Whose Idea Was That?

Greg Spalenka

“No legacy is so rich as honesty,” Shakespeare tells us. If so, politicians, journalists, clerics and corporate executives have squandered a fortune lately in a rash of high-profile deceptions. Scholars and scientists are making headlines, too, for plagiarism, falsified credentials and phony research.

Consider a small sampling of scandals in just the last two years. Historian and Harvard trustee Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarized 50 passages in a single book. Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis lost his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke College for lying to students about his military record. Admitting his bachelor’s degree was an invention, California’s first poet laureate, UC-San Diego professor Quincy Troupe, quit both posts. What looked like major scientific breakthroughs fell apart amid charges of fabricated research by two brilliant young physicists at Bell Labs and UC’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab. The head of a university in India published a Stanford physics professor’s paper as his own. The list goes on and on.

Perhaps more unsettling than the rogues’ gallery of academics—no one has kept count, and they may be a tiny minority—is the well-documented cheating by the nation’s students. Donald L. McCabe, professor of management at Rutgers University and founding president of the national Center for Academic Integrity, has been conducting campus surveys for more than a decade and watching the numbers grow. He concludes that on most campuses, “over 75 percent of students admit to some cheating,” be it copying from someone else’s exam, getting forbidden help on an assignment, or using material from the Internet without citation in a paper.

McCabe and others are especially alarmed by the ethical climate in high schools. More than half the 4,500 students in his 2001 study saw nothing wrong with cheating on tests (74 percent admitted doing so) or plagiarizing. Results were similar in a 1998 survey of those listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. These are the crème de la crème, all bound for university; indeed, McCabe predicts even more erosion of integrity in higher education when upcoming generations arrive. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, their typical attitude is, “If it’s on the Internet, it’s public knowledge, and I don’t have to cite it.” (See sidebar.)

Colleges and universities are getting the message. Whether provoked by McCabe’s findings, their own observations or well-publicized scandals at the University of Virginia, Kansas State and elsewhere, schools across the country are asking how and why their students cheat and what can be done to reverse the trend.

These are hot topics at Stanford, too, where the Office of Judicial Affairs released startling figures last fall: alleged Honor Code infractions had jumped from 89 cases in the 1995-98 period to 237 from 1999 to 2002. Did that mean more students were cheating or more getting caught? Was the Honor Code a failure?

As campus groups from the Faculty Senate to the Daily considered these questions, one senior sprang to action. Biological sciences major Alexis Halaby, ’03, was fed up with seeing classmates looking over shoulders at other people’s blue books and hearing about test-takers leaving exam rooms on bathroom breaks to consult notes hidden there. She wanted to find out how much students knew—or cared—about dishonesty and the Honor Code. With the University’s approval, she conducted an online survey of 1,000 undergraduates at the end of spring quarter. The timing wasn’t ideal, but 319 students took a break from finals to respond. They represented 43 departments, evenly split between arts and sciences, and all four classes, with slightly more freshmen and sophomores replying.

The results, not yet published, are both disturbing and reassuring. No one will be happy to learn that almost two-thirds of those who responded think dishonesty poses a “moderate” or “serious” threat at Stanford. Or that 20 percent have observed others cheating on exams more than once. Or that more than a third think honest students are penalized by the Honor Code because others don’t abide by it—and that at Stanford, academic success is more important than academic honesty.

Yet almost 85 percent agree that “under no circumstances is cheating justified,” and 92 percent say students are morally obliged not to cheat. If these and other responses reflect the views of the greater student body, Stanford has less to worry about than many other schools. In fact, comparing the recent survey to similar ones done in 1961 and 1976 (see sidebar), it appears that in some ways personal integrity is stronger today than it has been for some time.

Stanford is one of only about 100 U.S. colleges and universities with an honor code. While specifics vary from campus to campus, the common principle is that students pledge to do honest work without being policed and accept some measure of responsibility for enforcing the code.

