I Say 'Cheating,' You Say 'Collaborating'

The recent uproar over purported widespread cheating in a Harvard government course raises a number of perennial issues—declining moral standards, increasing competition for grades, colleges’ often ambivalent responses—and an important new one.

What counts as individual work when colleges and companies increasingly urge us to work in teams?

The boundaries of “ownership” are blurred in intensely collaborative settings, prompting new, different, and often competing understandings of academic integrity. Most undergraduates simply don’t see working with others as a serious offense, even, as was the case with the Harvard final exam, when it is not permitted. In contrast, teachers mostly regard unauthorized collaboration—from sharing notes to borrowing ideas—as a violation of the one norm most faculty still agree on: academic integrity.

According to a recent Duke-wide study of academic integrity that we conducted, students think that the inappropriateness of unauthorized collaboration varies and that working together is valuable to the learning process. One student distinguished between outright copying (the kind that requires no effort) and “learning through someone else” (which requires active engagement with the material).

Other students told us that working together on homework assignments was acceptable because it’s ultimately the student’s responsibility to learn the material. How they learn is irrelevant.

Still another student advised faculty simply not to assign take-home exams unless they want students to work together.

Cheating, we were told time and again, is about stealing. Collaborating is about learning. Bad students do the former; good students do the latter.

Students’ behavior appears to match that moral logic. Our surveys trace a salutary reduction in several key academically dishonest behaviors—such as falsifying lab data, fabricating a bibliography, and copying/paraphrasing the work of others without citing them—but an uptick in cheating in collaborative settings.

Some of what we heard may be simply new excuses for old, bad, behavior. But technology and social networking have also changed accepted norms among our students. After all, they have grown up in a mash-up culture in which art, music, film, programming code, and ideas are constantly blended and reblended, posted on Facebook, tweeted and retweeted so that ideas iterate rapidly.

In this world, the lines delineating creativity, borrowing, and innovation from stealing, cheating, and a lack of integrity are anything but clear. Our undergraduates are not alone in finding this territory confusing to navigate.

In our survey and in national research conducted by Donald L. McCabe, Linda Trevino, and Kenneth D. Butterfield, students reported that faculty members send mixed messages regarding teamwork. Universities nationwide are flocking to new team-based learning methods. But within the classroom, faculty expectations are often not clearly stated and tend to vary wildly.

Companies, too, constantly tell students that they highly value collaboration. Is it so surprising that students conclude that working together, even when not permitted, is a cardinal virtue?

Teamwork itself, McCabe and his colleagues note, adds to the problem: As group norms lead to high levels of cohesiveness and loyalty, team members become less likely to police teammates’ unethical behavior or report it. We’ve found similar results in surveys where departments and institutions that score highly on team orientation score less well on accountability and risk-taking to uphold values.

Whatever the particulars of the Harvard case, faculty and administrators everywhere need to think carefully about how to help students navigate collaborative and individual efforts. The challenge is to encourage and promote teamwork while drawing clear lines when individual effort is needed.

Some of this work is about establishing clear expectations rather than assuming that there is a shared standard among faculty—no small feat in the decentralized culture of colleges and universities.

But to focus only on this question is to miss the bigger, more interesting and ultimately more important topic: What should individual integrity look like in a culture that has become infatuated with group work? Now there’s a new topic for a genuinely cross-generational conversation.

Noah Pickus is director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, an associate research professor of public policy and a 2012-13 American Council on Education Fellow at Franklin & Marshall College. Suzanne Shanahan is associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics. This commentary was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Sept. 27, 2012.