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Cheating at Harvard: probe focuses on plagiarism in era of blurry ethics (+video)

Harvard investigates possible cheating on take-home exams. The publicity could resonate nationwide as colleges grapple with differing generational perceptions of what’s acceptable.

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Harvard University is reexamining its academic honesty policies and reiterating them to students amid an investigation into some 125 students who may have plagiarized or collaborated inappropriately on a take-home final exam last spring.

The case could resonate far beyond the Ivy League college’s Cambridge, Mass., campus as universities nationwide struggle with a major gap between students’ and faculty members’ sense of what constitutes acceptable behavior, higher education experts say.

Collaborating and taking material from the Internet are “becoming part of the student psyche, so they don’t report it as cheating,” says Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University.

In surveys from 2006 to 2012, 60 percent of nonfreshmen college students said they had cheated, Mr. McCabe says. That’s down from 68 percent in 2002-06 – but rather than a decline in actual cheating, his research suggests fewer students now realize that what they’re doing counts as cheating.

That’s echoed in other recent surveys. About 6 in 10 four-year colleges report an increase in cheating and plagiarizing since 2001, and 46 percent say students’ understanding of plagiarism has declined, says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and co-author of a recent book on college students.

Mr. Levine recounts the view of one dean of students: that soon, course syllabi will be as big as the Manhattan phonebook, because faculty have to spell out everything: what constitutes plagiarism, whether they are allowed to use digital devices in class, even that they are not allowed to come to class intoxicated.

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