A Judicial View of Plagiarism and the Duties of the Supervisor in Thesis Writing
(Fauzilah Salleh v. Universiti Malaysia Terengganu 274  5 MLRH)
U K Menon
Academic plagiarism, although not new to our higher education institutions, the question of whether a work is plagiarised is now beginning to reach the courts for its adjudication. The trend has serious implications for higher education institutions. They must now contemplate the likelihood of allegations of plagiarism in the works of students and academics being taken to a judicial forum outside institutional processes.
Beneficially, the fear of legal challenge may provoke institutions to pay more attention to the way academic writing is taught to students. They may even wake up to the cautionary soundings of the judge in the case under discussion about the role of the supervisor in academic writing and adopt a responsibility to the student to avoid plagiarism. His lordship after finding that the plaintiff had committed plagiarism, went on to add these chilling words: ‘I also find that the defendant (i.e., the university) has partly contributed to the commission of plagiarism by failing to properly supervise the research, in particular the writing process . . . ‘
Negatively, the decision may simply make examiners of academic writing to become indifferent to the issue of plagiarism because of possible criticism from the courts.
After summarising the facts of the case, we reproduce below a comprehensive judicial analysis of academic plagiarism by Mohd Yazid Mustafa J in Fauzilah Salleh v. Universiti Malaysia Terengganu 274  5 MLRH). As will be seen from the facts stated below, the allegation that the plaintiff had plagiarised the work of another was central to the court’s decision but not the grounds on which the judge decided finally in favour of the plaintiff.
The plaintiff graduated in 2004 from Universiti Putra Malaysia with a BBA (Hons) in Insurance. She continued her post-graduate studies in the same university for a Master’s Degree in marketing. After submitting her thesis which was later approved, she was awarded a master’s degree in marketing science at the defendant university’s convocation in August 2006. With her master’s degree in Marketing, she was offered candidature to do a three years PhD course by the defendant university commencing on July 2006. She was also awarded financial assistance by the Ministry of Higher Education tenable for the duration of the course.
In January 2007, in a bizarre turn of events, the plaintiff received a notice from the defendant university requiring her to give evidence as a witness before a committee appointed by the senate styled as ‘Jawatankuasa Penyiasatan’. On 22 January 2007, she appeared before the committee, where a question and answer session took place for one hour. It appears that the nothing was heard by the plaintiff about the hearing until after a lapse of one year. In January 2008 she received a letter from the registrar of the defendant university informing her that the chancellor on advise of the board of the university had revoked her Master’s Degree under powers of the constitution of the defendant university. The reason given for the revocation was that she had committed plagiarism in her master’s thesis submitted almost two years earlier.
Not surprisingly, the plaintiff filed an action with the court claiming that the revocation of her master’s degree by the defendant university was in violation of relevant clauses in the university’s constitution and in breach of principles of natural justice. She also asked for a declaration that the revocation was invalid and an order for the reinstatement of the degree. The High Court decided in her favour because it found that the university had not acted in accordance with its constitution in withdrawing the degree and further, had not observed principles of natural justice when taking the action against the plaintiff. This article does not deal with these grounds but focuses on how the judge dealt with the question of plagiarism. The following is a verbatim reproduction of his lordship’s judgment. We have reproduced it because of the masterful way in which the judge approached the issue of plagiarism and more importantly, for his observations on the responsibilities of the university and the supervisor on the handling of academic writing by students.
Issue of Plagiarism by Mohd Yazid Mustafa J
‘Before deciding on this issue, it is significant that all parties are made clear on the nature of plagiarism. Plagiarism has been defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th edn, at p 1043) to be the act of taking and using the thoughts, writings, inventions etc as one’s own. Not satisfied with only one definition, I took the liberty of perusing the websites of old and respected universities of the world as to how they define, and as to what they construe as plagiarism.
Oxford University has defined plagiarism as the copying or paraphrasing of other people’s work or ideas into your own work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition.
