Unikum understands that 98pc of students accused of plagiarism fail in their appeal awarding UiA the unfortunate accolade of the university with highest rate of plagiarism in Norway. One (former) student shares his experience, still ongoing, more than one year on. In early January last year, Jason Duncan walked into a meeting with Professor Francis Schortgen, the lecturer of his Emerging Markets module on the International Business – Master’s Programme in English, for advice on how to cite and reference academic sources for an upcoming assignment due the following month. It would prove to be a fateful appointment whose repercussions are still in motion.   

A fateful return to Norway

Foto: Private

Originally from the United States, Duncan had already attended UiA before, as an international exchange student for the Autumn 2015 semester, from Oregon State University, graduating from that institution the following year. Returning to Norway in Autumn 2022 as a full-degree student this time, his six-year career break from tertiary education prompted him to seek advice on the current academic writing requirements, since he understood the second semester of his two-year master’s course, and those thereafter, to be significantly more theoretically focused, unlike the first which was more mathematical.

During the meeting, Professor Schortgen assured him that he would undertake a professorial review of his work in advance of the submission deadline. According to Duncan, at no point was the reference management tool ‘kildekompasset’ (Citation Compass) or the Library Digital Guidance Booking ever mentioned by Professor Schortgen, Skrivestua or the UiA Library Support Desk. Additionally, no links to the above citation guideline platform (or any other) were present on Canvas or within the syllabus, delivered online since Professor Schortgen was in South Korea at the time.

While Duncan sourced some alternative citation checking tools online, he was advised against using them by fellow students who were aware of situations where these sites had published the work of others without their knowledge, leading to (accidental) self-plagiarism. In mid-February last year, Duncan submitted the first draft of his examination paper for professorial review, uploading the final draft to Inspera a few days later and in good time of the deadline, after Professor Schortgen and five other peers provided their comments. Says Duncan: ‘No feedback called into question how I utilized my sources in text, and no recommendation was made to a specific tool for citation or that I should check any aspects related to my in-text references to sources.’

In early March, Duncan received a FAIL grade

Seeking clarification as to whether Inspera had suffered a technical fault, as had happened to one of his peers as a bachelor’s student, Professor Schortgen, replying to Duncan via email, stated that while the examination paper appeared to be of Grade A quality upon first inspection pre-submission:

‘[t]he problem, however, was, that upon close reading and checking sources (for the purpose of comprehensive and detailed evaluation), I noticed that the majority of the paper was more or less “word-for-word” copied from the sources you list. If you do so, you would have needed to put all that copied material in quotation marks (to indicate that it is NOT your idea/writing) AND indicate the actual page number of the source. To be fair, you did list the page number for your sources, but you do not indicate anywhere that the sentences are copied more or less verbatim. Consequently, and unfortunately so, this would amount to plagiarism, even if unintentional.’

In his ‘Written Explanation to the Appeals Committee’ document, Duncan notes that he was:

‘blindsided by this email, especially considering that Professor Schortgen’s “initial read-over” (in his words) [as] advertised by him in class, in office hours, and through the use of a video referencing professorial review as suitable to identify areas of concern in citation did have notes relative to sources, showed considerable thought to the point of recommending various inputs for sub-sections, as well as highlighting reference material to be supplemented or altered, without identifying or highlighting the area of concern that he states in the [email] and was determined by whichever software used by UIA to check citations of assignments.’

While he referenced each source via in-text citation in advance of the direct quotation, he didn’t bracket those excerpts with quotation marks, causing the submission scanning programme on Inspera to flag them as plagiarism. As such, his academic essay ‘Taiwan as an Investment Opportunity’ failed due to the absence of 44 characters, a completely avoidable error had this been highlighted earlier, during the professorial review (now an ‘initial read-over’), from kildekompasset or a Library Digital Guidance Booking had Duncan been prompted to access them upon request for help with citation checking. He wasn’t. And nobody knows why.

UiA provides another FAIL

Although Duncan doesn’t dispute his mistake, UiA committed further unforced errors in communication while handling his case during the appeals process. At the end of March last year, Duncan was informed by his case advisor Julie Engebakken Arnesen via email that he could access a lawyer, whose costs would be borne by the university, and speak to the student ombudsman. Unfortunately, Arnesen provided Duncan with the contact details for the student ombudsperson in Kristiansand, apparently unaware that this position hadn’t been filled and had instead been placed under the jurisdiction of the one at the University of Stavanger (UiS).

