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COLLUSION OR SIMPLE CONFUSION? Why Academic Misconduct Rules Must be Reformed

Andrew Ray

The ANU College of Law’s (‘the College’) academic misconduct policy, and refusal to allow students to collaborate on assignments, is hurting future employability while also harming student wellbeing. Namely, the policy punishes a small number of students who are caught for actions that a large part of the student population regularly engages in. This piece argues that the existing academic misconduct scheme is unfair, shrouded in unnecessary secrecy and is harmful to students. It proposes a new model, allowing for more open discussion on assessment items while maintaining the existing plagiarism rules at a College and university level.

We all know a ‘friend’ who has helped someone or received help on an assessment item. Indeed, if you walk through an ANU library during a take-home exam you can occasionally see groups of students working on a problem question together. These individuals are, at least in theory, being advantaged over their peers, but are rarely (if ever) caught. While collusion is certainly an issue and academic integrity is an important goal to aspire to; existing rules are often inconsistently applied, and the outcomes of any disciplinary action taken are not reported. This lack of transparency and accountability reduces the deterrent effect of the existing rulesafter all, if you don’t think you are going to be caught, you have little to fear from the potentially ruinous consequences an academic misconduct finding may have on your future employability. This creates a situation where students may be incentivised to engage in these practices.

A secondary issue is the lack of clarity about the actual meaning of misconduct. If we look at the definition of misconduct contained in r 6 of the Academic Misconduct Rule 2015 it is not clear what is and is not permissible (especially what would constitute an unfair or unjustified advantage under r 6(a)(vii)).[1]

6 Academic misconduct

It is academic misconduct if a student:

(a) in relation to an assessment:

(i) cheats; or

(ii) engages in plagiarism; or

(iii) improperly colludes with another person; or

(iv) acts, or assists another person to act, dishonestly or unfairly in or in connection with an examination; or

(v) takes a prohibited document into an examination venue; or

(vi) fails to comply with examination or assessment rules or directions; or

(vii) engages in other conduct with a view to gaining unfair or unjustified advantage; or

(viii) submits work that is not original; or

(b) in relation to research, commits research misconduct.

For example, if we ask the following series of questions, we see that the boundaries are far from clear, and may, in some cases, operate harshly on those individuals caught engaging in these practices.

  1. Is it academic misconduct to ask a friend to proofread your citations?

  2. Is it academic misconduct to tweet a citation question to @AGLCtweets?

  3. Is it academic misconduct to take a past set of exam notes into an exam?

  4. Is it academic misconduct to compare your exam notes against those of a past student?

  5. Is it academic misconduct to complete tutorial problems in a group where there is a mark for tutorial participation?

  6. Is it academic misconduct for colleges to offer proofreading services through academic mentoring or tutoring services.[2]

Although perhaps what constitutes academic misconduct could be resolved by the law school publishing examples of what is and is not acceptable behaviour, this only resolves part of the problem. Namely, that a certain (and as this author would argue not insignificant) proportion of the student population is engaging in these practices, regardless of the potential consequences. Indeed, it is perhaps not in the College’s interest to catch everyone who may fall within the broad definition contained above, as it could tarnish the reputation of the College or the university. Additionally, given the importance of collaboration in the workplace[3], greater facilitation of group discussion/work on certain types of assignments at the College could help strengthen graduate employability while simultaneously remove the unfair advantage currently gained by students engaging in these practices.

While certainly not all types of assessment are open to group discussion (i.e. it would be inappropriate for a multiple choice exam to be opened up for discussion by students), for take-home assignments completed over multiple days it is likely that students are already engaging in some form of discussion around the issues/ideas they will discuss. Therefore, allowing this practice (but not allowing people to share written answers) should be something the law school should at least consider allowing under its own assessment framework.[4] Simultaneously, the law school should consider publishing what it considers to actually constitute misconduct (including addressing the questions posed above). This approach would better strike the balance between preventing plagiarism and encouraging appropriate collaboration between students.

References [1]*The views in this piece reflect the personal views of the author and may not reflect the views of their employers.

Collusion is defined in r 8(1) to mean ‘the involvement of more than one person in an instance of academic dishonesty’.

[2] Including, for example, colleges compiling a central database of course notes/materials to be distributed. [3] Collaboration was recently listed as the third most valued skill by employers according to LinkedIn job ad analysis: Abigail Hess, ‘The 10 most in-demand skills of 2019, according to LinkedIn’, CNBC (online, 6 January 2019) <>. [4] A similar approach was taken for the final take-home assignment in Financial Markets and Takeovers in semester two 2019.

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