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Credit: Insia Haque

My guess is that nearly everyone reading this article knows someone who has been academically disingenuous, or been that someone before. Being academically dishonest isn’t all about flashy examples, like the two admitted Penn students accused of plagiarism and fabricating data in 2022. There are smaller violations that may feel less egregious, or even harmless, like querying ChatGPT for help completing your homework, peeking at a friend’s lab assignment, or answering a PollEverywhere as if you’re in class, when really, you’re snoozing in your dorm.

Academic dishonesty is having a moment in the spotlight. The advent of generative AI, the use of which cannot be reliably detected by grading softwares, will likely upend student learning for better or worse. At the same time, examples of plagiarism by prominent academics are being dug up left and right. The former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, was ousted in part due to plagiarism concerns, and Business Insider found that former MIT professor Neri Oxman (the wife of billionaire Bill Ackman, who led the campaign against Gay) “stole sentences and whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, other scholars and technical documents in her academic writing.”

To be clear, I believe that academic dishonesty at Penn — going against community standards that your professor has explicitly outlined — is unacceptable, and that we should be doing more to penalize and prevent it.

Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that academic dishonesty is understandable, in that we can piece together students’ rationales when they do cheat, and even sympathize with them in some cases.

To dissuade academic dishonesty, we employ sayings like, “It will only hurt you in the long run to cheat,” or “You’re taking advantage of other students who've completed their work fairly.” This is true in some circumstances. If you’re an aspiring quant and you’re asking ChatGPT to calculate all of the derivatives on your MATH 1400 homework, it’s going to show: First in your exams for the class, then in every math class you take thereafter, and especially in your future career. And if MATH 1400 is curved, your dishonest success capitalizes on the honest failures of others — not cool.

But this is not true in all cases. Jane* was a first year in her spring term when she was taking CIS 1210: Data Structures and Algorithms — a famously challenging CIS course — with Rajiv Gandhi, a famously challenging professor. 

She cheated on her coding assignment late into the semester, and as per the professor’s policy, received a -300/100 on the submitted homework and zeros on all previously submitted homework, receiving a D as her final grade in the course.

But Jane believes that what is more important to her story is not what happened, but why it happened. 

“What drove me to make a bad decision? Why are [these classes] so infamous? It’s because of notorious policies where you cannot collaborate on many assignments. You are given long problem sets to do, on your own, each week, with desperate students in office hour queues that are two to four hours long. Many times, you will go to the TA and not get a clear answer. It is a profoundly isolating situation, particularly for freshmen just entering college, and that’s what drives well-meaning people to cheat.”

Based on my conversation with Jane, it seemed that she felt isolated at the time and was struggling to reach out for the support that she needed, both in CIS 1210 and at Penn as a whole. And given the limited support Jane could receive from TAs and her instructor, backtracking her friend’s code felt more conducive to her learning than doing nothing.

Jane expressed a lot of remorse over what happened, and said that she still has a lot of respect for Rajiv, maintaining a good relationship with him to this day. She was also grateful that Rajiv was willing to handle this internally, since a low grade in the class looks better than a formal statement on her transcript, detailing her violation of academic integrity.

“I deserved to be punished harshly,” Jane said. “But the collaboration policies of these introductory courses, and the punishment I received, wrecked my self-esteem and my early college experience. I felt that there was no way out.”

According to Jane, Rajiv's philosophy is to "let go of your grades early: the sooner you stop caring about your GPA and start caring about learning, the better." She agrees with this philosophy, especially since he curves his courses generously, but sees this as out of touch with the realities of many Penn students.

After students have prioritized perfecting their grades and resumes (and have been praised for it) in high school, those habits won’t get undone overnight. Even at Penn, there are many institutions and accolades that continue to reward “perfect” performance over pursuing difficult academic disciplines, experimenting, and invariably messing up sometimes.

Frankly, for a pre-med student in computer science (a track which Jane was considering at the time), the adage that “cheating will hurt you in the long run” skill-wise doesn’t hold much water. The skillset of a future doctor and a software engineer just don’t overlap enough. What can hurt a pre-med in the long run is a low GPA.

And while there are some students for whom projects, internships, and technical interviews will get them a lot further in guaranteeing their success, this is not true for everyone. For many preprofessional students who may want to challenge themselves with a major or minor in CIS, they risk getting shut out of the study altogether.

What frustrates me most about this entire situation is not that such harsh action was taken, but that it appears ineffective in tackling the issue at hand. If a student wanted to cheat, they could just take CIS 1600 or CIS 1210 during a different semester, when a different instructor was in charge and penalties were anecdotally known for being less harsh.

While Jane’s actions were clearly wrong, I can’t help thinking that she was just the unlucky example that had to face the music, and she said as much in our interview: “Everyone cheats in this class. You don’t survive [CIS 1600 or CIS 1210] without talking to people, it just depends on whether you get caught. That doesn’t make cheating okay, but it does mean that we need to rethink how these courses operate.”

