Cheating vs. ethical laziness

There’s no arguing that the Wash. U. undergraduate population is driven. We’re driven to be doctors, driven to make it to the East Coast for graduate school and driven to get straight A’s. Unfortunately, though, there are too many of us who are driven to do whatever it takes to make our transcripts impeccable.

At Monday’s Controversy n’ Coffee forum, “Am I cheating? A special forum on academic integrity,” Dean Dirk Killen said that every year the College of Arts & Sciences hears about 20-25 honor code violations.

As students, we know that this number is likely lower than the actual number of cheating occurrences. And when we take into account the number of students who loiter in the murky gray area in between cheating and unethical study habits, this number is sure to skyrocket.

We all came to college wanting to learn, excited about the prospect to study with thousands of students who shared our same interests and passions. Once we became inundated with full course loads, activities and social lives, though, we inevitably found shortcuts to take.

These shortcuts may not be explicitly labeled “cheating,” but strategies such as using back files, taking Adderall not prescribed to us and using Wikipedia for our papers lurk somewhere beneath the surface of genuine intellectual exploration and true academic integrity.

Oftentimes, we begin to use these strategies when we find ourselves in a time crunch. In doing so, we forget that the true purpose of our education is to learn how to think, not to obliquely memorize someone else’s notes or to frantically piece together summaries of what philosophers said.

Moreover, we inhabit an environment of pervasive competition—a campus full of type-A personalities eager to get top jobs and get into graduate school. Stacking ourselves up against our fellow students, we are often tempted to use whatever means necessary to ensure that we can stay in the game.

However, in doing this, we neglect the fact that we pay $40,000 a year for an education. Whether punished by the University or not, cheating and unethical study habits detract from the real value of what we’ve bought.

It speaks volumes about the student body that $160,000 isn’t as strong a deterrent to cheating as a threatened F.

In spite of the fact that only 20 to 25 honor code violations are heard per year, we all know that more cheating goes on than those instances that we record. The question is not as much if the University cares, but rather if we care. Integrity is, by definition, the state of being whole, entire and undiminished. When we cheat, we take away portions of our moral and personal identity, and we detract from the academic identity that we pay so much to earn.

Unlike some high schools, the University does not excessively force the honor code on students, but that is no reason to cut corners. Getting caught should not be a deterrent factor; being a Wash. U. student who came here to learn should provide the motivation not to cheat.

Despite the low number of recorded violoations, we feel that the events sponsored by Academic Integrity Week deliver messages that all students can—and should—take into consideration.

  • One of my WashU TAs once caught a student plagiarizing from Wikipedia, and sent him to me. The student admitted to sloppy citation but not plagiarism. I asked my student, “How can one plagiarize from Wikipedia? For all I know, you may have written the article. Plagiarism is not really an issue with an authorless text.” I assigned him to work on our class Wiki, as penance, and decided to make Wikipedia editing my standard assignment in such cases, not so much as punishment, but for extra credit.

    One of the Webster University librarians showed my students a Wikipedia article written by another librarian, a total fabrication, with fabricated footnotes. The librarians faked an article to make their point. This year, my class consulted a different librarian. When I asked her about Wikipedia, she referred to that fake article, apparently still online, and exhorted my students not to rely on Wikipedia because you never know who writes the articles. I answered, “Unless, of course, you wrote them yourself.”

    I always give my students a Pre-Midterm, and sometimes, if the students request it, a Pre-Final. These are takehome versions of the in class exams, mandatory but risk free, as they may raise but will not lower the grade. If the students still know the material without their internet connection, it is their work, as far as I am concerned. They can memorize an internet source, for all I care. I want to see what they can do with their knowledge, after the exam is over, and after the class is over. I always ask them, on the final, “What have you learned, that you will not forget?”

    I encourage my students to question the concept of plagiarism and intellectual property. Other cultures have quite different standards. In India, for example, reverse plagiarism is common: putting someone else’s name on your work, not considered fraud if you write in the authentic spirit of your intellectual lineage.

    I always send my students a blog essay, based upon a discussion string in one of my Freshman Seminars a few years ago. Here is the link:

  • I use Wikipedia myself and I think Wikis are wonderful. I encourage my students to contribute, whether they are caught plagiarizing or not. No, it does not matter who wrote the article, and that is the beauty of it. Wikipedia is democratic, Even so, too many students rely too much on it.

  • IAR

    I still do not understand the stiff resistance to Wikipedia. Is it because it is simply too new or too easy? Both are terrible reasons.

    A study by Nature points out that Wikipedia is just about reliable as Britannica. If Britannica is considered to be a “reliable” source, then why not Wikipedia?

    Sure, Wikipedia is not without mistake nor should it be the ONLY source used when writing a paper. But only a small portion of Wikipedia’s articles are suspect to sabotage and there are editors every hour of the day checking for these errors. Addressing Jerome Bauer’s concern, it doesn’t even particularly matter WHO is writing these articles if there is cited source to back it up.

  • A former engineering student

    Backfiles were an epidemic in the engineering school. Both students and professors should be ashamed. I saw them used often as a full-time undergrad. But I remember when I was a part-time graduate student – the full-time undergrads in the course had access to backfiles, which included the 1996 version of the test – which was the exact same thing we were handed when we sat down to take the test. They all silently cheered b/c the answers were on their crib sheet. Those of us who didn’t cheat got worse grades but had a better understanding of the material. Try explaining that in a job interview. You can bet I’ll ask that of any WU students I interview.

  • I discourage my students from relying on Wikipedia. Students caught plagiarizing from it must substantially improve at least one article. You never know who wrote a Wikipedia article, unless you wrote it yourself.

  • Bee

    I don’t think you can characterize using wikipedia as cheating. sure, it is not a reliable or appropriate source for research papers, but it hardly qualifies as cheating.