Assisting Duncan in his case, Maiken Køien Andersen, President of the Student Organisation of Agder (STA), told Duncan she would contact the student ombudsperson (which STA were aware was now in Stavanger, but not Duncan) when asked by him in mid-April. However, due to a clerical error, the email was drafted but never sent. Two days before his hearing in front of the Appeals Committee in late May, STA located Maren Anne Kvaløy, the student ombudswoman at UiS, who was also helping to cover the open position at UiA. Duncan emailed Kvaløy that day to which she responded the day following to suggest two possible lawyers, both of whom Duncan reached out to. Later the same day, Håkon Noraas of Advokathuset Stavanger confirmed assistance, but due to the immediacy of his case, his associate, Hege Veland, would support Duncan instead. A request to delay the hearing was denied by UiA.

Since verbal presentations by students before the Appeals Committee are limited to 15 minutes, Duncan delivered his overview of preceding events in English while Veland provided a statement of the case from a legal perspective in Norwegian. Asked by the Committee why there was such a delay between his online meeting with Arnesen late March, where the services of a lawyer were suggested as an option, and his decision to contact one mid-May, Duncan pointed out that this step is usually taken after a discussion with the student ombudsperson, whom, by mid-May, he still couldn’t source. One of the case managers on the Committee posited that since the possibility of legal support was offered, the student should automatically recognise this to reflect the severity of the situation and contact a lawyer immediately. No further questions were asked.

Jason Duncan volunteered as an active member and buddy in the Erasmus Student Network (ESN)

Further to the ‘Written Explanation to the Appeals Committee’ document, an ‘Additional Comments for the Appeals Committee’ paper was prepared by Duncan due to a file entitled ‘Case Documents’ that was delivered to him by Arnesen from the Secretariat at UiA mid-May. It was in this file that Duncan first learned of his two-semester exclusion and annulment of the original test result, accusing him of plagiarism with ‘willful action or gross negligence’ and having attended UiA on a study abroad semester almost seven years prior, he, therefore, ‘must be considered an experienced student’, concluding, ‘[t]he Secretariat cannot identify any mitigating circumstances in the case.’ His advisor Arnesen not knowing the student ombudsperson for Kristiansand was replaced by Stavanger, preventing Duncan from sourcing such support for almost two months, not deemed ‘mitigating’.

Upon receipt of the Appeals Committee’s decision (available in Norwegian only) to uphold the Secretariat’s position of annulment and exclusion for one academic year, Duncan filed a complaint. At the end of May, Veland was organising the appropriate paperwork for such a procedure on which the Joint Complaints Board, a national appellate body of last resort at the legislative level, would ultimately decide. By late August, this was due to be heard sometime in November, with Duncan notified of the outcome within four weeks of their meeting.

A lack of media interest

Meanwhile, Duncan was enquiring of various news media nationwide as to their interest in reporting the challenges of his experience. Only Khrono responded, formally, but chose not to pursue, while another media outlet told him, off the record, that, in Duncan’s words: ‘news publications have ran stories similar to my own in the past, and unfortunately the lack of reception by administrative officials at universities and in public offices has negated interest in continuing the publication of such stories.’

Your reporter was first informed of this story in early October last year, at which point the Joint Complaints Board, as seated by the Norwegian Ministry of Education, was expected to reach its conclusion on individual cases by the end of November. Since their ultimate judgment would determine, officially, whether Duncan had plagiarised with malicious intent, his case file and research made available to Unikum, totalling 98 pages across 16 documents, were read in their entirety in anticipation of this deadline.

While it was hoped that the outcome, good or otherwise, would delineate some sort of closure for Duncan, no such verdict was delivered. According to the Advokathus in mid-January this year, the Joint Complaints Board is still working out how to process the cases that hadn’t been considered prior to its suspension and have only committed to meeting more regularly to rule on specific cases in Spring this year, a delay of at least four months.

Mismatched communication

Speaking to Andersen in early December, due to the human resources required to offer all UiA communication in Norwegian and English, if limited manpower dictates that the information can only be written in one language, English is now used as default by STA. A link to kildekompasset should always be visible, in the form of an icon, on the student dashboard of Canvas. However, at the time of our meeting, a temporary notification regarding artificial intelligence had replaced it. Again, in Norwegian, on the desktop English version of Canvas, noted by Anderson to rectify later. When asked how long this digital notice board had removed the icon link to kildekompasset for, and when it would be reinstated, Greta Hilding, Director of Academic Affairs, wrote:

‘After investigations by the system administrator in Canvas, we cannot see that the link to Kildekompasset has been disabled. From 29 November to 22 December 2023, a message was posted regarding rules for the use of artificial intelligence (AI). This message does not affect whether the link to Kildekompasset is available or not.’

