Yale students are smart. But are they so smart they do not need to cheat?

Many University administrators say they think the answer is yes.

A recent survey by the News of 327 current sophomores, juniors and seniors found that only 3 percent admitted to having committed plagiarism and only 5 percent said they had cheated on an exam while at Yale. But 42 percent said they had witnessed another student cheating at Yale.

While many students interviewed said they think cheating on smaller assignments — problem sets or ungraded reading responses, for example — is fairly prevalent, administrators, faculty and students generally agreed that cheating on major assignments is not widespread at a top-ranked school like Yale, where high-achieving students do not need to break the rules.

“Students who come here are so smart, they simply don’t need to cheat,” said John Rogers, the director of undergraduate studies in the English Department and a former chair of the Executive Committee, the top disciplinary body for undergraduates.

But Yale officials may be misguided, according to three outside experts on collegiate cheating interviewed by the News. Like students everywhere, these experts said, Yale students likely plagiarize on papers or sneak peaks at classmates’ tests, even if they do it in lower percentages than their peers at less selective schools.

And in light of some ambiguity in the Undergraduate Regulations about what qualifies as cheating — and at the same time that top administrators are considering the creation of a required online cheating workshop for all students — at least one administrator says he thinks the University could do more to prevent cheating.

The courtroom

Rogers said the results of the News poll reflect his experience dealing with cases of academic dishonesty while on ExComm. The most frequent motives for cheating, he said, are intense academic and extracurricular pressure. Typically, students make poor choices when they feel swamped by an overwhelming number of commitments, he said.

“No one begins a freshman year with the intention of cheating during their four years here,” he said. “No one comes here as a cheater.”

Spanish professor Noel Valis said she can only recall one instance of cheating during her nine years at the University.

Valis remembers having an inkling that the polished paper she had just read was not the student’s own work. Typing a suspect phrase into Google, Valis needed only seconds to confirm her suspicion. The case, she said, was an anomaly among the hundreds of graded assignments she has seen as a professor at the University.

“If you’re a good enough student to get here, you’re good enough to write the papers on your own,” she said. “There’s an understanding that students coming here have a certain sense of responsibility and ethics.”

During her time as director of undergraduate studies in the Spanish Department, Valis said no faculty member has visited her to report a similar run-in with cheating.

Rogers said although the College has no formal system for detecting cheating, it is nonetheless easy for faculty to spot academic dishonesty.

Nearly all professors, he said, have an “innate understanding of the mechanics of student prose.”

“Nothing is easier when reading a paper than entering a five-word phrase into Google,” he said. “It’s amazing how many times the very paper that you’re reading pops up.”

Because students are aware of the consequences of cheating, as well as its vulnerability to detection, Rogers said, few students take such a risk unless they feel they have no other choice.

ExComm tries relatively few cheating cases, but the penalty for getting caught is severe and can result in suspension or, in extreme cases, expulsion. Between fall 2002 and spring 2007, 16 Yale undergraduates were asked to pack their belongings and bid farewell to campus for at least a semester, according to available ExComm annual reports.

In 2006-2007, ExComm charged 23 students with academic dishonesty. Since 2002, it has seen roughly 17 each year, with no significant change in numbers from year to year.

Rogers and Jill Cutler, assistant dean of Yale College, said the College tries to educate students on the definition of academic dishonesty during freshman year, after which point it expects students not to cheat.

Still, the definition of academic dishonesty remains unclear. The Undergraduate Regulations for the 2008-’09 academic year do not formally define academic dishonesty on problem sets and ungraded written assignments as cheating.

Cutler, the current secretary of ExComm, said the College informs incoming students about its cheating policies but then leaves students alone and expects them not to cheat. Yale currently relies on professors or teaching fellows to independently check the work of students if they suspect students of academic dishonesty, rather than using an automated checking device. Cutler said many other institutions subscribe to computer services such as CheckItIn.org to determine whether students have plagiarized on papers.

It is one thing to treat transgressions on a case-by-case basis, Cutler said, but “It’s something else for a university to say we think you all are cheaters and we’re going to buy a program that tells us.”

Yale and beyond

Alfred Guy, the director of the Writing Center, said he thinks Yale could do more to train faculty to catch academic dishonesty.

“All students occasionally run into difficult work that sometimes tempts them to take shortcuts,” Guy said.

Cutler said the College is likely to implement a mandatory online training program regarding academic honesty that students will be required to complete before registering for classes, although the administration has no concrete plans as of yet.

Most of nearly a dozen students interviewed said they do not think cheating is a major problem on exams or papers, but many said it is prevalent on smaller assignments, such as problem sets and day-to-day homework.

“I have never seen cheating on tests or papers, although there will always be cheating on routine homework assignments” Robin Lenahan ’11 said.

Brandon Johnson ’09 said he has not seen cheating on exams and papers while at Yale, but he has observed “unabashed collaboration” on work to be completed outside of class.

One senior said he believes the line between collaboration and cheating is often unclear.

“Students working together often exploit the ambiguity of what constitutes collaborative work and what constitutes cheating,” Elan Spanjer ’09 said.

Stephen Silva ’10 said cheating was particularly common among students completing problem sets.

“As far as problem sets are concerned, I know there’s some hard-core cheating,” he said. “I know people who meet together, distribute one problem to each person and then circulate the one that they did, and everyone copies it.”

And when it comes to major assignments, Yale administrators are likely underestimating the extent of Elis’ cheating, said Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers School of Business and an expert on cheating in colleges. McCabe’s online survey of 85,000 students from 112 institutions across the country found that 21 percent of students reported cheating on an exam, and 48 percent reported cheating on a written assignment.

McCabe told the News he thinks the number of students who cheat at Yale should be somewhat lower than the national average, but not dramatically so. McCabe, who has been hired by three Ivy League schools to study the incidence of cheating at these institutions, which he declined to name, said he believes students at top tier schools tend to cheat less frequently than their peers at other institutions.

During the 2007-’08 school year, Harvard’s administrative board saw 42 cases of academic dishonesty, according to the Harvard College Guide for Students. At Princeton — which, unlike Harvard and Yale, has an honor code — the most recent discipline report shows 19 students found guilty of “academic violations” in 2006-’07.

Jason Stephens, an assistant professor of education psychology at the University of Connecticut who specializes in academic honesty, said he thinks the actual figures for Yale are likely higher than those reported in the News poll, which he said may have been misleading because it asked students outright whether they had “cheated” or “plagiarized.” Many students have limited definitions of cheating, he said, and also may have been reluctant to admit to dishonesty.

Stephens said he was confident that cheating has a presence at Yale.

“I have no doubt that there is a problem with academic dishonesty at Yale, even if it’s a small problem relative to other universities,” he said.

Cutler, for her part, conceded that the cheating cases that come before ExComm are likely only “the tip of the iceberg.”

David Callahan, author of “The Cheating Culture: Why Americans Cheat to Get Ahead,” a co-founder of a public policy think tank, said some Yale students have likely already cheated before they arrive in New Haven.

“Research shows that even the smartest and most privileged high school students often cheat to get ahead and to increase their chances of getting into a top university with brand-name recognition,” he said.

Some students continue to cheat at Yale, Callahan surmised, while others stop once they arrive at the University.

“It simply is the case that the cheating epidemic affects the very cream of the high school student body,” he said. “Certainly there are students at Yale … who ensured their stellar transcript by some possible cheating at some point during their high school careers.”