Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Integrity of Integrity Policies

A returning correspondent writes:

Our current academic integrity policy results in a student failing a course if they are caught plagiarizing. The instructors brings possible examples of cheating to department chairs who escalate to a committee hearing if they concur, so there's something like due process. Anyhow, our new Dean wants to change this so the first case results in a zero on that assignment, and the second results in failing the course. My problem with this is if it's announced to students (even subtly) that the policy has changed it's an invite for our students to start cheating as they know there's only a slap on the wrist the first time. The Dean's reasoning is that our policy is too harsh compared to other colleges. Do you think that's even accurate? Also how important is it that all colleges are on the same page about this in first place? As long as the policy is documented and reasonable who cares what other schools do?

I see several issues here.

One issue is the proper role of the dean. If she’s just expressing her opinion, then that’s all this is. If she’s trying to change the policy unilaterally, then that’s an issue all by itself, regardless of the merits of her position. If she’s trying to get a discussion going that might lead to the empowered body -- I’m guessing there’s a campus committee with jurisdiction over this sort of thing -- then she’s probably doing some good. Context matters.

Leaving aside the role of the dean, I’d point out the yawning chasm between a written policy and the way it actually works on the ground. A too-strict policy often leads to widespread evasion and the emergence of a huge, unaccountable gray area. I’ve seen this myself. A professor catches a student, but believes that even though the student is clearly guilty, the official penalty is too harsh. So the professor doesn’t report it, and instead metes out her version of personalized justice, whatever that is.

From the institution’s perspective, the “frontier justice” approach is a ticking time bomb. Sooner or later, someone will sue for “disparate impact” based on a protected class membership and denial of due process, and win. Better to have a policy that’s applied consistently across the entire college. My guess -- and I don’t know your dean, so that’s all this is -- is that the dean is trying to trade a strict policy that almost nobody follows for a slightly looser policy that faculty will actually use. Failing a single assignment certainly isn’t draconian, although experience tells me that most students who feel the need to cheat wind up failing the course anyway once they get an F. (I’d advocate a “zero” rather than an “F,” to distinguish an honest failure from fraud.) But if the looser penalty leads to greater faculty willingness to use the process, then that’s a good trade.

The point about other colleges strikes me as a weaker argument, precisely because so many cases get resolved informally. A strong official policy is usually honored in the breach. I’d rather have an imperfect policy that actually gets used than an ideal one that gathers dust on a shelf.

For the record, my personal position is that the dean’s recommended policy makes sense for garden-variety plagiarism, such as copy-and-paste papers. I’d want to reserve the option of going to a higher level for something more severe, like group cheating or hacking into computers to alter records. (I actually saw that once. We went directly to expulsion.) I wouldn’t worry too much about excessive leniency, only because in a more lenient system serial cheaters are more likely to be reported, and second and subsequent offenses can and should be treated more harshly.

Wise and worldly readers who teach: do you usually use the “due process” on your campus to report plagiarism, or do you usually handle it yourself? And if you avoid the official process, why?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

We have a staged process (for both cheating and plagiarism) where the first step is by the prof but can be appealed. What we don't have is a strict college-wide policy whereby a student cannot drop their lowest assignment or exam (a common practice IME) if that score results from cheating. That could be in your syllabus, however.

The weakness of graduated punishment is that they can simply withdraw to avoid failing the class and no one can see the reason they quit.
My previous university had an honor code, and academic integrity issues were supposed to be reported to a committee of students for adjudication. However, said board was known for being extremely harsh (e.g. expelling students over one fairly minor infraction), so faculty often tried dealing with it themselves.

At my current university, there's an elaborate due process system, but the faculty member gets to choose the penalty, and it does seem to get used more often.

Also, if the issue is cheating on an exam, especially a final exam, the difference between a 0 and an F in the course is likely merely semantic.
At my CC the punishment is officially up to the professor (with possible penalties ranging from an alternate assignment up to an F in the course). I actually like it this way because if a student commits a very minor offense (e.g., plagiarizes two lines in a paper, because he didn't remember how to cite properly) then I can give a relatively minor penalty but still go through the process. The student is therefore on notice, because paperwork's been filed with the college, and more severe penalties can then be triggered if the student is then reported by another professor. So I can tell students "I'm using this as a learning experience for you, but you can't claim ignorance a second time." And this gives faculty a way to distinguish between offenses that might genuinely have been due to mistakes or ignorance, vs. those that clearly represent deliberate wrongdoing.

To address CCPhysicist's last comment: It's now part of our college policy that if you withdraw from a class while an academic dishonesty review is pending, it's considered a de facto admission of guilt unless the student successfully defends the charge, and the W can be changed to an F.
Zero on the assignment seems more consistent with other colleges to me. For a first case, our typical penalty is 0 on the assignment and -5% on the overall course grade. Faculty can handle a first case themselves, by negotiating the penalty with the student, and then documenting the resolution with the Associate Dean. Penalties escalate for subsequent cases, and apparently include suspension for a 2nd offense.

I've reported a number of cases, but I don't have a broad sense of how many other people do. I feel it's actually important to be vigilant as an instructor of future engineers. Prevention is better yet, though. ("I'm going to be running your submissions through MOSS, a plagiarism detector, so don't copy code from your friends." "I've run the submissions through MOSS and didn't find any cases. Congratulations; keep it up.")
Someone will sue for discrimination based on disparate impact and win? Really?

