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Hellfire Club
13 July, 2007  
A war of words over plagiarism

A partially blind UNE law student loses her honours degree after being accused of plagiarism, even though there was no “wrongful intent”. It’s all a matter of footnotes


imageLet’s call her Hermione, which thankfully is not her real name. We’ve called her that because things are already bleak enough for this University of New England law student and we wouldn’t wish to further derail her future.

Hermione completed her law degree at the UNE in 2005 and was due to graduate with honours on March 24 this year. Instead, she is fighting an up-hill battle against a finding of “unintentional plagiarism” in relation to her thesis on tax law and limited liability companies in Australia.

“At the moment my case is in limbo. It will go on my permanent record and I’ve been told that I have to notify the law society.”

The case was brought to the attention of senior lecturer and law awards co-ordinator, Michael Eburn, when he was presented with a written report outlining the allegations against the student. Eburn has the power to make determinations on plagiarism as the nominee for associate professor Harry Geddes, the acting head of the law school.

Eburn told Justinian:

“The UNE takes all allegations of plagiarism very seriously and deals with them in accordance with the University of New England academic board policy on plagiarism and academic misconduct: Coursework and Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct: Higher Degree Research.”

Rule 3.1 of UNE’s academic board policy defines plagiarism as:

“Intentionally or unintentionally using the work of other persons, copying (in whole or in part) the work or data of other persons, paraphrasing closely or presenting substantial extracts from written, printed, electronic or other media in a student’s written, oral, electronic, online or group assignment work without due acknowledgment. Plagiarism involves giving the impression that a student has thought, written or produced something that has, in fact, been taken from another. In the objectives of the policy, students and staff are seen to have a responsibility to prevent and detect plagiarism.”

imageHermione was notified about the allegations in January after she had commenced her practical training diploma at the College of Law.

Eburn found seven of the 12 initial allegations of plagiarism to be made out.

In his reasons for the decision, he explained that even though there was no “wrongful intent”, some of the material used by Hermione was not sufficiently distinguished from her own ideas.

In relation to two of the allegations, Eburn found that the impression was given that the work had been produced by Hermione, when it was not. The problem largely lay with inadequate footnotes.

The determination was made that for her unintentional plagiarism she would be required to resubmit her thesis with a maximum possible mark of 50 per cent, which means she won’t get honours.

Hermione believes that her thesis, which required 1,200 hours of work and includes 368 footnotes, is sufficiently referenced and that she went above and beyond what is required by the policy.

“There was one particular example I used, and I footnoted it 19 times, but that doesn’t seem to have an impression. I feel that the whole thing has been reduced to a nit-picking exercise. My thesis is on a very specialised area of tax law. It is very heavily acknowledged, but they want second acknowledgment and that is not to me the meaning of plagiarism. They have made plagiarism into something untenable.”

Rule 10 of UNE’s academic board policy sets out the process which allows a student to take the decision to the executive dean of the faculty.

Hermione told Justinian:

“The appeals process involves writing to the head of school which I did and then he gave me an appointment. That was an absolute debacle, it didn’t get me anywhere. It cost me $550 in air fares, and at the moment I’m still left with a record.”

The executive dean said that Hermione did not provide enough information to assess her appeal, and in any event she would have missed the deadline.

UNE stands by its plagiarism polices and believes students are given ample opportunity to respond to and appeal against allegations.

Hermione is partially blind. She’ll probably be allowed to graduate in October, but without honours. When she applies for a trading ticket the NSW Law Society has to be informed about this blot on her escutcheon.