Over decades, plagiarism in academic writing has been viewed as a serious issue of academic integrity within educational institutions. Universities are increasingly investing time and capital in raising plagiarism awareness and investigating measures to detect and deter plagiarism. Many tertiary institutions appear to adopt legal and quasi-legal interpretations of criminal law in their plagiarism management practices and policies (Sutherland-Smith, Journal of English for Academic Purposes 4: 83–95, 2005, Plagiarism, the Internet and academic writing: Improving academic integrity, Routledge, 2008). In this paper, semiotic analysis of discourse (Danesi and Perron, Analyzing cultures: An introduction and handbook, Indiana University Press, 1999; Danesi, Messages, signs and meanings: A basic textbook in semiotics and communication theory, Canadian Scholars Press, 2004, The quest for meaning: A guide to semiotic theory and practice, University of Toronto Press, 2007) is used to explore notions of fairness and justice in the language of university plagiarism policies. Through examination of the plagiarism policies of twenty “top” universities across Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, I argue that, in some cases, approaches to plagiarism management do not appear consistent with outward appearances of justice and fairness. In fact, policies and processes bear closer resemblance to punitive legal outcomes than the broader ethical approaches usually associated with concepts of justice and fairness. Rethinking plagiarism management in terms of ethically responsible relationships within institutional processes and policies is closer to societal notions of justice and a more educationally sustainable practice, which should be reflected in the discourse of university plagiarism policies and processes.
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