MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXII No. 4
March / April / May 2010
New Opportunities Toward Nuclear Disarmament: Reviving Faculty Roles?
Is President Obama Reducing the Probability of Nuclear War?
MIT in Action in Haiti
MIT Medical Director Discusses Changes: Community Care Center Proposed
The MIT Medical Department 1901-2004:
A Very Brief History
Academic Integrity
The Chancellor and Student Deans Ask Students to Share "What's On Your Mind?"
Arthur C. Smith
Richard K. Yamamoto
New AT&T and Sprint Nextel Transmitters Promise Better Cell Phone Coverage
Graduate Fellows Build Community
The Foremost Resource Students Need
is Your Time
MIT Center for International Studies:
Student Training and Faculty Funding
MIT Finance Initiating Digital Tools and Services: ePaystubs Available in June
MIT Professional Education: Summer 2011 Short Course Proposals
U.S. News & World Report:
Graduate School Rankings 2001-2010
MIT Publications Online
Printable Version

Academic Integrity

Sheila Widnall

Academic integrity is a core value of the culture at MIT. The faculty Committee on Discipline (COD) deals with instances of violations of academic integrity policy by students brought to it by faculty and staff. These cases, although involving only a minute percentage of the students at MIT, provide a window on the current challenges and highlight the crucial importance of faculty holding students responsible for their actions, as well as being willing to bring it to the attention of COD when violations occur.

One recurring theme, which seems to have increased in the past few years, are incidents of plagiarism, primarily in CI-M and CI-H courses. Professional writing has become an important part of the MIT curriculum. Students carry out and document laboratory studies, undertake literature reviews, and write summary papers of important developments in their fields. The Committee has been impressed by the depth and subtlety of the instruction in CI-M and CI-H courses regarding the complexity of identifying and avoiding plagiarism. The MIT handbook on academic integrity, provided to all freshmen, ( lays out the subtleties of proper citation of sources, paraphrasing, referencing, “cutting and pasting.” In the plagiarism cases we have heard, we had no doubt that the faculty in question went to great lengths to include in classroom discussion, preliminary writing assignments, specific feedback, and one-on-one classroom interactions, sufficient material to make clear the standards to which the students were held. Despite this, students sometimes argue that they did not understand exactly what the expectations are about proper use of sources.

Cutting and pasting from Wikipedia, citing sources that had not actually been read or were actually unavailable but had been cited in other references, or copying but not referencing a source: we have seen all of this.

Because MIT faculty take these issues seriously and go to such lengths to include them in the course material, COD concluded that, in the cases we heard, students were aware of the standards to which they are held and, for a variety of reasons, chose to violate them.

Other “one-of-a-kind” cases that were recently heard by COD are:

  • A student went to the “box” in which problem sets were handed in. The student removed another student’s pset from the box, erased that student’s name, wrote in their own name, and submitted the pset as their own work. This was repeated three times. The violation was identified because one of the students whose problem set was stolen did not get it back, recognized their work in the “return” box, and inquired.
  • In another case, of a type we have seen before, a student modified a “returned” exam before resubmitting it for regrading. Because requests for regrading had occurred before with this student, the professor xeroxed the exam before handing it back. When the exam was resubmitted for regrading, the violation was clearly identified.
  • In another case, a student gained access to a professor’s personal on-line Athena folder, which was inadvertently left unprotected, and found a copy of the upcoming final as well as other exams and psets. Rather than notify the faculty member, the student made use of the information to improve their own grade in the remainder of the course.

The COD urges faculty to make their academic expectations clear and to have a consistent culture across faculty and TA staff in a course. The Institute’s academic integrity policy leaves the response to an act of academic dishonesty to the sole discretion of an individual faculty member. A faculty member can fail a student for the assignment, lower their grade, or fail them for the entire course. In addition there are two options for the faculty member to more formally document the act of academic dishonesty. The simplest option is to place a letter in the student’s file with the Office of Student Citizenship (OCS), which has templates for those letters available on its Website. If a faculty member feels that the incident needs to be taken further, they are encouraged to file a complaint through OCS to be heard by the COD. If you are unsure about how you would like to handle a particular situation, you can contact the Chair of COD or Dave Kennedy (, Director of OCS, staff to the COD, to talk through your options.

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