Despite this, neither Andersen nor I could locate the link while the message itself was, according to Hilding, never updated to include an English language version. Helene Braathen, Chief Human Resources and Organisation Officer, informed us that since the UiA student ombudsperson needed parent leave, the UiS equivalent was contracted to take over from 1 January to 30 June 2023. While this covered the entire semester of Duncan’s appeals process while resident in Norway, he told us the contact details for the UiA ombudsperson website were never updated.

Another Duncan discovery: Andersen found the information she required straight away in Norwegian, but not when trying to navigate the UiA website in English. She had to Google-translate the English term into Norwegian, before searching the native language version of the website to solve the problem. Andersen reports, however, that this issue was resolved by the end of the Spring semester last year. UiA are currently working on a new website, which, by happenstance, your reporter gave a usability test as a new student for the International Activities taskforce in early September. Regarding the new website, Hilding explained:

‘UiA’s new website will go live in the second half of April 2024. There will be a longer period which both the new and the old website will be available, but the duration of this has not been determined. In the long run, much of the content on the old websites will not be available on UiA’s new website, as not all content will be carried forward. UiA does not aim to have all Norwegian content on the website available in English, but will ensure that important and relevant information is available in both languages.’

Ouriginal, formerly Urkund, is a plagiarism detection tool, for which UiA holds separate licences for staff and student usage. As Andersen explains:

“when [faculty] are checking [assignments], the teacher has a special function [where] they can upload for a plagiarism check without uploading the actual text but students don’t have that same option.”

With the student licence, Ouriginal/Urkund saves the document uploaded by the student to its programme, exposing them, wittingly or unwittingly, to the risk of self-plagiarism when submitting the assignment proper since their ‘check’ can be classified as ‘publishing’ now that it exists online for the algorithm (through Inspera and the Ouriginal/Urkund teacher licence) to cross-reference. As such, students are advised against using it.

Too thorough? Has to be plagiarism

Foto: Private

As Anderson highlighted multiple times during our meeting, Duncan’s research was (with great irony) so thorough it made UiA “aware of information flaws that were in the system.” For example, the links to kildekompasset (or, in English, citation compass) that were allegedly available on Canvas, but, during his appeals process, weren’t, as highlighted to the Appeals Committee through screenshots illustrating no results. His research prompted discussion on plagiarism within the student parliament on whether the severity of punishments should be expanded from three to seven levels to allow for more nuance within the disciplinary process. Despite the help Duncan gave UiA, it wasn’t reciprocated.

One would conclude, therefore, that with the mistakes made by the university and no history of cheating by the student, an annulment of the submitted assignment (the lowest level of severity) would’ve been administered. Instead, an annulment and two semester exclusion were decreed by the institution and its Court of Appeals without witness testimony even when three other students on the same course were also accused of plagiarism.

Speaking to independent news outlet Khrono in August last year, UiA Rector Sunniva Whitaker wrote, in an article entitled ‘Cheating and “self-plagiarism” at UiA’:

‘[t]he use of sources is permitted in many exams, and often absolutely necessary. The problem is not disclosing which sources have been used and how they have been used. Here, both UiA and other institutions provide good information on their websites, among other things, and “details” such as quotation marks and the like are crucial for the examiner’s understanding of the student’s performance.’

Khrono also published pieces on plagiarism at UiA in May and July 2022 and June 2023. In the latter report, data from 13 universities and university colleges across Norway found that UiA has expelled 37 students for self-plagiarism (11 of these were for plagiarism proper, also) since 2018 while the University of Tromsø excluded none. UiA prohibited the most students for the above violations by more than half of all the responsive institutions, with the University of Oslo and University of South-Eastern Norway removing 17 each.

Unfortunately for Duncan, who did disclose which sources had been used, citing each in-text to introduce the quoted material, he didn’t explicitly state how they had been used, by the absence of quotation marks. Unfortunately for UiA, if ‘good information’ is not available in uniformity, retrievable physically and digitally every day to every student equally, regardless of whether they are native Norwegian speakers or foreign students who use English to operate internationally, then those, like Duncan, who moved their lives to Norway from across the globe in search of opportunity will have done so in vain. And will go elsewhere.

The trial continues

Your reporter and Duncan were due to start and finish their respective two-year master’s degrees over the same semesters. While he could’ve been working on his master’s thesis by now, he has, instead, independently gathered a breathtaking amount of information surrounding the issue of plagiarism at UiA with respect to his own case, in forensic detail, and, more widely, the international student population for which he volunteered as an Active Member and Buddy in the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) from January last year. Already delayed two years by the coronavirus pandemic, his career prospects (not to mention his health and wellbeing) have been hampered by another two years. While UiA moves on with yet more international students, for him, however, the trial continues.

