On Issues of Academic Integrity

The Honor Council’s first report is informative, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions

Last week, the Harvard College Honor Council recently released its first report detailing its actions during its inaugural year and its findings based on 115 reviewed cases. This comes one year after the Council assumed its duties, with administrators working hard throughout this time period to make the Honor Council and the Honor Code central tenets of Harvard’s academic environment. We commend the Honor Council’s transparency in sharing these details, and hope that they lead to more effective means of combating academic integrity violations on campus.

Following shortcomings with how the Administrative Board handled academic integrity issues and the 2013 cheating scandal, Harvard College administrators introduced the Honor Code and the Honor Council in 2015. The Honor Council was created to uphold the standards of the Honor Code and foster a stronger sense of academic integrity at the College, as well as to address the need to include students in discussions of these issues. While we were originally skeptical as to the effectiveness of the Honor Code and the possibility of secrecy in Honor Council deliberations, the Honor Council’s report shows a commitment to accountability and clarity, and we praise their efforts to communicate their work.

Of the 115 cases presented to the Council last year, a majority were in the sciences and SEAS, and many of these involved problem sets. The Honor Council’s report notes that the greater prevalence of academic integrity issues in these divisions could be due to “ease of accessing solution sets and online resources, different collaboration policies across different courses, and considerable concern about grades by students.” While these are all reasonable conclusions, the report's most important point on this score is that science and SEAS classes based on problem sets simply have more assignments—and in turn more opportunities for cheating—than comparable classes in the humanities. Furthermore, the inherently collaborative nature of problem sets, different from the more solitary approach to papers, blurs the lines between collaboration and academic dishonesty. Problem sets can often more easily be screened for cheating, especially in classes like CS50, where algorithms to detect cheating have been in place for years.

The report’s observations also bring attention to plagiarism and time management as significant issues. Based on the cases brought before the Honor Council, it appears that many plagiarism cases were “substantive...and fundamentally deceptive”, which suggests a broader problem regarding writing with integrity at the College. Additionally, students involved in Honor Council cases frequently cited “significant time pressures” as an impetus for cheating. These issues are systemic not only to Harvard but many high-pressure academic institutions, and we appreciate the Council’s acknowledgement of them. We hope that, by acknowledging risk factors, our campus will find clear-cut measures to combat them and promote academic integrity.

Despite these illuminating findings, it is important to note that this report only consists of one year’s worth of data. More information over multiple years is needed before we can draw definitive conclusions, and we look forward to the Honor Council’s continued commitment to providing data. Academic integrity is crucial to Harvard's academic environment, and the Honor Council is doing well at maintaining an informative, transparent relationship with students. As the institution moves beyond its inaugural year, we are hopeful that future reports will further elucidate patterns of violations so that our community can better address these issues.

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