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Honors Systems and Academic Integrity

Universities throughout the world have a set of rules by which they expect and require students to behave. Sometimes these rules are formal and printed, and sometimes they are informal and passed down by word-of-mouth or through the prevailing culture. There are two types of rules: those that govern general behavior such as the consumption of alcohol and bullying, and those that govern academic behavior such as cheating and plagiarism. This article focuses on this second group of rules.

In the UK, each university has a code of conduct that covers aspects of student behavior ranging from the use of cell phones, to talking in class, to sexual harassment and bullying. A section on academic offenses is normally included as part of the code of conduct or as a separate document. A typical definition of academic offense is behavior that results in a student gaining an improper advantage by not following academic regulations; for example, by plagiarism, collusion, or improper conduct in formal examinations (cheating).

In the USA, academic integrity is frequently expressed as a stand-alone honor code; that is, the honor code is not a simple extension of the university’s day-to-day rules in quite the same way as it is in the UK.

An honor code does what it says; it makes a direct appeal to the student’s own set of moral values. It indicates that an infringement of the honor code is an attack on the institution itself. Moreover, it goes further than, for example, British codes by explicitly requiring students to report instances where other students infringe the code. A stark example of such a code is from the Air Force Cadet Wing (US Air Force Academy, Colorado) that states, “We will not lie, steal, cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”

The honor code is often made explicit by including it on exam papers, for example, “I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination

The Offense

Higher education and the academic world are based on the notion of expanding knowledge for its own sake, not falsifying knowledge, and not presenting the work of others as your own efforts. Student who cheat are committing two offenses: not only are they are gaining an unfair advantage over fellow students, they are also undermining the very foundations of academic life. You could argue that academic misbehavior is closer to a judge using bias in the summing up or a policemen giving false evidence than to, say, shoplifting.

Although there are a variety of academic offences, such as destroying lab equipment to deprive fellow students of the opportunity to finish an assignment or project, the bulk of academic offences involve some form of plagiarism. Two major classes of plagiarism are the copying of homework and assignments (student-to-student) and copying the work of others (not connected with the course) and passing it off as your own.

A particularly modern form of academic cheating is the Essay Mill or Paper Mill. This is an e-commerce organization that sells essays to students. Essays may be taken from a bank of essays or they may be individually written by a team of students, graduates, and other writers hired by the paper mill. Since a written-to-order essay may be an original work, it may well not be detected by anti-plagiarism software. However, if a student has not written the essay they submit, they may find it difficult to answer questions on it.

I have seen an example of such work from an essay mill. As a professor, I would have had little trouble identifying it as such, because it used a lot of words to say little. Clearly, its author did not understand the topic and had extracted material from many sources – much of it irrelevant.

How Common is Cheating?

It is rather difficult to measure the precise extent of cheating. When comparing the exam results of a group of students, it is often noticeable that some students perform very badly in unseen formal exams but do well in take-away assignments. Some faculty suggest that the disparity is due to cheating, whereas others point out that the students may simply suffer from nerves or poor exam technique.

A large-scale study undertaken by Donald McCabe at Rutgers in 2005 indicated that academic dishonesty was disturbingly widespread. The survey involved 80,000 students and 12,000 faculty in the USA and Canada and covered academic dishonesty such as copying another student’s work in an exam or using hidden crib notes (but not including plagiarism). The survey also included dishonestly submitting medical claims in order to get more time to finish an assignment or to revise for an exam.  Donald L. McCabe, Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective, International Journal for Educational Integrity, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2005). You can download a copy here.

Although McCabe’s results are open to interpretation, he concludes that approximately 20% of students had engaged in some form of exam cheating, which is a disappointingly high result.

As well as recording instances of cheating, McCabe also asked respondents to indicate how seriously they perceived the various forms of academic misconduct; for example, 92% of undergraduates perceive copying from another student in a test without their knowledge to be a serious offense, whereas only 58% of undergraduates perceive submitting a false excuse to delay a test as a serious offence.

Does Academic Misconduct Matter Anyway?

Today it’s quite common to hear the term victimless crime to describe a crime that does not have an obvious victim, unlike mugging. Typical victimless crimes are copying music and movies, speeding, not paying on the bus, and tax evasion.

In some circumstances, there are true victimless crimes; for example, blasphemy. However, other so-called victimless crimes have an impact on society itself. Consider bus fare evasion.  You get on a bus without a ticket and get a free ride. Who loses? A bus has operating costs (fuel and the wages of the driver). These costs come from the fares. If some do not pay, fares have to rise to maintain income. Eventually, passengers refuse to pay the increased fares and the service may be terminated leaving those without other means of transport stranded. Here, a victimless crime can, in the long term, create victims. The same is true of tax evasion. Indeed, the level of tax evasion in Greece (reported as 25% of the GDP) was a major factor in the collapse of the Greek economy in 2012.

