Log in to the online community

Want to post a reply? You'll need to log in

Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously se...

9 Replies

Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by CalvinTheEngineer on Jan 22, 2019 12:36 pm

In setting an exam paper, can an academic be deemed to ‘plagiarise’ (i.e. claiming attribution for a work they did not author OR using someone else’s work without prior attribution) questions from another exam paper previously set by someone else on the same subject;
If the answer is NO: If ‘plagiarism’ is not the right term to describe copying by academics in exam paper situations, should the fact that exam questions were copied to a significant degree render the exam void?
If the answer is YES: If an academic can be deemed to ‘plagiarise’ an exam paper in a significant and material way, would this render the exam void?

A bit of background:

A 2014/2015 Electronic Engineering exam paper was set by Academic A, and it was the last exam paper they set as a lecturer at University X before they left for another organisation.

The 2017/2018 Electronic Engineering exam was the exam that I sat for, and it was set by Academic B. The syllabus Academic B taught contained many differences to the syllabus taught by Academic A.

Each exam paper was set by one person only.

I and my classmates believe that Q5 of the 2017/2018 exam plagiarised Q4 of the 2014/2015 exam in its entirety. The only difference is section (a), a minor section. Besides this, the solutions are identical.

We also believe that Q2 of the 2017/2018 exam plagiarised Q5 of the 2014/2015 exam, besides section (a), a minor section, and the only difference is that Q2 was reformatted.

I appreciate that community members cannot review the specifics of these exam questions, but I would still appreciate it if you could analyse this situation generally.

So far, despite having access to both papers, University X has completely refused to answer the allegation of copying and/or plagiarism at both the initial informal level (when many of my classmates taking the module complained about the exam paper and the Faculty held a student feedback meeting), and also at the formal complaints level (though the University’s own complaints procedure). This is despite the fact that the University’s own Code of Practice for Assessment and Feedback (2017/18) requires lecturers to “Rewrite/modify the assessment task each time the course is taught.”

The university could technically argue (but has not done so yet) that as it owns the copyright to the exam papers, it cannot (through one of its employees) plagiarise itself. However, though copyright infringement and plagiarism are similar in some aspects, they are distinctly different. While plagiarism is an offence against the author, copyright infringement is an offence against the copyright holder.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any precedent on plagiarism by academics in examination contexts as opposed to students and your comment would help to us fairly apply academic integrity to all.

One might ask why a student would be unhappy about a past year exam question (which had published solutions available online) appearing in a current exam. The answer is that Academic B never referenced past exam papers not set by them, the syllabus was very different, and Q5 was completely unattemptable as it was not covered in the syllabus. Besides, it would be hypocrisy if students were penalised for plagiarism, but not academics setting exams.

If you are able to comment on this and allow me to quote your comment, particularly in a submission to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, I would be extremely grateful as it will go a significant way towards encouraging University X to face this issue, rather than dodging it as they have been doing at present. I and my classmates wish University X had been willing to face the issue internally, rather than claiming academic discretion and that 3 out of 5 questions in the exam were still answerable.

Thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this. I will be very appreciative of any insights.

Uni Student - UK

 
Need advice but  too shy to ask? Have a question of a ‘sensitive’ nature and would prefer to remain anonymous? Need to get something off your chest but worried about the boss (or your colleagues) finding out? Then ‘Ask Calvin’ !  
Submit your questions confidentially to AskCalvin@theiet.org and Calvin will ask the community on your behalf to give you the anonymity you want to find the advice you need.
 

 

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Andy Millar on Jan 23, 2019 3:28 pm

I think you're asking the wrong question. If I've read this right, the question you are actually asking is: "Is it ok for an academic to set questions which are not related to the subject they taught?" To which the answer is, it depends how unrelated they are. And the answer would be, if the questions so still relate directly to the syllabus, and the university have given you the syllabus, then that's fair enough. 

