Honestly speaking about academic dishonesty

Dr. M.Jagadesh Kumar

NXP(Philips) Chair Professor, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi 110016, email: mamidala@ieee.org

Home: http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala

When Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis of New York University’s Stern School of Business wrote in his blog on finding ways to make cheating by students irrelevant, his idea was derailed by a chain of unpleasant events. As a result, this is how he reacted in an email interview to Inside Higher Ed: “I will never write about my teaching experiences again”  (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/07/22/ ). Ipeirotis believed that an arms race between the ever improving cheating methods and the sophisticated cheating detection techniques was futile. He argued that it was important to make cheating irrelevant by designing assessment methods that were not easily amenable to cheating.

Why do students cheat? Increased competition to get better grades and a skewed shift in our focus from the joy of learning. The anonymity of the student in a large class also makes them less connected forcing them to take a ring side view than being part of the whole experience of learning through lectures, assignments, tests, group discussions etc., It is similar to that of an accident victim bleeding on the road while we surround and watch without taking a lead to help because we are not related to the victim.

Cheating can take place in various forms: inside the class and outside the class. Cheating inside the classroom usually involves copying answers during the exam from a neighbour’s answer script and in large classes, where it is difficult to recognize every student, impersonation can easily take place. It is cheating outside the class room which is more rampant and difficult to control and our focus here is on this form of cheating. Outside the classroom cheating can involve copying home assignments, lab records, computer programs and indulging in plagiarism for term papers. While plagiarism is very easy in today’s digital world, many people have not yet properly understood it. Recently, a group of students  approached me to give a talk on plagiarism to the first year students who have just joined the institute. When I mentioned about this invitation to a friend, who is a senior professor, he said, “Why do first year students have to know about plagiarism?”

It is important to recognize that plagiarism does take place on campuses either knowingly or unknowingly. In a survey on academic dishonesty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), it was found that cheating on papers involving plagiarism, which is an outside classroom activity, was more common than cheating during the exams (http://www.unc.edu/~bmize/).  It was also found by the UNC study that 76 % of the 200 respondents felt that plagiarism as a means of cheating is easier and less riskier than cheating during the exams. While the students are right in thinking that plagiarism is easy to commit they are absolutely wrong about the consequences that may follow. This is the reason why we should be talking to the freshers about plagiarism and its consequences.

Ipeirotis of New York University rang the bell in his blog by mentioning that in a class of 100, about twenty percent of the students had plagiarized their assignments. He had clear evidence of the plagiarism in some cases and others confessed to it when he informed the students that he would report the matter to the authorities. This disclosure on his blog led to a series of unpleasant events for Ipeirotis: lower teaching rating by students and a cut in his salary raise. Eventually he had to remove his post from the blog. This has forced him to rethink whether it is worth going after the cheaters.

 In this cheating game, if a “me-versus-them” stand is taken, it is going to be counter productive. It is not unwise to think that students are in general confused about what does or does not constitute plagiarism. Easy access to digital media and the instinctive copy/paste attitude make them vulnerable. It is, therefore, all the more important to engage them on the broader issues related to plagiarism. It can be disastrous if we cheat our way through assessments, which test our learning and provide a feedback on what we lack in our knowledge. Would you like to go to a doctor who has cheated through his exams? Would you like to hire an engineer for constructing your house if you know he has passed his exams by cheating? If you somehow get your degree by cheating your way through, what would happen when you actually have to use your creative thinking at your workplace? Won’t you be caught?

While the original Sanskrit Ramayana, the great Indian epic, was written by Valmiki, several hundred versions of Ramayana are known to the humankind.  The same Ramayana is told in different ways by creative minds without the fear of being bugged by plagiarism. If the human race is evolving, our creativity should evolve too. We should not be doing things which are detrimental to our own creativity which in turn will render us useless to the evolution of the civilization.

Often individuals react to the environment around them. I remember in a TV show, in an experiment on how individuals can be influenced, two persons were asked to stand in the middle of a market and look into the sky. Soon ten more people joined them looking into the sky. On a second day, when ten volunteers in the experiment started looking into the sky, the crowd around them looking into the sky became bigger. While this is a too simplistic an example, there is no doubt that an encouraging environment will make us look at bigger goals. Therefore, what is important is to create an environment in which cheating becomes irrelevant so that the thought of cheating is outside your mind’s horizon. We should not hang our boots because cheating is part of our lives. We need to make a beginning rather than feel helpless. Where shall we start?

a)   As part of the lectures, can we discuss with the students about plagiarism and ethics of it? Or even ask them to write a small piece on plagiarism? This will ensure that students will never be able to say they are not aware of plagiarism.

b)   Can we design the assessments which will bring out the spontaneous response of the students?

c)    Can we ask them to submit their intermediate plans on their assignment instead of waiting until the deadline for submission?

d)   Can we do things which will induce in the students a sense of belonging to the class and in the process make them more responsible?

e)   Can we make the students feel that we trust them leading to a reciprocal response?

f)    Can we make the assessments more interesting and challenging so that students are required to use specific scholarly resources and read more than what is taught in the class?

g)   Can we make the assessments more relevant to their learning goals by specifically informing them the context in which the assignment is designed?

h)   Can we design collaborative assignments in which small groups participate in producing a solution while being aware of the limits of collaboration?

Making the act of cheating risky through punishments will only solve the  problem partially. However, I would not like to underplay the importance  of enforcing some discipline. It is desirable to make the ground rules  clear to the students right in the first class. Students should know the   consequences if they are caught plagiarising e.g. a lower grade, fail etc.,  However, any such disciplinary measures should be a policy of the  institute and should be implemented uniformly so that the individual  teachers who report cheating are not grudged against.  However,  prevention is better than catching later and punishing.

We also need to make periodic scientific surveys on cheating and the causes that prompt them to cheat on our campuses. We should have the courage to put these survey results in public domain and initiate an informed debate among the students. We cannot cure the disease by simply feigning ignorance about it.

Perhaps, you may be thinking that what I have suggested above is too idealistic. We are all pressed for time with our involvement in research, teaching, administration and so on. Where is the time to think about all this? But a beginning is better than not doing at all. Complaining about the bad times that we are in will take us to nowhere. We must find solutions.

By choosing appropriate assessment methods and by creating a positive environment in the classroom through dialogue and discussion on cheating, even if a small number of students desist from plagiarism, I think that is a first step but a big leap. I am sure that will prompt us to write about our teaching experiences again.


When you are done reading this, you are welcome to explore my other general articles on my blog: https://mamidala.wordpress.com/category/education-and-research/

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2 Responses to Honestly speaking about academic dishonesty

  1. Samar Singla says:

    I am one of your plagiarizing students. We chose too huge a problem and could own it when failed. I think you knew what the story was but passed us. I am pretty sure that if you had failed me in that course, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in my thinking.

    Three years later, I am running 2 companies and people often cheat, sometimes in matters of money and sometimes otherwise shrugging their responsibilities. It always reminds me of this incident, so I just follow a simple thing. I somehow let them know that I know what they did and am choosing to ignore it, hoping it would change them the way it changed me.

    Thanks. 🙂

  2. FillOctocus says:

    This is what I was looking for. Thanks a lot for the article.

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