So, what can we do so that not everyone cheats?

This is a complex question, and there is no easy answer. It is crucial that as we frame the issue of academic integrity violations, we look at both the violations themselves and the root motivations that drive them — these actions are not taking place in a vacuum. 

Academic integrity violations these days are, to an extent, simply easier to commit. ChatGPT has led to a surge in “unfair advantage” violations. And even before generative AI, the pandemic had uprooted our usual test-taking environment. Now that classes are in person again, we no longer need to have take-home or open-Internet exams, but these still persist in some classes, and are easier to cheat on. Penn, given its history of fraudulent alumni, isn’t going to be a place where professors can blindly trust students to refrain from cheating when presented with the option, so professors should take some responsibility for leveling the playing field in the classroom too. 

Julie Nettleton, the executive director of Penn’s Center for Community Standards and Accountability (CSA), relayed over email that CSA already works closely with schools and centralized resources at Penn to discuss how to proctor exams, and with faculty to discuss exams, syllabi language, and classroom policies.

What constitutes a violation itself is currently not standard across classes, or even across different sections of the same class. How to handle a concern of academic integrity falls to the professor first — this is how Jane completed CIS 1210 with a lower grade, rather than a formal sanction from the CSA. It makes sense to delegate this responsibility to professors: It is more efficient than having the CSA handle every case, and professors should have the freedom to decide what constitutes cheating in their classrooms.

However, this does open the door to students deliberately choosing sections of a course with professors that have more relaxed academic integrity policies. Conversely, some professors can be overly harsh, to the point where they are acting unfairly towards their students. 

Jill*, another student that I interviewed for this article, was falsely accused by her professor of collaborating on her final exam with her peers. At the start of winter break, the professor sent a class-wide email imploring those who worked together on the take-home exam to turn themselves in or have the matter escalated. Jill recalls that for students that turned themselves in, the professor lowered their grades accordingly — everyone else was reported to the CSA.

In the end, Jill’s name was cleared, but she was assigned a case manager that seemed to have assumed she was guilty by default. As the case progressed, many of the details that the professor used to build the case against her appeared superfluous — for example, she and her friends had all rounded to the same decimal place in their work. Jill suspects that the escalation may have been personal: she had previously asked the professor, on behalf of the class, if he could make changes to his teaching style to facilitate learning.

It seems wrong to me that a professor could accuse a student and cause such extensive stress when in the end, Jill turned out to be innocent. It reminded me of some other methods that professors use to catch students cheating, such as Turnitin’s flawed AI detector.

Part of the solution to rampant academic dishonesty may also lie in expanding our vocabulary to discuss the issue, as John McWhorter pointed out in The New York Times. A class-wide cheating ring, direct plagiarism of original ideas from a paper as one’s own, and copying a line of someone’s code all constitute academic dishonesty, but range broadly in terms of severity and “ease of catching.” However, this is rarely reflected in academic integrity policies. 

It can be awkward to suggest that some forms of dishonesty are worse than others, and more awkward still to draw the line between different punishments for different violations, but we must still have these conversations. 

What should constitute dishonesty at all? When speaking with Jane, she would often circle back to how isolating it was to work alone on her assignments as a first year in introductory computer science courses, particularly as a woman in STEM. Every day, she would walk out of class “feeling way worse about [her]self.” Now exploring chemistry, physics, and biology courses, she greatly appreciates the change in her academic environment, where students are encouraged to openly collaborate. The grade medians in chemistry are similar to those in CIS (which is to say, not great), but Jane is not as stressed as she was in CIS 1210, since she studies with her friends, and they can struggle and ask for help together. 

While it was dishonest of Jane to copy code when it was against CIS 1210 policy, perhaps CIS majors and minors would learn more from the course if they were in a more collaborative environment to begin with. Jane has suggested that CIS 1210 should find a middle ground where students can learn from each other, but not be overly reliant on collaboration to perform well on exams. 

She also argues that there should be more opportunities for students to admit to academic dishonesty — through a friend at Stanford, she heard that at the end of a computer science class, students can select the assignments they have cheated on and receive a negative score on them, or risk facing more uncertain penalties if they are later caught. 

“This policy gives people a second chance to do the right thing, and I do believe that you learn from an experience if you own up to it,” Jane said.

Deliberations over how best to address academic dishonesty can go on without end, but unfortunately this column must do just that. So here, I want to leave you with a reminder of what I said at the beginning: Academic dishonesty is unacceptable, but it is also understandable.

The hard, but necessary, solution to “everyone cheating” is taking a good look at the stories behind academic dishonesty, and listening to the students involved with sympathy. Only then will we understand what we can do about it.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering senior studying earth science and systems engineering from New York. She was previously Opinion Editor for the 139th Board. Her email is