What to do if the Use of Unfair Means is SuspectedFlowchart depicting the Unfair Means Investigation Process

Staff should report any suspected cases to their Examinations/Use of Unfair Means Officer or equivalent. Consistency of practice across the University is key and advice may be sought from the Student Conduct and Appeals (SCA) Team.

Time Limits

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) require the University to investigate suspected cases of unfair means promptly. It is good practice, where possible, for the academic department to notify the student as soon as possible of the concerns and having made them aware, to conclude the investigation as quickly as possible.

The OIA have published guidance which provides that where a case requires referral to a discipline hearing, the entire process from notification of the allegation to the student to the conclusion of the discipline hearing should take no more than 60 calendar days. To allow sufficient time for the hearing to be arranged and fulfil procedural requirements, the departmental investigation will need to be conducted and completed promptly.

The OIA routinely hold institutions to account for not complying with their time scales, with compensation payable by the University (which often falls to the applicable department) to the student.

Where there is a good and justifiable reason for any delay, the OIA will expect the student to be kept updated and informed as to the reasons for the delay.

Where too much time has elapsed without good reason before the case is referred to a discipline hearing, it may not be possible to proceed to a hearing.

Departmental Investigation

Reference to cheating in invigilated exams is included although the Examinations Team may also be consulted.

It is the teaching department which investigates the concerns. However, where a case involves students registered on dual degrees or taking modules in other departments, there must be effective channels of communication between the two departments, to ensure that details are shared and effectively recorded.

1. The student must be informed in writing (see example letters section below) of the type of unfair means they are suspected of and why and provided with sufficient information to allow them to respond to the allegation, for example a copy of the a turnitin report or invigilator’s report, unless it is considered that to do so would compromise the investigation. They must be given the opportunity to respond to the allegation/provide an explanation for their actions. They should also be informed that they can access independent advice and support on their position from the Student Advice Centre in the Students' Union.

2. Where there are concerns that unfair means may have been used in a PhD thesis, the thesis must not be retracted to allow amendments to be made. The viva should be postponed pending an investigation and any subsequent Discipline Hearing.

3. If the student is resident in Sheffield, they should be interviewed, by at least two people (for example by the Module Leader and the Examinations Officer or equivalent) and be invited to bring a representative or friend to the meeting. At least two to three days' notice of the meeting should be given. Alternatively, if the student is no longer resident in Sheffield they may be asked to attend an online meeting via video link. Care should be taken as to any time difference i.e. the meeting is at an appropriate time for all parties and the student should be asked to agree to the following protocol:

  • The student should respect the privacy of the meeting, for example by being in a room where they can be on their own. If anyone else is present, this should be made known to the Chair of the meeting.
  • The web cam should be activated by both parties to ensure parity.
  • The University does not normally allow students to record hearings.

4. In less serious cases and where the facts are straightforward the student may be invited to provide an explanation of their actions via email (by a certain date) but a meeting can still be arranged should the department consider it helpful to establish the facts and/or aid communication following the initial email exchange, but making sure the investigation is concluded in a timely manner.

5. Identifying unfair means and making decisions on cases will often, but not always, involve academic judgment. Where an academic judgment is made it should be evidence based. For example, an academic member of staff who says that the standard of an assignment is out of line with the student’s other work should be able to support that with examples from the student’s other work.

6. Commissioning ie where there are concerns that a student may have commissioned a 3rd party to write some or all of their assessment can be challenging to evidence , and investigations can be time consuming and lengthy. Set out below are some helpful areas of exploration which when considered cumulatively can build a compelling case.

Appearance Is the assignment font/layout different to the students past submissions?
Filename Is the filename (or header/footer) obvious, or does it contain unexpected details?
Document properties Does the document’s properties include a name other than the students? How do the properties compare to the students previous assignments?
Content Consider the student’s assignment against previous submissions, is it commensurate with the students overall standard? Ask a colleague to compare and contrast too.
Does it relate to the level of study (eg is the assignment what’s expected of a first year student)?
Check if the assignment focuses on the assignment brief or whether it is generic (ie does it address the general subject area but misses the specific focus?). Consider if it is structurally well written but vague in terms of content.
Writing style Is the writing style in-keeping with the student’s previous submissions?
Is the style unexpectedly eloquent?
Third party evidence Has the ghost writer inadvertently left a sign that they have written the assignment (eg incorrect information contained on front page, or comments left in the document).
Referencing Is the referencing presented in an unexpected referencing style?
Are the references 'generic' on the general subject area but not appropriate to the core matter of the assignment?
Are they acceptable content wise but cited in the wrong places?

When interviewing the student you may wish to ask to see the students draft notes in order to check if the notes align to the assignment content. In addition it is good practice to conduct a ‘mini-viva’ as part of the investigation process in order to ask specific questions about how the assignment/ code/ answers were constructed, and specific questions relating to the content of the submission to give the student an opportunity to demonstrate that they wrote the submission. It is good practice to plan questions thoughtfully beforehand, and table evidence of any other concerns you have encountered as part of the initial investigation (eg evidence of an unexpected name appearing in the document properties).

7. Once the initial concerns have been investigated and the department is satisfied that unfair means has been used, other assessed work previously submitted by the student may be reviewed (including those assignments where credit has already been awarded). Colleagues in other departments where the student is registered may be asked to do likewise. If plagiarism has occurred in previous work, this may be taken into account when the department decides on the appropriate action to take on the initial concerns.

8. If a student has not been given feedback on one or more previous incidences (i.e. the use of unfair means was not picked up at the time), then the latest incident will usually be treated as a first offence.

9. A written record of the meeting should be made using the Departmental Case Recording Form available in the forms section below. It is good practice to provide the student with a note of the meeting, but it will not normally need to be a full transcript.

Once an investigation is completed, consideration will need to be given by the academic department as to what, if any, action is required i.e. an outcome applied by the academic department or if the case is sufficiently serious, a report to the Student Conduct and Appeals Team for consideration for referral to a Discipline Hearing in line with the Student Discipline Regulations. See Departmental Action or Report for a Discipline Hearing?

It is good practice to tell the student that concerns have been raised about their work even if it decided to take no further action.

Departmental action may be appropriate in less serious cases. The student should be provided with a written outcome setting out the decision reached and explaining the student’s right of appeal against the outcome imposed, and the case recorded on file. See the full information about Departmental action, and example letters below.

Departmental action may be taken against a student in less serious cases where the use of unfair means is not accepted/admitted. Approval must be sought from the relevant Faculty before taking action. A Faculty Approval Form (available in the forms section below) should be completed and submitted to the Student Conduct and Appeals Team. See the full information about Departmental action.

In more serious cases, the case should be reported to the Student Conduct and Appeals Team for consideration for referral to a discipline hearing. The student should be informed in writing (see example letters) by the department that their case is being reported to SCA for a disciplinary action. The student should not be advised that they have a right of appeal against the decision to report their case.

No form of departmental or disciplinary action can normally be taken once a student has withdrawn or returned to their home institution (for example in the case of Erasmus students). Where concerns arise that unfair means may have been used after the student has successfully completed their programme of study, it may be possible to withdraw the award. Further guidance may be sought from The Student Conduct and Appeals Team.

The Student Conduct and Appeals Team may be consulted at any stage of the process.


Example Letters to Students

Forms and other Information