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It’s exam season, so here’s what to do if you’re accused of cheating

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By Daniel Sokol

With examinations under way or imminent, hundreds of students will soon receive a terrifying letter informing them of concerns about their work.  This, usually, is an allegation of cheating.  

Dr Daniel Sokol, a former lecturer, barrister and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, gives tips on what to do next.

1. Get help

Guilty or innocent, the first thing to do is to get help.  This could be from the Student Union or a professional service.

Why?  Because if you’re guilty, you need to identify the strategy that will lead to the most lenient punishment.  If you’re innocent, you must produce a solid defence that will minimise the risk of being found guilty.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that because you are innocent, you will be found innocent.  The university justice system is far from perfect.

Given the enormity of the stakes, any student attempting to deal with this stressful situation on their own has a fool for a representative.  Do not be embarrassed: get help!

2. Do not rush into action

Do not contact anybody from the university until you have sought help.  Many students damage their prospects of success with a hasty, unthinking e-mail or meeting.  Everything you say or write, and what you don’t say or write, can be used as evidence against you.

3. Read the academic misconduct regulations very carefully

Become an expert in the university’s cheating regulations.  These are usually short so it should not take more than 30 minutes.  Once you know these, you will know the process and can identify any procedural irregularities.  You should also find out the definition of the offence and the standard of proof.

Read the regulations even if you are told about the process by others.  Sometimes they make mistakes.

4. Prepare for the investigation

Prepare for this as if your life depended on it.  If you have been accused of buying an essay and you deny the allegation, make sure you know the essay thoroughly.  Learn how to articulate reasons for using a certain approach, structure, or particular references.  Try to find any previous essay notes or plans.  Go through every line and reference of the essay and ask yourself: “what could they ask me about this if they were out to get me?”.  This should take several hours if done properly. 

A good philosophy is ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst.’  Do not assume they will go easy on you.

5. Attend the hearing, with representation if permitted

It is unwise to attend the investigation or subsequent hearings on your own.  Have someone with you.  They can, at the very least, act as a witness in the event of any unfairness occurring during the hearing.  Panels also tend to behave differently if a witness is present.

6. Consult a counsellor or healthcare professional if your mental health is fragile

The process is stressful and if you feel it is all getting too much then seek help from a university counsellor, GP, or other healthcare professional.

Daniel Sokol, PhD, is a former Lecturer in Medical Ethics and Law, and a barrister specialising in helping students appeal university decisions. www.academicappeals.co.uk

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