For the most part, universities have resigned from the business of teaching morals, but with one important exception:  cheating on homework and exams.  While cheating is apparently a fairly widespread practice—recent surveys of college students indicate that between 65 and 80 percent of students admit to cheating at least once—that doesn’t make it right.  As counterfeiting is to the economy, cheating is to grades, which professors sometimes refer to as the “coin of the realm” in academia.  I won’t waste a lot of time here explaining why cheating is wrong.  It combines lying, sometimes stealing (if you turn in someone else’s work), and indulging in flaunting-the-rules behavior that can form a lifelong habit of cheating in other areas besides academics. 

While there have probably been cheaters ever since there have been students, the Internet has provided more ammunition both on the side of the cheaters and on the side of those who try to catch them.  The other day I stumbled onto a website which I will not encourage visits to here by giving their URL.  But believe me, it does exist.  It is a commercial site at which you can submit an essay question or homework problem, and for a fee, you get a finished essay or solution.  Their homepage has some smarmy lingo saying that everybody who’s been a student has thought at some time or another of getting “help” with homework, and we’re just making it easier for you.

They have a “legal” section which is the most hypocritical boilerplate of its kind I have ever seen.  In one part of the text it warned that anything provided to the user was simply “for reference” and should be referenced like any other reference work—as though a student would copy the essay in question and then write, “Oh, by the way, I got this entire essay from a pay-per-assignment website.”  But in another section, the company absolved itself of any responsibility for adverse consequences should you turn the stuff in as your own work, which was clearly the whole purpose of the site. 

If a student availed himself of this type of service, it would be hard to detect if the product is really original.  (In the same legal boilerplate, the cheating site guaranteed that its product would be 90% free of plagiarism, which tells me they allow an internal plagiarism rate of 10%.)  But the Internet, while tempting students to plagiarize sources by copying and pasting wholesale without attribution, also makes it easier to discover such cheating.  I have run across two such cases of plagiarism that I was able to figure out, one with the help of the Internet. 

In one case, two students in a class of mine were turning in letter-for-letter identical homework solutions, which could not have been just coincidental.  The grading assistant pointed it out to me, and I invited each student into my office individually and showed them the evidence.  Each student said they had never copied from the other one, and this was technically true.  But a few hours later, one of them came by my office and admitted he had found a website, posted by the textbook publisher, of solutions to all the homework problems, and both he and the other student were just copying that site, rather than doing the homework by themselves. 

I suppose I was partly responsible for that incident, because I was unaware that the publisher had done such a thing.  If I’d known that a complete solution set to all the homeworks was out there on the web, I would have thought twice about using that textbook.  But the second case of cheating was both more surprising and more blatant.

Because I have published a few papers on the subject of ball lightning, I have started to receive requests from journals to review similar papers in the peer-review process that most reputable academic journals use.  In reviewing one such paper, I came across a passage that seemed both better-written than the average level of the rest of the paper, and rather hard to understand.  I looked up the Wikipedia article on the subject of the passage, and to my surprise, I found that the author of the paper had copied a whole paragraph almost word-for-word out of the Wikipedia article, and had not cited Wikipedia as a source.

The paper had other problems too, but when I pointed out this blatant plagiarism to the journal editors, they summarily rejected the paper.  And they should have, too.  I have come to anticipate a certain amount of that kind of thing from undergraduates who have not learned what plagiarism is, and may have gotten away with it repeatedly at the high-school level.  But I was shocked to find that a scientist would be so careless, although plagiarism and even fabrication of data is not unknown in journal papers.

What is the solution for cheating at the undergraduate level? While I suspect we will never reduce the level of cheating to zero, the same article (from an American Psychological Association online journal) where I found the statistics on cheating, also cites a study that says creating a peer-level atmosphere that discourages academic dishonesty is helpful.  

I can personally attest to the effectiveness of this approach.  I attended a small private undergraduate school which had a stringent, and largely effective, honor code.  Most of my exams were take-home exams that allowed a specified time for completion, and I stayed within the time limits and to the best of my knowledge, never cheated.  This is not to say “oh, what a good boy am I,” but to point out that if a student knows that cheating is rare and frowned upon both by other students and faculty, it is less likely that whatever pressures are present will push people over the edge into cheating.  And psychologist David Rettinger, interviewed in the APA article, says that “the key is to create this community feeling of disgust at the cheating behavior.”  Sometimes this comes from student-led groups such as Academic Integrity Matters! at the University of California at San Diego, which sponsored a petition drive asking faculty members to be more explicit about what cheating is and what the penalties are. 

As with many other things, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to academic cheating.  I think I will be a little more clear to my students in the future about what I consider cheating and plagiarism, and hope that they will take my words to heart.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...