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Academic Integrity & Cheating


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Introduction

The academic enterprise involves encountering the world as it actually is, warts and all. Thus honesty about facts, sources, ambiguities, ideas, errors, inspirations, and so on lies at the very heart of what universities are about.

Universities expect their faculty to be scrupulously honest in their research and in the presentation of their findings, and they treat even small infractions as extremely serious offenses against academic morality.

The same expectation is extended, appropriately, to students, and anything but strict honesty is treated as "cheating" and is taken quite seriously.

It embarrasses me to have to discuss cheating, since the issues seem obvious. However, lest there be any doubts, here we go. The discussion represents my views and applies to my courses. Other professors may have slightly different formulations. Unlike most professors, I've tried to include some of the less obvious stuff

Occasionally Asked Questions

(Page Outline)

What Is Cheating?

As applied to university students, cheating (academic dishonesty) is:

Some specific forms of cheating include:


What Practices Are Misunderstood to be Cheating?

For purposes of my courses, at least, it is not cheating


What Is Plagiarism?

An important category of cheating is plagiarism, that is, quoting or closely paraphrasing the writings of others while leading the reader to believe that you are the author of the text. (The word derives from Latin plagium, "kidnapping.")

(Plagiarism is not the same thing as copyright infringement. The works of Charles Dickens have long since passed into the public domain, and anybody can reprint them, but if you pretend to be the author of a passage from Oliver Twist, you are still plagiarizing.)

Citing Stuff Without Dying From the Experience

One of the best habits you can develop is always to include the source whenever you make a note while doing research for a paper, and always to include citations in rough drafts so that you don't lose them or forget to add them later. One of the worst habits you can develop is to figure on adding source information only to the final draft. There is no way you are going remember for sure what came from where, and misattribution is likely to be counted as cheating.

Some students find that they fall into plagiarism because they are not sure how to acknowledge their sources easily and therefore leave out the citation. Learn how to do it!

For more on citation, see:

Computers and Plagiarism

The Internet has become a major source for student (and non-student) information-gathering, almost to the exclusion of paper sources. This makes it extremely easy for the faculty (or their surrogates) to use computer-assisted plagiarism detection, since a plagiarism-detection company can do the same kinds of searches that students do. Such companies also have access to additional files, often including the papers written by other students in your same classes, both now and in the past.

Computer-assisted plagiarism detection also is widespread in computer programming classes.

University computers can also potentially spot cross-student trends in centralized disciplinary records, although the implications of this are still unclear.

Because of the efficiency of computers in detecting plagiarism cases, plagiarism tends to get the spotlight at the moment, but other kinds of academic integrity concerns have not gone away, and the increased attentiveness to plagiarism is unlikely to diminish concern with such offenses as smuggling notes into exams or text-messaging answers during exams.

What's Special About Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is obviously wonderful. It is a global experiment in shared knowledge, and it has been overwhelmingly successful. It is a valuable first resource in researching absolutely anything, and the different language versions have different takes on the same subject. It is banned in China (and a handful of other totalitarian countries), which is probably one of the worst mistakes a wannabe "modern" country can make. I confess that I am both a daily user and a financial supporter of Wikipedia.

This does not mean it is perfect. Articles can be incomplete, and errors can persist if knowledgeable people do not intervene to correct them.

Wikipedia can (and should!) be used as a source for almost anything one cares to learn about. If it is an influential source for you on some subject, it can (and should) be cited.

That said, some professors dislike it, ostensibly because it can contain errors but mostly because it makes gathering information for student essays too easy, and diverts students from learning how to use other sources that are closer to the actual research and reasoning on which published scholarship and student termpapers (and Wikipedia articles) should be based. This is a futile but entirely legitimate objection. I have heard of professors who grandly declare that they will give an F to anyone who uses Wikipedia (which of course merely forces its use underground).

Unless you live in China, Iran, or North Korea, you can and should use Wikipedia frequently, preferably in several languages. But find out what your professor thinks about this source before you cite it. And always remember that it is, in the end, by no means a primary source, and (perhaps even more than other sources) not necessarily 100% reliable. It can be an inspiration, a pointer to sources, and a quick-and-dirty overview. And for the most part, it is impressively excellent. However in most cases, it cannot substitute for tracking down original research reports, reading original sources, and the like.

