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Cheating at Harvard: probe focuses on plagiarism in era of blurry ethics (+video)

Harvard investigates possible cheating on take-home exams. The publicity could resonate nationwide as colleges grapple with differing generational perceptions of what’s acceptable.

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Students on Harvard’s campus Friday say cheating is not widespread and that students do understand the importance of the academic code. “It’s implicit in the student body,” says sophomore Taylor Phillips. “That is the advantage of coming to a school like this.”

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Collaboration rules are set on a class-by-class basis, students say.

The allegations in this incident have made freshman Aaron Pelz nervous about starting college, and he plans to double-check the expectations for each course. “I’m a little more hesitant to collaborate with other students,” Mr. Pelz says. “I worked really hard to get here, and I wouldn’t want to get kicked out for something stupid.”

In addition to clarifying rules, college faculty could do more to harness the positive sides of students’ desire to collaborate and use technology, says Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University and a professor of legal ethics.

“Students ought to be held accountable” for breaking academic rules, he says. But in a collaborative culture, “you’re fighting a heavy headwind when interjecting an assignment that requires solely individual response in a context where it is very easy and tempting to seek help from people around you.”

When Mr. Pavela wants to measure students individually, he gives them a controlled assignment or test in class. But he also asks students to post on a class web page a comment or analysis of a work, and give critiques of one another’s posts. He can grade them in part on the quality of those interactions.

At Harvard, a committee of faculty, students, and administrators is looking into academic honesty practices at peer institutions and considering whether new ethics policies or an honor code should be recommended.

Schools with an honor code – usually a student-run system where students pledge to follow the code and report on others who do not – have a somewhat lower incidence of cheating than those without an honor code, McCabe has found in his comparisons.

Other research has found that it’s effective to give students a timely reminder of the academic rules, such as a note or pledge to sign on the exam itself, Pavela says.

In this case, that kind of explicit reminder appears to have been present.

Harvard officials did not name the class or the students being investigated. But the Harvard Crimson reports that it was “Introduction to Congress,” and that the exam stated: “The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others….”

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported from Nashua, N.H., and Allison Terry reported from Cambridge, Mass.

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