6. Penalising plagiarism

Penalizing plagiarism belongs primarily to the autonomous authority of universities

Plagiarism is generally regarded as a serious transgression of the principles of academic integrity, and accordingly, any cases identified are usually dealt with directly within academia. Universities have sanction mechanisms at their disposal that apply to students, alumni and to academic staff for cases of systematic breaches of rules for working with sources and an apparent intention to present someone else’s ideas as the author’s own. This handbook concerns the issue of plagiarism in student work; the options for applying penalties for plagiarism by academic staff are, therefore, not included.

It is necessary to distinguish between the identification of plagiarism and penalising the plagiarism

Principally, it is important to distinguish between three different processes: 1. formation of a suspicion of plagiarism, 2. confirmation of plagiarism, and 3. penalising the plagiarist. While the suspicion is typically raised by a teacher, the confirmation and the issue of a potential penalty are in the realm of a disciplinary committee or a committee appointed by the rector, according to § 47c of the Higher Education Act. It is important not to confuse the confirmation of plagiarism with the process of penalising it. This could lead to the evaluation of the facts of the case through the perspective of mitigating circumstances. Those are relevant for deciding the adequate penalty for the student, but not for the identification of plagiarism.

The severity of penalties should be differentiated based on a range of factors

The penalties for students who plagiarise should primarily be differentiated with regard to the extent, seriousness and motivation for the offence identified, but one may also consider the overall context of the given case. Issues that are usually taken into account include, for example, the type of work that contained plagiarism (the procedure for plagiarism in seminar papers has a different level of severity than that for final theses), or the position of the offender in terms of his or her educational stage (a university will deal differently with plagiarism in a seminar paper of a first-year bachelor student and a seminar paper submitted for a master’s programme).

Plagiarism of an enrolled student may be classified as a disciplinary offence

A university can classify plagiarism committed by a student as a disciplinary offence under § 64 of the Higher Education Act. This offence is characterised as a caused violation of obligations imposed by legal regulations or internal regulations of a university or part of it. The potential sanctions include a warning; a conditional expulsion for a fixed period during which the student is excluded, and with conditions under which the student can prove him- or herself; or even a permanent expulsion from the study programme. The nature of the conduct that constituted the offence, the circumstances of the offence, any consequences caused, the extent of the student’s fault, the student’s previous conduct and any effort to remedy the situation are also taken into consideration when determining the punishment. If dealing with the offence on its own will lead to correction, it is possible to abandon any sanctions. Expulsion from studies is only considered in the case of an intentional disciplinary offence. The hearing to consider the allegations must take place within one year of the date the alleged misconduct happened, or – if an allegation goes to court – then the hearing a must be completed within one year of the final judgment of the case.

Universities may now also penalise alumni for plagiarism

Plagiarism may also lead to a further serious legal consequence for the student – the grade for a diploma examination or part of it, or the defence of a dissertation, may be declared null, leading to the removal of his or her academic award. Nullification procedures are dealt with by § 47c to § 47g of the Higher Education Act. Intentional unauthorised use of someone else’s work, which constitutes a serious breach of legal regulations governing the protection of intellectual property, is one of three types of conduct punishable under these provisions.

Nullification of a diploma examination or part of it, or of the defence of a dissertation, may only apply if the person in question, as a result of his or her conduct, failed to fulfil (or only partially fulfilled) the requirements or prerequisites stipulated by the Higher Education Act, the study programme or the study and examination regulations. It is a condition, however, that the conduct is persistent or repeated improper conduct, or that the possibility of the graduate of the given study programme gaining requisite knowledge and skills is substantially reduced by the conduct. The nullification procedure must be initiated ex officio by the rector within three years from the passing of a diploma examination or part of it, or from the defence of a dissertation. The basis for the rector’s decision is a statement from a seven-member inquiry committee, which decides by an overall majority. It is not possible to appeal a nullification decision; however, action may be brought in an administrative court.

Approaches to penalising students for plagiarism

In practice, there are considerable differences in the severity of penalties applied for plagiarism within the Czech academic community. Such differences exist not only between individual universities, but often also between individual departments of the same university. The following diagram (image 2) depicts the common practice in the Czech academic community. The models of some universities or their departments may differ.

Plagiarism may also be penalized through procedures beyond the scope of authority of universities

Plagiarism is not only a breach of academic integrity that is dealt with by the autonomous authority of universities, but it may also entail legal consequences. The rights of an infringed author (or the person exclusively entitled to use the author’s work) are stipulated in the Copyright Act. An unauthorised infringement of copyright that fulfils the appropriate definition and represents severe harm to society, may be classified as a crime, or several concurrent crimes, according to the relevant provisions of a special part of the Criminal Code.

Provision § 40 of the Copyright Act lists a number of claims that the infringed author may demand from a court – e.g., determination of his or her authorship; injunction to prevent breaches of the copyright, including any potential future breaches, or any unauthorised infringement of the copyright; disclosure of information about the manner and extent of the unauthorised use and other information; rectification of the consequences of the breach; adequate redress for the damage suffered in the form of an apology or even financial compensation. The court may also grant the right to the successful party to publicise the judgment with the associated costs paid by the unsuccessful party, and it may determine the extent, form and manner of the publication. Further, the author has the right to demand payment of any lost profit from the party in breach, to the value of the normally expected revenue for licensing the work at the point of the unauthorised use, and expenses for unjust enrichment amounting to double the fee for such license. Unauthorised use of a work is also an offence under § 105a para. 1 a § 105b para. 1 of the Copyright Act, punishable by a fine of up to 150,000 CZK.

Should the unauthorised infringement be substantial, the perpetrator may have committed a crime of infringement of copyright, rights related to copyright and rights to databases under § 270 of the Criminal Code. The crime of infringement of rights of another under § 181 of the Criminal Code, or even fraud under § 209 of the Criminal Code, may also be taken into consideration. The perpetrator would then face imprisonment of up to two years, a ban on activities or forfeiture.11 This, however, is the ultimate sanction, which we do not have to be concerned about in the vast majority of cases when supervising final theses.

Legal claims under the Copyright Act, sanctions for offences and crimes and the removal of academic awards, are available options but these are the ultimate means for copyright protection. The foundation of plagiarism prevention is knowledge and moral integrity among students, academics and scientists, and raising awareness about this phenomenon among the general public.

Schema Figure 2: Common practice when plagiarism is suspected

  1. Sotolář, A. Porušení autorského práva, práv souvisejících s právem autorským a práv k databázi (Komentář). [on-line]. 2020 [cit. 4. 4. 2020]. Dostupné z: http://www.noveaspi.cz/products/ lawText/13/6500/1/2?#pa_270.