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Don’t Cheat

Jan 1, 2020


An introductory course at an elite private university concludes with a final take-home exam. Instructions for the exam read as follows: "The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others-this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc." Despite these instructions, a teaching fellow grading the exam notes striking similarities in the short-answer sections across many of the submitted exams. A subsequent investigation reveals widespread collaboration on the test, and nearly half of the 250 students enrolled in the course receive some measure of disciplinary action.

After an unsuccessful doctoral thesis proposal, a graduate student at a major state university peruses the campus library in search of inspiration from past theses. In doing so, he uncovers extensive plagiarism in more than 40 papers over a 20-year period, with some containing as many as 50 pages of copied text-including duplicated spelling and grammatical errors. The university's investigation later reveals a culture of cheating in which unoriginal or uncited content was ignored or even condoned; at least two faculty members are disciplined by the university, and a number of past graduates are directed to rewrite their theses or surrender their degrees.

A student at a military academy manages to procure an advance copy of an examination for a notoriously difficult course. The student offers this copy for sale to other students, some of whom subsequently sell or share their own copies. Recipients use the advance copy to prepare index cards of formulas or other information for use in the exam room. When the scheme is unearthed, more than 100 students are reviewed by the university's disciplinary panel and at least two dozen are expelled.


If the students in the above cases had been members of ASCE, would their conduct have violated the ASCE Code of Ethics?


Though academic misconduct has probably existed since the beginning of academics, today's academic environment affords more opportunities for cheating than perhaps ever before. A simple internet search offers textbook answers or other content that may be copied into assignments, while paid online tutoring services can easily cross the line from selling help to selling answers. And a growing market of so-called essay mills make a business of ghostwriting papers and other reports for fees.

ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct has been called upon only rarely to review cases of student misconduct, most likely because such offenses are usually handled internally by educational institutions. Likewise, engineering students may not typically consider ASCE's Code of Ethics as a source of guidance in resolving a question of academic ethics, looking instead to the language of the university's honor code or similar ethics policies. Nevertheless, it is important for students to be cognizant that professional ethics does not begin and end during a person's employment in that profession but instead should be understood as a set of moral standards that govern all stages of a person's professional life. For ASCE specifically, despite the prominent use of the word "engineers" throughout the Code of Ethics, the Society deems it to apply to all members, including students and nonengineer affiliate members.

Guideline e under Fundamental Canon 5 states, in part: "Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others." This provision certainly applies to the classic case of plagiarism, in which a writer copies another person's content without the original author's knowledge or permission. But it must also be noted that there is nothing in this language that excludes cases in which the misattribution is done with the creator's consent. Even if a student has paid for the right to use another person's content, his or her untruthful claim to be the source of this work is still a failure to provide proper credit where credit is due, in violation of guideline 5e.

In addition, the obligation to provide proper credit is a supplement to Canon 5's general directive that engineers "shall not compete unfairly with others." While that language may not have obvious applications in an academic environment, the connection is evident when considering that students are commonly measured by their performance in terms of how they compare to others. Any student who uses deceptive practices to obtain higher marks may be said to have gained an unfair advantage over students "competing" solely through their own efforts, thus breaching the strictures of Canon 5.

Furthermore, Fundamental Canon 6 of the ASCE Code requires that "engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession," and guideline a adds that "engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest, or unethical nature." While a single copied assignment or plagiarized excerpt may seem a harmless offense, such action is still by definition an act of fraud in that it represents an intentional deception for the purpose of personal gain. And as illustrated by the examples described in this column, the costs of academic cheating can be far-reaching, affecting not only the careers or reputations of the students involved in the scheme but also the image of the departments or institutions in which the misconduct occurred. For this reason, students involved in such conduct would likely be deemed to have acted in a manner inconsistent with the "honor, integrity, and dignity" of the engineering profession, in violation of Canon 6.

While obtaining an academic degree is by no means without its share of challenges -among them the pressure to succeed, difficult or even unreasonable workloads, conflict with family commitments, and other personal stresses- it is noteworthy that these same challenges are likely to occur throughout an engineer's career. Similarly, the excuses most commonly used by students to rationalize academic misconduct-the high stakes and consequences of failure, a lack of knowledge or understanding of the severity of their actions, or the sense that everyone else is doing it-are also among the most common excuses offered by engineering professionals who have stepped over ethical lines. In view of this consideration, it is a wise choice for students to consider their academic careers as the opportunity to practice the behaviors they expect to govern their professional careers, choosing to favor personal integrity and a commitment to professional ethics over the temporary advantages that may be offered by deceptive acts.

Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to