Academic Plagiarism, Real Courts

When academic courts don't have the final say...

Courtroom ImageWhen students are caught plagiarizing, whether they are in high school, college or doing post-graduate work, they usually have their fates decided by their school.

Whether it’s their instructor, a disciplinary officer, a panel within the school or a full-blown tribunal, the student’s punishment is handled inside the school itself.

But whatever shape this process takes, it can have serious consequences. Students can fail classes, be suspended or even expelled. Students who previously graduated can even lose their degrees years later.

This can impact the student in countless ways. They can lose thousands of dollars spent on their education to date, be forced to abandon careers or simply not be able to attend to the school that they want.

And it’s those high stakes that are starting to push plagiarism cases out of the disciplinary tribunals they’ve lived in and into courts of law, with more and more students filing lawsuits against schools in a (usually futile) effort to clear their name.

There are many reasons that this is important. Both students and schools need to be aware of this trend.

Because it’s not a trend that’s going away and it’s one that could cost both students and schools a great deal of money in an easily avoided but nonetheless protracted legal battle.

Understanding the Problem

Earlier this week, news came out about Julie Bullock, a now-former student at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She filed a lawsuit against the school after being expelled following her second run in with plagiarism, saying she wants to finish her degree and receive $75,000 in damages.

Her first run in, according to her, was the matter of her submitting the incorrect assignment and getting a “grade of zero” for it. The next semester, she submitted a rough draft that her professors said were not cited properly. According to Bullock’s claims, she worked out a deal on the second case so she would not be kicked out but, according to the school, she was still removed due to her failure to maintain a high enough GPA.

While this lawsuit may seem unusual, it’s not as rare as one might expect.

Sujanie Gamage, a former University of Nevada Las Vegas student was booted from the school’s doctoral chemistry program over plagiarism. She claimed she was not given a fair chance to defend herself and sued, with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals eventually backing the school in 2014, upholding a lower court opinion. The court also ordered Gamage to pay some $40,000 in legal fees.

The University of Scranton was sued by a former student, Kristen Hart, for breach of contract after she was expelled following a plagiarism allegation. Junhyuk Park sued a Purdue University after being expelled for plagiarism. He doesn’t deny the plagiarism but alleged he was targeted due to his his race.

In the UK, Hazim Mustafa failed to graduate from Queen Mary, University of London following a plagiarism allegation. He proceeded to appeal the case through the school and to a nationwide review board, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. After none of those appeals were successful, he took the case to the courts, which also sided with the school.

While these lawsuits aren’t typically successful, there are cases where they are. Such as Yu Yanru, a former doctoral student at Peking University who successfully sued to restore his degree after his dissertation was denied due to allegations of plagiarism. The court found the school had not fully listened to Yu’s defense.

This doesn’t even look at the students who sued schools after being disciplined for other honor code violations. Those cases are at least equally as plentiful.

In short, students who feel slighted by the school’s disciplinary process are taking to the courts and, along the way, are dragging their schools through the legal process. This takes away time and resources from the school.

However, much of the time, these cases can be avoided or, at the very least, be given no chance of success.

Preventing the Issue

Unfortunately, there will always be students that are unhappy with the outcome of their disciplinary hearing and, as long as there is open access to courts, some will always sue.

However, the cases that have gone to court have usually hinged on one of three things:

  1. Allegedly Inadequate Due Process: Students feel angry because they don’t feel like they received due process. In particular, they feel they were not provided a chance to make their case or have their side of the story heard.
  2. Perceived Discrimination: Many students feel that they were singled out unfairly, either due to race, gender, sexuality or another issue. This prompts some to sue even if they did commit plagiarism and are willing to admit it.
  3. Alleged Breach of Contract: Many students sue because they feel that the school did not uphold their end of the honor code, not providing them the protections they were promised or following the standard it set forth.

To be clear, even if the disciplinary process is as fair, impartial and by-the-book as possible, some students will sue. Fortunately for schools, those lawsuits are rarely successful because courts, by in large, prefer to leave decisions about academic integrity up to the academics.

Such lawsuits are even more difficult in countries such as the UK, where there are independent government bodies outside of the school that students can appeal decisions to without involving the legal system. But, even without such a system, courts are typically reluctant to overrule a decision made by academics.

Still, that’s no reason to leave yourself open. Having a strong policy on plagiarism (and other ethical infractions) is important. It’s important to examine every step of the process, including how you check for plagiarism, how you determine what is plagiarism and how you  respond to plagiarism, to make sure it applies equally to all students.

While any student can be unhappy with the outcome of their disciplinary process, especially when it results in expulsion or the revocation of a degree, they will be infinitely less happy if they feel the process was unfair. Give the accused a serious voice, follow a clear policy and make sure that policy applies equally to all students.

It not only ensures the most fair outcome and limits the number of disgruntled students, but any who do decide to take the matter to court, are much less likely to succeed.

It’s the most any school can do to discourage

Bottom Line

While it is frustrating that some students will sue their schools, no matter how fairly they were treated, it should be comforting to know that courts have not been kind to them.

Though there are exceptions to the rule, such as a University of California San Diego student who successfully sued after being expelled for cheating on a test, those cases are the exception and usually stem from some extreme circumstance. In that case, it was an unwillingness to identify the student that the accused supposedly cheated off of.

All in all, a school’s best defense against such lawsuits is having a single, written and evenly-applied policy on plagiarism and other forms of cheating. If you have that, it’s difficult to make any argument that would stand up in a court of law.

Unfortunately, many schools do fall short in this area. But if there is some good that can come out of this trend, it’s that schools may finally pay attention and correct their shortcomings.

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