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Study identifies students’ moral compass, integrity

Student perceptions of ethics and integrity in academics, civil and social issues vary, according to a recent Duke report.

The Academic Integrity in Undergraduate Life study surveyed 2,000 undergraduates over five years with the goal of rectifying misconceptions about students’ sense of integrity and conduct on campus. The report, commissioned by the Academic Integrity Council and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, found a significant decrease in academic dishonesty but an increase in prohibited collaboration on class assignments in the last five years. The report also showed drunk driving and romantic cheating to be considered the most unethical social behavior, and students consider downloading illegal music the least offensive.

“As a young honor code school, Duke has been a leader in identifying and addressing issues related to cheating,” Noah Pickus, head of the Academic Integrity Council and Nannerl O. Keohane director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, wrote in an email Sunday. “[The report gives] the entire community a more holistic and student-driven understanding of the whole student, not just the one in the classroom,”

Perception is not reality

The report also found that students believe more of their peers are guilty of unethical behavior than the number of students that self-reported guilt.

“The gaps between perceived and self-reported dishonest behavior are so large that it’s likely that students have a wildly inaccurate picture of how dishonest their peers actually are,” Pickus noted.

According to the report, students estimate that twice as many students have fabricated lab data, three times as many exaggerate qualifications and four times as many are unfaithful to romantic partners than compared to the self-reported evidence.

Senior Nick Valilis, chair of the Honor Council and member of the Academic Integrity Council, noted his surprise at this disparity between perception and reality of ethical behavior.

“To me, it says that Duke students, for the most part, do behave ethically,” Valilis wrote in an email Sunday. “As a community we continue to put too much stock in stereotypes and media characterizations of our student body.”

Collaboration station

There was an increase in academic dishonesty in two areas of collaboration: receiving unpermitted help and working on an assignment with others when the instructor asked for individual work. Academic dishonesty in these areas increased by 20 percent and 15 percent respectively.

These rates are higher at Duke than at peer institutions that have an honor code, according to the study and data from 2005.

The study suggests an explanation for this apparent growth in unethical conduct. Students reported feelings of uncertainty regarding collaborative assignments as to what is ethical and what is not. Technology and social media encourages networking and sharing among students, which may be blurring the line of ethical integrity and dishonesty.

The Honor Council is helping to clarify any misunderstanding through a house course and an orientation program specifically geared to toward students in the Pratt School of Engineering, where collaboration occurs frequently.

“We have some work to do in terms of communicating what ethical collaboration looks like at a university where so much of what we do is collaborative,” Valilis said. “This is particularly important in engineering where coding and problem sets are inherently collaborative.

Prevalent behavior

More than 50 percent of students reported downloading copyrighted music without permission, 40 percent of students have knowingly disclosed information imparted in confidence and 35 percent have faked an illness.

Students reported that they differentiate between perceived victimless behaviors, such as pirating music, and behaviors affecting others, like romantic cheating.

Students also act consistently, the study shows. A student in an exclusive and committed relationship is less likely to cheat on a romantic partner than cheat on a test.

“This is significant because it suggests a holism—whether for good or bad—rather than a view that ethical behavior varies by who or what is involved,” Pickus said.

Witnessing unethical behavior does not mean students will report it, according to the research. For example, 44 percent of students have witnessed other students posting anonymous disparaging comments online, but only 24 percent took any sort of action and only 10 percent called public attention to it.

Pickus noted the high proportion of students who report they did nothing when confronted with behavior they saw as wrong as a cause for concern.

“Is this because of a healthy sense of tolerance or a lack of concern for and commitment to each other?” Pickus asked.

Students reported that the primary reason for their hesitance to act against certain crimes is that it is “not my business” and it “violates social etiquette.”

For incidents that directly affect students, however, more reported the behavior. When an individual slacked off in a group project, for example, about 56 percent of students took action. Students referenced a personal code of ethics and self-respect as primary considerations in ethical decisions more so than religious beliefs or respect for others.

Time to act

Pickus said he hoped that the Duke community will actively engage in interpreting and building a more ethical community from the report.

“No one ‘owns’ integrity, and there’s lots to puzzle over in analyzing the report and lots to do in further strengthening Duke’s culture of integrity,” he said. “So rather than create a separate infrastructure for integrity issues, Kenan’s goal has been to produce a report that others will want to embrace and take ownership in.”

Pickus and Steve Asher, professor of psychology and neuroscience and lead author in the recently published Duke Social Relationships Project, will present their respective results to Duke Student Government this Wednesday.

“[It is] a valuable opportunity to reflect on the role of ethics inside and outside of the classroom and, in particular, to think about how one’s values in each of these two spheres are part of the same whole,” senior Kaveh Danesh, Academic Integrity Council member and DSG vice president for academic affairs, wrote in an email Monday.


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