Twenty-two years ago at the end of a semester of teaching an Intro to Philosophy course, I received an unforgettable wake-up call on the issue of plagiarism. During the reading period between the final class session and the final exam, I discovered two blatant cases of plagiarized papers — I knew the books from which these papers had been copied whole cloth. So on exam day, and with apologies to those uninvolved, I brought the issue into the open. Without naming the offenders, I told the class that I expected the students who plagiarized to meet with me privately. My deal with them: If you don't own up to the cheating, you will fail the course. If you do admit it, there will be penalties, but not necessarily a failed grade.
Imagine my dismay when 12 of the 23 students — half of the class — showed up, one by one, at my office door. All 12 papers did technically involve plagiarism. Five cases were deliberate and extensive; the rest involved paraphrasing of one stripe or another, sometimes with no documentation at all, other times due perhaps to ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism. Clearly, students needed more guidance in what was, to them, a murky area.
The experience was a catalyst for me to think more deeply about the issue and how I should respond. I reached out to faculty at other colleges and universities around the country asking them to share their experiences. The responses streamed back quickly, and the raw data from anonymous surveys of students concerning various forms of cheating were startling.
It seemed clear that there was a countrywide pandemic of academic dishonesty, some of it born of ignorance and some deeply ingrained in a culture of socially acceptable shortcuts. A bright spot in the surveys was how much peer affirmation of honesty discouraged cheating. But there was clear evidence that professors were generally not doing enough to promote integrity.
For the next two years I was active on my campus, working with student government and college administrators to develop awareness about the problems and to brainstorm policies that addressed them. We updated and reaffirmed the Washington College Honor Code, first established in 1976, and have continued to bolster its effectiveness in recent years. Today, our library staff teaches all first-year students about proper citation and the relationship between academic integrity and intellectual property, ideas that can prove challenging to young adults who have grown up in the "cut and paste" environment of the Internet.
Personally, I have pledged that as long as I remain active as a teacher I will never again allow myself to be complicit in cheating. At the beginning of each course I talk at length about academic integrity as a requirement of the course — a standard that I will enforce. The syllabus specifies that any written work must have an explicit honor pledge on it. For each required course paper, I distribute guidelines that include a 200-word statement about various forms of plagiarism and a notice that deliberately plagiarized papers will receive a grade of zero. Every Friday when I send students an e-mail outlining assignments for the coming week, I again remind them about signing the honor pledge on every bit of written work.
While I am not so naive as to believe that signing an honor pledge necessarily means that a given paper or exam is on the up-and-up, I make it clear to students that I refuse to have complicity in their undermining of their own education. Because I know — and I need them to understand — that by taking unethical shortcuts and not truly engaging with the material to make it their own, they are cheating themselves out of the full value of their four years here.
On a wider scale, I believe that if all faculty on every campus took a more proactive, ongoing stance to encourage academic honesty, it would go a long way in cultivating a positive ethos of integrity in all of our students and, ultimately, in our society. We all know that there is a dark abyss of dishonesty in much of the business world, much of the political world and much of everyday life.
Imagine a countrywide shift in our academies to actively counter the negative ethos of academic dishonesty. Could this not gradually generate a shift to a positive ethos of integrity, not only in academic work, but in all aspects of our lives and our everyday dealings with one another? Is not integrity one of the qualities of a good citizen? And is it not the responsibility of a good teacher to cultivate an ethos of integrity in the classroom and beyond?
Kevin M. Brien is professor of Philosophy at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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