On Our Honor

On Our Honor - Summer 2008

Then the nightmare sets in. At the end of another long night, he glances across the room, spots a textbook on the floor, and remembers the research paper he’s supposed to be writing for that class. He’s barely started on it, and it’s due in three days.

Most students in this terrifying situation won’t see any option beyond simply brewing a pot of coffee and knuckling down to work. Others will run to their professor the next morning and beg for an extension. Some, though, will lose their heads and take a dishonorable path. Out of laziness or sheer desperation, they’ll find some way to copy a fellow student’s work or lift some random scholar’s research from the Internet. A few will go so far as to buy an entire paper from an online source.

Now imagine that scenario unfolding against the backdrop of Denison University, a school that prides itself on academic integrity. Surely everyone there would do the right thing, yes?

Not everyone. While research indicates that Denison students are much less likely to commit plagiarism than their peers at other schools, cheating is still a relatively common practice. In a campuswide survey taken in the fall of 2006, 35 percent of Denison students admitted to plagiarizing material from each other or from the Internet, while two percent confessed to having utilized Internet paper mills.

 “We realized it definitely was an issue,” says Chelsea Mikula ’07, former president of Denison Campus Governance Association (DCGA). “It kind of showed us, ‘Wow, there’s cheating going on, that there’s enough happening where it shouldn’t be ignored.’ Coming from high school and into college, it’s easy to get immune.”

The problem appears to be more widespread if you ask Denison faculty. In the same survey, 86 percent of professors reported having witnessed written plagiarism, while 51 percent had spotted dishonesty on tests. Meanwhile, the vast majority of professors, 75 percent, said the school’s overall policy on cheating isn’t working.

Statistics like these are not unique to Denison. Dr. Stephen Satris, interim director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina, says colleges and universities across the country are having problems with plagiarism and cheating, and all of them have no choice but to take a hard look at their policies and confront the matter head-on. “We are going against the wind here,” Satris says. “We need to send a message that will be taken seriously. Students need to know that this is not high school anymore, that this is serious.”

At Denison, that message is in the midst of being sent. Fueled by the disturbing results of the 2006 survey, a group of students took it upon themselves last year to extensively research, write, and potentially enact a new Code of Academic Integrity, modeling a 13-page document on policies already in place at Rutgers University and the University of Maryland. As of this writing, however, it was unclear whether or, more specifically, how the new Code of Academic Integrity would be enacted. By last spring, it already had been extensively reviewed and revised by the DCGA, Division of Student Affairs, college attorneys, and the Campus Affairs and Academic Affairs councils. But it was still awaiting discussion and ratification by the General Faculty, which had to contend with other pressing issues in its April and May meetings. It’s safe to say that none would disagree with the importance of academic integrity, but the implementation of the code’s policies and procedures will have direct bearing on each professor’s approach to the classroom, and so the proposal will require careful and sincere consideration. But if it is passed, the new rules could be in place as early as the 2009 fall semester.

The goal of the code, say its framers, is to bring clarity to the whole realm of academic dishonesty at Denison, to encourage more students and faculty to report violations, and ultimately to have a chilling effect on cheating in general. These effects, in turn, would hopefully send Denison’s already valuable stock soaring even higher as the implications of a vigorous academic integrity code sink in with employers and graduate institutions.

 “The dream is for the new code to ultimately make academic integrity a main concern at the front of students’ minds,” says Meredith Atwood ’09, who drafted the code in collaboration with Mikula, Lee Barkalow ’08, and Stephanie Whonsetler ’09. “Our current policy isn’t bad; it’s actually more progressive in terms of student involvement and faculty engagement than policies at other schools. But it lacks awareness and an educational component, and could involve even more student responsibility. Honor is often forgotten in our society—not just at Denison—and the proposed code hopefully will help our community remember it.”

Certainly the Code of Academic Integrity as written is more extensive than Denison’s current policy on cheating, which some say places too much of the burden of reporting plagiarism on professors while offering little incentive or protection for students to point out infractions by their peers.



Satris says leaving professors responsible for disciplining cheaters only encourages teachers “to take care of it informally” rather than go to the trouble of gathering proof, making a case, and holding a formal academic tribunal. As a result, he says, a cheater can slip through the system with little more than a few slaps on the wrist, in which case, the entire institution suffers. “People think it’s just them and it doesn’t affect the rest of the school,” Satris says. “But if the school becomes a joke, then that’s a disservice to everyone who holds that degree.”

