Guidelines for Marking of Dissertations for Postgraduate (MSc) Programmes

Guidelines for Marking of Dissertations for Postgraduate (MSc) Programmes

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Guidelines for Marking of Dissertations for Postgraduate (MSc) Programmes

The guidelines are in three parts. The first part sets out the procedures that must be followed by first and second markers, and includes a section on borderline marks. Please note that for dissertations, Distinction, Merit, and Pass borderlines are all relevant.

The second part sets out guidelines for interpreting Turnitin reports. It is the responsibility of the first marker to check these, and these guidelines are intended to help determine if there is a potential plagiarism issue.

The final part is an assessment guideline. Please note that these guidelines are intended to be that – to help guide decisions – and not as an absolute measure. They can be helpful in determining marks to be awarded and also in helping markers and second markers decide an agreed mark.

Please also note that University regulations require that dissertations should be assessed by two markers, and so are separate from recent changes to the moderation of exams and coursework.

First Marker

The first marker provides the larger part of feedback on the MSc Dissertation Feedback Form and under headings which have been designed to reflect the intended learning outcomes of the dissertation.

Feedback should be full and detailed enough for students learn from it.

No mark should be entered on the feedback form, but instead entered a mark on the MSc Dissertation Mark Record Sheet.

Checking for Plagiarism

There are guidelines later on how to read a Turnitin report. If, following your own assessment of the Turnitin report, you believe there is cause for concern, please first discuss this with your dissertation coordinator. Likewise, if you have good cause to suspect plagiarism but it does not show on the Turnitin report (possibly purchased), please first discuss this with your dissertation coordinator. Any suspected cases of plagiarism should then be forwarded to Humphrey Bourne together with as much evidence as can be found.

Second Marker

The second marker should also mark the dissertation in the normal way, but is not expected to write detailed feedback to the student. Instead, the second marker should write a brief overall summary of the dissertation’s strengths and weaknesses to be added to the Feedback Form. The marker should then add their mark to the Mark Record Sheet.

Agreeing final marks

Markers need to agree a final mark. It is imperative that once the mark has been agreed and recorded on the mark record sheet that a brief explanation of the mark is given. Where the initial mark of the two markers differs by more than five marks, a fuller explanation of how an agreed mark has been reached needs to be given.

The reason for this is because it is the primary means by which external examiners can see that the process has been followed correctly and with consideration. External examiners raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the agreeing of marks for dissertations, and a clear trail is important in demonstrating that we are carrying out marking responsibilities properly.

Borderline marks for Dissertation pass and permission to resubmit

Two important points to note with regard to grade boundaries in the marking of dissertations

In order for a student to be permitted an opportunity to resubmit a failed dissertation it must record a mark of 45% or higher. This is a University regulation which places markers in an awkward position of having to choose between recording what they believe to accurate and what they believe to be fair. In view of this, the School policy is to avoid all marks between 40-44 in the dissertation and ask markers either to agree that the dissertation is so poor that it does not warrant the student being given an opportunity to resubmit or to record a mark of 45% so that a resubmission is permitted. In doing so, we recognise that a recorded mark of 45 means, in effect, that it is not worse than 40 but a lot worse than 46. It is messy, but it is fair from the student’s point of view.

The regulations require the dissertation to be in the category of the eventual award. The pass mark is 50%; the minimum mark for the dissertation to gain a Merit is 60%, and for a Distinction it is 70%. Marks close to the boundary between fail and pass, pass and merit, and between merit and distinction will come under scrutiny by the Exam Board if it makes a material difference to the student’s exit award. Please, therefore, make sure that you are clear in your agreed marks of the following

A mark ending in 9 (49, 59, 69). Markers should only give such a mark in exceptional circumstances (and are likely to be asked to review it before the Exam Board). It indicates that the internal examiners believe that while, on balance, the script is in the lower class, or outside what could be considered for compensation, there is clear evidence of work in the higher class as well. The internal markers would have no objection to this mark being raised by the Exam Board. However, the award of these marks should be avoided unless absolutely necessary and with good reason.

A mark ending in 8 (48, 58, 68). This indicates that the internal examiners have agreed that the script is in the lower class. However, either one examiner believes that the script contains work at the higher class or both examiners believe there is some evidence of work in the higher class that is not completely offset by weakness elsewhere.

How to interpret a Turnitin similarity report: Guidance for Dissertation Markers

The University uses the text comparison software Turnitin to help us to identify plagiarism. The report that Turnitin generates includes a number referred to as a ‘similarity index’. If there is a suspicion of plagiarism, the Chair of the school board of examiners will decide, in consultation with the Faculty plagiarism officers, and using the criteria listed in section 8 of the examination regulations, whether the case appears minor and can be handled at school level or is more significant, requiring involvement from the Faculty. The % similarity index indicates the amount of matching text, but this is not necessarily plagiarism. Turnitin does not itself identify plagiarism but highlights matching text. Reports are interpreted and any plagiarism determined by academic judgement.

There are a few points to note when considering Turnitin reports.
  • For quotes to be recognised by Turnitin and excluded they must be enclosed in double quote marks
  • Graphical materials such as diagrams, images or equations are not checked.
  • For references to be recognised by Turnitin and excluded they must be appropriately labelled with headings of Bibliography, References, or Referenced Works, on a new line and not followed by any punctuation.
  • Turnitin reports can include discipline-specific phrases (for example 'international business organisations'; 'cross-cultural research'), or common phrases (for example 'research paradigm') which, although not original, would not be considered plagiarism.
  • A low similarity index on a Turnitin report does not necessarily mean there is no plagiarism. Work plagiarised from books, or unpublished papers may still be identified by markers.


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The following points can be helpful when looking at Turnitin reports:

What is the total amount of similarity overall? The higher the figure the more likely it is that a problem exists. But the similarity score may include references and quotes as well as some common elements such as title, front page wording, and common concepts in the subject area (xyz framework, abc theory etc). It is difficult to put an actual figure for a dissertation: 15% of a 15,000 word dissertation amounts to over 2,000 words; if this is in a few blocks of text then it needs further investigation. If it is scattered through the dissertation in short phrases and is drawn from several sources, none more than 2-3% then it is much less likely to be plagiarism.

What do the first five highest matches add up to? High matches from few sources are more likely to be associated with plagiarism.

What is the pattern of similarity? We look at the proportion of each page that has matches, and the pattern in the form of either blocks of text or scattered sentences and phrases. We might also consider where in the document any similarities lie. For example, similarities in data and in the discussion may be regarded as more serious than similarities in the literature review.

Have matches been referenced? Are they properly referenced? Sometimes high matches are correctly referenced but reveal poor academic practice in how the work of others is used to develop arguments. Sometimes text has been incorrectly referenced (for example by omitting page numbers for direct quotations) or not referenced at all. At other times, references within a matching block of text are not in the list of references, indicating unthinking copying of sections.

Is there evidence of intention to try to avoid Turnitin identifying matches? We consider how the student appears to have worked with the sources used, for example whether words may have been substituted within blocks of text, perhaps as a wholly unsatisfactory attempt to paraphrase, perhaps to try and avoid detection. This is most obvious in long blocks of text where, for example, words such as 'organisation' may be substituted for 'firm'.


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