A law against academic plagiarism, will it be the solution?

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On February 25, Law 3/2022, on university coexistence, was published in the BOE, which qualifies academic plagiarism as a very serious offense, punishable even with expulsion. It is the legislator’s response to one of the most serious problems facing higher education in Spain today.

Anyone who works in a university or training center, even if they do not work as a teacher, is familiar with this malpractice of plagiarism, which is so widespread and entrenched, and which does not stop growing. Every year, disciplinary sanction files for plagiarism in final degree projects, master’s degrees and even doctoral theses increase.

We needed a law like this, there is no doubt. It is not conceivable that in the year 2022 a pre-constitutional norm will have to be applied (Regulation of academic discipline of 1954) or that many statutes of public and private universities do not contain adequate normative provisions against practices as pernicious as plagiarism.

Now, the reaction to the problem should not stop here. It is true that, for years, the use of anti-plagiarism software has been standardized, thus providing teachers with a very useful tool in assessing the originality of the work done by students. However, this type of program is not an absolute guarantee, much less a definitive solution. On the one hand, they only compare the works with texts that are digitized and accessible on the Internet. On the other hand, they do not detect “made up” plagiarism, since they do not make a conceptual comparison, but a purely textual one.

In 2020, the Supreme Court confirmed the sanction that the University of Seville had imposed on a professor from the Department of American History for “the literal (or almost literal) reproduction of paragraphs of published documents without the mandatory inverted commas”. The same professor had previously been sanctioned for similar acts and the University had received complaints from the affected authors whose works had been appropriated without authorization. The sentence, among other arguments, highlights the loss of prestige that this kind of behavior causes to the university community where the sanctioned works.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique, plagiarism is also common among teachers and researchers. In other words, not all professors lead by example… If we add to this the tolerance and passivity that has been shown by the governing bodies of many universities, the result is the enormous problem of ethics and discipline that we have today, and against which (alone) a law will not suffice.

First of all, all of us who participate in training (teachers, administrators, students, etc.) must be honest and recognize the seriousness of this type of academic fraud and how widespread it is. If it affects the reputation of our center, it affects us all, since it calls into question the value of our academic merits and the credibility of the titles that reward study and effort.

Proof of what I say were the voices that students and teachers (via change.org, where they got more than 75,000 signatures) raised against the former rector of the Rey Juan Carlos University asking for his resignation, when more than a dozen alleged plagiarism. They all asked for his resignation to safeguard the center’s reputation, arguing that the plagiarism of its former rector was an “insult to the activity of multiple professionals and students who dedicate a great deal of effort and time to carry out their work correctly and diligently”. .

The new law provides clarity and legal certainty. A more extensive and detailed definition of punishable conduct would have been desirable, but, in any case, it is an advance that should contribute to improving academic honesty and making all of us who participate in higher education programs aware of the need to fight definitive and forceful way against this fraud.

The following steps should be aimed at training and equipping the internal commissions and instructors who must apply the new standard. However, and by way of conclusion, we must not overcome the problem only with sanctions and expulsions, but by convincing our students with education and example of the need to pass their studies with their own effort and merit. The opposite is fooling everyone and fooling yourself.

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