To what extent is academic misconduct a victimless crime? If a student can’t be bothered to do some homework and he copies a friend’s work, does it matter? Apparently no one loses.

The first victim of academic misconduct is the academic integrity and standing of the institution. The very notion of academic integrity implies that research and scholarship carried out at universities is non-partisan and is the researcher’s best effort. Polls frequently show that the public do not trust politicians, lawyers, and advertising executives because all these groups are paid to represent a specific point of view. Academic integrity matters because academics often lead the debate on areas of public concern such as climate change, public health and diet. If an institution is seen to tolerate academic misconduct, all its endeavors become tarred by the same brush; that is, it is discredited.

Academic dishonesty affects honest students who suffer collateral damage in several ways. First, dishonesty pushes up average results which means that students who have gained their results honestly see their work devalued (e.g., because of grade inflation). Second, widespread dishonesty tarnishes the reputation of the establishment and therefore devalues their achievements in the eyes of prospective employers. Third, academic dishonesty can even endanger the student – who would like to be a passenger on an aircraft whose pilot passed exams by cheating, or who would like to be treated by a doctor who got there by cheating?

Honor as a Contract with Society

The notion of honor is a difficult concept and is not precisely defined. Honor is closely related to self-esteem and to the way in which you relate to society-at-large. A code of honor differs from a legal code or a set of rules because it is socially defined and is concerned with justice rather than an explicit set of rules. Moreover, a code of honor is filtered through an individual’s perception. For example, it is illegal to steal under all circumstances. However, many would consider it dishonorable to steal from a store, but few would think little of taking a pen from the workplace.

A striking element of some US honor codes is the inclusion of a statement like, “I will not tolerate dishonesty in others”; that is, it requires you to report all cases of academic misconduct that you encounter. This requirement cuts across the prime feature of almost all informal social codes that says, “Thou shall not rat.” Among many groups (e.g., the police), reporting a colleague for misconduct is an unforgivable offence.

However, the requirement by honor codes to report academic misconduct provides a strong indication of the serious nature of the honor code.

Honor Codes and Culture

Today, there is no more sensitive topic than the relationship between society, behaviour and culture. Honor and culture are closely intertwined. Consider Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. A major theme is the shame Lady Dedlock feels about an affair she had with a man long before she met her current husband. Indeed, when her affair comes to light, she commits suicide rather than dishonour her husband. In today’s world, few would see any fault in Lady Dedlock’s behavior because the relationship took place before she had even met her current husband.

Similarly, the 2012 US-Norwegian TV series Lilyhammer (sic) is entirely based on cultural differences and moral codes. The plot concerns an American gangster from the New York Mafia who goes to live in Lillehammer in Norway as part of a witness protection program. The series is a comedy drama where the humor comes from the clash of culture (or honor codes) between a New York gangster and the very politically correct, liberal, law-abiding Norwegians.

Cultural influences on behavior are important in many domains; for example, in aviation a co-pilot may hesitate to challenge the pilot because of differences in rank and status. Some aviation tragedies can be partially explained in terms of the copilot’s unwillingness to question the captain’s actions. Today, there is a strong emphasis in pilot training on crew resource management which includes the way in which flight crew interact.

Because an honor code is interpreted by the individual, it is also interpreted in the light of the individual’s social background, culture, and even gender. No society condones academic misconduct, but the boundaries may vary between societies; for example, some societies place a strong emphasis on rote learning and a student from such a background may commit acts of plagiarism without appreciating it.

It is not only the external culture that needs to be taken into consideration. It is necessary that the local culture (i.e., the institution itself) follow the highest codes of conduct. While conducting research for this article I came across a website where a member of faculty had asked why his students should follow a honor code if the management of his university ran it as an organization whose only concern was profitability and inflated salaries for senior executives?


No one would dispute the statement that academic dishonesty is a bad thing. The real questions are how to prevent it, and how to detect it. Prevention can be partially handled by procedural techniques; the use of plagiarism detection software, individualized tests (each student has a different exam), separating students widely in the exam room and close monitoring (proctoring). However, the honor code can provide a useful barrier to academic misconduct by encouraging students to see why misconduct is wrong and why it has such a detrimental effect on society.

Codes of Honor Work Both Ways

The poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” In other words … we’re all in it together. The same goes for honor codes. A student lives in two societies, the university and the society of which the university forms part (i.e., the nation).

Universities also have ethical requirements of honesty and integrity. They should treat students fairly, consistently, and ethically. Moreover, they should manage resources ethically. If a student feels that the university is behaving badly by providing poor and inadequate teaching while the management are receiving large incomes, the student is less likely to follow the university’s honor code. The concept of an honor code in a corrupt institution is seen as a form of cynicism (i.e., Do as I say, not as I do).

Similarly, if the university exists in a society where corruption is commonplace (e.g., taking bribes, nepotism, fraud) a student is unlikely adopt a new morality when everyone around him or her is behaving badly..