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Rethinking Academic Integrity

The College should use the upcoming assessment to institute an honor code

By The Crimson Staff

With the simple words “I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code during this examination” written at the top of every exam, Princeton University students today continue a tradition of academic honesty and personal integrity that has been in place since 1893.

Unlike Princeton and other peer institutions, however, Harvard College does not currently have an honor code. True, the College is taking steps to understand issues of academic integrity throughout the campus community. On Feb. 7, the College will open an Academic Integrity Assessment in order to “reevaluate academic integrity policy.” The Assessment is not a response to any incidents involving cheating, but it is still important to understand how students, faculty, and teaching fellows perceive academic integrity. Whatever the results, we hope the Assessment will finally impel the College to institute an official honor code.

The Assessment should ideally investigate students’ technical understanding of what constitutes academic dishonesty. Plagiarism is not always entirely clear-cut, and it is not uncommon for a student writing a paper to have doubts about how and what to cite properly. It is also important to ask students about their experiences with or observations of cheating. Both types of information would be useful in understanding the state of academic integrity at Harvard. These findings could then be used to prevent and counteract cheating and plagiarism and also to help students better understand what exactly constitutes academic dishonesty.

In light of these efforts to investigate academic integrity, the time has also come to discuss the real possibility of instating an honor code. Many of our peer institutions—including Stanford—have honor codes that expect students to know and thoroughly follow academic honesty standards. Princeton’s honor code, for example, was started by students, and, today, its Honor Committee, which investigates cases of academic dishonesty, is composed entirely of students.

Harvard students would equally benefit from having an honor code they would be required to write at the top of every exam. Such a seemingly simple act would nevertheless reinforce the idea that it is the student’s personal responsibility to achieve the highest level of honesty in all academic work. In other words, an honor code would make integrity the norm, and any academic dishonesty would thus become a positive action a student consciously decided to do.

To be sure, an honor code would not provide the ultimate solution to the age-old problem of academic dishonesty at Harvard. Naturally, some students will still consciously cheat, regardless of whatever policy is put in place. However, for others it would serve as a constant reminder of the virtues of academic honesty, and,  on a fundamental level, an honor code would force students to take seriously their decisions in the inevitable situations that emerge in scholarship, the sorts of situations in which what constitutes academic dishonesty is still under dispute. In that sense, a student who is unsure on whether or not to, say, cite a footnote in researching a term paper may decide to contact a teaching fellow or a department tutor for the necessary information. Students will hopefully also become more mindful of the other resources already in place, including the “Harvard Guide to Writing with Sources.”

The Assessment will ideally start a productive campus-wide conversation on both the prevalence of academic dishonesty and possible solutions to counteract such practices. With this in mind, it is time to once again consider instating an official student honor code. Like our peers at Princeton and Stanford, Harvard students should be held accountable by their peers for the work they do and should aspire to personal integrity in all aspects of the academic experience.

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