The University of Cambridge finds itself under pressure to clarify further its guidelines on plagiarism after a senior lecturer in the Department of Land Economy was found to have published without permission material from a student’s dissertation. Varsity has discovered that Dr Nicola Morrison included unattributed material from the work of a final year Land Economy undergraduate in an article published under her name in the Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association in April.
The University’s recently tightened rules on plagiarism are now under fresh scrutiny amid strenuous denials that Dr Morrison’s actions had constituted any breach.
A University spokesman said: "A University Lecturer made a mistake in submitting an opinion piece to a trade journal, on a very short deadline, without properly attributing some of the source material. This was swiftly rectified, the Lecturer has apologised to the student concerned, who does not wish to take the matter further, and the matter is closed."
The University’s rules on plagiarism define it as: "submitting as one’s own work that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement." The guidelines also state that plagiarism is "both poor scholarship and a breach of academic integrity."
The same University spokesman confirmed that some material and ideas from the student’s dissertation were quoted verbatim without attribution by Dr Morrison. The University’s statement on plagiarism says that examples of plagiarism include "quoting verbatim another person’s work without due acknowledgement of the source" as well as "using ideas taken from someone else without reference to the originator". However, the spokesman denied that plagiarism had taken place.
CUSU Education Officer Sam Wakeford urged the University to learn lessons from the Morrison case: "This obviously looks bad, but it draws attention to the fact that mistakes can be made by academics as well as students; plagiarism is a very complex issue," said Wakeford. "Work that has been produced in a collaborative environment – such as between a student and their supervisor – can be a particularly grey area.
"Intentional or otherwise, however, it is extremely serious, and the University must take the teaching of proper proper referencing techniques seriously," he continued.
Dr Morrison dismissed the story’s reportage as "tittle-tattle", stressing that she considered the matter to have been "dealt with officially and properly". She claimed the issue had been fully resolved with the student concerned, who she said was "fine". The student has declined to comment.
Once the matter was brought to the student’s attention, he reported the issue and it was swiftly agreed that he would be credited for his work. The article concerned has since been adjusted with acknowledgement of his contribution.
Entitled ‘A Landmark Case’, Morrison’s essay discussed recent Cambridge housing and building developments during the recession. It included material from the student’s unpublished dissertation.
The University repeatedly declined requests to disclose full details of the handling of the matter. However, Varsity understands that Morrison’s position within the University is not under threat.
Richard Partington, Senior Tutor of Churchill College, emphasised his own clear-cut conception of plagiarism, saying: "I can’t comment on a specific case of which I am ignorant, but, in general, quoting someone else’s work without proper attribution is plagiarism and it is not within the accepted norms of academic discourse. Plagiarism is plagiarism.
"Any academic who presents somebody else’s ideas as their own without proper attribution has crossed a line which they should not cross," he continued.
The University issued new guidelines after a Varsity investigation carried out in Michaelmas 2008 found that as many as half of all Cambridge students had been guilty of plagiarism as defined within the University’s then loose definitions.
Collaboration between students and supervisors is not uncommon. Richard, a third-year English student said, "After a really interesting Shakespeare supervision, my supervisor asked if he could use a point I had contributed to in a book he was writing, properly cited. I didn’t mind at all, it was nice to know that he respected my ideas and found them helpful."
Many students have spoken positively of their experiences with Morrison. One said: "She’s a really good supervisor. I came away from her supervisions really feeling like I’d gotten something out of it. Her lectures were always interesting too, with connections to real examples and different authors and views tied in."
Further reporting on this story was carried out by the Varsity Investigations Team.