Students are expected to know that certain acts violate school rules and can lead to trouble with a teacher, the school administration, or even a disciplinary board. We are taught to be honest, do our own work, don't cheat, and don't steal someone else's efforts. But did you know that students can also face misconduct charges for failing to safeguard work?
Most academic misconduct accusations arise from a student acting in a way that violates the school's Honor Code, such as committing plagiarism or unauthorized collaboration. However, if you don't protect your work and another student uses that work inappropriately, your inaction may lead to a failure to safeguard work violation.
Understanding the Offense of Failing to Safeguard Work
Allegations of failing to safeguard one's own work against someone else's cheating are usually reserved for higher education settings. The Ivy League school Columbia University, for example, publishes an Academic Integrity and Community Standards page that expressly prohibits "failing to safeguard work," calling it a form of academic dishonesty. New college and university students may be unfamiliar with the expectation to safeguard work. What, after all, is dishonest about doing one's own work while letting other students see it? But allowing another student to access one's own work when the professor requires work to be individual and original is a form of unauthorized collaboration. Collaboration can be a good thing but not when a professor prohibits it. Exposing one's own work for the benefit of other students to copy the work is tantamount to helping the other students cheat.
Indeed, another Ivy League school Princeton University goes so far as to publish a booklet of instructions on how to maintain one's academic integrity, including how to safeguard one's own work. After discussing at length how to avoid unauthorized collaboration and other forms of unauthorized assistance, Princeton's booklet gives this warning to safeguard work:
"One final caution: be careful about allowing others unauthorized access to your work. Don't leave the library for a coffee break with your newly written history paper on the screen of your laptop; don't let the hardcopy of your sociology take-home sit in the computer cluster printer for hours, or leave extra copies or earlier drafts around in public places. There's no need to be unreasonably suspicious. Just use common sense to safeguard your work."
In a sense, in college, you are your brother's keeper. Failing to safeguard one's own work can be academic misconduct. If a student doesn't take the necessary steps to protect their work, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they can be charged with academic misconduct based on failing to safeguard work. As the dean of the graduate division at the University of California at Berkeley put it in a recent open letter to students, safeguarding academic integrity is absolutely essential to success. The dean's letter warned that the dean had rescinded PhD and master's degrees over plagiarizing another's work.
How This Offense Can Occur
Consider what the safeguarding offense can look like. The City of New York's Columbia College maintains an academic integrity policy that provides, "Failure to take precautions to safeguard one's own work is prohibited." Columbia College's policy then gives these specific examples of such a failure to safeguard one's own work: "leaving work on public computers; sharing work with other students for a completed course without authorization from the course instructor; and sharing course notes without authorization." To that list one could also add these other forms of failing to safeguard work:
- Saving a file on a shared or insecure computer or drive,
- Swapping textbooks with another student while your notes are inside,
- Leaving a copy of your notes or assignment outline in the classroom for another student to find and use,
- Exposing your work on a whiteboard in the background of a Zoom class, and
- Other acts that clearly give someone else the chance to cheat.
Unlike active violations such as plagiarism, dishonesty, fraud, or even bribery, the offense of failing to safeguard work can occur when a student has no specific intent to help another student cheat but instead plainly exposes their work for another student to take advantage of the circumstances. Failing to safeguard work is more of a careless form of misconduct than a deliberate act of cheating. But failing to safeguard work is cheating nonetheless.
The Potential Consequences of Failing to Safeguard Work
Many schools have a Board of Review that handles academic misconduct charges. The board may include administrators, teachers, and other students in a peer review capacity. The board investigates violations of the conduct code and follows an established process to resolve misconduct accusations.
Academic offenses, including failing to safeguard work, is one of the most serious offenses a student can commit. While consequences vary from school to school, possible sanctions may range from an informal reprimand to suspension or school expulsion, depending on the severity of the offense.
Sanctions can have an immediate impact, such as losing scholarship funds, removal from school housing, or exclusion from student organizations. Perhaps even more importantly, the incident will be on your academic record and can cause long-term problems in your future education and employment opportunities. If you intend to apply to a graduate school or hope to land a job, a misconduct charge on your record could ruin your chances of enrolling or finding work in certain fields.
The Investigation and Disciplinary Process
Schools establish certain procedures to address allegations, such as failing to safeguard work. Once an accusation is made, the administration will open an investigation and may request an interview or a written statement from the accused student. Other witnesses, such as teachers or students, may also be questioned to determine the facts surrounding the claim.
Usually, a disciplinary board will hold a hearing to review the investigation, determine if the student is responsible, and decide the appropriate penalties. As a student, you must take the discipline process seriously. If you fail to participate, you could be found responsible, and that may haunt you throughout your school career and well into the future.
You need to be prepared to defend yourself against misconduct accusations. Most schools will allow you to have an advisor throughout the process to be sure you understand your options, the possible repercussions, how to navigate the complicated discipline system, and help you present the best defense possible.
The Right to Appeal an Unfavorable Outcome
Most schools have created an appeal process that allows a student to challenge a finding of misconduct issued by a disciplinary board. Usually, you must complete specific forms within certain deadlines to protect your appeal rights. An experienced attorney-advisor can guide you through an appeal and ensure you present the best argumen