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October 28, 2004

Lipson delves into academic dishonesty

Hongtae Kim, a second-year economics concentrator, is the perfect candidate to read political science professor Charles Lipson's new book Doing Honest Work in College.

"I actually had an experience in cheating before," Kim said. "But even though I was not caught, I felt horrible afterward and I now believe that we are mature enough to be responsible for our own work."

In an interview, Lipson said the Internet has created a resource arena with no clear ownership rights, resulting in a virtual free-for-all forum for students to garner fraudulent information and papers. "Increased difficulties (dealing with plagiarism) stem from improper use of the Internet," Lipson said. "Remember, a decade ago, students didn't have regular access to the Web. Today, it is an integral part of student life and a tremendously valuable tool for research. Like all tools, though, it needs to be used correctly."

But technological advances have also aided the study and deterrence of academic dishonesty. The Internet, although creating an anonymous forum susceptible to cheating and plagiarism, is also a major tool used to identify and search for cheating. When asked about the dual nature of the Internet, art professor Darby English replied, "between the astonishing reach of today's search engines and the ingenuity of some stop-cheating software products, the Internet has proven a great help to many. In a way, though, teachers and savvy offenders alike may be aided by these resources."

Academic dishonesty has been a consistent problem in higher education, said Constantin Fasolt, professor of history and current chair of the European Civilizations department. He attributed the persistence of the problem to the "degrees of credentialism," or the focus on test scores instead of actually learning. He said that this emphasis has led to a fiercely competitive atmosphere in the classrooms of secondary schools.

The reliance on credentialism, Fasolt said, is illustrated by the vast numbers of standardized examinations administered to schools and universities through every level of instruction. Beginning with state mandated exams during elementary school and extending to the SAT in high school, these batteries of exams negatively stress the concrete results of education over the more vital but less tangible process of education.

Fasolt also said academic competition is becoming more stiff. This pressure to perform goes hand-in-hand with credentialism, resulting in more pressure to cheat. "What we need is an attitude change on the part of both the administrators and the students," he said. "The only way to effectively handle cheating and plagiarism is through education, through teaching students at an early age what is right and wrong."

Academics concerned with cheating say they are now focusing on finding a solution, and Lipson's Doing Honest Work in College is a major step in this movement toward prevention. "Publishing this book encourages not only students, but also other universities, to think and discuss more about our current state of academic dishonesty," Lipson said. "The work will be a success if it helps us answer why it's important to do honest work and what honest work is all about in the different academic settings."

The University has distributed the book to all the Hum Core classes, offering first-years an opportunity to learn about the often-abstract nature of academic dishonesty and the proper citation techniques concerning research papers and essays. Although recently had, the book already seemed to have an effect upon the students.

"Although I think that most people don't cheat intentionally, it's good that they passed out the books so that there is greater awareness of this problem," said Wanyun Loh, an international first-year from Singapore. "I'm not sure what they teach in American high schools, but I wasn't even aware that some of the examples raised in the book were actually considered cheating."

Lipson's work is not merely making headway across the University of Chicago campus, but is garnering support from universities nationwide. According to Lipson, the endorsement of the book by a prestigious institution like the University of Chicago is tremendous to the advancement of the study and focus of the problem nationwide.

Although the University's investments in Lipson's book seems to be paying off dividends already, some students still prefer to learn about the problems of academic honesty the hard way.