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How Does Harvard Define Cheating?

With limited University definitions for cheating, both Students and professors find that the boundary between academic collaboration and unethical conduct is often ambiguous.

By Kevin S. Davis

It's three o'clock in the morning, and the Ec 10 problem set you have postponed all week is due in section today.

Your blockmate owes you a favor and finished the same assignment more than an hour ago.

This scenario, familiar to many Harvard students, almost inevitably results in a quick, guiltless copying of the homework.

That's not cheating, many students say, Professors encourage cooperation on assignments, especially in science, math and economic courses.

Cooperation, students add, has often been extended to duplicating problem sets, seeking help on take-home exams and even copying answer keys to homework.

But in the wake of recent national surveys (see graphic) which cite an increase in cheating on college campuses, students, professors and administrators are questioning the definitions and limits of cheating at Harvard--and whether students observe them.

Many students say that the absence of an honor code or a clear set of rules regarding cheating at Harvard has left undergraduate students wondering about what does and what doesn't constitute cheating.

University policy

It is during the mandatory Dean's meeting in Freshman Week that students receive their first dose of the University's expectations for proper conduct and integrity.

Besides a one-hour expository writing session on plagiarism later in the year, that is the extent of the administration's explanation of cheating.

"Students come away with a pretty good understanding of what plagiarism means within this particular subject matter," says Preceptor in Expository Writing Gordon C. Harvey. "But we don't say anything about the difficulties that arise out of collaboration."

Students say that this ambiguity blurs the lines of ethical and unethical behavior.

"I don't know if have ever cheated," says one student who requested anonymity. "I am totally unaware of how Harvard defines it."

The University's position is that defining the limits of acceptable academic behavior is up to professors and to the individual consciences of students.

Many who teach sciences, mathematics or economics encourage group participation in problem sets. Students are led to rely on this sort of collaboration--often for their grades.

"At least in the sciences, I don't think that copying problem sets is officially included as cheating," says another student.

Is Cheating at Harvard Different?

Educators and educational journals have lamented an 'epidemic' of cheating in recent years, citing surveys that claim astronomical numbers of students cheat in college.

Data from polls of universities nationwide indicate that the vast majority of students cheat--in one form or another--a lot more than most administrators would like to admit.

Is the same true of Harvard? Students and administrators here say no.

Harvard students are different, says one sophomore. "The reason it is different is because of the Harvard mentality," he says. "Everyone here wants to be a senator."

Other students agree that dealing with cases of outright cheating is not part of the Harvard experience.

The relatively low number of cheating incidences that go to the College authorities seem to confirm this. The Administrative Board, which handles all disciplinary actions, sees approximately a half-dozen cases each semester, according to senior tutors who sit on the board.

"Cheating does occur at Harvard," says Virginia L. Mackay-Smith '78, assistant dean for co-education and secretary of the Ad Board, "but it virtually always occurs in a context that needs to be taken into account."

Commonly, she says, it involves "people being sleep deprived or stressed to the point of having judgment so clouded that after the fact they look back at what they've done and are amazed and shocked."

Though the cases are few, the punishment is often sever. Cheating incidences that appear before the Ad Board almost always result in requirement to withdraw by the student, and usually result from "a real misunderstanding of what is required for scholarship," says Mackay-Smith.

How Do We Define Cheating?

While case that are reviewed by the Ad Board are usually involve clearly improper behavior, other examples are not so easy to define, students say.

One senior sociology concentrator explains," I could never truthfully answer a poll. I don't know if I have ever cheated. I am totally unaware of how Harvard defines it."

Students say they feel ill- equipped to determine whether the ways in which they studied at Harvard were within the limits of fair play.

For while most students understand that turning in someone else's research or thesis paper or blatantly copying another's prose constitutes a breach of both ethics and university policy, this is where the clarity ends.

According to Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57, the lack of clarity results from two factors: first that cheating is a scarcely explained in most classes and second that students don't know that limits of collaboration.

The line between legitimate and illegitimate collaboration is especially fine in economics, science and mathematics classes, both students and professors say.

"People here blatantly copy problem sets," says a junior concentrator in economics. "Answer keys pass down from years before For example, we did all of our Ec 1010a problem sets from answer keys from the year before. Only one girl got caught, and nothing happened to her."

Common practice by some students, one sophomore pre-med student explains, is to copy the posted answer and turn in the assignment late.