What you've learned here is a critical part of university education - it's up to you to make sure that you've learned enough to answer any questions on the syllabus. Engineering courses are often pretty bad at getting this point over (and have been forever). Arts and humanities courses I think tend to be much better at this - at the better universities at least students get the idea pretty quickly that some exam questions could bear little or no relation to the lectures, the student is supposed to have taken those as a starting point and read around the subject. That said, in engineering lectures and tutorials should give you the opportunity to know how to learn the syllabus, and if they don't then it's fair enough to kick up a fuss.

Back to the question you did ask: no, it's not plagiarism to reuse exam materials, it's common sense to do so: it's hard writing good exam questions so it's a waste not to reuse them occasionally. And equally every lecturer will teach the same material a slightly different way, perhaps focusing on their own particular areas of interest.

So (this is the good bit) now you have to take the information you've been given, and absolutely any other information you can find, and use that to solve the problem (the exam question). And that's what engineering is all about!

Sorry this is all sounding a bit Grumpy Old Engineer (and, by the way, I am not a lecturer), but it's really really important - you cannot be trained to be a professional engineer, because every problem you face will be completely different to the last. It's vital that at university you learn to be able to make at least a half decent attempt at solving any problem that's thrown at you in the areas you are studying, even if it hasn't been fully shown to you before.

I do have sympathy, because university grades are important, and you may have learned very much the hard way. Hopefully this happened in your first year. But any grounds for complaint you could have would actually be that it hasn't been explained to you very well how the university learning and assessment process works - unless the questions were definitely off-syllabus.

But at least you know now: keep checking the syllabus, and find every way you can of knowing every detail around each of the subject areas on it. The lecturers will be delighted that one of their students is actually showing an interest in their course!

Good luck,

Andy

Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Andy Millar on Jan 23, 2019 4:17 pm

Perspective on this: when I used to recruit graduates for engineering roles (and watch out, I might do it again one day smiley) we'd typically ask quite simple technical questions, more A level than degree level, as a way into more interesting discussions.

The following answers would pretty much guarantee a rejection (yep, heard all of these):
"I think we did that in first year, but I've forgotten it now."
"We didn't do that."
"I didn't take that module."
"What's that got to do with this job?"

What engineering employers are looking for is an answer such as:
"Gosh, it's been a long time since I've done anything like that, but I'll have a go...can I just check this part here is what I think it is?"
The reason we have to look for that type of answer is because most of us find ourselves giving the same answer to employers and clients in our professional engineering roles for the next 40-50 years!

So, given that one of the roles of a degree is to prepare you for the world of engineering, I would hope your lecturers would give you credit for showing you know how to approach answering a question, even if you can't finish answering it. However, equally it's why you may struggle to get support if you suggest that you shouldn't be expected to attempt to answer questions you weren't expecting.

Cheers,

Andy

Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Simon Barker on Jan 23, 2019 5:23 pm

I don't think you're going to get anywhere with the plagiarism argument.  I would expect that the exam belongs to the university, not to any particular employee.  So the university can do whatever it likes with those questions.  Suppose I write a poem, and give a copy to someone.  I then change the layout of the poem on the page, and give a copy to you.  Is that plagiarism?

You would be better off arguing that the exam question is unfair because it does not match the published syllabus.

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Ronald McMurtrie on Jan 24, 2019 11:49 am

In the dim and distant past, i recall a lecturer who kept notes of C&G exam  questions and was able to show several questions in a paper I sat, were really quite similar to those set in previous papers.

I also recall questions provided in tutorial sheets were remarkably similar to the actual exam questions. Always a good reason to work through past papers. A move that paid off when sitting the IEE Parrt III exams.

Ron McMurtrie

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Lisa Miles on Jan 24, 2019 12:25 pm

I think I would agree with Simon in that your best argument would be that the question doesn't fit with the published syllabus.

This question though reminds me of an issue that my fellow A Level Geography students and I had at Sixth Form...

