Better Data Can Help Colleges Fight Cheating

September 09, 2013

After the answers to a final examination in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin surfaced on an unofficial class Facebook group last year, 20 charges of "academic collusion" went on the record.

In what remains an unusual practice, administrators at UT-Austin began collecting data on cheating in the 1980s. Since 2003, they have published the information online. Hundreds of incidents each year are broken down by gender, ethnicity, age, college, and grade-point average, as well as type of violation (the university defines 12).

The practice is part of an effort to deter academic dishonesty. Looking at the data has given faculty members and administrators a better sense of problem areas—and where they might try to increase awareness. That has led to focused outreach to faculty members and students in certain colleges.

Worries about cheating are perennial, especially after high-­profile incidents like the one at Harvard University last year, in which dozens of students withdrew after being found to have engaged in inappropriate collaboration.

But there is little in the way of published data to analyze patterns within and among institutions. Data-driven efforts to educate faculty members and students remain an anomaly, a fact that puzzles experts like Gary M. Pavela, a researcher of academic ethics who consults with institutions on academic integrity.

"If you're a coach, whether you win or lose a game, you pay a lot of attention to the statistics afterwards," he says. "Every campus I know of has some kind of program that promotes and protects academic integrity, but how do they evaluate its effectiveness without statistics?"

In a special crowdsourcing project, The Chronicle is hoping to fill in the gaps, and is inviting colleges, faculty members, students, and interested observers to provide data on cheating at institutions around the country.

Trends and Interventions

At UT-Austin, an average of 350 incidents of cheating occurred annually from 2003 to 2011. In tallies that include graduate and professional students, senior undergraduates tended to account for more than a third of cases. Male students cheated at a rate disproportionate to their enrollment, and a third to a half of cheaters had GPAs greater than 3.0. The most common violation often was plagiarism.

Despite a spike in all reported violations in 2009-10, cheating seemed far from widespread, given the university's total enrollment of about 51,000. Over time, African-American and Asian-American students—and often international students—were overrepresented in cheating statistics relative to their enrollment.

The law school has exhibited a relatively high rate of violations, joining the Cockrell School of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences in the top three schools or colleges with the most cheating incidents relative to enrollment, according to a Chronicle analysis.

Administrators like LaToya Hill are well aware of the numbers. Ms. Hill, associate dean of student conduct and emergency services, uses the data to focus on specific colleges or courses. An increase in reports will prompt her staff to collaborate with deans to reach out to faculty members and distribute information to students.

Few universities collect data on cheating, and even fewer make the information public, for fear of being perceived by the outside world as having a problem, says Mr. Pavela, who collected and analyzed such information as director of academic integrity at Syracuse University.

He took the step there of publishing raw data, for people both inside and outside the university. Disclosure signals the institution's level of commitment, Mr. Pavela says, because accountability is vital to efforts to bolster academic integrity.

Without data, he says, faculty members and administrators wind up reacting to individual instances of cheating without having a sense of larger trends that might be widespread on their campus or nationally.

"The academic environment will be better protected and we can be more creative in our interventions," Mr. Pavela says, "if we know what the data is and if other people can see what the data is."

Reported Cheating Rates at the U. of Texas at Austin Are Highest Among Law Students

Over eight years, UT-Austin's School of Law saw nearly 14 cases of cheating reported per 1,000 students. Rates were also high in engineering and natural sciences, and lowest in the schools of architecture, social work, and fine arts. The 2010-2011 academic year is the latest for which data are available. Use the key below to view reported cheating rates for U. of Texas at Austin's other schools.

Academic violations reported per 1,000 students at U. of Texas at Austin schools

Business administration
Liberal arts
Natural sciences
Fine arts
Social work





Source: Chronicle analysis of data from U. of Texas at Austin