Nearly all colleges and universities have a code of conduct that all students must adhere to. This code often includes a section on reporting violations of the school's academic integrity policies by other members of the campus community. Your school wants anyone who knows about these violations to report them, including other students.
What Is Academic Misconduct?
Academic misconduct includes plagiarizing essays; copying exams or illegally obtaining the answers to an exam beforehand; impersonating someone else to attend a class or take an exam; and other deceptive or fraudulent practices. These forms of cheating mean that students who have done the work to understand the material in a class earn passing grades they do not deserve.
Why Do Universities Care About It?
Universities care deeply about academic misconduct for several reasons. One is that it is unfair to students who have done the work, and know the course material, especially in courses where instructors grade on a curve: the student who cheated might get the top score in the class, pushing the students who didn't cheat further down the curve.
Another reason is that rampant academic misconduct at a school creates a culture of corruption, where faculty don't trust their students and students don't trust each other. The absence of trust becomes an impediment to learning and the exchange of ideas.
Finally, universities care about cheating because it damages their reputation. A school known for its tolerance for academic misconduct loses credibility. Medical practitioners with degrees from such a school, for instance, are unlikely to inspire confidence in their patients – or maybe even find a job in healthcare in the first place.
Who is Required to Report Academic Dishonesty?
Most colleges and universities require faculty and staff who know of academic misconduct to report it, usually according to a formal set of procedures. These schools rarely have the same expectations for students who witness academic misconduct by their peers or learn about it after the fact. At many, the possibility that students might report other students isn't even raised. Others address the issue, but present it as a desired outcome rather than a mandate.
At Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for instance, students who witness cheating, plagiarism, or other forms of academic misconduct are “strongly encouraged” – but not required – to report it to the school's honor council. Across the country in Washington state, the University of Washington reminds students that they have the “right” to report incidents of academic misconduct, and provides an online form where they can upload text messages, social media posts, and other evidence supporting the allegation.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards says this to students: “If you suspect a classmate is cheating or committing another type of academic dishonesty, notify your instructor, professor, or teaching assistant. It is the job of the instructor (not the student) to determine if misconduct occurred. All you need to do is report what you heard or saw.”
How Can You Report Academic Misconduct?
Some schools, like Georgetown and the University of Washington, provide instructions for reporting academic misconduct on their Code of Conduct or Academic Integrity web pages. The advice at other schools is more vague, along the lines of the University of Wisconsin's suggestion that you “notify your instructor.” Many more say nothing at all about how you can report academic misconduct.
In these cases, you'll have to use your judgment: you can email your professor or catch them during office hours or after class to mention your concerns, or you could contact the chair of the academic department or your college's dean of students, again either via email or in person. (You will usually need to make an appointment for a meeting.)
Factors to consider when determining the right person to report to, and how, include:
- Whether the scope of the misconduct was limited to a single course: If the misconduct took place on in a single course, it's best to alert the instructor because they are the ones who ultimately decide whether a violation has occurred. If they determine it has, they'll follow their reporting procedures.
- Whether the misconduct was generalized across courses or over time: Professors can only handle issues pertaining to their course. If you're aware of a paper-for-hire operation on campus, for instance, or files containing protected information for a number of courses, you'll want to report this to the dean of students.
- The kind of evidence you have, if any: If you have images and screenshots, for instance, these will need to be sent electronically.
- Your comfort level: You might feel more comfortable writing down your information about the misconduct and sending it to the proper authority, without face-to-face contact. Conversely, you might feel that what you have to report is so complex that it's better communicated in person. Either way is fine, since your report will usually trigger an investigation into the alleged misconduct.
- Your vulnerability: If you fear retaliation by the student or students involved in the misconduct, you may wish your report to remain anonymous. If your school does not have a protocol for submitting anonymous tips, you'll have to take the risk of telling your professor or the dean that you have information but are unwilling to have your name publicly identified as the source. Explain the reasons for your concern and see if they can offer a solution that guarantees your privacy. If they cannot, you don't have to tell them anything – unless yours is one of the rare schools that actually requires you to.
What Happens When Students Fail to Report Academic Misconduct?
If a college or university does not require students to report academic misconduct to campus authorities, students should not expect to face any punishment if they do not do so.
Before deciding whether to report academic misconduct, however, students should evaluate their position to see if there is any way their failure to report could be construed as complicity. If another student copies your answers on an exam, for example, is it possible your instructor might believe you shared them willingly? If your fraternity obtains a copy of the exam before it's given in class, and you do nothing to prevent its circulation, could you be seen as aiding and abetting that circulation?
If your knowledge of the academic misconduct could implicate you in any way, it's always better to get out in front of it and report it. Be honest about how you learned about it, and clear and forthcoming about your own role in the situation.
Get Legal Help if You've Been Accused of Failure to Report
If you've chosen not to report an incident of academic misconduct and want to make sure your right not to do so is protected, or if your school is threatening you with sanctions for your decision to remain silent, contact student defense attorney Joseph D. Lento. The Lento Law Firm has years of experience defending students in academic misconduct cases and knows how to protect students' rights.
Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686.