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The community (sub)standard

A recent investigation commissioned by the Academic Integrity Council and the Kenan Institute for Ethics has fortunately found a significant decrease in academic dishonesty over the last five years. But perhaps, more interestingly, the study notes an uptick in the frequency of prohibited collaboration for class assignments and online music piracy. Generally, students differentiated between victimless behaviors, like pirating music, and behaviors that hurt others, like romantic cheating.

We note two possible reasons for this behavior. The first is that violations like dishonest collaboration and illegal downloading simply yield large expected returns. Homework collaborators and music pirates rarely get caught and yet they benefit from their actions significantly. From their perspectives, their behavior constitutes risk-free methods of gaining some advantage.

But perhaps we can find an alternative and more interesting explanation by examining what these two infractions have in common. Both can be traced to a fundamental paradigm shift that students might have about the ownership of intellectual property. Indeed, working alongside one’s friend on a shared problem set solution and downloading an artist’s music illegally both reflect changing mindsets toward information ownership. The Internet age could likely have an hand in this change, as greater use of technology and social networking blurs the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

The ethical standards of students may have shifted in light of this general attitude change. When individuals act ethically, they tend to choose actions that conform to their personal ethical compasses, not because they are consistent with an externally defined honor code. Rather, the honor code is often constructed so as to reflect socially acceptable standards. An honor code remains legitimate only insofar as students consent to it. Unlike a rule of law, the honor code exists to concretize and uphold a set of shared values, not to impose one particular principle over another.

The honor code ceases to be meaningful if students do not buy into it or believe its rules matters. But as this recent study shows, what students hold to be socially acceptable in terms of exchanging intellectual property no longer aligns well with the honor code. Should the code, therefore, be revised?

We do not think so, at least with respect to the issue of intellectual ownership. First, we have not unequivocally identified the impetus behind the violations in the first place. If unlawful assignment collaboration and music piracy occur simply because they are perceived as easy and victimless behaviors—and not as a result of a deeper ethical shift—there is no reason to trigger an overhaul of the honor code. The code’s ideological underpinnings ought not to be challenged simply because it is easy to breach. Instead, enforcement should be our priority.

Further, specifically regarding student collaboration, we believe that well-defined intellectual ownership is still deeply relevant and should be defended. If intellectual collaboration is gaining increased support as a serious virtue, professors can increasingly incorporate collaborative assignments into their curricula. But this should not come at the expense of solid, individualized work­. Individual assessment must remain an irreplaceable part of academic life, and this is a principle worth codifying. Admittedly, the results of the Duke study may not actually reflect a change in the ethical sensibilities of students. Nevertheless, the possibility is certainly worth considering.


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