UVA scandal casts doubt on honor codes

by Sabrina Peric | 5/25/01 5:00am

Student plagiarism has once again been brought to the forefront of national news -- this time at the University of Virginia, where a cheating scandal has raised questions about just how severe honor codes should be.

The computer program that UVA Physics professor Lou Bloomfield designed this year has triggered one of the biggest plagiarism investigations in the university's history. Over 120 students or recent graduates are currently under suspicion.

UVA's honor code, established in 1842, is one of the oldest and strictest in the country. It stipulates a zero-tolerance policy for people found to have cheated, requiring that they be expelled while offering no less severe terms of punishment.

Bloomfield designed the program to catch students who had plagiarized term papers in his popular introductory physics class.

The program is designed to catch duplicated phrases in term papers by scanning papers for shared phrases of at least six words.

When Bloomfield later checked the papers by hand, he found that some of the term papers had been entirely copied from someone else.

The university's student honor committee will begin hearings this summer for the students who could be expelled or lose their diplomas for duplicating phrases from other term papers during the past five semesters.

Thomas Hall, student chairman of the honor committee, said in a press conference earlier this month that it appears that about half of the 122 students were cheating off the other half. The investigation hopes to determine whether the students' whose work was plagiarized was shared with or without the consent of their classmates.

The student honor committee has the power to expel current students if they are found guilty. The committee can also recommend the revocation of diplomas from those students who have already graduated.

This controversy has come shortly after an investigation into a Harvard sophomore's alleged plagiarism. Irina Serbanescu '03 was investigated by three campus publications and asked to leave the staffs of both of Harvard's newspapers.

Allegations of plagiarism against Serbanescu began when a reader notified the Harvard Independent that her lead paragraph in an April issue matched exactly a portion of a piece from Forbes magazine.

Though the matter is still currently under investigation, the Independent immediately retracted the story from its website.

USA Today published an opinion piece this week that mentioned both of these incidents and recalled last year's Computer Science 4 cheating scandal at Dartmouth, in which 78 students were implicated in a cheating scandal.

Though hearings were scheduled for all those involved, the College's Committee on Standards only heard 27 of the cases and then made the decision to withdraw all charges.

A recent study at Rutgers University of 2,200 students at 21 different colleges found that 10 percent of them freely admitted borrowing fragments of material they had found on the Internet and using them in other academic and extra-curricular areas of interest.