Teaching Development Grants
Completed TDG Projects

Assessment and Feedback

Determining the Standards for Plagiarism and a De Minimis Exception among HKU’s Peer Institutions


This Teaching Development Grant produced a 109-page academic report on the various plagiarism-related standards and penalties that 18 of HKU’s peer institutions have adopted. The institutions that were included in this academic study were Harvard University, Stanford University, Princeton University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California Berkeley, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Cornell University, Boston University, the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, University College London, Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and the National University of Singapore.

A number of curriculum innovations result from this project, which involve the general observations that, among HKU’s peer institutions:

  • All except one provide a clear definition of plagiarism;
  • All except two adopt a broad definition of plagiarism that does not allow for a de minimis exception;
  • All except four provide a broad range of available penalties;
  • All except three give the faculty a clear role with plagiarism beyond merely detecting plagiarism;
  • Some include examinations within their definitions of plagiarism;
  • Some include collaboration within their definitions of plagiarism;
  • Some include unintentional conduct as plagiarism;
  • Some give reasons for the plagiarism policy besides just discipline;
  • Some distinguish between minor and major offences;
  • Some provide a variety of hard and soft penalties;
  • Some have express allowance for combining penalties;
  • Some give broad discretion to one person in deciding penalties;
  • Some faculties decide the definition of plagiarism;
  • Some faculties decide the penalties for plagiarism;
  • Some faculties decide the proper way of acknowledging; and
  • Some faculties decide what constitutes common knowledge.

These observations concerning HKU’s 18 peer institutions and a comparison of HKU’s policy with these peer institutions’ policies might form the basis for providing curriculum innovation through the following reforms to HKU’s policy:

  • Referring to exams being included in the definition;
  • Referring to what constitutes appropriate collusion and collaboration;
  • Referring to aiding and abetting plagiarism as being covered by the policy;
  • Prohibiting reuse of one’s work from another course;
  • Providing online courses and quizzes;
  • Expanding the list of available penalties for responding to detected plagiarism, including soft or informal penalties, including non-reportable warning letters, community service, letters of apology, counseling, coursework that relates to teaching about plagiarism, and a reflective writing assignment, with departments perhaps having a greater role with these soft penalties;
  • Removing the distinction between minor and major plagiarism when it comes to warning letters and in all other ways;
  • Removing the word “even” from “even expulsion” to make “expulsion” less of an exceptional penalty in the minds of would-be plagiarizers, among others;
  • Expressly allowing multiple penalties to be applied at the same time;
  • Allowing co-ordination between the Working Group on Plagiarism in Taught Curricula and the Graduate School so that there is only one plagiarism policy for taught and research programmes, as no other institution has separate policies like that;
  • Refraining from making the year of study being a relevant factor in determining penalties for plagiarism, as few institutions allow for this;
  • Giving faculties, departments and schools a clear role with plagiarism standards, perhaps with defining what constitutes proper acknowledgement, common knowledge and appropriate collaboration for their respective disciplines;
  • Adopting a more detailed policy on how departments and schools can influence the HKU plagiarism policy and the implementation of penalties; and
  • Noting how cultural differences are no excuse to the commission of plagiarism and how just issues must not be considered at the plagiarism-determination stage or at the penalty-determination stage.

Principal Investigator

Dr. J.D. Fry, Department of Law, Faculty of LawContact

Project level


Project Completion

November 2013


Please contact Dr. James D. Fry of Department of Law, Faculty of Law, by email (jamesfry@hku.hk) if you are interested in obtaining more information on this project.