When two strikingly similar term papers crossed the desk of Professor Molly Spitzer Frost last semester, she was skeptical.
Getting an extremely good paper from an indifferent student is enough to make a professor suspicious, she said. But it was more than the strength of the papers that bothered her. They were virtually identical.
Her first thought was that the students had collaborated on the Chinese literature class assignment, she said. She e-mailed both students and informed them of her concerns, then confirmed her suspicion of their academic dishonesty using the Internet.
Plugging keywords from the papers into a search engine brought up the exact paper. Frost said the paper on the Internet was 10 pages long and said it was obvious that both students had cut it in half.
There’s nothing wrong with getting help, but only a reasonable amount of help, she said.
Frost contacted GW’s Office of Academic Integrity, which she called extremely helpful. After speaking with someone in the office about the situation, Frost said she was impressed the office allowed her to make her own decision as to how to deal with the matter.
I was very shook up, she said. Maybe I was naive, but I trusted my students and expected them to do their own research.
According to Frost, she had several options for punishing the students, from requiring them to write another paper, to failing them on the paper, to failing them in the course. She could have also initiated charges though the Office of Academic Integrity. Frost failed both students for the semester.
The Office of Academic Integrity assists not only the person bringing the charge up, but also the student who is being brought up on charges, according to Tim Terpstra, executive coordinator of Academic Integrity.
I don’t play a judgmental role, he said. I serve to try to explain what the process is, help to interpret the code and outline their options and the proper procedures.
Professors, administrators or students can bring up charges against a student through the Office of Academic Integrity, which covers all of the schools in GW except the law school and students specifically enrolled in the medical program.
The Academic Integrity Council, which consists of both faculty and student members, investigates charges through a series of hearings. The office is in its fourth year of existence.
Terpstra estimated that between 75 and 100 cases are brought into the office in an academic year, and, of those, there are about 20 to 25 hearings. In order to find a student in violation, three of the four members of the panel must agree that there is a preponderance of evidence, (a strong likelihood that the violation occurred) Terpstra said.
He said many times professors feel that technical violations that occur are done unintentionally – for example, errors in correctly citing sources in a paper, – and don’t charge offenses formally. Many professors and students come to outside agreements, like Frost did, resulting in the low number of cases.
The burden of proof is on the person bringing up the charge, Terpstra said. It is not just an accusation.
To further discourage honesty code infractions, GW launched an advertising campaign through the Office of Academic Integrity. Almost every classroom now bears a prominent poster that proclaims, The right answer comes from you.
Because the official process of finding violations can be time-consuming and can leave a permanent blemish on students’ academic records if they are found in violation, some professors said they prefer to handle transgressions themselves.
In Professor Robert Lindeman’s data structures class this semester, he caught 10 of his 65 students sharing code, the computer science equivalent of copying someone else’s work verbatim. He said the experience reinforced his belief in taking careful steps, including preventive ones, to combat academic dishonesty among his students.
It’s just a big shame when students feel they have to do this, he said. That’s why I like to deal with them directly. I feel like I know them better than some panel, and I don’t want it to leave a permanent scar.
One sophomore student, whose code sharing was discovered by Lindeman, said the zero score he handed down wasn’t the only thing that impacted the student.
I was so ashamed that this professor in my major had totally lost respect for me, the student said. That’s what made me learn my lesson and caused me to change the way I do work now. His disappointment in me was the worst punishment of all.
While the student admits that sharing the code was wrong, the sophomore still engages in the practice of academic dishonesty either by using others’ work as a guide or distributing the students’ own work to others.
I’m much more careful to do as much of the work on my own as I can, the student said. But yes, I still share code. I know it isn’t what we’re supposed to do, but everyone still does it. We need each other’s help.