Brandt: Amid lies, Owls still plagiarize

A proposed Honor Code would quell student excuses for plagiarism.

Joe Brandt

Joe BrandtTemple is considering implementing an honor code that would explicitly state what constitutes plagiarism and academic honesty in further detail than the Student Code of Conduct. Considering the inconsistency inherent in Temple’s handling of plagiarism, this would be a welcome improvement.

Peter Jones, the senior vice provost for undergraduate studies, said faculty and administrators from the Fox School of Business requested the plagiarism detecting software SafeAssign be upgraded to something more effective. Starting next year, SafeAssign will be replaced with the already-purchased TurnItIn, another plagiarism detector. According to its website, high schools that have had TurnItIn for the past 8 years have seen a 33.4 percent decrease in unoriginal submissions. However, Jones said he hopes that TurnItIn won’t be necessary.

When Jones discussed this at a meeting with the deans, the deans suggested that more work should be done to prevent plagiarism from happening instead of just focusing on detection. Thus, the idea of an honor code was born. Jones said Temple Student Government and the Faculty Senate are considering it, but nothing is set in stone and there is no rush to get an honor code implemented.

Jones said the university will create two educational videos that will define plagiarism – one for faculty members and one for students.

Honors adviser Musu Davis said a former student in a Temple doctoral program had plagiarized part of the comprehensive exams.

“People really think that they won’t get caught,” Davis said.

Plagiarism can get that far if not caught early, which Temple seeks to do with the videos and possibly an honor code.

The big problem with Temple and plagiarism is that it is easy for injustice to occur. An honor code that explicitly defines a procedure of student conduct can change the nature of discipline for academic dishonesty.

Scott Gratson, the director of the communication studies program and a veteran of the university’s disciplinary process, quoted an undisclosed colleague in an email.

“[T]he current code has about as strong a bite as a guppy needing dentures,” the colleague said.

Students could theoretically claim ignorance of plagiarism when faced with disciplinary consequences, which just wastes more time.

“The excuse that a student did not know that cheating or plagiarizing is bad?” Gratson asked. “I have no time for such complete and utter foolishness.”

Some students, however, force him and other faculty to spend time at disciplinary hearings. While one student might face discipline, another’s professor may not feel the need to engage in the bureaucracy of reporting a student. “One professor’s going to say, ‘It’s OK, you did this one time and you’re going to learn,’ and then the next person gets brought before the board and gets expelled from the university,” Davis said.

How, then, would an honor code create fairness?

Haverford College is a liberal arts college in Lower Merion, Pa., with about 1,200 students and a great example of an extensive honor code. “A culture of mutual respect helps ensure a level of comfort and security you don’t find in many other places,” the Haverford honor code’s website reads. Other universities, such as Princeton University, have honor codes, as do Temple’s professional schools.

Jones said that at Haverford there is a council of students that hears cases on the honor code, but that may not work at Temple. Other schools with these councils have had cases where students abused their power to discipline falsely accused students, so that must be taken into account as well.

Oberlin College, where honors program director Ruth Ost was an undergraduate student, attached an honor code form to every assignment. Before handing in an assignment, Ost said she had to sign the form, confirming that her work was her own. If she didn’t plagiarize, she had nothing to worry about, other than her duty to confront peers who broke the honor code. “Once you sign that code, if you really buy into it, it puts the onus on you,” Ost said. At Temple, every professor is required to put the university policy on academic honesty in their syllabus, but this as far as it goes.

In the meantime, reducing the temptation to cheat can curb plagiarism to an extent. Ost suggested professors create “cheat-proof” assignments.

Honors adviser Amanda Neuber said professors could vary their tests each year to reduce the chances of cheating. Neuber said when she was in a sorority at St. Joseph’s University, there was a drawer full of answers to past tests, which her fellow sorority members used from time to time. If she had wanted to – Neuber said she didn’t – she could “go pluck out [her] psychology test, memorize it, and then get an A.” It’s hard to say without evidence that this may happen at Temple, but there isn’t a culture built up that would decry the existence of such a drawer. An honor code could do that.

The environment of fairness and accountability that an honor code could create would likely reduce the possibility of cheating and plagiarism. Becoming “Temple Made” ought to include becoming a more dedicated student who produces original work.

In his speech at convocation for the Class of 2017, Provost Hai-Lung-Dai advised students: “Don’t cut corners.” It is time to take back the scissors and show where the corners really are.

Joe Brandt can be reached at

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