Plagiarism still a problem for College

Although Academic Integrity Awareness Week comes to a close today, the issue of plagiarism and cheating at Yale is not likely to go away.

Administrators and faculty said that Yale is not the victim of a plagiarism epidemic, but that academic honesty remains a subject warranting increased attention. Some administrators said looking at their peer institutions’ methods for dealing with plagiarism, which often center on honor codes, could be helpful in refining Yale’s system. But overall, University officials and professors disagree about the extent to which Yale should rethink its current treatment of academic honor.

The state of affairs

Jill Cutler, the secretary of Yale’s Executive Committee, said she thinks Yale’s plagiarism problem is comparable to that faced by most other universities. According to the most recent available ExComm Chair’s Report, from the 2004-2005 academic year, the committee heard 30 cases of cheating and plagiarism that resulted in 19 punishments ranging in seriousness from reprimands to a withheld degree. Cutler said Yale students are not adequately informed about the concept of academic honesty.

“We people who teach here and are administrators here have not done a whole lot about alerting people to these difficulties,” she said.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who organized the awareness week with Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, said he thinks the prevalence of the Internet in students’ lives has made discussion about academic integrity more pertinent than in the past. Because online resources make information so readily accessible, he said, it is now easier than ever to misuse sources.

Some professors said cases of academic dishonesty frequently occur on Yale’s campus, although they are difficult to detect. But others said they have never encountered an instance of plagiarism in their classes.

Keith Darden, assistant professor of political science, said he emphasizes the seriousness of plagiarism at the beginning of each of his courses by telling a hypothetical story in which a student gets sent to the Executive Committee, the disciplinary body of Yale College.

ExComm is a group of 13 members: six faculty, three undergraduates, the dean of Yale College, and a chairman, a secretary and a fact-finder appointed by the dean. Accusations of academic dishonesty, such as cheating and plagiarism, are brought to the committee by faculty members. The fact-finder is responsible for investigating the case, and it is heard by the committee once evidence has been gathered. A majority vote determines a student’s guilt or innocence and assigns any necessary penalties.

Possible penalties include reprimand, probation, restriction of privileges, suspension, expulsion and fines. The standard penalty for cheating is two semesters of suspension, but plagiarism of an entire paper is grounds for expulsion.

Darden said he typically sends at least one student to ExComm every year, despite his attempts to inform his classes about plagiarism. But he said thinks he is a particularly strict enforcer of the guidelines outlined in Yale College’s Undergraduate Regulations.

Calhoun College Dean Stephen Lassonde said that while he thinks academic dishonesty is a problem at every university, he has never discovered a case of cheating in one of his classes. Still, he said, he devotes time during his seminars to a thorough dialogue about plagiarism by reading articles that provide examples of plagiarism by professional historians and a discussion of the ethical issues involved.

“We don’t discuss it as a disciplinary issue, but instead as a question of the difference between the use of other scholars’ work as a way of joining in a conversation about an intellectual issue and the inappropriateness of failing to give due credit to others’ work,” Lassonde said in an e-mail.

Darden said stronger enforcement and punishment at the administrative level would make his classroom discussions about plagiarism more compelling for students. He said he thinks the University should do more to reduce plagiarism actively on campus. For example, convictions of academic honesty offenses should be recorded on students’ transcripts, he said.

“That’s enough of a scarlet letter that I think people will think twice,” he said.

In addition to harsher consequences, Darden said, new University-wide policies could help professors to regulate plagiarism in their classrooms effectively. One way to accomplish this easily would be to require students to submit their papers electronically so they could be easily searched and compared with others for commonalities, he said.

But Cutler said ExComm is not meant to act as the University’s “academic police,” so it intentionally adheres to a very hands-off approach toward seeking out plagiarists. The committee only takes academic dishonesty cases when students are referred by faculty members or other authorities.

The honor code effect

Many schools have found honor codes effective in reducing problems of academic dishonesty, said Don McCabe, the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke. In over 15 years of examining collegiate academic integrity, he said, he has seen a trend of schools transitioning to institutionalized honor codes.

Honor codes typically require students to sign honor pledges on many of their assignments and tests. The codes often call for a judiciary committee comprised mostly of students, an agreement to report other students’ violations and unproctored exams.

Although McCabe said he supports the use of honor codes, he thinks their efficacy has decreased in the time he has been studying them.

“When I first started doing my work, you saw a powerful honor-code effect,” he said. “Although you still see honor codes as favorable, there appears to be some erosion.”

