Ad Board Grapples with Plagiarism

Part I in a IV Part Series

Melody Y. Hu and Eric Newcomer

(Part II of this story appeared on March 23, 2010.)

Thirty years ago, cheating required work. Students had to go to the stacks, pore over academic texts, and manually copy the information to plagiarize a paper.

But with the advent of smart phones and easy access to the Internet, technology has blurred the lines of what constitutes blatant academic dishonesty as opposed to improper attribution, for example.

As a result of the past decade’s technological advancements, cheating has become more difficult to identify and assess, and professors have grown increasingly reluctant to turn cases over to the Administrative Board—Harvard College’s disciplinary body—stating that the punitive measures are too inflexible.

In light of the growing disconnect between faculty and the Ad Board, some administrators worry that many cases of academic dishonesty are not reported or even identified.

“There’s ample reason to think we have a real problem,” says Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris. “We certainly assume that the cases that are brought to the Ad Board are the tip of the iceberg.”

Administrators say they are taking preventative steps to improve how the College educates students about academic dishonesty, including reworking “Writing with Sources”—a text used in Expository Writing 20—and encouraging all departments to teach proper citation in sophomore tutorials.

“A lot of faculty just assume students know things that we’ve never actually taught them,” Harris says, such as appropriate forms of collaboration and citation.

Given the widespread dissatisfaction among faculty, administrators, and students, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds took steps to address the root of their complaints—the rigidity of the Ad Board’s process for handling cases of academic dishonesty.

Hammonds called on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to create “a new process for adjudicating academic dishonesty cases that would expand the options for disciplinary sanctions,” as recommended in the Committee to Review the Administrative Board’s report released by Hammonds on March 10.


Pforzheimer House Resident Dean Lisa Boes—who, like all resident deans, sits on the Ad Board—says that from her experience, faculty members will sometimes choose to handle cases of academic dishonesty themselves as they feel the College’s disciplinary actions may be too severe.

These instances are “widespread,” Boes says, and College administrators worry that inconsistent handling of academic dishonesty cases is unfair and results in uneven outcomes.

“If somebody’s required to withdraw for a year, and somebody else gets a zero on one paper which gets averaged in with a bunch of things [and] you end up with a C in a class, that’s an enormous gap and that’s just not equitable,” Harris says.

Much of the faculty’s dissatisfaction comes from the limited range of responses the Ad Board is allowed to consider when hearing academic dishonesty cases.