Yale Daily News

Eighty-one students from last semester’s “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” more than half the class, were referred to the University’s Executive Committee for academic dishonesty during online open-note examinations.

On Jan. 2, professor of anthropology Jessica Thompson formally brought the incident to the attention of the Executive Committee, the University body that adjudicates disciplinary infractions. Multiple documents reviewed by the News — including Thompson’s official report, student exam submissions and communications from the committee — confirm the events. Several of the students’ cases are still ongoing within the Executive Committee. The 81 students referred to the Committee for this class alone make up a group larger than the University-wide total for academic ExComm cases decided on in all of 2020, according to public reports.

The incident comes as faculty have raised concerns about preserving academic integrity during hybrid or online instruction. Last month, Executive Committee members met with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate to discuss online examinations and the need for updated guidelines as to what constitutes academic dishonesty.

“While I was grading the final, I noticed several instances of direct copy-pasting from a class reading,” Thompson wrote in her Jan. 2 email to Assistant Dean of Yale College and Secretary of the Executive Committee Rachel Russell. “Many students did this, although I was explicit that they could not copy/paste anything, even from the class readings.”

Thompson reported that she found a variety of potential cases of academic dishonesty, ranging from minor instances of borrowed definitions to “truly egregious” instances of copying entire paragraphs from the internet. She reported 81 of 136 total students to the Executive Committee for improper use of online and lecture materials, totaling nearly 60 percent of the class.

Thompson, who is currently in Malawi conducting fieldwork, declined to comment.

According to Thompson’s report, she noticed a pattern of copied-and-pasted answers while grading her class’s online, open-note final. Though students were allowed to consult their notes, the exam’s instructions forbade direct transcription from outside sources.

“The exam is open book and open note, but you MUST NOT work with another person while taking it,” the instructions read. “You also MUST not copy/paste anything directly from ANY source other than your own personal notes. This includes no copy/pasting from lecture slides, from the internet, or from any of the readings. All short answers must be compiled in your own words.”

This was not the first time Thompson noticed such behavior last semester. Her class was structured around nine short, open-note quizzes administered during class but completed via Canvas. On Oct. 22, after the fourth quiz, Thompson sent a reminder of the policy to the class via Canvas, saying that she noticed some students had been filling out the short-answer questions by “copy-pasting from various sources;” she reiterated that plagiarism is prohibited.

After noticing multiple instances of copy-pasted material on the final, Thompson downloaded the exam results and uploaded a compiled file of all the students’ responses to Turnitin.com, an assignment-submission website that includes plagiarism detection. 

“​​In doing this, I discovered many, many more instances [of plagiarism],” Thompson wrote to Russell. “I then realized that some students may have only done this on the final, and other students may have not done it on the final but done it earlier in the class.” 

Thompson then decided to cross-examine all the quizzes given after her Oct. 22 reminder about plagiarism. This Turnitin.com algorithm ultimately produced a list of 81 names, all of which she referred to the Executive Committee.

In her email to the committee, Thompson noted that the list included a large variation in severity of students’ conduct, some of which might have been “careless study habits” in which students integrated verbatim material into their notes. However, Thompson wrote, she deemed it more appropriate for the committee to discern between the cases.

The recourse that students from the class faced varied, according to interviews with four students who were among those included on Thompson’s list.

Some students received only a notification that they had been referred to the committee, and — weeks later — were notified that their case had been dismissed, though the News could not verify the number of students whose cases were dismissed. 

Other students were required to prepare written statements for the committee. At least three students who sent written statements in February received notice from the committee last week giving them the option to either attend a formal hearing with the committee or receive a reprimand — an informal kind of pre-probation outcome wherein the student admits guilt and the incident is recorded on their internal record until graduation. 

“I can’t speak directly about how many cases from this class are still unresolved,” said Committee Chair David Vassuer in an email to the News. Executive Committee proceedings are confidential. “Our committee aims to resolve cases in an expedient manner, as we recognize that the process creates a lot of stress for students. At the same time, our committee has experienced an unusually high number of complaints over the past few years, so we do end up with backlogs in our system.”

In the spring and fall semesters of 2020, the Executive Committee decided on 78 academic cases, according to the Committee’s most recent public reports. Of the 78, 49 students were reprimanded, 10 were placed on probation, five were suspended and 14 were found not responsible or had their charges withdrawn. 

In the spring 2020 semester, three academic cases heard by the Executive Committee pertained specifically to take-home exams, with two of those students being placed on probation. Per the report, one senior “who copy and pasted answers from the internet on a take home exam without citation” was suspended for two semesters and had to petition for reinstatement.

The Executive Committee is made up of Yale College Dean’s Office administrators, University faculty and undergraduate students.