Brian Snyder/Reuters/File
Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in May, 2012.

Cheating at Harvard: probe focuses on plagiarism in era of blurry ethics

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

Harvard University is reexamining its academic honesty policies and reiterating them to students amid an investigation into some 125 students who may have plagiarized or collaborated inappropriately on a take-home final exam last spring.

The case could resonate far beyond the Ivy League college’s Cambridge, Mass., campus as universities nationwide struggle with a major gap between students’ and faculty members’ sense of what constitutes acceptable behavior, higher education experts say.

Collaborating and taking material from the Internet are “becoming part of the student psyche, so they don’t report it as cheating,” says Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University.

In surveys from 2006 to 2012, 60 percent of nonfreshmen college students said they had cheated, Mr. McCabe says. That’s down from 68 percent in 2002-06 – but rather than a decline in actual cheating, his research suggests fewer students now realize that what they’re doing counts as cheating.

That’s echoed in other recent surveys. About 6 in 10 four-year colleges report an increase in cheating and plagiarizing since 2001, and 46 percent say students’ understanding of plagiarism has declined, says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and co-author of a recent book on college students.

Mr. Levine recounts the view of one dean of students: that soon, course syllabi will be as big as the Manhattan phonebook, because faculty have to spell out everything: what constitutes plagiarism, whether they are allowed to use digital devices in class, even that they are not allowed to come to class intoxicated.

Harvard announced Thursday that its Administrative Board reviewed more than 250 take-home final exams after a faculty member reported similarities between some answers. That resulted in about half of those students being brought before the board. If found guilty of academic dishonesty, one possible result could be a one-year suspension from Harvard.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” said Harvard President Drew Faust.

“I respect Harvard for taking this out in the open,” says McCabe, who notes that many campuses try to avoid publicity when cheating allegations surface.

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.”

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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