Cheating: Good News, Bad News

November 30, 2006

Duke undergraduate students report that they are cheating less in the classroom than five years ago, according to the 2005-06 survey on academic integrity at Duke. But there is still cause for concern, administrators say.

Duke's rate of cheating is generally comparable to other universities with honor codes. However, although the rate of unauthorized collaboration and falsifying lab data has dropped, it is still higher than that at the other universities surveyed, the report stated.

Judith Ruderman Ph.D. '76, vice provost and chair of the Academic Integrity Council, says the survey has been conducted at Duke every five years since 1995 and is compared with a national survey done by Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity, which is affiliated with Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Ruderman and students involved in presenting the data express optimism about the results. The previous survey, in 2000, caused concern when nearly half of the students reported unauthorized collaboration or plagiarism—well above national averages. Administrators redoubled efforts to engage students and faculty members in discussions about the issue.

Those efforts appear to have produced positive results. Students reported that faculty members talked more about integrity issues compared with 2000; however, much of that discussion focused on plagiarism. Reports of plagiarism have dropped from 46 percent in 1995, to 38 percent in 2000, to 26 percent in the most recent survey.

Rates of unauthorized collaboration fell from 45 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2005. But that rate is still higher than the average of 24 percent reported by other universities with honor codes, senior Joe Fore, Duke Student Government executive vice president, notes.

Twenty-one percent of students reported they falsified lab data, nearly twice the average rate at the other universities. The survey showed that 40 percent of students characterized the practice as "trivial cheating."

Ruderman says faculty members need to state clearly at the start of the semester what constitutes unauthorized collaboration. In the survey, only 30 percent of students said faculty members discuss guidelines on group work or collaboration. The lab data results reveal a more complicated problem. Ruderman says the best guess about the survey numbers is that students learn to approach lab work as "busy work" that is expected to lead to a particular result.

"We think the solution here is to look at how the labs are designed," she says. "I think we need to think about how to give the students ownership of the lab. We need to teach them that the lab isn't about coming up with the correct result but to learn research techniques and thinking skills."