As with any other source, if you quote without acknowledgement from Wikipedia (or anyway from the English version), pretending that you wrote the passage yourself, you will almost certainly be caught by your university's plagiarism-police-bots and hung out to dry. (For a bot, an on-line source is the easiest kind to find. And remember, in the on-line world, bots are often smarter than you are.) Some bots are getting better at detecting paraphrase. That also means that if you translate a passage from the Chinese version of Wikipedia, and someone else translates the same passage, even differently, there is now a risk that a clever web-roaming bot will notice the similarity and possibly find the source.

Things To Come

My prediction is that students will become better at disguising borrowed material, but the easiest thing for a student to do is simply cite the sources of any quoted material. (Just use my web page called How to Cite Sources As Painlessly As Possible.)


Do Professors Agree About Cheating?

All professors agree that cheating is despicable. They disagree about the details. Very few of them will give you particularly useful generic guidance, but most of them are happy to answer questions with reference to their own classes.


What Happens to Students Caught Cheating?

There are two, only slightly related, consequences if you are caught cheating:

  1. First, since academic honesty, like turning up for the final, is normally a condition for passing a course, you may flunk the course. Some professors may flunk you only on the assignment on which you cheated, but flunking the whole course is the emergent standard. In technical parlance, having a grade lowered for cheating is referred to as an "academic consequence." In most universities (including UCSD) the professor may not normally be overruled in this, even if it is inconsistent or unfair.

    Normally an "earned" grade of D or F (the kind you get for not knowing the material) remains on a transcript, but is not calculated into a student's GPA if the course is retaken and the student earns a higher grade. However, when an F grade is a result of an academic integrity violation, it continues to be calculated into the GPA even if the course is subsequently retaken for a higher grade.

    Furthermore, under UCSD regulations, as at most universities, an F given because of cheating is accompanied by a transcript symbol identifying cheating as the reason. (This is believed to be intelligible only to reviewers on campus. Inquirers from off campus about the meaning of the symbol are told that it is for "internal tracking." That seems unlikely to fool anybody.) (Vaguely related tirade.)
  2. Second, since academic dishonesty is also (and independently) an act of student misconduct as covered by the campus-wide student conduct code, you are subject to additional "administrative consequences." At UCSD these are imposed by the Council of Deans of Student Affairs, based on a range of possible penalties that vary depending upon the severity of the offence, the ambiguity of the situation, the student's conduct record, and so on. In keeping with the usual evolution of bureaucratic impulses, the trend is to allow the Council less and less discretion. Broadly speaking, suspension for the first offense and expulsion for the second are the "default" "administrative consequences." Students wishing to deny guilt may be granted a hearing, but faculty initiating a case need not appear at the hearing, where they may be represented by the Academic Integrity Coordinator. (That suggests some obvious strategies for beating the rap, but it would be undignified for me to discuss them here.) In fall of 2013, UCSD once again updated its Code of Conduct, the basis for much of the reasoning used in administering putative cheating cases. (Link)

What Protections Does a Student Have Against False Charges?

Virtually none.

As far as your grade is concerned, any change in your grade because of suspected or demonstrated academic dishonesty is at the discretion of the professor, just like other grades.

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Probably some universities handle this better than UCSD does. But it is never likely to be painless. The UCSD Academic Senate has a committee on grade appeals, but traditionally it had no authority to consider cases unless "non-academic criteria" —use your imagination— could be shown to have been used. Its authority was eventually broadened so that students could also appeal grades that were lowered in response to a professor's suspicion of academic dishonesty if the professor did not bring formal charges. (Grades lowered for academic dishonesty when charges are not brought are sometimes called "vigilante Fs"). To my knowledge, however, only one student has ever successfully brought such a challenge, and anyway the committee cannot actually change a grade except to convert it to a P or NP.

For practical purposes you should think in terms of there being no effective appeal. (Sometimes —rarely— a visit by a student to the department chair can help in getting the faculty member to reconsider. UCSD's college provosts are virtually never effective in this.)

The student-conduct violation is more complex. At UCSD, as at most universities, undergraduate "academic integrity" procedures provide that, if you are accused of cheating, the evidence adduced does not have to remove all doubt. If you have a formal hearing, the hearing board will work under a "51% probability" rule. So if the board is "51% convinced" that you are guilty, then you are judged guilty and are subject to penalties. (The severity of your offense is often ignored; the issue is merely whether there was an offense. It is reminiscent of the unfortunate "three-strikes" laws in some states that can lock a person away for stealing a loaf of bread if it happens to be his third loaf.)

