Sunday, September 02, 2012

Cheating, plagiarism, and honor codes

The internet has been buzzing about the rumored cheating scandal at Harvard, where more than half of the students in an introductory political science class are implicated in plagiarism and/or improper collusion on a take-home exam.  It sounds like there were several coincident issues here.  First, the take-home final was "open book, open notes, open internet".  That might be fine under some circumstances and certainly corresponds to real-life conditions - I've always hated the contrived nature of closed-book, timed exams.  However, if students are not properly trained in how to cite material (a big "if" at Harvard), this approach could easily lead to short-answer responses that sound very similar to each other, a case of textual "convergent evolution" rather than actual collusion.  However, an article at Salon makes this whole mess sound even worse than that.  It sounds like real collusion and cheating were common and had been for years, and the professor basically implied that the course was an easy A.

I was surprised to learn that Harvard had no honor code system.  I'd been an undergrad at Princeton, which has a very seriously run honor system; I'd been a grad student at Stanford, where the situation was similar (though they did ask faculty not to put students in a position where they'd be "tempted", like a take-home closed book exam - I always thought this to be hypocritical.  Either you trust students or you don't.), and I'm a faculty member at Rice, where there is a very seriously run honor system.  While no system is perfect, and those truly determined to cheat will still try to cheat, based on my experience I think that having a broadly known, student-run (or at least run with heavy student participation) academic justice system is better than the alternative.  It does, however, rely critically on faculty buy-in.  If the faculty think that the honor system is broken (either too lenient or too cumbersome), or the faculty are so detached from teaching that they don't care or realize the impact that teaching has on other students, then an honor system won't work. 

On the one hand, cheating is in many ways easier than ever before, because of the free flow of information enabled by the internet.  Students can download solution manuals for nearly every science textbook, for example.  However, technology also makes it possible to compare assignments and spot plagiarism more readily than ever before.  What I find very distressing is the continual erosion of the meaning of academic and intellectual honesty.  This ranges from the death-of-a-thousand-cuts little stuff like grabbing images off the internet without attribution, all the way to the vilifying of science as just as subjective as opinion.  There is something very insidious about deciding to marginalize fact-checking.  If places like Harvard don't take the truth and intellectual honesty seriously, how can we be surprised when the average person is deeply cynical about everything that is claimed to be true?

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