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Stanford Report, March 12, 2003

Increase in Honor Code caseload shows faith in system

Students embrace role; Faculty more likely to report incidences of possible cheating


Judging by raw numbers, a major overhaul of the judicial charter in 1997 didn't help to reduce cheating at Stanford. On the contrary: From 1995 to 1998 there were 130 reported Honor Code and Fundamental Standard violations; from 1999 to 2002 the number jumped to 285.

Computer science lecturer Julie Zelenski said the combination of high pressure, bad judgment and the ease of copying others’ work led to a high number of Honor Code violations in her department. Photo: L.A. Cicero

But a key goal of the judicial system overhaul was not so much to eliminate cheating as to improve the process of handling complaints for all concerned, as well as to ensure greater participation by students -- who, in theory at least, are responsible for enforcing the Honor Code.

In that context, then, the new judicial process can be seen as a success -- despite, or because of, the higher numbers. "It's not that people are cheating more, but that more faculty are reporting these cases," computer science Professor Eric Roberts said in a report to the Faculty Senate Nov. 7.

Roberts noted that a key problem with the original Honor Code system had been getting students to buy into it. Although the Honor Code is by design the students' to "own" and protect, the judicial officer who investigated cases came to be seen as a prosecutor. As students began to drag parents and even lawyers into the process, it shifted from a self-policing mechanism of the community to more of a legalistic proceeding. There were also concerns that the burden of proof -- beyond reasonable doubt -- was too high.

While judicial review today is by no means perfect -- debate continues over the burden of proof, and whether to vary the standard punishment depending on the severity of the violation -- it now gets praise from a broad spectrum of participants. What had been a top-down process has become one in which students play a central role in judging their peers. On the six-member judicial panel that hears cases, four members are students. They come from a pool of 40 available panelists, nominated by the Associated Students to serve one-year terms.

Neil Rubin, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in physics, became interested in the panel after bringing an Honor Code complaint as a teaching assistant. "I was really impressed by Judicial Affairs, how they handled it," Rubin said. "The student eventually confessed, but [the panel] was really concerned that this was a full and complete confession, and enough of a learning experience for the student," he said.

Religious studies Associate Professor Hester Gelber said that during her two years' service on the panel she gained newfound respect for her student colleagues.

"I have a lot of confidence in what the students do. They develop a good sense of what is real and what isn't. And they take their responsibility very seriously," said Gelber. "They know what students go through here. Their own sense of equity and fairness is key. In a culture that is committed to the Honor Code, keeping everything academically in order is all important, and this is not a top-down thing; it's not the institution 'doing it to' the students," she said.

Not only is the process more inclusive of students, it is more efficient as well. Cases now take an average of 37 days from the date the incident is reported to the final decision by the Judicial Panel -- compared to 108 days in 1995 under the old system.

Computer Science: A high incidence of cheating

The most recent statistics document a clear trend: By far the largest number of Honor Code cases come from the Department of Computer Science (CS). During 2001-02, 22 out of 85 Honor Code cases were CS students, just over 25 percent. For Fall 2002, the latest figures available, that trend held steady, at just over 28 percent.

Lest anyone conclude that CS students are by nature more devious than other majors, there are two points to consider: On the one hand, it is easy to cheat. On the other, it is also easy to get caught.

"There is a stronger incident rate, period," said Julie Zelenski, lecturer in computer science and current co-chair of the Board on Judicial Review, who noted that the trend holds true for computer science departments nationwide. By way of explanation -- but not to excuse such behavior -- she said computer science students are under tremendous pressure to produce. Handing in poor quality work isn't an option. "If you have a bad paper, you can still hand it in. But if you have a broken computer program, it just crashes," she explained.

Desperation, coupled with temptation, can lead students down the slippery slope because it's easy to steal computer work. CS assignments get used over and over again. In addition, Zelenski said, "Computer programs live on computers. People leave them on desktops; they leave printouts in the printer tray; they trash them but forget to empty the [desktop] trash."

Students then make the mistake of assuming they won't get caught. "Students think all code looks the same, but that's where they are really wrong," said Zelenski. "Programming is very individualistic."

The flip side to the prevalence of cheating, she said, is that "we have great tools for finding it." A key tool is a copying detection program known as MOSS (Measure of Software Similarity), written and freely distributed by computer scientist Alex Aiken of the University of California-Berkeley. When the department began running MOSS in 2000, "there were a lot of shocked people -- thinking everything was fine. We were finding that 5 to 10 percent of submissions were not clean," Zelenski said.

Since the department began using MOSS regularly, the word has spread, aided by a concerted effort by faculty each quarter to reinforce the message. Reported cases spiked during the first year or two of using MOSS, when detection of cheating became both easy and clear-cut, but have begun to drop as "word got out on the street," Zelenski said. At the worst point, "One instructor sent a dozen in one quarter. Last year we had a smaller number; one class of 100 students [with a track record for cheating] had none."

Pressure is no excuse

Business School Professor Bill Barnett, who serves on the Board on Judicial Review, challenged the suggestion that students are driven to cheat by ever-increasing pressure. "The hypothesis is that students will violate the Honor Code because they have to violate it, or they feel morally justified because they feel pressure to succeed," he said. "One thing to keep in mind is that the university system has always been a place where high-achieving people come; they have high expectations of themselves. It's by nature a fast race."

Barnett argued that buying into the idea that pressure or competition is a justification for violations is more than just dishonest -- it risks undercutting the meritocracy that is the higher education system. "The foundation of that [system] is that the evaluations people receive are truly based on merit. For that to be true, you have to uphold the Honor Code," he said.

Law School Lecturer Maude Pervere, who serves on the judicial panel, is concerned about the focus on a system designed to detect cheating. "The emphasis is on the 'catching them' aspect, rather than the importance of students learning," she said.

"My concern is we're developing into a process that is more police-driven than ideal-driven. We don't inculcate in our students the ideal of learning, the pieces that go with that. Instead, we discipline by fear -- which I don't think is very effective."

The larger problem, she added, is the value that students place on grades for their own sake. "People believe grades are what get them to the next level. Learning seems to be devalued.

"If you ask a student, 'What did you get out of a class?' the answer will be 'an A.' But that's not the question I was asking," Pervere said.

Like it or not, no one expects the pressure from grades to go away. But students still need to understand that is no excuse for sloppy scholarship, said Laurette Beeson, judicial advisor and assistant dean of students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the widespread use of the Internet has led to growing confusion over what's acceptable behavior and proper documentation of referenced work. "Students don't seem to know what's plagiarism or how to cite information properly," Beeson said. "Lots of students say, 'I didn't mean to' when they're caught."

In the end, Beeson said, the faculty has to educate students about what is expected and acceptable work. "The idea is to prevent violations; it's much better than catching them," she said.

If and when that fails, the judicial panel takes over -- rather than in the old days, when many professors handled cases on their own.

"If a student engages in academic dishonesty, then they need to go through a process -- and it needs to be consistent in how it's handled," Beeson said. "The faculty should not play 'let's make a deal.'"

Sometimes, she added, getting caught turns out not to be a completely negative thing. "Sometimes the student says, 'I'm glad I was caught.' Then they have to deal with the consequences. Better now than later in life."



















Judicial Advisor Laurette Beeson says students need to be treated fairly and consistently by the process. Photo: L.A. Cicero