Council completes plagiarism review

Disciplinary statistics show an increase from three in 1998 to 16 in 1999 and 19 in 2000. Between 1990 and 1998 the average number of combined cheating and plagiarism incidents per year was 4.55. The report described the increase in the last three years as a “dramatic rise” and noted that many other universities have been recording similar influxes in reported cases of academic dishonesty.

“In terms of major policy changes, ‘wait and see’ is the message,” said Professor of English Andrew Parker, who chairs the Council.

The report acknowledged that the statistics might not be entirely accurate because many cheating incidents are never reported.

“As our report indicates, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern whether the rise in the reported number of cases actually correlates with a rise in cheating, or whether faculty members have just become more diligent in reporting cases,” said Steve Vladeck ’01, a member of the College Council. “It seems clear to me that either could be true, based on the trend, and to act on one assumption without supporting evidence would be, at least in my opinion, premature.”

The report noted that some instances of cheating result not from a desire to break the rules but rather from ignorance of what the rules are.

“While much of this behavior is deliberate and, on occasion, highly organized, some of it reflects a diffuse ‘ignorance’ of what counts as cheating or as plagiarism (on essays and exams),” the report said.

To help prevent unintentional cheating, the report recommended that faculty tell their students what constitutes cheating in their given field.

“The line, for example, between prescribed collaboration and the proscribed submission of work ‘not one’s own’ might seem blurry if a professor has not explained precisely where, in a given discipline, the one practice ends and the other begins,” the report continued.

The report cited a study that found a decrease in cheating incidents when faculty members talked about their college’s statement of academic honesty and noted that Amherst professors did not usually make such announcements.

“We do not think it necessary to adopt as a remedy an honor code like Princeton’s, which requires students to sign an oath accompanying every piece of work submitted,” the report said. “Rather, the College Council strongly reaffirms the terms of our current Statement, recommending only that, as voted originally by the faculty, these terms be carried out in every class at the start of every semester.”

“An honor code has, as one of its fundamental tenets, a requirement that anyone who observes or witnesses someone else cheating or plagiarizing has a responsibility to report it. We don’t want to create a culture in which we’re spying on each other,” said Vladeck.

“Furthermore, it is hard to say whether or not the Statement is adequate, given how rarely it seems to be used by our faculty,” added Vladeck. “As a first step, we want to encourage more widespread use of the Statement, and only then will we be in a better position to evaluate its effectiveness.”

The report suggested that faculty teach students about the statement during First-Year Seminars.

“We think First-Year Seminars are the ideal moment and setting for this instruction, which should include as participants the Head of Reference and Online Services from Frost Library and the Directors of the Writing and Quantitative Skill Centers,” the report said. “We recommend that this instruction begin as early as the next academic year, and that the appropriate College committees should start planning for this now.”

The report recommended against using an online verification service, such as, where students would have to upload papers to check for “original content” before turning them in to their professor.

“These plagiarism services are, I think, a disservice,” said Parker.

“While we may wish that cheating and plagiarism will soon return to their low historic levels, we know that the challenges of the new technologies are with us to stay,” the report concluded. “We hope the unhappy subject of this report will help the College prepare more adequately all of its future students.”