Stanford’s Honor Code specifies that students “will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading.” In this case, “unpermitted aid” includes the words or thoughts of another presented as one’s own—plagiarism—even if failure to credit a source was careless, not intentional.

The code also stipulates, as a kind of quid pro quo, that exams will not be proctored and advises that instructors should neither create situations that tempt students to cheat—closed-book take-home exams would be one example—nor take extreme measures (like surveillance) to prevent dishonesty.

Studies by the Center for Academic Integrity, based at Duke University, consistently show that schools with honor codes report less cheating than those without—on the order of one-quarter to one-half less—even though a lack of policing makes cheating easier to get away with. Most researchers agree that when a school clearly articulates its standards and students are given the responsibility for upholding them, most students will try to live up to expectations.

Of course, the sanctions typically imposed on honor code violators are another incentive for compliance. At Stanford, the usual punishment for a first offense is suspension for one quarter and 40 hours of community service; incorrigible offenders may be expelled, as one student was last winter. But Stanford is more lenient than some universities, where first offenders face expulsion or a year’s suspension. At schools without honor codes, punishments for cheating are generally left to the discretion of faculty and rarely amount to more than a failing or lowered grade.

So what explains the upsurge in reports of dishonesty, even at honor code schools? Computer science professor Eric Roberts, former co-chair of the Judicial Advisory Board, told the Faculty Senate in November, “it is not that people are cheating more ... but that more faculty are reporting these cases.” Certainly, better detection is part of the answer at Stanford. The recent jump in Honor Code cases coincides with the revised Judicial Charter of 1997, which promotes wider campus participation in disciplinary procedures. Previously, students who admitted wrongdoing could have their cases handled by an administrator, and the system bogged down. Now, every case goes before a six-member judicial panel of four students, one faculty member and one administrator, chaired by a student. With few exceptions, sanctions are uniform and decisions rendered quickly. As more students and faculty join the judicial pool, campus awareness of the Honor Code grows.

The Judicial Affairs office—the front line for student disciplinary matters—has also stepped out of the shadows, staging Orientation skits, addressing departments when invited and waging what judicial adviser Laurette Beeson calls “a long, hard battle” to get faculty more engaged in the Honor Code. The office’s website spells out all aspects of the judicial system and reports on hearings and their outcomes without naming names. It also offers sample cases, advice on filing a complaint, links to useful resources and tips on preventing cheating (pick an exam room big enough for alternate seating; consider allowing students to bring one index card to an exam with anything they like written on it).

Beeson characterizes the old judicial system as “very hush-hush” and calls the new one “more user-friendly.” The mushrooming caseload seems to bear that out. Beeson and judicial coordinator George Wilson also note that more students are coming forward to report infractions, although most reports still come from teaching staff. Daniel Harris, ’03, who co-chaired the Judicial Advisory Board and served on judicial panels for two years, says classes whose professors discuss cheating tend to have more reported cases of cheating. When it isn’t discussed, it’s unlikely to be reported but presumably still happens.

Apart from streamlined judicial procedures and more discussion of the Honor Code in classes, new tools make it easier for faculty to back up charges of plagiarism. Unlike many schools, Stanford requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to make Honor Code violations stick, and that may have kept the number of “convictions” down in past years. Today, the same Google search students might use to pillage the Internet can lead a suspicious instructor to the crime scene. The computer science department uses a free Internet service called MOSS (Measure of Software Similarity) to ferret out code copiers. Instructors simply submit files and the program detects and highlights matches. Lecturer Julie Zelenski told Stanford Report in March that MOSS, used on campus since 2000, is having a salutary effect. At first, scores of plagiarists were detected. But as students began to realize that copiers would be caught and punished, the number of infractions in the department dropped.

