Stricter plagiarism standards for online exams circulated to staff after end of assessment period

“The procedures and penalties in place for dealing with plagiarism… require some adaptation for assignments submitted during a final exam period and for online exams,” a memo seen by Trinity News outlines

A College memo advising staff on standards for plagiarism in open-book examinations, when compared to traditional live examinations, was circulated to academic staff only after the end of the assessment period, Trinity News has learned.

The memo, which offers guidelines on marking exams that took place remotely due to College’s closure amid the Covid-19 pandemic, was not circulated to students.

“The procedures and penalties in place for dealing with plagiarism are best aligned to assignments submitted during the year and require some adaptation for assignments submitted during a final exam period and for online exams,” the memo, seen by Trinity News, outlines.

The memo advises staff marking take-home exams, or real-time online exams that were not proctored, to “look for students to demonstrate a conceptual understanding and not just reproduce material as they might under live examination conditions”.

“If an answer does not demonstrate conceptual understanding on the part of the student (for any reason, including a lack of originality or lack of evidence of real intellectual engagement of the student with it) then low marks should be awarded,” the memo details.

Examinations took place through a combination of take-home (offline) and real-time (online) exams between April 27 and May 9. Assignments that replaced exams were to be set a deadline between May 11 and May 15.

The memo on post-exam processes, which came from the Senior Lecturer’s office, is dated May 17. 

One engineering student who has been notified of a plagiarism case against them following an exam was sent the memo after the plagiarism case had been opened. Speaking to Trinity News, the student said: “I wished that the guidelines in the memo would have been sent to us before the examinations.”

“Sending it now is equivalent to giving a dead man some medicine for his ailment due to which he died,” the student expressed.

The memo outlines that when a case of plagiarism has been identified or suspected, normal procedures should be followed in line with the College Calendar. These include written communication to the student followed by a meeting with the student and College staff. 

The memo outlines that low marks may be awarded for remote exams in this year’s exam period, which are described in the memo as being under “open-book conditions”, where “the lack of originality does not rise to a level requiring disciplinary action”. 

“Where the extent of plagiarism in an examination is deemed to rise to a level requiring disciplinary action, then the examination as a whole shall be considered inadmissible,” the memo details.

Speaking to Trinity News, a member of academic staff expressed their disappointment at the memo, which they described as telling a “different story” to previous communication which indicated to students that “the evaluations would be as similar as possible to the live examinations which they would have attended”.

“These guidelines were issued after all the last submissions were taken in,” they continued. “Hence the students could not have adhered to them even if they were made public since the submissions were already done.” 

Penalties for plagiarism are issued at staggered levels. At the first level, the student is given an informal verbal warning and required to change and correctly reference aspects of the work which were identified to be plagiarised, and is then reassessed without penalty. At the second level, the student, who receives a formal written warning, is similarly asked to change and correctly reference plagiarised aspects, but their mark is capped or lowered. 

At the third level, the student receives a formal written warning and is required to submit a new piece of work during the next reassessment session. In this case, the mark for the assessment and the overall module mark are capped at a pass grade, dependent on the work meeting a passing standard. An additional fourth level handles cases which are referred to the Junior Dean, such as in a case where the student has previously committed plagiarism. 

Online exams are due to continue in the next academic year, with revision and assessment weeks moved to after the Christmas period for content covered in Michaelmas term.

The regular assessment period, which is scheduled to begin on January 11 and run for up to two weeks, may overlap with Scholarship (Schols) exams, which are due to begin on January 18 and last for a week.

Part III of the College calendar outlines that “examinations undertaken remotely (i.e. electronically) are also subject to the same rules as other College examinations”.

College has not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Lauren Boland

Lauren Boland was the Editor of the 67th volume of Trinity News. She is an English Literature and Sociology graduate and previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.