At the very first lesson of the first term the Geography Teacher told us that we would be studying West Africa.  We said to the Teacher that this was a bit odd as we'd studied West Africa for our O level course but he repeated and was insistent  that's what we'd be doing. So we spent the first year of Six Form studying this subject (again).  Second year of study and our first Teacher had retired so we had a new Teacher. First lesson, the new teacher asks us to open our books on South America at page 'whatever'.... We all looked at each other with confusion then one of us said "But we're doing West Africa Sir?" "No" said the Teacher, "South America is on the syllabus for this course?" He made a few calls to check and yes he was correct, we should have been studying South America .... angry

We then had to cram two years of study into a handful of months before the exams and were told that the 'mistake' would be taken into consideration in our results.... However, I do not believe that they were, as every single one of us failed that exam. Nothing ever came of it as I think they just brushed their colleague's incompetence under the carpet and we were not encouraged to make a complaint or take it any further... 
Lisa Miles - Online Community Manager, Engineering Communities

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Alasdair Anderson on Jan 24, 2019 1:03 pm

I recall many years ago at university being told that the economics exam each year had the same questions - it was just the answers that changed.
However a more important question I have is where has the "Reply" button gone? When I go into the topic there is no button for reply. I had to hit "reply" against this thread on the home page.
Alasdair

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Elizabeth Morgan on Jan 25, 2019 5:30 pm

However a more important question I have is where has the "Reply" button gone? When I go into the topic there is no button for reply.

Hi Alasdair,
Well spotted - we had a little blip (technical term) but this has been fixed now smiley. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
 
Elizabeth Morgan, Technical Lead - Online Community

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Brendon Arthur on Jan 26, 2019 9:34 pm

I'd first like say that the "Reply" button is back and seems to work. Thank you.

I found the above responses interesting. Andy gives some very pertinent tips on what an engineering student's professional engineering life is going to be like. A remark I regularly make to younger engineers is, "If the problem was simple to solve, then you wouldn't need to pay an engineer to solve it." (don't quote me on that, as I am sure there are many engineers who do feel the need to be paid, even for solving simple problems.)

But back to the primary question:

"In setting an exam paper, can an academic be deemed to ‘plagiarise’ (i.e. claiming attribution for a work they did not author OR using someone else’s work without prior attribution) questions from another exam paper previously set by someone else on the same subject"

You seem to understand what would count as plagiarism, but mix up context in your question.

The university delegated Academic A to lead a specific course of study. Academic A may have been given a broad subject and requested to create and submit a syllabus, which among other things would normally include a bank of questions and worked answers. This would then be submitted as a piece of work by the Academic as the result of his efforts, and would be expected to include citations where necessary. The university would review the work and authorise its use (or request amendments or improvements etc.). Eventually Academic A retires and Academic B takes on the responsibility. There is nothing stopping Academic B using the work of his predecessor; this might even be encouraged (we are normally expected to add to others work, not totally replace it) but citations would be expected. This is the point at which any plagiarism could take place. If Academic B wrote and submitted a question/answer pair, claiming it to be his own original work, when in fact it was either copied directly or only slightly modified from the work of another, then they would be deemed to have committed plagiarism. Let us now presume the university missed this in their review. In any case the university having reviewed the questions decides they are relevant to the syllabus and eventually authorises the use of the work, including the bank of questions. The university authorises Academic B to set an exam for the course, which should have followed the authorised syllabus, with questions taken from the authorised question bank. The Academic does not have to provide any citations on who wrote the questions themselves, on the examination paper, as these are already held in the question bank. Academic B then has the right to claim that they have set the exam, or "written the exam paper"; as they selected the questions. If the questions set are from the authorised question bank, then they are valid, regardless of who actually wrote the original question. So now we have established that just setting the exam using questions from a previous paper written by somebody else is not on its own grounds for accusations of plagiarism. (Which is a rather serious accusation you do not want to throw about like a stuffed toy.)