Disparate impact cases are really, really hard to win outside of very specific situations, such as written employment tests. (See for example Michael Selmi, "Was Disparate Impact Theory a Mistake?", UCLA Law Reviewn 701).

Moreover, unless your institution processes many more cases per year than mine does, it would be pretty hard to have enough case numbers to demonstrate that disparate impact existed. You may rightly fear being sued, but the fear of actually losing such a case (one based on disparate-impact theory) is almost certainly misplaced.
I would be happier if the college tracked the cheating offenses better. To me there's a huge difference between the student caught for the first time ever (more likely to be innocent mistake) and the student caught for the first time in this course (but has been caught before). I get very tired of repeat offenders.
At my school, any response to perceived cheating that might result in a change in the student's potential grade triggers due process. So you can do something like give the student an opportunity to redo the assignment (do the assignment for the first time, I guess), but if you want to give them a zero or an F for that assignment, you have to enter the process--dean's office, hearings, tribunals, the whole shebang.

I have no idea how common cheating is on the assignment level, but I have seen it frequently in my own classes, so I have to say I'm not convinced empty threats like these are particularly effective.
My school is like Richard's. As a professor I prefer to handle the first offense and just make a report with my coordinator which is kept as long as the student is enrolled in any course. In my 10 years, I've only had one instance in my English department which was not an honest mistake and a minor offense and the student transferred to another school at the end of the semester. Our school sends the offense report with the school records as far as I am aware. The student in question knew the penalties before s/he committed the plagiarism. It is in the course syllabus. I report even minor offenses. Two or three minor offenses show a pattern of academic honesty, in my opinion.
Our university's policy is that stage 1 is a meeting between the professor and student. If they agree on a penalty, it's applied and that's the end. If they are unable to agree on a penalty, the case is referred to the honor court. All in all, I think that it's a good system in that it gives flexibility within a defined set of constraints but also allows for due process and appeals if the student and / or faculty member feel that it's appropriate.
Every case of cheating I handled followed one of two scripts, EXCEPT ONE.

1) Graduated punishment that led up to the student being failed from the course. In this case, the graduated punishment helped me understand that the student had no intention of completing the coursework on his own merits, because he didn't even know what that meant.

2) Cheating on the final, in which a 0 on the test is the same as an F in the course. Obviously, there was no difference between the two policies there, so no worries.

The reason I prefer the graduated system is the one exception -- we caught a student from Nepal cheating, and had we failed him from the course, we would have had him deported (for failure to follow his student visa's requirements) back to a civil war. Since this was obviously a bit harsh, we all had a nice sit-down in which we discovered that the student had a lot of family issues and didn't feel comfortable talking to the Department, so he panicked. We settled on some extra credit and overall things ended up being way better.

So I like the graduated approach. It warns off the students who are warnable and lets those professors who don't fully understand the culture of cheating get used to the idea that some students are just like that.
Oh, and at my school, withdrawals beyond a certain date required a professor's signature. While normally this is routine, I did withhold the signature for one student who had plagiarized up the chain and make him take the F.
When I taught, the department (which generally meant the professor) could impose penalties ranging from failing to assignment to expulsion from the department for a year. In the five years I was there, all cases of plagiarism were handled in the department, generally by convincing the student to agree to failing the course in lieu of the more serious sanction.

The only case I had personally involved a student in 4th semester German who substituted a (very "literary") Thomas Mann short story for the essay he was supposed to write. Without changing the title. Obviously, this was not inadvertent and he failed the course.
I sometimes handle cheating cases myself (usually the less-severe cases), sometimes turn them over to the University (usually the more-severe ones).

Strictly speaking, University policy says I'm supposed to always turn them over to the University (unless the student and I agree on a punishment) -- but the process is rather bureaucratic and a pain, so I don't always do it. If it's a major case, I always use the official process.

When I avoid the official process, it has nothing to do with fears that the official process is too strict (actually, I fear it is too lenient, though I can't tell since they don't allow me any visibility whatsoever into the process once I hand things over to them). Rather, the reason I avoid the official process is because of the overhead of the paperwork.
submitting an offender into the system, no matter what the offence, has the potential to connect your case up with the student's entire academic career, which is an important part of maintaining academic integrity in cases where a student is a repeat offender, but in a minor way which teachers, not knowing the full story, treat as isolated cases. if there's a fair enough due process above the level of the individual course, then i think it's better to let it work itself out, if an offence merits something like a zero on a test or paper or worse.
I treat plagiarism differently on a case to case basis (another way of saying I'm basically unfair.)

I've given zeroes for the assignment, I've told the student to start all over and resubmit without penalty, I've fought to have a student fail the course, I've treated it as a technical problem as opposed to an ethical one. Frankly, with our current dean who I dislike and distrust, I would deal with any plagiarism on my own and keep it out of her sight--she'd only fuck me up and fuck me over.

I don't think 'academic integrity' is compromised by the occasional cheat. Academic integrity is built into (or not) course design, course content, grade design, the fit of the course into other department or college offerings, and so on.
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