Academic cheating is one of those phenomena from which Olin students seem fairly isolated. When's the last time an Olin student asked to copy answers from your test? How many of the Honor Board case abstracts from the past four years have to do with cheating? (Three, if you were wondering.) Does this mean that cheating doesn't happen at Olin? Probably not, but it could be both an indication of less academic dishonesty and many fewer chances of being caught. With estimates of academic cheating around 80% of the standard student population, can we really imagine that our rates of academic cheating are close to 0%? Are there ever times when it would be considered reasonable to cheat? Moreover, at Olin the honor code states that all cases of academic dishonesty must be reported to the Honor Board, but other schools often have no such policy. That requirement notwithstanding, are there good reasons to not report academic dishonesty? Does witnessing cheating, but leaving it unreported make the observer guilty as well?
Several studies have been done to address many of these issues and attitudes among students. Usually in response to drastic accusations of cheating or high profile cheating cases, various university professors surveyed their classes to gain an understanding of the student mindset with respect to cheating. Some of the results are particularly surprising from the sheltered academic environment offered by Olin.
The possible reasoning behind cheating ranges from the seemingly realistic increasing pressure to succeed to the more difficult to believe reason that it's o.k. in the absence of an honor code. In a study by Thomas Carter conducted almost 80 years ago, the most commonly accepted excuse for cheating among his students was a fear of not passing, which carried other, related consequences like falling behind classmates. This line of reasoning is still applicable today within any environment, but even more so in a small community such as Olin. Other reasons are often a little more difficult to relate to, but still seem somewhat reasonable, like the meme that "everyone else is doing it", nervousness, sense of obligation to the college, or no respect for the professor. Even so, these reasons don't necessarily make it right to cheat, just comprehensible.
From a moral philosophy standpoint, there could be several ways of evaluating the merit of academic cheating. Utilitarianism and other outcome based philosophies would evaluate the outcome of cheating, some on an individual basis and some altogether. In these philosophies, one would have to consider the happiness of all involved - would the cheating student be happy with the resultant higher grades? Probably, but would the non-cheating students be happy is there is a relative grading scheme or curve? Probably not. Further, would the professor be pleased to find that the knowledge the student purports to have is really falsified? Would the professor still feel comfortable enabling the student to take higher level courses or work in the field knowing that the base knowledge was not the student's? Again, this would probably be considered negatively by the professor. Outcome based philosophies would probably not approve of cheating. For maxim based philosophies, cheating could be considered like lying, it would most likely never be considered correct. Further, if considered from the view of universalizability, cheating is hard to justify. If everyone cheated, the academic system would come up with news ways of evaluating students that were more difficult to fake. The one philosophical system which would wholeheartedly support cheating would be Hobbes, whose philosophy breaks down to doing what is best for oneself. The problem with utilizing this philosophy in this case is that if everyone is doing what will benefit themselves most, the academic system would cease to function, as in Kant's test for universalizability.
With cheating generally considered wrong, the moral dilemma shifts to reporting students who are witnessed cheating. When studying why and when students report cheating, it was found that students are more likely to report cheating if the result is just loss of credit, rather than expulsion. Students generally don't want to drastically punish their fellow classmates, which makes them wary to report cases of academic dishonesty. Further, there is a disconnect between what students feel is right and what students will actually do. Although 57% percent of students surveyed considered it right to report students for cheating with a penulty of expulsion, only about 30% actually would report such academic dishonesty. Although the possible punishment is important, there is also some disconnect between knowing what is right and acting upon it. The students surveyed gave many reasons for thinking that reporting cheating was right, from it being for the good of the student to having a duty to society, but the reasons for not reporting are more interesting. The most popular reasons for not reporting cheating, even though they consider it right to report the cheating are that cheating is its own punishment and that tattling is not an acceptable behavior. Some students, on the other hand, feared retribution or considered a private punishment a better solution. The difference between thought and action is terrifically interesting, but points to the frailty of human nature and intricacies of philosophy of the mind.
When considering reporting cheating within the contexts of various philosophies, reporting cheating is a much more challenging moral dilemma than cheating in the first place. From a utilitarian evaluation, there is no clear answer. It could cause the cheater incredible unhappiness if reported while bearing the potential for unhappiness to the reporter through retribution. On the other hand, it could be good for the cheater, ultimately making them a better person, while benefiting the entire class by more fairly representing the grade distribution. When considered for universalizability, it still seems like it could go either way, with reporting, it seems like cheating would quickly become a much more clandestine activity or become eradicated, while without reporting it seems like it would maintain the current status quo, which is generally working. Either way, it's difficult to say which is right, which may be what's leading to the disconnect between thought and action.
Is there an ethical imperative to report cheating whenever it is witnessed? What are the reasons to report or abstain from reporting cheating? Is there a better way, perhaps, to prevent these dilemmas in the first place?
This entry was written based upon Barnes' "Student Honor: A study in cheating", Carter's "Cheating as Seen by College Students", statistics from www.plagerism.org, and David Callahan's book, "The Cheating Culture."