Honor among journalism students.

Uncle Fishy and RMD pointed me to this story in the New York Times about a last-minute extra assignment (due today) for students enrolled in "Critical Issues in Journalism" at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Not an extra credit assignment, mind you -- an extra assignment they all get to do just to pass the course, on account of the fact that the 200+ students enrolled in the class apparently had some trouble handling the exam without cheating:

...a Web site, RadarOnline.com, posted an account, attributed to an unidentified source, that said the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism suspected some students of cheating on the exam, an open-book, take-home test that students could gain access to via computer any time during a 30-hour period. Both the exam and the course are graded as pass, fail or honors.

The test had to be completed in 90 minutes. According to a student who attended a class meeting on Friday, at least one student who had taken the exam reportedly offered to tell at least one other student who had not yet taken it what the essay questions were, which would give the second student extra time to prepare before the clock started ticking.

A student who was approached reportedly notified a teaching assistant, but did not identify the student who made the offer.

Honestly, I've gotten to the point where this kind of academic dishonesty does not surprise me. It bugs me, but it doesn't surprise me. However, given that, if the NYT reporting here is accurate, this is academic dishonesty on "a final exam in a journalism ethics course" (my bold emphasis), I can see how the profs for the course would not only take this personally, but would also want to seize the teachable moment to connect the coursework to the professional world these students plan to join. All the students in the course have to write an essay.

The topic: What should a newspaper's executive editor do after receiving "a tip from a credible source that one or more unspecified articles in recent editions of the newspaper contain fabricated material"?

There's a nice parallel here to the situation in the class (where there was a report of dishonesty but not an identification of who the dishonest party or parties might be). If you know there's dishonesty, but you don't know where, can you trust any of the newspaper (or any of the students enrolled in the class)? What are the costs associated with deciding to give all the articles (or all the students) the benefit of the doubt? What are the costs associated with doubting them all? What kind of options do you have for ascertaining who is truly committed to the shared mission (be it putting out a responsible newspaper or participating in a graduate course honestly) and who is willing to sacrifice that mission if it contributes to his or her individual gain?

Possibly, from the students' point of view, this extra assignment might feel like collective punishment. But if the cheaters end up working on papers (or in TV or radio newsrooms) next to the honest students, it may come in handy for the honest students to have thought of a few ways to deal with the messes the cheaters are likely to make.

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It is a little more disturbing that it showed up in a graduate course. I expect undergrads to be typical students, and typical students view courses not so much as learning opportunities but as hurdles to overcome to get a degree. Or simply to get out of school. But graduate students have chosen school (or, more charitably, learning) over entering the job market. I expect more serious behavior from them. The fact that it was an ethics course just adds to the irony.

Maybe part of the solution is not to trust students. Or (again, more charitably) not to place easy temptations in front of them.

the exam, an open-book, take-home test that students could gain access to via computer any time during a 30-hour period.

Plus, students didn't all take it at the same time. Under what insane system does the above qualify as an exam? I'm not condoning cheating, but it's not like the University was putting many obstacles in the way.

Life puts all kinds of temptations before us. Are we not expected to act appropriately? These are graduate students!

By nerdwithabow (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

It baffles me why anyone thinks that just because someone is a graduate student/lawyer/doctor/scientist (whatever) that they are somehow less prone to temptation or have more ethics than anyone else.

It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that this happened. Most breaches of ethics that I've come across (and I've worked in science for a decade, so I've seen quite a few) are because of time pressures and fear of failure. An ethics course teaches the concepts of ethics, but it doesn't automatically make you more ethical (just more aware when you aren't being ethical).

Why a prestigious school like Columbia would set up an exam under the honour system like this is beyond me. Surely it can't be that hard to find a common 90 minute window for all students to show up and do the exam at once.

It might be worth pointing out to the dumb kids -- since most of them will still be dumb kids -- that if they cheat, and are caught, other people will remember it forever, and over time it may become the only thing people remember about them. And that self-interest should drive them, at the very least, to avoid all appearance of cheating or being willing to cheat, because somewhere down the line, being cavalier about it will screw them profoundly. Because trust is actually valuable.

I graduated just on the edge of the early-90s recession; job competition was starting to get fierce, and the kill now, laugh later ethic of the 80s was still in force. I got my first salaried job because of how I answered an honesty-related interview question. I was, it turned out, the only applicant who said she'd be honest in an awkward situation. (Actually I nearly said I'd lie, but had a feeling it was the wrong answer.) My boss told me all this a few weeks after I started, and he was incredulous at all the nice, well-educated, lying young people he'd had in his office. I quit the job ten weeks later to go be a writer (idiot), but the guy remembered my work and attitude well enough that when I got in touch a decade later just to say hi, he was hoping I'd done an econ PhD so he could back me for a tenure-track job his dept was trying to fill.

Me, I remember every lying employee and plagiarizing student I've had. I also remember the ones who did exactly what they promised and could be relied upon to be honest even when no one was watching. Guess which ones I'd recommend.


This is a very typical kind of exam in Scandinavia, especially for graduate school. It recognizes that people in grad school will have jobs/families/responsibilities that they have to attend to. But within the space of a bit over a day they should have 90 minutes to commit to doing an exam.

Often the questions are essay-type in nature, usually the topics are known (for all) in advance. Some e-learning systems let you set up a pool of questions, everyone gets their own questions. Others offer for multiple choice reshuffling the order of the answers for all students.

I would think that this kind of extra assignment is exactly right - and it is a potential exam question for the next semester.

By WiseWoman (not verified) on 11 Dec 2006 #permalink