Indeed, many people blame the Internet for the growing incidence of student plagiarism, whether because of websites that buy and sell term papers or simply the wealth of material on tap. Although McCabe’s surveys show this to be a far more serious problem among high schoolers than collegians, Harris says almost all plagiarism cases he’s seen at Stanford involve the Internet. Beeson thinks students are tempted to see it as “fair game” and observes that Stanford students tend to be “a little sloppy and cavalier about Internet research.” In one such case, a professor’s suspicions were aroused because a student’s paper went off topic, covered areas not yet assigned and seemed written in an unusual style for an undergraduate. Sure enough, an Internet search turned up the plagiarized source.

Almost 16 percent of those polled this spring admitted to “a few sentences” of online plagiarism. But 99 percent said they had never plagiarized “substantial material almost word-for-word.” As one junior told Stanford, “I think people take pride in their writing, especially in long papers, and they want to put forth their innovativeness and their ideas. Stanford students are intelligent; they want to be recognized for that.”

In national surveys, students are often quick to justify their dishonesty—citing everything from Bill Clinton’s admission that he lied to “dumb” coursework to claims that everyone else does it. But at Stanford, few students who are charged with cheating try to rationalize it, other than to say they didn’t intend to. (Intention, however, is not a mitigating factor in Stanford disciplinary proceedings so long as a “reasonable person” could have been expected to know better.) “Most of the time, people don’t even contest that they cheated,” says Harris, adding that by and large “students leave a panel feeling they’ve gotten a fair trial.”

The consensus among the judicial panelists interviewed by Stanford was that for most Stanford students, cheating is as much an act of desperation—brought on by personal problems, panic over a deadline, pressure to get good grades—as a result of laziness or ineptitude. “I’ve seen Phi Beta Kappas cheat,” says Halaby.

The fact that relatively few students appeal a judicial decision seems to confirm that trust backed up by consistently applied sanctions may offer the best hope for promoting integrity. But Halaby thinks Stanford can do better in one area. “The [honor] system isn’t working for in-class exams,” she says, especially in rooms where tiered seats afford test-takers tempting views of the desks in front of them.

The problem is that without proctors, the honor system depends on students both obeying the code and taking action when they see violations. And most students “just do not want to be snitches,” Wilson observes, even though he’s seen more of them doing it lately. The ambivalence is typified by the replies of three students who agreed to anonymous interviews with Stanford. When asked how she felt about telling on someone, a sophomore said: “I guess I would tell the TA or professor. I mean, I know that’s probably what I should do, but I probably wouldn’t do it. Actually, I definitely wouldn’t. I don’t feel like it affects me personally, and it is really going to hurt them.”

But a freshman said she was glad her math professor had encouraged students to report cheaters to him or Judicial Affairs—even though he did so only at the end of the year. “I want to find those people who are cheating and report it because it devalues my work to see that other people are cheating and I don’t,” she said.

And a junior majoring in computer science noted that when exams are graded on a curve, cheaters affect everyone else, and “you start to feel that obligation” to turn them in.

Halaby thinks proctored exams are the answer, at least in large introductory classes. One of her aims in doing the survey was to find out if other students agreed. While most respondents opposed the outright elimination of unproctored exams, Halaby says she was pleasantly surprised that a slender majority either agreed that instructors should have the option to choose proctored exams (39 percent) or had no opinion (20 percent). There was a similar breakdown on the question of whether students in any given course should decide on the use of proctors. Halaby hopes the Judicial Affairs Board will consider amending the code once it has read her survey report this fall.

There are precedents for altering Stanford’s judicial procedures. The reforms of 1997 gave students back their key role in adjudication, which had been sacrosanct since 1921 but greatly diluted in response to the turbulent Sixties. Most would agree that the recent reforms have strengthened the Honor Code.

But to reexamine the no-proctor policy is to challenge one of the very underpinnings of the code: that instructors trust students enough to refrain “from proctoring exams and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions” to prevent dishonesty. Still, another basic tenet is that faculty “avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code”—and some would argue that an unproctored exam is one of those temptations.

Halaby’s report promises to spark lively discussion. And when the Judicial Affairs office completes its anticipated survey of faculty, TAs and students who have been involved with the judicial process, there should be even more fodder for debate.