Murky meddling? Plagarising professor will keep his job

Dr William O’Reilly, a professor at Cambridge accused of plagiarising and publishing a student’s work, has kept his job. Yet he has previously been accused of interfering with college investigation processes.


7/10/20235 min read

Tom Gould, The New Scientist, #223 "Plagiarism".

Dr William O’Reilly, a professor at Cambridge accused of plagiarising and publishing a student’s work, has kept his job after a dubious inquiry.

O’Reilly, an Associate Professor in Early Modern History at Cambridge, published an article in the Journal of Austrian-American History in 2018 titled ‘Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, Orientalism, and the Austrian Militärgrenze’. In July 2021 the journal’s publisher retracted the article as “the author does not dispute” that it included plagiarised material.

Large sections of the article had been copied almost ad verbum from two essays by one of O’Reilly’s undergraduate students. Handwritten feedback showed that the academic had called the student’s work “excellent” when he was first presented with the essays. The plagiarism was discovered when the student came across the article in 2021, and presented the university with evidence that O’Reilly had lifted content from the student’s assignments.

After a two-year internal investigation, a university disciplinary tribunal ruled that the plagiarism was “the product of negligent acts but was not deliberate”. The original author of the plagiarised essays said to the Financial Times that he was “baffled” by the ruling. Of course, it makes little sense how someone could copy someone else’s essays word-for-word by accident.

O’Reilly has been alleged to have interfered with college investigation processes before.

This plagiarism case is not the first controversy to make the rounds regarding O’Reilly’s conduct.

A 2020 investigation by Tortoise Media into Trinity Hall, the college O’Reilly holds a position at, revealed that he had been asked to oversee investigations into sexual assault (SA) cases. Yet this was just two months after he found out that a student had made SA allegations against him. In his capacity as the college’s acting senior tutor in 2018, O’Reilly was responsible for the welfare of every single student at the college.

During his tenure, the professor advised the panel of fellows (senior academics) investigating SA claims of students. However, since he was generally responsible for student welfare, it was also his job to look after the welfare of an accused student. His simultaneous and conflicting responsibilities did not end there. He also chaired a working group dealing with issues stemming from past sexual assault allegations made against emeritus (retired) fellow Dr Peter Hutchinson.

O’Reilly was selected to perform these duties by the college’s Master, Revd Canon Dr Jeremy Morris, despite Morris being aware of an allegation of sexual assault being made against O’Reilly by a student. O’Reilly’s behaviour during the inquiries he oversaw also attracted condemnation and scrutiny.

One of the students making the allegations also suggested that O’Reilly had attempted to stop her making a formal complaint, asking her to consider the impact it would have on the accused student’s life. It was also argued that the professor had a close relationship with the accused student, with them both having been members of a private dinner club. Private dining clubs at Oxbridge have faced heavy censure in recent years thanks to films like The Riot Club. It was also claimed that the former British Prime Minister had sex with a dead animal whilst participating in one of the clubs.

A meeting of Trinity Hall’s Junior Members’ Committee took place in June 2018. It considered the evidence of the complaint, with O’Reilly being called as a witness for the accused student. O’Reilly was allowed to testify, despite the head of the investigation having already been made aware of the SA accusations against him too.

Questions were also raised regarding O’Reilly’s close working relationship with Dr Nick Guyatt. Guyatt was removed from his position as a tutor at Trinity Hall in March 2019 after evidence was found that he had helped the students making the allegations draft their statements. Yet Guyatt was on the panel investigating the case too, and it was argued therefore that he was biased. O’Reilly’s role as advisor to the panel meant that some questioned why he did not act on his supposed belief that Guyatt was interfering with the college court process.

The college has shut down requests for disciplinary action against O'Reilly in other cases.

O’Reilly stated that he was only made aware of the allegations against him in October 2018, five months after the Master found out about them. After participating in a voluntary interview with the police, the case against O’Reilly was closed in November. No further action was taken. The student who made the allegation demanded further interventions by the college after the turn of the new year, but the request was denied.

These other legal issues which have come to light during the plagarism investigations make clear that his actions while at Trinity Hall have received significant scrutiny.

The O'Reilly case threatens academic integrity at Trinity Hall.

Regardless of the impact of this case and previous ones on O’Reilly’s reputation, the university’s ruling to keep him on is concerning for the academic integrity of a world-leading educational institution.

Cambridge consistently ranks as one of the best universities in the UK , and indeed the world, to study History. Much of this is put down to the world-class academics that Cambridge’s History Faculty attracts. The quality of its academic research is a key factor in the reputation of a university. Allowing an academic to remain in post after such a brazen attempt to plagiarise a student’s work might set a dangerous precedent for similar cases in the future across the UK.

According to Cambridge police, proven misconduct in research like plagarism is regarded as gross (serious) misconduct and “will normally merit dismissal”. That was clearly not the case here. An anonymous university employee stated that there was a “fair bit of disgruntlement” surrounding the decision to retain O’Reilly.

It is shocking that an esteemed Cambridge academic, who previously held a senior position at one of its colleges, would copy the work of an undergraduate in one of his papers. Such negligence of proper academic conduct casts a shadow over the entire institution regardless of any decision made. Cambridge deciding to allow him to keep his job only worsens the implications for the university’s academic position in the future. A prospective student aware of this story could avoid applying to Cambridge if such serious academic misconduct goes unpunished.

Cambridge stated that they would not be commenting further on the matter, as the investigation is now concluded. Their independent panel’s puzzling ruling - that O’Reilly’s plagiarism was accidental rather than deliberate - therefore remains unexplained.

Self-governing institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, where their academics lead the administration of colleges and the university, are easy to attack in cases like this. Many will assume that O’Reilly was not removed from his post because of the bias of the panellists, who were friends and colleagues. In a real legal court, these procedures would never fly. But in the tight-knit world of Oxbridge, different norms persist.

Cambridge noted numerous times that the panel was composed of “independent” members of the university. How they were “independent” remains to be proven. It is difficult to reassure the plagiarised student that someone who the accused professor worked with for years could be impartial - no matter how detached of an academic they are. Speaking to the Financial Times, the student said that he had made a complaint after the ruling.

Charlie Bowden