Last December, campus was buzzing with talk about the Honor Committee, as four referenda generated vigorous debate and large voter turnout. The level of energy and engagement in the process showed how much students care about having an effective and fair system to ensure academic integrity.
However, some students may not realize that when it comes to academic integrity, the Honor Committee is only half the picture. Under the Honor Code, students are responsible for overseeing academic integrity during in-class examinations, such as midterms and finals. For everything else, including papers, problem sets, and independent work, the responsibility for reporting violations belongs not to the students but to the faculty. Such cases are heard not by the Honor Committee, but by the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline (CoD). As the name suggests, the committee is composed of students as well as faculty, and is chaired by the Dean of Undergraduate Students.
The CoD is completely separate from the Honor Committee, and the four recent referenda don't apply to it. This means, in particular, that the standard penalty for a student found responsible for plagiarism remains a one-year suspension.
I've been a member of the CoD since the fall of my sophomore year. As a student member of a faculty-student committee, I see it as my responsibility to represent my fellow students while doing my best to enforce disciplinary standards in a reasonable and fair way.
None of the members of the CoD like punishing people, but the University's policies on academic integrity are very clear. When the committee finds that a student has blatantly and knowingly taken credit for another person's work, the only correct decision is to suspend them. Such a policy may seem harsh, but it is aimed to uphold Princeton's standards of academic excellence. If students are unhappy with the current policy, they should urge the administration to change it. But in the meantime, as long as students keep plagiarizing, the CoD must keep suspending them.
Plagiarism may occur on papers, problem sets, even junior papers and senior theses, but by far the most common case, in my experience, has been computer code. A few particular COS classes account for a huge fraction of the academic cases I have heard in the past two years. I've gotten to know some COS assignments better from seeing them over and over again in plagiarism cases than I did from taking the class two years ago.
I don't know why the same few classes lead to so many cases of plagiarism, but it is an alarming situation that needs to be addressed. COS instructors in each class are already very clear about permissible and impermissible sources of help. Still, I wonder if the department could do more to stem the tide of academic integrity cases. Meanwhile, there is a very simple solution from the students' point of view: don't plagiarize code. Don't look at another person's assignment, don't get impermissible outside help, and for goodness' sake, don't copy and paste a solution that you found on GitHub. And if you do get impermissible help, accidentally or not, you should cite it in your readme. You might get a bad grade for it, but you won’t get suspended for plagiarism.
I know that most students don’t plagiarize, and that many COS students are worried instead about being wrongfully accused or suspended for reasons they don’t understand. It would truly be awful for the CoD to punish a student because their code turned out the same as someone else's due to coincidence and bad luck. However, given my experience on the committee, I believe that most COS students have nothing to worry about. Inexperienced coders sometimes suppose that there is only one correct way to write a piece of computer code, and so their code might turn out identical to someone else who’s trying to achieve the same thing. In reality, even a basic assignment requires the programmer to make hundreds of different decisions — from low-level syntax and spacing to the high-level structure of the program, the use of private methods, and even the way code is split between different files. It’s not impossible for two different students to write the same block of code independently, just as it’s not impossible for two people to come up with exactly the same paragraph in an essay by chance. However, it is so improbable that the CoD can say with confidence, in many cases, that copying is the only explanation for extreme similarity between two pieces of code. When we cannot say so with confidence, we do not find the student responsible.
Students in COS and in any other department should always take care to follow course policies and to cite all of their sources. But beyond this, academic integrity should not be something that keeps innocent students up at night. Unfortunately, because the CoD deals with sensitive and confidential situations, it cannot be as open and transparent as one might like. But as someone who’s seen the Committee in action, I can at least say I believe that we do a good job. The CoD has enough work to do as is, and we’re not interested in punishing students who’ve done nothing wrong.
On a committee like the CoD, our ultimate fantasy is to be irrelevant. I wish that students never plagiarized, and I wish we never had to suspend students for any reason. I don't know why students copy code and think they can get away with it. Your COS professors are very good at what they do, and chances are you can't get away with it. There are many permissible sources of help available for students taking COS, including lab teaching assistants, office hours, Piazza, and properly acknowledged friends and tutors. If these aren’t enough, submitting an unfinished assignment isn’t the end of the world. You can get a passable grade even with code that fails most of the tests. And so I'd like to make a special plea as we begin a new semester. If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, your code just won't compile, and you're all out of late days, I feel your pain, and I wish you the best of luck. But it’s just not worth it to jeopardize your future by short-cutting the rules. Don't copy code.
Caleb South is a junior concentrator in Mathematics from South Jordan, Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.