Let us now presume the university becomes aware that Academic B did in fact plagiarise Academic A on a specific question, whether by mistake or on purpose. The university holds the copywrite on the bank of questions. It is also responsible for ensuring it has permission from other copyright owners to use their work. It also should have reviewed the questions to ensure they were relevant to the authorised syllabus. There are no reasonable grounds to void the question. A different story emerges, if it was found that the question originated from another source and the university either did not hold copyright or did not hold permission of the copyright owner to use the question in their question bank. The question was unintentionally published without permission. The university could choose to remove the question from the bank, making it an unauthorised question on the exam. An investigation would be needed to see what knock on effects this would have on the results of previous exams. Alternatively the university could choose to negotiate with the copyright owner and make permission retrospective. The benefits to the university are obvious. The question then does not need to be voided.


I find it refreshing that you are trying to find a solution to a problem you have, and have realised it is not something you seem to be able to do to your satisfaction on your own; seeking assistance is not a sign of weakness. Unfortunately I also find it disappointing that you seemed to have missed a primary principle in engineering, define and understand your problem space. Whether the question is valid or not depends on whether it is relevant to the authorised syllabus and at a level students at your level are expected to be able to at least make a reasonable attempt at. If you were told what the syllabus consists of and it included the topics of the question, then you don't have a leg to stand on, even if the lecturer never touched on the subject during their lectures. One of your duties and obligations to other students is to ensure you are being directed to relevant literature to help you learn the syllabus. During the course you should have noticed this discrepancy and brought it up with your lecturer, or at least discussed it with fellow students in a collegial manner. If you did not notice this shortcoming until too late, then that is unfortunate. I hope you learn from the experience this life lesson presented to you. I do hope (ever the optimist) that you are not just trying to blame somebody else for your own failings. It would be a more efficient use of your time and energy to reflect on what you could have done differently to produce a more welcome result, plan to do that, then execute the plan.

 
 

Re: Calvin Asks: Can an academic be deemed to plagiarise questions from an exam paper previously set by someone else?

Posted by Andy Millar on Jan 27, 2019 12:15 pm

Lisa Miles:
We then had to cram two years of study into a handful of months before the exams and were told that the 'mistake' would be taken into consideration in our results.... However, I do not believe that they were, as every single one of us failed that exam.

Poor you...horrible...I vaguely remember a similar thing happening in one of my school exams, and in one of my children's. Hence I'm always very relieved when the more sensible university admission tutors admit that they will, for a candidate who appears otherwise able, allow more latitude than it appears on entrance grades (of course there's been debate this week that that practice is being taken to extreme at the moment!). The school, and university, exam system might be the best we can think of at the moment but it still has many potential flaws on the day. And of course when the school has been drumming it into the student and their parents that "good grades are everything" it's pretty scary and depressing for the student when situations like yours happen.

I do get frustrated that employers sometimes take university grades so seriously, when a single mistake on the uni's or the student's side can make a whole degree grade difference - but again I believe tutors / lecturers do have some latitude here? I'd be interested to hear any comments.

Brendon: Absolutely agree, and your last sentence is excellent - not just for this but for life generally! Of course there are occasions of this type, Lisa seems to have had one, where there has been genuine (although probably not deliberate) negligence. But even then, once you've done all you can do the point quickly comes where you just need to put it behind you and move on...I think it was having to manage redundancies resulting from corporate idiocy many years ago that really drummed this into me! Plus having a job where I have to keep people safe irrespective of who's "fault" any situation is.

One of my favourite films is Labyrinth, where the heroine eventually realises that repeatedly saying "it's not fair" only makes things worse...but that standing up for herself is quite different and does work.

Sarah: That's not fair!
Jareth: You say that so often! I wonder what your basis for comparison is.

And of course there is no comparison, fairness is not an absolute (even in a university exam system). Oh dear, that's a bit deep for a Sunday, I'd better go and play in the sunshine in the garden!

Advice in as few words as possible: Explain to the correct person at the university what happened based on your first hand knowledge only (not what you think happened or what your mates told you), and what effect it had on you. Listen to their response. Then privately come up with your own plan in case it happens again. Then forget about it and go and do something more interesting. This advice is adaptable for almost any situation in work and life!

Cheers,

Andy

Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Share:

Log in

Want to post a reply? You'll need to log in