Under terms of the new code as proposed for Denison, minor infractions, such as failing to give proper acknowledgement to a source or working collaboratively on a project without permission, would entail grade penalties at the discretion of the professor. All reports, no matter how seemingly small the infractions, would be directed to a University Honor Committee composed of students and professors. And whistle-blowers will have their identities protected.

But the penalties get tougher as the degree of dishonesty increases. Repeat offenders, as well as those who commit egregious types of academic misconduct such as purchasing research papers, stealing or copying an exam from a professor, or citing imaginary sources, would be eligible for suspension or expulsion.

Students who commit the lesser offenses of standard plagiarism or copying from a fellow student would receive a grade penalty and be required to take a non-credit tutorial on academic integrity. That last part is a distinguishing feature of the new code: rehabilitation. “There’s an educational process involved when you’re accused of it,” Mikula says.

If the student fails to complete (or does not have time to complete) the tutorial, he or she might receive an “X” in addition to the grade on his or her transcript and be temporarily disallowed from participation in student groups, Greek organizations, and varsity sports. The “X” could be removed and replaced with a grade by obtaining written permission from the Honor Committee. That option would expire two years from the date of the infraction.

But the new code, if adopted by the General Faculty in the upcoming year, would affect everyone, not just academic scofflaws. Students may soon be asked to sign pledges noting that research papers or tests were completed with integrity. They also may notice professors going out of their way to eliminate ambiguity about the kinds of things that constitute cheating and plagiarizing in the first place, since many believe part of the problem results from confusion.

“Some people have a blurred distinction about what’s okay and what’s not,” said Atwood, a senior double major in biology and environmental studies. “For instance, perfectly fine and encouraged collaboration can turn into facilitating plagiarism if students aren’t aware of how much outside help they’re getting or are allowed to have. A code would keep integrity on the minds of students past orientation and past the first day of class when they read the syllabus. Hopefully, it will make some students rethink their actions and decisions, while encouraging all students to engage in a culture of honesty and pride in one’s work.”

Then again, for some students, the new policy wouldn’t make much of a difference at all, at least in a practical sense. Particularly if they’re students of political science professor Sue Davis, who says she’s been taking some unusually proactive steps against academic dishonesty on her own for years, with remarkable results.

In Davis’s experience, which has roots in the honor code she herself signed as a student at Emory University, a little prevention goes a long way in the battle against cheating. Rather than prosecuting offenders, Davis says she’d rather spend time at the beginning of each semester clearly defining plagiarism and outlining how students who commit it will be punished. 

All this goes right on the syllabus. That way, no student can claim they didn’t understand plagiarism or were unaware of the rules. Additionally, Davis says she requires students to literally sign off on the authenticity of every paper and tries to create assignments that are difficult to plagiarize or replicate from one semester to the next.

 “I’d rather teach them how to do things correctly than punish them for doing it wrong,” says Davis. “If I talk about plagiarizing, then they’re less likely to do it. I don’t want to spend my time punishing. It’s just not a pleasant thing to do. I feel more comfortable knowing that they’re aware, and I want to think they’re basically good kids.”

While the campus awaits the faculty’s action on the proposed code, its proponents take heart in several positive signs, the most notable of which being that the document already has advanced farther than any previous attempt to institute an honor code or revise the college’s policies on cheating. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that this code closely parallels both the Campus Compact and the Student Code of Conduct.

Nonetheless, the code’s creators predict that certain aspects of the policy will be debated, altered, or even deleted, as they would for any piece of legislation. But Mikula says she hopes a sense of urgency prevails and that details within the policy do not cause the larger effort to be derailed. “We’d rather have something in place and work up from there, rather than have no honor code at all.”

From the faculty’s point of view, Davis says the new code stands a better chance of passing than earlier versions simply because students are leading the charge. Students who are academically upright are starting to feel “ripped off” by cheaters, she says, and the motion on the part of students to create a code sends a strong signal to school officials.

“I’m really happy it’s a student-led initiative,” Davis says. “In order for an honor code to work, it really has to be something that everyone is willing to enforce. If it doesn’t pass, the real losers will be the students themselves.”

For his part, Satris is also optimistic, saying an academic integrity code has a better-than-average chance of succeeding at a small, close-knit school like Denison, where students can equate cheating with letting down specific friends and family members, and thus can be rallied more easily around an essentially abstract cause.

Still, Satris says, honor codes take time to cement, even under ideal conditions, which means it could be awhile until all students at Denison are taking the academic high road.

“I think it can work much better at a place like Denison, where there’s a sense of belonging. I think that counts for a lot. But the hope is that it becomes ingrained, and so the hard part is getting it in place at the beginning.”

Published August 2008