ANNAPOLIS – In J.K. Rowling’s best-selling Harry Potter series, Harry and his classmates turn to their school’s brainiest student, Hermione Granger, for help with homework assignments.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Teresa Viancour is not amused. Viancour, associate vice provost for the university, said that is just one example of how popular culture sends the message that cheating is OK.
She said students think “if these cute engaging characters in Harry Potter do it, it must be OK.”
But cheating is not OK, and universities across the state are dealing with a growing number of academic integrity cases, particularly plagiarism, since the Internet has became so pervasive.
Officials and college professors say the growing numbers probably don’t mean that students are less honest than they used to be, but rather that the Internet makes it easier for students to plagiarize and easier for professors to catch them.
“There are some students (caught cheating) who … didn’t give it a second thought because of course they wouldn’t cheat,” Viancour said. “They didn’t understanding what they were doing was wrong.”
Even so, Viancour acknowledged, students know that the “incidence of getting caught is much, much lower than the incidence of infraction.”
For those who are caught, punishments vary widely at the state’s universities. Some students may get a zero on an assignment or an F in the class, while others may face suspension or expulsion.
At the University of Maryland, College Park, an unusual academic conduct policy is regarded as cutting-edge.
If caught cheating, College Park undergraduates may face a grade of XF, “failure of the class due to academic dishonesty,” said Andrea Goodwin, associate director of student conduct.
However, after 12 months, students can work off the X by completing an online seminar in which they have four readings and answer 10 questions about academic dishonesty.
The final question is “How is a good life defined, and what is my plan to achieve it?”
Still, despite the relative ease of removing the offending X from a transcript, Goodwin said less than a third of students who receive such a grade bother to petition to have it removed.
An honor board of three students and two faculty members has the final approval on whether the X is removed, and the board is also responsible for vetting initial punishment. The board adjudicates about 300 academic dishonesty cases each year at the 35,000 student campus, Goodwin said. More than half of those are plagiarism.
At UMBC, penalties are left up to the professor and can range from an F on an assignment to failing the course. In severe cases, a notation may be placed on the student’s transcript, said Viancour. But UMBC students don’t face suspension or expulsion.
The university has an academic conduct committee, but Viancour said historically the university’s position “has been that this is a part of academic freedom, and therefore it’s up to the individual professors to determine what an appropriate outcome would be.”
At the Johns Hopkins University, ethics cases are handled by an ethics board empowered to hand down punishment ranging from an F in the course to outright expulsion, although it rarely goes that far, said John Bader, associate dean for academic programs and advising at the Homewood campus.
All Johns Hopkins professors are required to spell out their positions on cheating in each course syllabus, Bader said. And each year all students and parents of incoming freshmen receive “the blue book,” the university’s ethics guide, and students sign ethics statements on all their tests.
But, Bader said at a competitive school such as Hopkins, students are under so much pressure to achieve that some cheat just to get an extra edge.
In the world of academic integrity, perception is more important than reality, he said. When students think that their peers and competitors might be cheating, it “adds a layer of anxiety that is very unhealthy.”
On top of that, said the University of Maryland’s Goodwin, the Internet “has made it easier for students to plagiarize but has also made it easier for faculty members to detect.”
At UMBC and Hopkins, faculty members use a Web service, Turnitin.com, to try to thwart students who might be tempted to cut corners. Students submit their assignments to the site, which searches the Internet looking for matching text.
But even though students know their papers will be submitted to the site, Viancour said she was surprised to learn that “there are some really blatant cases of plagiarism” anyway.
Goodwin said that College Park’s approach to academic dishonesty is educational rather than punitive.
“Our goal is not to kick people out,” she said. “If they make a mistake now, they can move on with their life.”
But some question whether the XF system is adequate, at least in certain areas of study.
“The campus punishments tend not to be as harsh as the punishments we would allow if it was in our purview,” said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“I certainly understand the notion of a student making a mistake and getting a second chance,” Kunkel said. “But the fact is that in our line of work, when you make a flagrant transgression you tend not to get a second chance.”
Kunkel said he and others in the college “wonder if (the online seminar) is sufficient to the crime.” Although the university does not require freshmen to complete an orientation course, the journalism school does. The journalism orientation includes instruction on what is and is not acceptable academic conduct.