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Academic Honesty (Board of College Discipline)

Faculty-focused guide developed to supplement Engaging Conversations: Honesty (May 19, 2010), plus a growing collection of professional ethics statements related to disciplines studied at Rhode Island College.


The Board of College Discipline took the opportunity to present a panel at the faculty forum, Engaging Conversations : the Subject of Honesty (May 19, 2010) to encourage discussion about academic honesty and offer information about prevention of acts of academic dishonesty.

Though the title of our panel was "Detecting and Preventing Academic Dishonesty", we've chosen to reverse the sequence of these two ideas and  to address them in order of importance and emphasis:

  • Prevention
  • Detection
  • Responsbility and Action


Prevention - some things the literature shows:

Education works - most of the time though never 100%.  Empirical studies [ i.e. Dee and Jacob 2010 ] exist that demonstrate that the more clearly students understand the professor's and the College's criteria and expectations, the lower the incidence of plagiarism will be.  Even use of simple "pre-packaged" aids to understanding, such as one of the hundreds of tutorials posted on the web by universities and colleges, improves student behavior and lessens plagiarism overall.

Prevention - what is plagiarism?

Many discussions of plagiarism on college campuses and recommendations for action are couched in legalistic language (it's illegal!).  Sadly, these mostly inaccurate statements encourage faculty to think of prevention only in terms of policing and punishment when a much greater preventive impact can be made through our teaching efforts.  One of the best guideline statements from a professional body on this topic was published in 2003 by the Council of Writing Program Administrators: Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.  The language they use to define plagiarism is matched to the context, an instructional context:

In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledg­ing its source.

This definition applies to texts published in print or on-line, to manuscripts, and to the work of other student writers.

Most current discussions of plagiarism fail to distinguish between:

  1. submitting someone else’s text as one’s own or attempting to blur the line between one’s own ideas or words and those borrowed from another source, and

  2. carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source.Such discussions conflate plagiarism with the misuse of sources.


Prevention - explanations:  the trees, the forest, and the student  

The Trees: Plagiarism is a lot like pornography - you know it when you see it, but you and a colleague might not see eye to eye on it in a specific case.  And like pornography, it tends to evoke a strong emotional reaction.  In a formal academic presentation of any type, we expect our students to account in very formal ways for the ideas and expressions which are borrowed from others.  When they don't it is dismaying and infuriating no matter how many times we may have "seen it before."    

The Forest:  But to get beyond the insult and offence of any individual case of plagiarism, we want to prevent these acts for a number of more complicated reasons in addition to the simple "it's wrong."  Fair and meaningful grading and assessment is impossible when "students' work [does not] represent their own efforts and [so does not] reflect the outcomes of their learning" (see WPA statement cited above).  Plagiarized work tilts the playing field to the possible disadvantage of other students.  And dealing with cases of plagiarism after the fact diverts faculty efforts from the real work of teaching and the development of student understanding through honest critical thought and expression.   

The Students:  The definition of plagiarism presented identically in the Student Handbook and the College Handbook is reproduced from the final edition of Donald Sears work The Harbrace Guide to the Library and Research Paper which was published in 1984.  It is not legalistic and is followed by three simple examples of specific types of plagiarism.  Guides, institutional documents, and syllabi  focus heavily on the procedural (More Trees): "collect ten sources for your bibliography of which 6 will be journal articles" and "pay strict attention to the punctuation instructions in the ABC style manual."  Not enough of these documents explicitly emphasize to students the REAL goal: "transform(ing) the information they find into an original and persuasive argument" (Guidelines for Plagiarism Prevention) or developing an explanation that combines their own thoughts with the evidence they've collected.



Responsibilities and Action

The WPA statement devotes a great deal of space to the realm of what teaching techniques make the research and synthesis process clearer to students and may lessen the incidence of plagairism:

When assignments are highly generic and not classroom-specific, when there is no instruction on plagiarism and appropriate source attribution, and when students are not led through the iterative processes of writing and revising, teachers often find themselves playing an adversarial role as “plagiarism police” instead of a coaching role as educators. Just as students must live up to their responsibility to behave ethically and honestly as learners, teachers must recognize that they can encourage or discourage plagiarism not just by policy and admonition, but also in the way they structure assignments and in the processes they use to help students define and gain interest in topics developed for papers and projects. “ (WPA)


The WPA also lists specific ways ( to which we have added a few thoughts) that faculty can proactively use their teaching to both meet their personal course goals AND the goal of lessening the likelihood of plagiarism:

Faculty need to design contexts and assignments for learning that encourage students not simply to recycle information but to investigate and analyze its sources. This includes:

·         Building support for researched writing (such as the analysis of models, individual/group conferences, or peer review) into course designs;

·         Stating in writing their policies and expectations for documenting sources and avoiding plagiarism;

·         Teaching students the conventions for citing documents and acknowledging sources in their field, and allowing students to practice these skills;

·         Avoiding the use of recycled or formulaic assignments that may invite stock or plagiarized responses;

·         Engaging students in the process of writing, which produces materials such as notes, drafts, and revisions that are difficult to plagiarize;

·         Discussing problems students may encounter in documenting and analyzing sources, and offering strategies for avoiding or solving those problems;

·         Returning assignments in a timely way to all students so that subsequent assignments will benefit from the initial commentary; consider including a “returned” date on student work;

·         Discussing papers suspected of plagiarism with the students who have turned them in, to determine if the papers are the result of a deliberate intent to deceive;

·         Reporting possible cases of plagiarism to appropriate administrators or review boards.

·         Keeping sufficient documentation so that, should there be a subsequent case, especially involving another faculty member, the Board of College Discipline will have the necessary information to discuss the incidents. (Nos 1- 6, 8-9 WPA; Nos. 7 & 10 BCD)