Academic Integrity In Engineering

Citing honestly scares me. Every time I have had to write an academic paper, I have wondered if I am doing it correctly or if my writing will be mistaken as deliberately deceptive. I do not have to write a lot of papers in my professional career and citing has has never been a skill I needed to use often enough in high school or even undergraduate school to become proficient at it.

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As such, when I have had to write, I have actively avoided referencing other works. To date, I have not once been accused of plagiarism and I have never received low enough marks on a paper to lead me to believe that I should have tried harder to reference other works when building my arguments. This could certainly be the one though.

I do not think that my feelings toward citations are uncommon among engineers. Citing is just an unfamiliar skill for some, but that does not give anyone an excuse to write without giving proper credit to the original author. In my case, if I were to leave out a citation that should be there, that would still be a form of dishonesty because I would have withheld information that was expected to be there. However, if I were trying to pass the information off as my own original thought, that would be a deliberate deception and probably lying as well. (Charles E. Harris, Pritchard, Ray W. James, Englehardt, & Rabbins, 2018). Both of these are forms of plagiarism by the standards of many publications regardless of the fact that one is done intentionally and one unknowingly (Stone, 2003).

In high school, I never would have thought to cheat on assignments. I was fortunate then in the way that most of the topics we covered came easily to me. In my undergraduate years, there was significantly higher pressure to cheat. The material became increasingly harder every year, opportunities for misconduct were more plentiful, and there were scholarships I would have lost if I did not do well enough. I identified heavily with the reasons listed by Hardings report in one of the articles (Erwin, 2004). The extent of my own misconduct included looking up some homework problems online to get help on how to work them. I can rationalize that I often only needed help understanding how to solve the problems better, but the methods were still less than virtuous. I even (bitterly) remember one problem where I know I copied the answer exactly and I regret the attempt. 80% of the class had already dropped the course and I was very close to receiving a failing grade myself, something that had never happened to me at that point. I spent a disproportionate amount of my time working on that class and any opportunity to finish the homework more quickly was welcome.

I searched for the problem online and found that the question was from a test for graduate level course at another university and I had absolutely no clue what was going on in the problem. The professor had become notorious for assigning homework problems beyond the scope of the textbook so this was not that surprising. Knowing I would never figure out what was going on in the problem without a significant amount of my time, I copied the answer exactly and moved on. When I got the homework back, the question was just marked as incorrect and I sometimes wonder if the professor knew that I must have copied it from somewhere else. I withdrew from the class shortly after because I did not want a failing grade to affect the scholarships that I relied on. I repeated the course with the same professor and received that failing grade and then later took the class with a different professor where I finally passed with high marks.

I saw that problem and that class as unfair (and admittedly still do). Knowing that problem was from a test meant for graduate students gave me the right to ignore academic integrity. Or so I told myself at the time. Using answers found online is a lot like plagiarism in the way that someone passes off that information as their original thoughts. In a lot of instances, I really did learn from the solutions I used online and I never cheated during tests, but perhaps I robbed myself of certain learning opportunities as well and am a less prepared engineer because of it.

I also knew of groups who met to exchanged answers on homework. Engineers have to collaborate on projects and that seems like a logical justification for collaborating. To an extent, I think that collaboration should be encouraged between students and it was in some classes. Personally, I cannot think of a single class or assignment where collaboration was explicitly forbidden. Selingo speaks to this form of cheating in his article, stating that it is probably the most common form of cheating that they encounter for this exact reason (Selingo, 2004). It is honestly confusing from our perspective which forms of collaboration are acceptable and which are not unless we are explicitly told.

Finally, I once saw one of my capstone partners use his phone to look up answers during a test. I did not say anything about it to the professor (who happened to be gone that day while a TA proctored the test in his place). We were not particularly good friends, but I would have had to interact with this person frequently. I did not want to ruin that working relationship and so chose not to say anything. Having now read various codes of ethics, I wonder if I should have done something different back then.

If a history of cheating in high school is a significant predictor of cheating in college, then perhaps more emphasis on academic integrity should be held at that level of schooling (Erwin, 2004). By that logic though, academic integrity would need to be emphasized at the elementary level, pre-school level, etc. as well. I do not think that this is honestly feasible as a solution to problems with academic integrity. Past action may be a good predictor of future behavior, but it does not give significant insight into how to curtail cheating in an academic setting or other societal settings for that matter. This viewpoint also does not take into account that people tend to behave differently as they mature and that varying circumstances can affect ones decision to cheat. The PACES group concluded that the Situation in which cheating occurs was one of the strongest predictors of the frequency of cheating (Erwin, 2004).

So, can cheating be reduced by changing the academic environment? The University of Florida professor Schueller would go so far as to build specialized facilities where wireless internet would be unavailable during exams (Selingo, 2004). To me, this is the wrong direction as it would only stop some forms of cheating and it would be unreasonable for such a facility to be built on every university campus. The PACES group believes that changing teaching practices will have a significant effect on student academic integrity and from my own personal struggle with academic integrity, I would agree with that viewpoint (Erwin, 2004). Unfortunately, this approach is equally ambitious and unlikely to show promising results quickly. I think that the best way to curtail academic dishonesty is to put the necessary tools in the hands of the students themselves.

There are strong points for having an open discussion within the classroom on what will and will not constitute as academically dishonest behavior for that class. By allowing students to be a part of the discussion, it puts the responsibility of their decisions more firmly in their own hands. It also forces them to become actively involved in making ethical decisions at an earlier stage of their lives. There are also strong points for setting firm boundaries and sticking to them, but I believe either method will work as long as there is sufficient communication between students and teachers. Additionally, the use of tools like plagiarism detectors has extended from educators on to the students as well (C.J. Neill, 2004). The free and open use of these tools allows students to police themselves and can help to avoid misunderstandings.

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