University News

Poll: 17 percent of students say they have cheated

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Four out of five students say they have not committed any of several types of academic cheating in the last semester, according to a recent Herald poll.

Of the 687 undergraduates surveyed, 12.4 percent admitted they had copied answers off another student’s homework, while 4.2 percent said they had used outside resources in their own work without proper citation, and 2.3 percent said they had copied answers off another student’s quiz, test or exam. Only 0.4 percent admitted to having submitted someone else’s work as their own in a paper, presentation or lab report.

The vast majority — 80.1 percent — said they had played by the rules.

“We do take academic integrity seriously,” said Christina Furtado, assistant dean for upperclass studies, who oversees matters related to the University’s academic code. “It’s not something we ignore.”

Furtado declined to comment on the poll’s findings or to release the office’s data on instances of academic dishonesty, citing concerns about confidentiality.

According to the Office of the Dean of the College, “A student who obtains credit for work, words or ideas that are not the products of his or her own effort is dishonest and in violation of Brown’s Academic Code.” Actions that would constitute violations include copyright infringement, improper or inadequate citation of sources, using unauthorized materials during an examination and copying other students’ work during an examination.

A range of punishments are available to deans, depending on the severity of the offense, including verbal reprimands and loss of credit on the assignment or the course.

Omer Bartov, professor of history and chair of the department, said students are “missing out” if they engage in academic dishonesty.

“Why would you want to come to a place like Brown to plagiarize?” Bartov said. “If you don’t want to study, then why spend all the money?”

Andy van Dam, professor of computer science, said he treats plagiarism as a serious problem.

“There are a bunch of people on campus who say, ‘It’s your money, if you want to plagiarize it’s your loss,’ but I believe when we let people who go out of here with a Brown diploma, people see that and assume they’ve learned something,” he said.

Plagiarism “debases the coin of the realm,” he added.

Van Dam estimated that about six of the 150 students in his introductory computer science class each year “think they can get away with plagiarism,” but the types of students who engage in academic dishonesty are varied.

“It’s not just kids who are in real trouble, or desperate,” van Dam said. “It’s also smart kids who can’t stand the idea of losing that A or kids who … work together beyond what’s allowable.”

Briana McGeough ’12 thought the poll’s findings accurately reflected the situation on campus.

Because Brown does not have a “cutthroat academic environment,” McGeough said, one would expect the level of academic dishonesty at Brown to be relatively low. Students are more likely to cheat when they feel overwhelmed, she said, adding that cheating might be more common in high-pressure atmospheres.

Clarion Heard ’12 was surprised by the finding that so many respondents denied having cheated, saying that the fraction of students who reported that they did not cheat seemed “a little high.”

For instance, Heard said there were two students who sit behind her in class who talk to each other during exams.

“I’ve heard (them) say ‘If you’re sure about an answer, put a dot next to it,'” she said.
Some students said people’s definitions of academic dishonesty often vary — for instance, in terms of what constitutes copying answers on homework.

Abby Colella ’12 said the situation gets “fuzzy” when students work in groups on homework assignments. It can be difficult to tell whether everyone is contributing equally, she said. That said, cheating “doesn’t seem to have a presence” on campus, she added.

Heard said many people do not see copying homework as cheating, adding that she would distinguish between students contributing equally to a discussion of a problem and one person dictating the whole answer.

Though students expressed varying definitions of when group collaboration on homework becomes dishonest, they said they generally know the line between working together and engaging in academic dishonesty.

The Herald poll was conducted from Nov. 2 through Nov. 4 and has a 3.6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. A total of 687 Brown undergraduates completed the poll, which The Herald administered as a written questionnaire to students in the Mail Room at J. Walter Wilson during the day and in the Sciences Library at night.

— With additional reporting by Anne Speyer