Several questions remain.

  1. Why did Duncan receive the harshest punishment for plagiarism despite a clean academic record and concerted effort to abide by its submission guidelines?
  2. Why was the hearing extension request denied and no witness testimony heard by the Court of Appeal when it is obliged to consider all the available evidence relative to the case?
  3. Why are students prevented from accessing the algorithmic citation checking software for documents available only via the staff version of Ouriginal/Urkund?
  4. If such weight is given to the computerised text analysis tool, during both the submission and subsequent appeals process, why are students unable to access it, to avoid potential accusations of plagiarism and/or self-plagiarism?
  5. If Khrono were able to establish how many UiA students were accused of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, why are UiA unable to distinguish these under the general term of cheating?
  6. If foreign students can succumb to exclusion, why are the annual reports in Norwegian only?
Jason Duncan is still waiting on the Joint Complaints Board to make a decision on his case

Duncan´s current situation

Duncan now lives with his girlfriend in Germany and intends to undertake an equivalent two-year course at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences from this September while working and learning the language simultaneously. Professor Schortgen was an Associate Dean of Faculty with the University of Utah, Asia Campus during the Spring semester last year, his last as a teacher at UiA before retiring. Despite repeated attempts, he didn’t respond to our requests for comment.

A statement from the ‘Additional Comments’ document is, Duncan believes, ‘the best way to dictate my feelings about what happened, that I never was running from responsibility or accountability, but merely seeking fair and just process:

‘My goal is to be disciplined in a manner that is fair and just, aligned with the objective reality that occurs in contextual relationships and interactions between a subordinate (student) and superiors (faculty, staff, university) that led to an accidental occurrence of plagiarism that was neither intentional, willful [sic], nor of gross negligence when considering the evidence and facts of what occurred. I strongly desire to address this gap noted during discussions with STA and ESN as a continuous issue for students attending UIA, particularly those unfamiliar with Norwegian and the way organizations in Norway typically organize their information.’

UiA´s track record

Asked whether the number of plagiarism cases have increased, decreased or remained constant over at least the past eight years, to when Duncan last attended UiA on his international exchange, Greta Hilding, Director of Academic Affairs, said, via email, that while the annual report for last year isn’t yet public: ‘[c]urrently, UiA has 40 expelled students due to cheating. However, the period of suspension for 18 of these students will end before Christmas, so from January 2024, the number will be lower.’

While cheating cases were noticeably higher from 2020 to 2022 due to a greater use of home examinations during the coronavirus pandemic, Hilding pointed out that the interim data from last year suggests the degree of cheating cases should return to lower levels, adding: ‘[a]s you can see from the annual reports, UiA’s Appeals Committee also processed several cheating cases each year where students either received no reaction at all or had their exam annulled without being expelled.

‘It is important to note that these numbers include all forms of cheating and not just the plagiarism cases, as you specifically inquired about. This means that students could also have been expelled for cheating involving non-regulated cooperation between examination candidates, groups, or with other persons or having illegal learning aids available during the examination or other forms of cheating. We do not have available statistics that solely focus on plagiarism cases.’

Regarding Urkund and why UiA holds a licence for it when STA advises students not to upload documents to it, Hilding clarified that ‘Ouriginal is used in three ways at UiA, both through Inspera, Canvas and UiA-account, and all these methods are reserved for the examiners and not available for the students.’

Additionally, in response to the suggestion that the Student Parliament were discussing whether punishments should be expanded from three levels, at present, to seven in future, to allow for more nuance within the disciplinary process and what the status of this was, Hilding explained:

‘UiA does not determine any possible expansion of sanctions in cheating cases. The Norwegian Parliament is currently in the process of creating a new Act relating to universities and university colleges. In the preparatory work for this law, it has been proposed to expand the possibility for universities to exclude students in cheating cases for a period of up to two years. There may be five levels of reactions when the new law comes into force, ranging from annulment only to annulment and exclusion for one to four semesters.’

Further information regarding UiA cheating cases dating back to 2015 are available on the UiA website. Although the annual report for 2017 also provides data for the previous two years, these are, once again, only available in Norwegian. As extracted from the reports, the number of students expelled due to cheating generally:

 

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1 Comment

  1. Spectacular article written by Adam Zawadzki, who will one day work for the top newspapers in the world. I believe Duncan deserves UIA to truly support him like they would any Norwegian student and give him appropriate due process. There seems to be a lot of discrepancies throughout his case and this needs to be addressed by UIA.

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