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Honor offenses can be prevented before they need to be prosecuted

Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service, released a study on Wednesday concluding that the rate of unoriginal writing dropped by 39 percent at schools using Turnitin over a five year period. But some professors do not find the results persuasive. Thomas S. Dee, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, quoted in Inside Higher Ed, said that he was not convinced Turnitin was conclusively responsible for the decrease.

Dee and a colleague at the University of Michigan conducted their own study in 2010 that indicated that students were less likely to cheat if they perused an online tutorial that taught good note-taking techniques and methods to avoid procrastinating.

For the University, which places a premium on academic integrity, this contention between effective methods of reducing plagiarism is important to consider. What effect would a program like Turnitin have at a university with a single sanction for violating its honor code?

Presumably, if a University student was required to upload an assignment to the Turnitin program himself, he would not submit a paper copied from the internet, knowing that the software would display the proof of an offense that could get him expelled. But this deterring mechanism does not rule out the possibility of other methods of academic dishonesty, like copying another student’s unpublished work or soliciting another student to write the entire paper.

There is also the issue that requiring students to upload assignments to a plagiarism detection site assumes that they are guilty before they prove themselves innocent. At the University, this would be a bit of a paradox. We expect that everyone follows the Honor code. But if everyone actually did follow it, there would be no need to have an entire committee dedicated to enforcing it. If a professor were to require all students to use a program like Turnitin, such a requirement may undermine the essence of Honor by assuming that the students have no intrinsic motivation to follow it.

Teachers also have the option to upload the assignments themselves without the students’ knowledge. But even though the students may not know, the sense of universal suspicion is still there.

Dee proposes an interesting alternative with his study on the effectiveness of other methods to deter cheating. This focus assumes not that all students must be screened by software in order to discourage them from cheating, but rather that academic dishonesty is probably the result not of bad intentions, but of students feeling desperate, like they have no other options.

Are there students who cheat simply because of selfish disregard for ethics and hard work? Most likely. It is an unfortunate reality. Enforcing the Honor code is important in order to remove the individuals from this community who clearly do not share our most important values. But there are nuances to every situation. Honor introduced informed retraction last year as a way of helping students who want to rectify their mistakes by telling the truth and apologizing for their offenses. Such a change is an indication that we still have faith in the inherent goodness of our fellow students, who happen to make bad decisions.

As a community of trust, it is our duty not only to hold our peers responsible for dishonorable actions, but also to help each other learn to succeed in honorable ways. Sharing the proper tools for academic success is just as likely to decrease the incidence of academic dishonesty as a penal system. Utilizing both can only make the community better.


Published February 6, 2014 in Opinion

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