When my daughter was in her first year of university studies she described to me a situation that happened in her chemistry class (which had about 100 students in it) towards the start of the term. They had the class in a small lecture hall, with fixed and tiered seating in a semi-circle around the front stage area where the instructor would usually stand. At the end of the class, the instructor collected the homework that was due that day. While the instructor waited for the assignments to be handed in, students around my daughter openly looked on my daughter’s answers and those of others around her. As students passed the homework from the left to the right across the rows, some paused to check their answers with some of those from other students. The instructor stood at the end of the rows of seats, collected the answer sheets, and left. My daughter had the distinct feeling that nothing odd was going on: it was all quite ordinary.
I open with this vignette because it is both dramatic and prosaic: at the time I was shocked by this activity, but probably shouldn’t have been. As my father explained to me when I was in my teens, “the world isn’t fair. Get over it.” Well, if you are a teacher or instructor at any level, I guess the paraphrase here would be “some students cheat. Get over it.” I don’t mean let students cheat. I just mean know that some students will cheat if given the opportunity--this is a condition of existence-- and plan accordingly.
This podcast episode is the second in a series of three podcast episodes and blog posts probing academic integrity, with a focus on online environments. In the first episode, I spoke with Ellen Watson of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. In that episode and in the accompanying blog post, we sketched out some strategies to use when planning online courses that would discourage cheating. One question that I asked after doing that episode was how much of a problem is cheating? How much time and effort should an instructor devote to this? In this, the second episode, I try to establish some kind of context for instructors so that they can decide for themselves how much cheating is likely occurring in their classes. In the third episode, I’ll talk about how to talk with students when they have done something that looks like cheating to you.
Student self-reports of cheating
Let’s get started: how much do students cheat? Well, let’s ask them and see what they say. Here are some statistics on academic cheating from plagiarism.org:
But wait, there’s more from a site called academicintegrity.org This site seems responsible. It is run by the International Centre for Academic Integrity, claims that it does not endorse any commercial products, and is a non-profit society. They aren’t trying to sell us anything.
Data about the percentage of students who self-report that they have cheated in an academic context seem alarmingly high (https://www.plagiarism.org/article/plagiarism-facts-and-stats): 39% of undergraduates cheat on tests? 62% cheat on written assignments? Two out of three undergraduates have done one or the other?
How did they define cheating? Well, the site says students were asked if they “cheated in some form” so even minor transgressions would count. That will inflate the number somewhat, but it won’t account for everything. The conclusion seems clear:
One of the problems instructors sometimes have when talking to students about cheating is that they tend to take a “holier than thou” attitude towards cheating. That is, they feel that they need to pretend or take the position that a professor would never cheat. Let’s just take a moment and examine that proposition.
How often do professors cheat?
Benson Honig of McMaster University’s school of business did a study of articles published in business. He found that "of the 279 articles he reviewed from his own academic discipline, 25 per cent "had some amount of plagiarism" and over 13 per cent "exhibited significant plagiarism."
Instances of professors cheating get reported in the press from time to time. Let’s consider two relatively recent incidents.:
U of Regina engineering professor Prof. Shahid Azam published an article that contained text that also appeared in one of his student’s thesis. The professor explains that the two of them co-wrote articles together, and the text in the thesis was, in fact, written by the professor. That explanation might solve the article issue, but it creates another one: is it OK for a professor to write a student’s thesis?
In 2011 The Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Alberta, Philip Baker, gave a speech at a convocation banquet to future doctors. Parts of the speech were identical to a speech published in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, a Harvard professor. Dr. Baker at first explained that he was inspired by Gawande’s article, and had failed to identify it as a source. It seems possible that Dr. Baker had been extremely busy and the pressure of having to deliver a high-stakes formal speech may have led to failing to identify his source.
So what can we take from these two instances of professors and plagiarism? I think to some extent we could argue that both show the same kinds of errors under pressure that we sometimes see in student work. In the first case, rules around collaborative writing are unclear, and that lead to confusion around who wrote what. In the second case, a time crunch may have led to the writer failing to give credit where credit was due.
Strategies for instructors
Where does that leave us as instructors? The two cases give support to two specific actions:
Honig, Benson & Bedi, Akanksha. (2012). The Fox in the Hen House: A Critical Examination of Plagiarism Among Members of the Academy of Management. Academy of Management Learning and Education. 11. 101-123. 10.5465/amle.2010.0084.
Academic Integrity in High School. Plagiarism Facts and Stats. June 7, 2017. Downloaded June 2, 2020. https://www.plagiarism.org/article/plagiarism-facts-and-stats
McCabe, D., & Pavela, G. (2004). Ten (Updated) Principles of Academic Integrity: How Faculty Can Foster Student Honesty. Change, 36(3), 10-15. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40177967