Theoretically of course you can hire a lawyer and try to sue anybody at any time for anything. However, I know of no instance in which an external civil court has agreed to accept a case brought by a student against a university to change a grade or to correct a putatively false charge of academic dishonesty.

In sum, undergraduates have virtually no truly effective appeal against false charges of cheating. Your most effective defense is to avoid even the slightest appearance of cheating.


How Do Professors Detect Cheating?

Most professors have various ways to detect cheating, and we prefer to keep the details secret. However here are some fictionalized examples based on real cases that have come to my attention over the years. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.


Do Students Ever Get Away With Cheating?

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Of course. People get away with all sorts of things. Nobody says it can't be pulled off. And like all professors, I know some of the ways it has been done successfully, and I know the weaknesses in the system that could potentially be exploited, even though they probably haven't been.

But cheating is a VERY high-risk behavior. The consequences, both institutional (if they catch you) and from your own pissed-off super-ego (which you can't escape), are not worth it.


How Can I Avoid Even Appearing to Cheat?

  1. Don't cheat. (Duh!)
  2. Pay close attention to what does and does not constitute cheating for a particular class.
  3. In a closed-book exam, do not bring your books along, or else leave them securely covered in a clearly closed backpack. A "casually" open book is easily taken as evidence of cheating.
  4. At the time when you collect information from a source, be sure to make a note about the source. If you are quoting a source exactly, citation (including page number) is absolutely essential. After that, there is a gradation from exact paraphrase to subconscious influence that makes citation decreasingly necessary. In general, err on the side of over-attribution, not under-attribution. See the section above on plagiarism. (Useful hint: If you write down the source information before you copy the quoted material, you are less likely to leave it out.)
  5. If you can't write a computer program that runs, get help from the TA or the professor or another student, preferably in a higher-level class. But do not copy code from someone else. If the class is too challenging, drop back a level. There is no shame in ignorance. There is much shame in copying someone else's work and passing it off as your own. (The same applies, mutatis mutandis to lab experiments, musical compositions, calculus problems, field research, &c.)
  6. In an exam, do not sit with the people you study with. If your answers are similar, the fact that you are not sitting near each other is a powerful argument that no copying occurred. Click here for a fictionalized but real-life example (Jimmy Gimmie again).

What Are Some Examples of Policy Ambiguities?


What Is the Faculty Told About Cheating?

Despite urban legends about everybody cheating, cheating is in fact rare enough (or perhaps successful enough) that most professors have little experience with it and only rarely know the details about the procedures they are theoretically expected to follow. From time to time the faculty is sent a notice providing some advice on the subject (or urging them to crack down or go through channels).

The official UCSD Policy on the Integrity of Scholarship constitutes Appendix II of the Manual of the San Diego Division of the Academic Senate. It gives all the details of how cases are theoretically supposed to be handled. (It is confusingly written and seems to be designed to put people to sleep, but it is official.)


What Recent Changes or Long-Term Trends Are There?

Nationally, student cheating continues to be an issue of great interest to the sorts of people who are interested in such things.

Over the last few years, the academic senate of one university after another has enacted revisions to its procedures. Here at UCSD, these are reflected in the descriptions of "academic consequences" above.

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The effects of these changes are not yet clear. At UCSD, some faculty members have been unhappy about the severity of the sanctions, which they support in theory and in public, but which they tend to see as too severe in particular cases. It is not clear that more charges have in fact been filed since the enactment of the new procedures, and some faculty members suspect other faculty members of "covering up" some offenses because of the annoyance of the paper work or the severity of the sanctions once a case is reported.

I regret to say that I have seen no evidence of faculty interest in protecting students from false charges. Students called before administrative hearings can still be convicted on the "preponderance" (read: 51%) of the evidence, and nothing realistically prevents a professor from giving a lowered grade regardless of the outcome of a disciplinary hearing or even without filing charges, thus without giving a student a chance for self-defense. (Indeed, the system seems to me to be conducive to a kind of "plea bargaining" between students and professors to swap a lower grade for the non-filing of charges regardless of actual guilt or innocence.)


What's the Bottom Line?

The inevitable conclusion is that it is critical never to cheat, and always to avoid anything which, while innocent, could possibly be misunderstood as cheating. Remember that Jimmy Gimmie never graduated, but perished in ignominy. (Well, he is a fictionalized composite, but you get the general idea.)


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