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Academic honesty is the standard; dishonesty bears serious consequences

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Krista Schwendinger, left, and Kyle Holt study on opposite sides of a desk on the first floor of Ellis Library at MU in 2004. Unaware of each other’s situations, they are both studying for upcoming economics tests.

There is a recipe for cheating, says Terry Barnes, the MU assistant provost for community college partnerships.

He said it has three ingredients: unreasonable expectations, inadequate academic preparation and a misguided moral compass.

An estimated 75 percent of college students will follow this path at some point in their program.

Like most academic institutions, MU takes cheating very seriously.

During the 2009 spring semester, 71 cases of academic dishonesty were reported, according to the Provost's Office.  Of those cases, 46 percent were charges of plagiarism.

“College is a huge sorting process," Barnes said. "It sorts society out, the winners from the losers, the leaders from the followers."

The university's policy on this issue is known as academic integrity, and is outlined in the “M-Book” (available online at studentlife.missouri.edu/mbook.php).

The standards of conduct guidelines are listed to explain what constitutes a sanctionable offense. Given that ignorance is rarely an acceptable excuse for cheating, it is important to understand the university's rules and expectations.

Perhaps the most important term to be aware of is academic dishonesty.

The conduct guidelines define this as “any act that is intended to produce an academic assessment that is not commensurate with an individual's performance, or any act that is intended to unfairly assist or hinder an individual's academic efforts”.

Should a student be found to be in breach of the standards, a befitting punishment will be given at the discretion of the MU provost.

Lesser breaches will usually result in no action or a warning, while those deemed more serious could end in probation, suspension or even expulsion.

Barnes insists that disciplinary action is not simply about teaching ethics or insisting on proper behavior.

“It's also to say, that in order to get the full benefit out of college, you have to do your own work,” he said.

This rests as much on self satisfaction as anything else.

To receive a grade by means of intellectual inquiry, critical thinking and problem solving is a grade well-earned, Barnes said.

“Because only then, is it yours,” he said.

This is also why he believes misrepresentation has consequences well beyond a college career.

“If you don't have adequate skills, competencies and proficiencies, because you haven't learned them in college, then you're going to get caught,” he said. “Out there, you can't fake it. The reality is that you have to be who you are and represent what you've learned.”

Academic study requires students to thoughtfully engage with ideas and their application.

“College is not about knowledge," Barnes said. "It's about how you apply it."

However, the inability or unwillingness of many students to employ their own analytical skills is precisely what leads to so many instances of academic dishonesty at MU.

Plagiarism, or the unacknowledged use of another person's work, is one infraction.

It is important to note that intent is not a requisite of plagiarism. Unless the concepts and idea are common knowledge, the source must be cited.

This includes concepts and ideas that you are paraphrased, as well as direct quotations. If in doubt, cite it.

Also recognized as plagiarism is the use of material written by someone other than the student submitting it. Included in this are essays purchased online from "paper mills" and similar sources.

According to Barnes, the sheer volume of content available on the web acts as an incentive for many students to plagiarize.

“They simply think they will get away with it,” he said.

The reality is, they might not, but the university and its faculty are turning to more sophisticated ways to detect it.

Many courses are now using applications such as Turnitin. This is a plagiarism detection program the searches electronically submitted assignments for replicated content.

The assignment is instantly compared to content from the Internet, journal/periodical databases and all previously submitted papers. Any instances of plagiarism are then underlined by the software.

Yet, while technology can be a useful tool in curbing academic dishonesty, it also creates significant problems.

The advent of mobile internet devices, in particular, has introduced new ways to cheat on exams. Confiscation of such technology at the beginning of tests is now a standard practice at most academic institutions.

Other preventive measures during exams are aimed at redirecting wandering eyes.

One such example is the distribution of multiple test papers, each with the questions in a different order. Such practices at MU have helped ensure that cheating on examinations actually constitutes the fewest number of cases reported against students.

It is ultimately up to the student to put defenses in place against dishonesty.

For example, according to Barnes, night-before desperation often motivates many to take shortcuts on their work.

“Procrastination is one of the worst enemies you will have as a college student,” he said.

Rapidly looming deadlines can be another source of stress for the unprepared.

However, Barnes insists that cheating will incur significantly higher penalties than any alternative. His suggestion for students who fail to meet a deadline is simply to approach the instructor, apologize for not completing the task and accept the consequences.

“Be honest, be ethical. Stand for something,” he said. “Do fun things. Do stupid things. Do intellectually curious things. But take it seriously and treat it like a job."

And, he said, keep in mind “that cheating is simply never a good thing.”


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