McCabe credits this erosion to a shift in the definition of cheating. Students who cheat may justify their behavior by telling themselves they do not care about a class and therefore might as well cheat in it, he said.

Still, many schools that have honor codes, including the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University, credit their systems with reducing cheating.

Nicole Eramo, assistant dean of students at UVA, cited a recent survey indicating that only 6 percent of UVA students reported any cheating — well under the national average, which she said is between 40 and 70 percent. She attributed much of this discrepancy to the university’s programs for educating students about matters of academic integrity.

“I think the fact that we do so much education up front makes the students aware of the fact that we take it seriously,” she said. “I think if we didn’t focus on education that students would be more nonchalant about it.”

Students said they agree that honor codes and the punishments associated with them can be effective.

“I think it does make a difference,” said Nick Erdle, a sophomore at UVA. “That’s not saying that there is no cheating or lying, [but] if people weren’t totally afraid of getting kicked out of college and probably losing their career, it would be more prevalent.”

Alison Tramba, the chair of the UVA Honor Committee, said that most honor violations the committee encounters involve egregious cases of plagiarism or cheating on exams. She said, however, that she is seeing a trend toward misuse of online resources.

Rob Rain, the president of the Student Executive Committee at Washington and Lee, the student organization that handles academic honor offenses, said plagiarism cases have become more common as Internet sources have become more available. Nevertheless, the Executive Committee has not had to deal with a case of plagiarism involving the Internet for two years, he said. He said he feels a strong honor code is necessary to reverse the trend of cheating that often begins in high school.

“People just take [the honor code] so seriously,” said Matt Anderson, a sophomore at Washington and Lee. “No one really cheats … Cheating and plagiarism are extremely rare, and when they do happen they are almost caught immediately.”

Princeton University operates under a similar honor code that applies to all in-class examinations and papers, said Jim Williamson, the chair of Princeton’s Honor Committee. He said the honor code at Princeton allows all exams to be unproctored.

Williamson said that although the honor code technically only applies to assignments completed in class, students typically choose to sign the pledge on work done outside of class as well.

“I really think that the fear of the honor code pervades everything,” he said. “I think that people really respect the idea of academic integrity.”

The honor question at Yale

Both administrators and professors said there are several aspects of the University’s existing infrastructure and policies that could be altered or developed to better address plagiarism.

Writing Center Director Alfred Guy, who teaches a section of English 114, said that although he thinks Yale students are aware of the fact that cheating is a punishable offense, an institutionalized honor system, particularly an honor code, could make students feel more accountable for their own work. He said he asks students in his class to sign an honor pledge when they turn in their papers, attesting that the work is their own and that it is in accordance with University regulations.

“If students feel that they themselves are responsible for living up to and maintaining the honor system, it gives them a sense of agency,” he said.

Justin Zaremby ’03 GRD ’09, who wrote an opinion piece for the News in 2002 arguing that the University needs an honor code to combat academic dishonesty, said his views have changed somewhat since writing his column, but he still sees some benefits to having a code.

“The advantage of an honor code is that it helps strengthen a college community with a common vow that people take seriously,” he said in an e-mail. “For schools that require that code to be accepted — perhaps by the signing of the code on every exam blue book — it is a constant reminder of the values that the community holds dear.”

But administrators and faculty also said it is important to acknowledge the complexities of installing an honor code. For example, Salovey said, he thinks a clause requiring students to report their peers for cheating can be a burden for students.

Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College — which, like Yale, does not have an honor code — said he agrees that such a clause can be problematic. Lewis said he thinks that if students do not follow the clause requiring them to turn in other students they see cheating, the value of the honor code will be diminished and overall cheating, which he calls a “sort of infectious social disease,” may increase.

“I personally am not in favor of Harvard going to an honor code,” he said in an e-mail. “I am not sure those students who favor honor codes would be so enthusiastic about them if they were forced to pledge, seriously, that they really would police their roommates and lovers.”

Lewis also said he thinks it would be hypocritical to impose an honor code on students if faculty are not held to the same standard. But implementing a faculty honor code would be complicated because it would require professors to turn in their colleagues when they observe them committing an act of academic dishonesty, he said.

Darden said he thinks that a complete overhaul of the University’s current system is unnecessary, and that Yale handles cases of academic dishonesty fairly and effectively for the most part.

“I think Yale handles it pretty well,” he said. “You don’t want to make false claims against people. We have very bright students that sometimes write better than the books we read. I think it’s a system that rightly favors the students.”

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