The various forms of plagiarism are:
i) Verbatim quotation without clear acknowledgement.
ii) Paraphrasing the work of others by altering a few words and changing their order or by closely following the structure of their argument.
iii) Collusion. This can involve unauthorised collaboration between students, failure to attribute assistance received, or failure to follow precisely regulations on group work projects.
iv) Inaccurate citation.
v) Failure to acknowledge.
University of Cambridge has defined plagiarism as submitting as one’s own work, irrespective of intent to deceive, that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement. It is both poor scholarship and a breach of academic integrity.
Examples of plagiarism include copying, quoting verbatim another person’s work without due acknowledgement of the source; paraphrasing another person’s work by changing some of the words, or the order of the words, without due acknowledgement of the source; using ideas taken from someone else without reference to the originator; submitting someone else’s work as part of a candidate’s own without identifying clearly who did the work. For example, buying or commissioning work via professional agencies such as ‘essay banks’ or ‘paper mills’, or not attributing research contributed by others to a joint project.
University of Cambridge also pointed out that acceptable means of acknowledging the work of others (by referencing, in footnotes, or otherwise) vary according to the subject matter and mode of assessment. In this regard, Cambridge recommended that faculties or departments should issue written guidance on the relevant scholarly conventions for submitted work, and also make it clear to candidates what level of acknowledgement might be expected in written examinations. Candidates are required to familiarise themselves with this guidance, to follow it in all work submitted for assessment, and may be required to sign a declaration to that effect.
Yale University, a respected university in the United States of America defines plagiarism as the use of someone else’s work, words, or ideas as if they were your own. Thus, most forms of cheating on examinations are plagiarism; but Yale University usually applies the word to papers rather than to examinations.
Against the background of the extractions above, I find that 35% of the plaintiff’s thesis (D9) has been taken from the doctoral dissertation of one Prof Madya Dr Nik Kamariah (D10). I also note, however, that the plaintiff acknowledged her sources of information, among others, from SD1. Notwithstanding her acknowledgement, it is noted that plaintiff has failed to footnote the information source on the relevant pages where the intellectual debt occurred.
My views are in line with those of the defendant’s witnesses who are PhD holders and possess vast experience as academicians, and are presently attached to various universities (UUM, UMT, UMP and UniSZA). They reached the similar conclusion that the plaintiff had plagiarised, in particular the following regards:
1. First chapter of D9 consisted 30% of the content of D10.
2. Second chapter of D9 consisted 20% of the content of D10.
3. Third chapter of D9 consisted 60% of the content of D10.
4. Fourth chapter of D9 consisted 58% of the content of D10.
5. Fifth chapter of D9 consisted 13% of the content of D10.
Furthermore, the plaintiff in the cross-examination had indeed admitted that some contents of her thesis were similar to that of D10. She also admitted that she had not made footnotes as to her sources of information, in particular the materials from D10, on the belief that it was not necessary as she has acknowledged and named Prof Madya Dr Nik Kamariah the author of D10 in the preface of her thesis.
Besides the above, I also take judicial notice of the supervisor’s role in thesis writing. Firstly, thesis writing is an open process, in that, anyone who has any interest in the topic under research is not at any time precluded from viewing the work in progress. In fact a student writing his/her thesis must first obtain approval from the supervisor on the topic to be researched. And all along the writing process, the student’s work must be approved by the supervisor. (Kindly refer to the University of Cambridge advice on adherence to the university’s writing guidelines).
Based on the extractions on plagiarism as above, I find that it is the duty of the university (defendant) to issue to students writing their thesis with a proper set of writing guidelines. In this case I note that there was none. Even in the absence of a proper thesis writing guideline from the university or faculty, plagiarism would not have occurred if the plaintiff’s supervisor had done his/her job ie, reading and vetting the contents and writing style of the student. Plaintiff’s evidence that she was never guided was not challenged, and was accepted by this court.
Based on the above reasoning, while I find that the plaintiff has committed plagiarism, I also find that the defendant has partly contributed to the commission of plagiarism by failing to properly supervise the research, in particular the writing process of D9.’