 225 points to the student. The system also states that a student with a points total of 380+ will be subject to a “formal warning, with record made contributing to the student’s previous history.”

According to Crosby, discussions began over policy review just prior to him taking office in the summer of 2018. “The last time they were reviewed was about five years ago, UCD is basically taking a quality assurance...Something written five years ago may not be as clear to a new batch of students as something that is going to be reviewed and cleaned up in terms of language. The policy review system in UCD is based on a five year scale.” The points based system would “[take] more workload off of the student and the people investigating the plagiarism and it provides a more level playing field, an equal application across the different schools and different colleges, so you don’t have a situation where one person has a particular plagiarism case in one school and its dealt differently in a different school, even if the student is in both schools.”

Crosby believes that this system would help students understand where plagiarism happens and would “level the playing field in terms of the experience students have when it comes to plagiarism investigations...that every student across UCD would have would be more streamlined and’s almost like feedback: what you did, what the impact was, and therefore, what the level of punishment or lack thereof is going to be.” While Crosby acknowledged that the committee were looking into a new points based system, he was unable to confirm if it would be implemented in UCD.

Another policy review which was discussed at the executive forum meeting was on late submissions. UCDSU Graduate Officer Niall Torris presented the item for discussion to members of the forum as he currently holds a seat on the Academic Council Committee on Examination (ACCE) which reviewed this particular policy. Torris told the University Observer that the policy, which was last reviewed in 2006, was discussed “lightly towards the end of semester one and the trusted discussion happened in semester two” on the board level, and was first brought to executive forum at the beginning of semester two.

The review on the late submissions policy concerns addressing incidents which arise on or the day before the deadline for submission, that differ from the current policy on extenuating circumstances that “are something that you know you have to apply for or for something that suddenly comes up that affects your ability e.g. bereavement or mental illness.” According to Torris, this review would address the scenarios that “only need a solution at a local level and don’t need a full extenuating circumstances application...and going to a programme board for approval,” formalising this procedure and bringing it in line with “best practice in certain schools in the university and what the university feels is best practice.”

Under this proposed review of the policy, a student who encounters an immediate issue that prevents them from meeting a deadline for submission of a piece of coursework, may contact the module coordinator and decide on what steps to take next, without being penalised for late submission. Torris gave the examples of submitting only an online version or submitting a physical copy of the coursework a week later. Torris explained that this will differ from the existing policy “where nothing has been submitted for it and maybe it’s on the day or the day before, but you might not have the chance to apply until afterwards, which technically on the way that the policies are written currently, you have to go through extenuating circumstances, but that’s not necessarily always the case. This rationalises that policy and applies it broadly.”

The ACCE also discussed penalties for late submission where no extenuating circumstances were approved. Bringing the policy in line with the new academic regulations for next year, 0.2 of a grade will be deducted for up to the first week a piece of coursework is submitted late, with 0.4 being deducted up to the second week. Torris explained that the deductions are based on a paper he wrote and submitted to ACCE, “it essentially halved the penalties and that’s the recommendation from ACCE.” A third penalty of -0.6 for up to the third week of late submission is being considered, with Torris advocating for its inclusion in the committee’s review. There were concerns raised around the supposed practice of students missing the first deadline for an assignment and accepting a penalty reduction of 2 grade points so they could continue to work on the assignment for another week. “I believe the line that was used was ‘encouraging a change in behaviour’”, Torris stated. Defending his proposal to the committee, he said, “my contention is that we are probably talking about a relatively small number of people who would even fall into the 2-3 week or the 10-15 working day bracket, if that were to be added, but there was some concern about if adding that third week would leave people who are possibly weaker students or finding it more difficult to excel in the module, it would lead them to not take it on because they are already struggling with it and may avoid it for longer.”

“The other one is that the language is changing from ‘weeks’ to ‘working days’, so the first week is now ‘up to five working days late’ and the second week is now ‘six to ten working days late’ and that also brings it into line with change to ‘working days’ language in the regulations more generally.” Students will be able to benefit from “extra time” to submit their late assignments without moving from one threshold to the next as weekends and bank holidays will not be considered “working days” that the piece of coursework is overdue, once the review is agreed upon by the Academic Council.

However, students who submit their coursework late, may not receive their feedback within the 20 working day period of the deadline, but may receive it within 20 working days of their submission. “I think if we’re going to expect people to hold up to deadlines for us, we have to hold up to our deadlines as well...If you’re two weeks late, it might be 20 days from then,” Torris told the University Observer.

Torris believes that the review of the late submission policy will be passed by the next Academic Council in April, and “any edits would be minor enough that they wouldn’t change the spirit of the document and could be made under the Chair’s action and implied the following year.”