“On My Honor …”

“On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam.”

Eduflack cannot tell you how many times those words were written across the front of a blue book or on the cover of a term paper during his years at the University of Virginia.  The Honor Code was one of the first U.Va. traditions learned as a wet-behind-the-ears first year (sorry, there are no freshmen at Mr. Jefferson’s University.)  The code was started more than 145 years ago after a professor was shot dead on the Lawn.  Since then, it has weathered a number of storms and challenges, but still stands as THE standard when it comes to student honor.

The U.Va. Honor Code is brilliant in its simplicity.  It’s a one strike and your out code.  Single sanction.  Caught cheating, found plagiarizing, you are out of the University.  No exceptions, no excuses.  Honorable students, the sorts we want graduating from the University, must be honorable defenders of both academic freedom and academic achievement.

Once you leave U.Va.’s Grounds, the institution’s traditions never seem to leave you.  and I’d like to believe the Honor Code is one of those that remains part of a U.Va. grad’s DNA.  Maybe that is why I was so taken by an article in today’s Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/09/AR2008080901453.html?hpid=sec-education), citing the woes of students who have recently been expelled from their semester at sea program for violating the University of Virginia Honor Code.

It is unfortunate for these students that U.Va. is currently running the sea program.  That means U.Va. rules apply, even for those students from other institutions with lax standards or differing views of academic honor. It should come as no surprise, then, that they see the Honor Code’s single sanction approach as “punitive” and unfair and downright un-American.

According to the Post, one of the accused students summed up the problem best — “It’s not like we copied and pasted,” Gruntz said, “or bought it online.”  What lofty standards that student’s prospective alma mater sets for its students.

The root of the problem, it seems, is Wikipedia.  The students in question say they didn’t source Wikipedia enough in their term papers.  One told the Post it was simply an issue of paraphrasing, and that there were only so many ways to write up the summary of a topic.

For the record, Eduflack was a strong supporter of the single sanction — the one strike and you are out approach — Honor Code when I was a student there, and after I left.  I was part of a team at The Cavalier Daily that blew the lid off a national story involving the Honor Code and students of privilege trying to manipulate their social standing to avoid the justice of the Honor Committee.  I was a witness in an Honor trial.  And I have been proud the single sanction has remained in place, despite protests against it over the years.

But what the Post really missed is this isn’t an issue of the U.Va. Honor Code.  This is an issue of Wikipedia.  Semester at Sea has students from accredited institutions of higher education studying together in a common learning environment. It is intended to broaden horizons, expand academic inquiry, and stimulate the mind.  And we are using Wikipedia as primary source material for academic papers?

I’m all for Wikipedia.  It plays an important role in our society and on the Internet.  But it is far from a peer-reviewed journal or a card catalog-listed book from a reputable publisher.  It is not even a newspaper article that we used to dig out on microfiche (gosh, I’m old). 

At its heart, Wikipedia is an online bulletin board for information, a source where just about anyone can place their pushpin.  Even Wikipedia’s hosts warn users to “avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed.”  And in discussing Wikipedia as a research source, the site states “not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased.”

So at the end of the day, this isn’t about honor.  It is about common sense.  It doesn’t matter if you are studying on a cruise ship, on Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, Stanford’s Farm, or Cambridge Yard.  High-quality work is high-quality work.  Good research is good research.  And paraphrasing Wikipedia is neither.

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