Commentary

Stop Students Who Cheat Before They Become Cheating Professors

April 27, 2016

It happened again. At the end of last semester, I was faced with not one but three incidents of cheating in my doctoral-level courses.

Since becoming a college professor nine years ago, I unfortunately have not had many semesters without any incidents of academic dishonesty. To this day, I still dread having those uncomfortable meetings with the students as much as I did in the beginning. However, it is my ethical responsibility to deal with it rather than ignore it.

Colleges across the nation are facing a rise in academic dishonesty among students, and research shows that close to half of all college students — both undergraduate and graduate — admit to cheating on exams or papers. Thus, higher education is a prime training ground for faculty and administrators who want experience dealing with academic dishonesty.

College students cheat because they experience competitive pressures, perceive unfair grading, see others do it, and don’t think they will get caught. In fact, there is evidence that many of those who cheat do so because they have done it before and gotten away with it. Research shows that students who get away with cheating in high school are more likely to continue the practice in college and in the workplace.

As college professors, we have an opportunity — and an obligation — to interrupt this trajectory of cheating before it moves from the classroom to the professional world. Because so many doctoral students stay in higher education, going to the professional world often means becoming a researcher or professor at a college or university. And as we have all seen, incidents of cheating by professors really hurt the reputation of science and academe.

Recently, Matthew Whitaker, a history professor at Arizona State University, agreed to resign his tenured faculty position amid accusations of plagiarism for a second time. Other examples include Marc Hauser, who altered data in his research on language and cognition in monkeys, Anil Potti, who altered experimental data in his cancer research, and Mustapha Marrouchi, who included plagiarized material in the majority of his publications.

Research on why professors cheat tells us that most often it is the competition in the field and the pressure to publish. I also believe that a driving force behind the dishonest behavior among professors and scientists is that they have cheated before and gotten away with it.

Thus, college professors and administrators have an important obligation to interfere with the potential trajectory of cheating from undergraduate education to graduate education and into the professional world, which includes the world of academe. Unfortunately, when it comes to academic dishonesty, many professors choose to deny the incidents or look the other way.

When I was in graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant, and one semester while proctoring an exam, I caught a student cheating. She had brought detailed notes into a closed-book exam and was hiding them under her exam sheet. I dismissed her from the exam and went to discuss it with the professor in charge of the class, a respected senior professor in the department. He told me to let it go. He said if we reported it, we would have to go to a university hearing, and it would be a big mess that neither of us would want to deal with.

I struggled with the moral dilemma of that incident for a long time. I started to wonder if that was how most professors handled these unethical transgressions. Anecdotal evidence has since then shown me that unfortunately, such a reaction — or rather, lack of action — is not uncommon.

Research confirms this. In a study by Arthur Coren, 40 percent of faculty members admitted that they had ignored student cheating at least once. The most common reasons were lack of proof, lack of time or energy to deal with the incident, and not wanting to confront the student, fearing an emotionally charged meeting.

I have heard colleagues say that they were pretty sure a student was cheating but that they didn't want to go through the hassle of trying to prove it.
I have heard colleagues say that they were pretty sure a student was cheating but that they didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to prove it. Some don’t want to use Turnitin.com because it makes it seem like we are expecting students to cheat. And I have seen colleagues refuse to believe that one of their students was cheating even when there was clear evidence to support it.

Software programs like Turnitin.com have made it easier and faster than ever before to detect plagiarism. However, technology has also given students new avenues to cheat. Sometimes they may outsmart the software by altering PDF text layers or purchasing papers from ghostwriters employed at paper mills. However, an observant professor can usually tell when a student’s email communications and discussion-board posts are written in a markedly different style than their big research paper.

As college professors, we have a responsibility to teach and uphold ethics and academic integrity. This goes for university administrators as well. When doctoral students, professors, and researchers are caught cheating, it puts a stain on the field that bleeds onto all of us. By choosing not to see academic dishonesty, we dilute the value of science and education, and we teach potential future academics that cheating is okay.

We can do a lot to create an environment that discourages cheating, such as communicating with students, creating meaningful assignments, establishing an honor-code system, and discussing the importance of academic integrity and the consequences of cheating with the students. But we also have to be willing to dispense penalties to the students who violate the academic-integrity policies. If we don’t, our academic credentials will lose value.

Brigitte Vittrup is an associate professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University.