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Dealing with Academic Integrity Issues

Cheating and plagiarism have been with us for a long while, but the issues have changed over the years.  Thinking through the issue now can save a lot of time and pain later.


Why is Academic Integrity an Issue? 

Several factors now contribute to problems with academic integrity:

  • Students live extremely stressful lives, with many distractions, lots of pressure, and a greater proclivity to bend the rules.

  • Technology has made certain kinds of cheating easier and more tempting.

  • Students come from a consumerist culture, always seeking the best product for the least money. They sometimes bring that to their learning, seeking to get the highest grade for the least work. Cheating is the extreme example of that.

  • Many high schools seem to have given up on enforcing any standards of academic integrity.


Preventing Cheating and Plagiarism:
  • Discuss your expectations in class, don't assume that students understand how to document sources; international students (even graduate students) sometimes have had no experience with documentation.  It is important, as well, to remember that the norms of academic integrity are not universal, and many international students who have not spent much time in the American educational system may need additional assistance understanding these norms.  Penn State offers helpful suggestions for communicating the norms of academic integrity to international students.

  • Clearly indicate your documentation expectations on all paper assignments, including drafts, journals, and short reaction papers.

  • Chose appropriate topics. A long paper, due at the end of the semester, on a topic of the student's choice, has a high chance of being plagiarized. Shorter papers, where students also hand in drafts or outlines, and where topics are specific to the course, are much less likely to be plagiarized.

  • Do not allow some students to have copies of your old exams while others do not (even if the questions are different). Students regard this as cheating and then they feel that since other students are cheating, they need to cheat to level the playing field. Instead, put old copies of your exams on the web where everyone can see them.

  • Make two or three different versions of examinations, with questions in a different order on each one, and mix them up so students cannot easily copy from the student sitting next to them.  Have students sit in assigned seats so that if there are problems on tests, you will know which students were sitting near each other.

  • When grading exams, put a mark at the end of the student's answer to each question. Otherwise, some students will add more material and then resubmit the exam for a higher grade.  Some teachers actually keep photocopies of exams that they return.

  • On quizzes, always include an alternate easy question (with fractional credit) for students who do not know the answer to the main question.  A student who sits with nothing to write is much more likely to cheat than someone who at least is trying to get a few points of partial credit.  This also means that a student who attends but does not know the material at least has some advantage over the student who misses.   To put it another way, in a good test, everyone gets something right, no one gets everything right, so even in a quiz, you should be able to get some information from each student.


Detecting Cheating and Plagiarism:
  • The most common sign of cheating on exams is identical or similar wrong answers. Watch for them, then check seating locations. In order to prove cheating you must be able to show not only a relationship between the exam papers but also that one specific student took the material from another. If you cannot say which student cheated, it is unjust to punish both.

  • In papers, look for technical phrases, and overly professional ways of discussing topics.

  • Papers with footnotes to sources not read in class are sometimes suspect.

  • Check the obvious web sources (Wikipedia and SparkNotes are common sources; you might also do a Google search for the general topic of the paper, i.e., "Aristotle's critique of the Platonic theory of forms").

  • See if your institution subscribes to plagiarism detection software, such as, and use that to check for sources. Some of these packages offer a free 30-day trial. 


Dealing with Students Who Cheat:
  • Follow your institution's policies, or you may be in dangerous legal territory. 

  • Remember, we are educators, not intellectual property narcs. Students should experience consequences and we should maintain fairness to other students who do not cheat, but our primary job is to help students learn. Overly harsh penalties can cause students to focus more on the penalty than on what they have done.

  • In confronting students it is sometimes useful to assume that they have plagiarized, rather than asking them to confess. So, for example, one rather than saying, "Did you plagiarize?" one might say, "I see that  you have used some sources from the Internet. Tell me how you wrote this paper."

  • In cases where the paper is apparently plagiarized but you can't find the source, you can try the "fill in the blanks test." Take a section of the paper and blank out certain technical terms.  Give the student a few minutes and ask him/her to fill in those words. If the student didn't write the paper, sometimes s/he will not be able to reconstruct the words used. You should have someone to witness to the results of this test.  



The September 2007 issue of Teaching Philosophy (30:3) has two articles on plagiarism, "Plagiarism: Philosophical Perspectives" by Richard Reilly, Samuel Pry, and Mark L. Thomas, and "The Wrongs of Plagiarism" by Brook J Sadler. 

Gillespie, Gabriella, "Guide to Advising International Students about Academic Integrity," The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, Pennsylvania State University Division of Undergraduate Studies. 2012.

Joel Marks, "Cheating 101. Ethics as a Lab Course," Teaching Philosophy  26:2 (2003), 131-145.  Marks combats cheating by using a system of "contract grading" that relies entirely on student self-reports of how many hours they spent doing the assignments.  He believes that students learn more and cheat less when they are trusted and when their work is not evaluated.

The International Center for Academic Integrity has many resources regarding integrity.



Author: John Immerwahr (served for 11 years as chair of Villanova's Academic Integrity Board)
Update:  15 Dec. 2015 (E. Tarver)

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