Columns, Opinions

Liang ’19: Cheating and U.

By
staff columnist
Sunday, April 23, 2017

This spring marks the fifth anniversary of one of the largest cheating scandals in recent Ivy history: the Harvard Government 1310 case, where nearly two percent of the entire undergraduate student body had individual cases brought against them for plagiarism on the take-home final. I wish I could say Brown is better, but recent events only seem to confirm that academic dishonesty remains a major issue on campus. In fact, a Herald poll from the same year as Harvard’s cheating scandal found that as many as one-fifth of students admitted to cheating as described by our current academic code.

As the Herald also reports, 49 students were charged with academic code violations in the past academic year; more than half of those violations occurred in the computer science department, which uses software to track plagiarized code. As a result, the standing committee on the Academic Code is planning to almost double its members. I personally witnessed the fallout of a cheating scandal this semester during an Introductory Biochemistry midterm. Stories abound about cheating incidents in the economics and physics departments, especially in larger introductory classes.

Academic cheating, as defined by the University, has and will always happen in college, and I doubt it will ever go away. In fact, with the onset of new technologies like Turnitin.com built into Canvas, more and more cases will arise as other departments gain access to rigorous tools comparable to the computer science department’s current coding trackers. This isn’t to say that more people will cheat … just that more will be caught. But this technology, while useful from the perspective of professors, fails to address the institutionalized issues that lead to these incidents in the first place. We have to evaluate these problems from the perspectives of both students and administration if we are going to change anything.

For students, it can be difficult to find out precisely what cheating is. The Academic Code states that cheating can, among other concepts, involve, “engaging in collaboration or unauthorized assistance on assignments.” There is so much nuance in how this statement can be interpreted: For example, is someone cheating if they bounce off ideas for a proof with a teaching assistant? A group tutor? A friend? Is all homework supposed to occur in an isolated bubble, without so much as breathing in the direction of another student? What about open-book, “collaborative” exams like the ones in ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations”? Anyone walking in the Ratty can overhear conversations of “can you help me with this problem …” or “what do you think about …” — which I think is indicative of Brown’s especially collaborative learning environment. The issue is figuring out where to draw the line.

Professors need to do better in helping us figure out that line. Faculty are encouraged to elaborate on their personal standards for academic integrity, but I’ve seen many a syllabus that simply says, “refer to Brown’s Academic Code,” which in itself is confusing enough. Because this student community views collaboration as implicit, each professor needs to spell out in writing or in class what constitutes acceptable behavior, especially with regard to assignments that routinely involve collaboration (like homework or short responses). The computer science department already does a great job of clarifying its policies, constantly reminding students of the Academic Code and CS’s interpretation of it —  it’s time other departments step up as well.

Nevertheless, academic integrity is fundamentally a group responsibility. Students should have as much input as professors, if not more, in defining what that means. I am firmly in support of developing an interactive honor code that permeates campus conversation, rather than an online summer tutorial or a week dedicated to emphasizing academic integrity, two suggestions that were raised in the recent Herald article. Studies show that students behave better when engaging in a system of moral reciprocity, rather than a system where they just get lectured. As the standing committee prepares to double its numbers, why not accept students among those new members? I imagine a student committee on academic integrity or even a judicial board that makes decisions on punishments, similar to groups described in a recent Atlantic article. Who better to teach would-be transgressors about the line between acceptable and unacceptable collaboration that those who have lived it? If students themselves are engaged in the system of academic investigations, they will start a trickle-down effect where the entire student body becomes aware of their responsibilities as members of this community.

Brown, for all its stereotyping as a happy-go-lucky school, is not immune from the pressures of academic perfection and the burdens that fuel desperate cheating. In fact, our laissez-faire approach, both in the open curriculum and written discussions of the Academic Code, is perhaps the largest disconnect between administrators and the student body in expectation and follow-through of learning objectives. I have no doubt that given the opportunity, the student body will come together and develop a more rigorous (and clearer) set of language to discuss the nature of plagiarism, illegal collaboration and academic policy. The only question is when.

Mark Liang ’19 really, really wishes you don’t cheat on your next exam and can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.