Cheats at Stanford? Blame the Honor Code

March 31, 2015, 8:20 p.m.

To the editor:

It’s not surprising to see Stanford students making headlines for academic dishonesty. The consensus seems be that this can be remedied with the Honor Code — either by making students more aware of it or by stricter enforcement. However, the Honor Code itself is the problem, and both students and faculty should be looking to reform it.

The Honor Code creates almost the perfect set of circumstances for cheating to flourish. First, it requires that teaching staff not police the behavior of hyper-competitive Stanford students, ensuring that the probability of being caught cheating is very low. Then, it imposes draconian punishments on those who are caught violating the Code — the first offense usually results in a one -quarter suspension, effectively deporting international students whose visas require them to be enrolled full-time. This means that very few students are willing to call attention to cheating they see, for fear of ruining a fellow student’s educational career. The Honor Code creates a lot of temptation to cheat and strong incentives not to report cheating.

Criminal justice research shows that punishment certainty is more important than severity for deterring bad behavior. Stanford needs a new Honor Code that understands this. First, we need to minimize the opportunities and temptation to cheat — exams should be proctored, homework changed each year and take-home tests discouraged. Second, we need to put in place a system for fast, proportionate punishment — a zero grade in the assignment for a first offence, for instance. Both reforms would increase the chance of cheaters getting reported, resulting in more cases of cheating but less actual cheating.

As it stands, the Honor Code only benefits careful cheaters and the faculty who encourage them by giving the same homework year after year. Let’s turn it into a document that makes Stanford a fairer and more honest university.

Sam Corbett-Davies, computer science Ph.D. ’19

Contact Sam Corbett-Davies at scorbett ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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