"In these big science classes, it is relatively easy to get a one-day extension on a home-work assignment," says this student. "Since the professors of TFs are so good about posting answers the day after the problem set is due, it makes it easy for these late assignments to be copied. It's loophole."

From the professors' point of view, similar answers on problem sets alone are not enough to determine whether students are cheating.

Lecturer on Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Chemistry James E. Davis, who teaches "Chemistry 5: Introduction to the Principles of Chemistry," noted that he often has to deal with cases where "we have remarkable similarities between late papers and posted answers." While this is regarded as 'cheating' in some sense, in these cases of smaller assignments common to all students, it is difficult to prove, he says.

"People at Harvard are of considerable achievement and integrity," says Davis, "I like to teach my classes in the best way I can to discourage cheating, but I have not made that the primary focus of my efforts."

Taking Shortcuts

Taking shortcuts--rather then completing all the coursework--is a common way to survive in many classes, several students say.

Two students explained their shortcut-taking techniques in one of Trumbull Professors of American History Donald H. Fleming's classes.

Fleming, they say, has a list of forty study questions that he gives his gives his class each year, and five of these questions appear on the examination. Although the wording or order of the questions may change, say the students, the thrust of the answers remain constant.

To get ready for these exams, students say they utilize packets of prepared answers to the questions, some of the contents of which are more than fifteen years old.

"I went to class once and got a B+," says one senior who used the packets. "I went to go hand in the midterm and the next time I was in class was on the final. I don't know if you consider that cheating."

In theory all the students could take the time to prepare answers to all of the questions, but the point, the students says, is that they do not.

Fleming claims it is not so easy. "The questions vary quite considerably," he says, acknowledging, however, the existence of the student packets.

"I do not think that any-thing of that sort, of passing notes from year to year, is good," Fleming says, "but what can I do?"

"You could stop handing out questions, but you couldn't prevent any moderately intelligent student from figuring out what these topics could be," Fleming says. "I just think that if students don't want to get the good out of the course it is very hard to do anything about it".

Formal or Informal Cheating

Dean Jewett says that an excess of shortcuts techniques could prove to be problematic.

"I wouldn't regard it in a formal sense as cheating. It is not against the rules to not go to class. What it is is poor pedagogy," he says.

"I don't think it is cheating," echoes Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell. "If I give an examination, I don't mind if the questions become public knowledge. If I teach the course again, however, it is up to me to introduce the kind of variety that is going to keep the old material from substituting for real preparation of knowledge."

Students also agree that some techniques to circumvent course requirements could be unfair to large portions of the class.

"You feel as if you deserve more if you actually did the work that was required of you." says one first-year.

So, in the words of another students, "it is not outright cheating that occurs at Harvard. It is cheating the system. It is playing the game."

Honor Code

Many college have attacked the problems associated withn cheating by instituting honor code systems that govern questions of academic honesty.

Several students say they would support the idea of Harvard adopting a similar university-wide code of ethics.

Professors and administrators are skeptical, however, on the grounds that it is both impractical to enforce, and that ambiguous ethical questions are not the responsibility of the University.

"I don't think we can enunciate policy at the FAS-wide level that would take care of the special circumstances of all the disciplines," says Buell. "It has to be up to the course head in some cases to explicitly enunciate what the bounds of collaboration are."

Moreover, Buell says, students not only hurt themselves by stretrching the parameters of cheating, but also create unfair disadvantages for other students.

"I can only say," continues Buell, "that there are all sorts of different ways where students can be 'unfairly' advantaged. They may be networked in one way or another amongst their peers.

"To me the blame, if we are to ascribe blame, doesn't rest with the entrepreneurial student, but with the failure of introducing sufficient variety into the pedagogy."

The answers to this difficult question, according to professors and administrators, lie in students' individual responsibilities.

"Each student needs to have a code of ethics about their individual behavior," Jewett said. I would hope that [students who cheat] would understand that they are not getting much out of their education."

At the same time, students say that the concerns of getting a good grade often overshadow ethical questions about stretching the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

One student summed it up: "It is your GPA that ultimately matters here, when it should be how much you learn."

Cheating MIT poll

Dec. 1992, released 1993

83% admitted to cheating at least once during their college careers.

66% confessed to some sort of plagiarism.

40% misrepresented or research projects.

11% said they cheated on an exam.

Rutgers poll

15,000 students at 31 universities polled

87% of business-related majors admitted to cheating in some form.

67% of humanites majors admitted to cheating in some form.

Source: Ethics Resource Center, Washington, D.C.

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