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What is a scholarly community and what are our individual and collective responsibilities?

Recently, I had cause to discuss with a group of my freshman college students the issue of reporting observed or known academic dishonesty. I was very surprised and deeply saddened by the responses most students shared with me on this issue. In short, most--80%--stated that "others' cheating was none of their business;" "It is the professor's job to monitor, detect, and dispatch any cheating that might go on;" "Students should not expected to be 'snitches;'" and "Students are not collectively responsible for each other; they are only responsible for our own actions." These were not the only lines of argument forwarded for student non-involvement in other's cheating, but these statements represent the majority opinions expressed over several classes in multiple years I posed the question. I feel compelled to write a loud dissenting opinion; hoping 1 can be persuasive enough to elevate the issue from what, in many quarters, has been an obscure, potential, minor issue to a relevant, vital issue.

All education, but higher education in particular, is based on individual student, class groups, and instructor and school official trust, openness, and honesty. Knowledge is not a commodity that we purchase; not an activity we merely dabble in; and not a scenario we passively observe. It is, rather, an investment we make to enhance our vocational futures, our personal self-images, and personal intellectual reputations. An education is an experience we actively and collectively engage in with teachers, authors, classmates, and texts/readings; and an education is an activity we work hard at, in which we invest our egos, energies, and time in. Our education is among the most precious and expensive activities [in terms of time, energy, money, and personal worth] we will ever engage in. An education goes beyond a diploma and includes inherent values, long term dedication and commitment, and invested effort toward noble goals.

Education is an activity that requires mutual trust. If great energies, worries, and punitive actions must be entered into by faculty resulting from mistrust, this surely will detract from the work of sharing, understanding, and expanding knowledge. The worth of an education faced with distrust among the members of the educational team diminishes considerably. No one, I hope, is Pollyannaish about academic dishonesty; it occurs too frequently. (1) Not all academic dishonesty is easy to apprehend. One person doing another person's work, sabotaging another's work, plagiarizing others' effort, fabricating research data, and other unethical practices can too easily be hidden from a professor's or colleague's view or ready detection; however, sometimes, such student [undergraduate, graduate, or professional] practices are observed by classmates and/or are shared in some way with other students. The following ethical question arises: do we have collective responsibility to turn in those who cheat? (2) I believe we do have such a responsibility. The university is a scholarly community; and as such, it depends on the honesty, trust, and confidence in each other not to cheat. Cheating is not an individual's act alone. It may well produce what purports to be knowledge that others may depend upon erroneously in future studies that could cause irreparable intellectual or physical harm to others [such as in cases where drug research data is fabricated]. Passively accepting--and that is what keeping quiet is, accepting cheating--makes the knowing observer or one who is aware of cheating an accomplice to the act.

As to the argument that students ought not be expected to turn their classmates in when cheating is known or suspected, I ask: if we knowingly, intentionally, and without guilt allow cheating to occur without stopping it, without reporting it, and without condemning it, are we not condoning it and even promoting it in the eyes of the cheater? If we allow, condone, and promote cheating, what value does our hard work have? I believe we have an ethical duty to ourselves, our present and future classmates, to the academic institution we affiliate with, and to our own self respect to demand that cheaters be weeded out from our midst. We do owe our classmates help, compassion, and respect; however, cheating is among the vilest behaviors a scholarly community can have beset them. Academic dishonesty corrupts, corrodes, and dishonors individuals whop engage in the practice and stains all who know of its occurrence and fail or refuse to report it.

Many students fail to equate academic cheating with stealing, vandalism, and/or perjury. I see compelling parallels--not legally, but morally. When people cheat, they are stealing others' ideas; they are defacing the trust and the necessary dependency on others' ideas and findings; and they are lying in a context that all scholars implicitly live with: we seek truth honestly. We cannot allow academic dishonesty to become a norm or an accepted mode of behavior because not only will our individual self worth become diminished, our institution's reputation will be sullied, and the worth of a college education in general will suffer.

Some students have argued that it's only grades that cheaters strive for and that no one checks on grades after graduation anyway. This is inaccurate in two ways. Grades are not the only end sought by cheaters; they seek recognition as a genuine scholar equal or superior to those not cheating. They seek competitive equality or advantage by cheating. Not all vocations and professions check on grades initially;--but many do--however, most professions check when promotions to higher level positions are offered.

Ironic situations discovered when discussing who cheats with university colleagues are that almost half the cheaters are fairly good performing students, ones who come to believe they could be a bit better and get greater grade and scholarship advantages if they just "cheat a little." Unfortunately for these people the one-time or a few times cheating usually succeeds and then they thirst for more easy rewards. These students find cheating in many classes is relatively easy if done cautiously. For some, this turns into a never ending habit. Cheating communities have been known to have developed in middle school and high school classes. Especially vulnerable teachers subject to being assaulted by a group of "good student" cheaters are student teachers whose naivete and trusting nature open them up to mass cheaters' practices. Older teachers who frequently experience poor performing students cheating often do not look for or suspect the better performing students of cheating. (3) The top achieving students at all education levels rarely cheat partly because they don't need to and also they tend to realize the dire price of being caught. The average students rarely see rewards for cheating being worth getting caught.

Too many elementary, middle school, and high school teachers and some administrators have offered feeble excuses for not monitoring, teaching explicitly about, and making a significant issue about student cheating including: (1) such activities take away time needed to teach what we are mandated to teach; we don't have the time; (2) parents tend to complain and some threaten law suits if we press cheating too hard; (3) our teachers aren't trained to ferret out cheaters; and (4) "the children will 'outgrow' their tendencies to cheat" or "It's not such a big deal, they will soon move on to another school anyway." These excuses from educators are pathetic, maddening, and all too frequent when they are pressed about doing something corrective about student cheating in their schools. (4) If teachers and administrators fail to see cheating in their classes and schools as a situation requiring immediate and strong corrective action, hope for correction is bleak and students are left without valuable lessons in honesty, community values, and the long-term perils of academic misconduct.

The worth of our individual education and that of our classmates' education in terms of honesty, integrity, and public trust; the academic institution's reputation as a worthwhile, scholar producing environment; our own self worth as a trusting and trustworthy scholar; our demonstrated willingness not to implicitly participate in a cheating atmosphere; and our protecting of our scholarly community by loudly announcing and acting consistent with a no tolerance attitude and action against cheating are paramount to preserving the noble value of our college education. I shudder to think what the meaning of a college education would transform into should my students' negative opinions toward cheating were to become public knowledge. I, as a taxpayer, would look suspiciously and cynically toward the investment demanded by people who seem to value honesty so little.

A community is a collection of persons sharing common values, shared goals, and similar practices. A scholarly community is one that must value honesty, open collaboration, civil challenging of others' ideas and their own ideas and judgments, sharing of resources and sources of ideas, and helpful appraisal of each others' work. Such a community must set out to expand knowledge for ourselves and others in the community; and check the veracity and utility of others' work in the community as well as outsider academic efforts. Scholarly communities need to learn the practices of good reading, cogent writing, clear speaking and listening, (5) precise language use, (6) quality library research, and useful and humane appraisal of others' work as well as being able to accept constructive criticism for one's own work. (7) Students in a scholarly community must be trained to engage in critical thinking (8) so as to ask incisive, relevant, and probing questions to elicit useful answers forwarding knowledge. (9) Scholarly communities include group study environments which are becoming more common in schools and in many commercial, industrial, military, and government environments. Group dynamics, values, and skills need teaching in schools at all levels. (10) These values, goals, and practices are all teachable by competent teachers in all education levels. Students so armed with these values, goals, and practices have superior opportunities for academic and life success.

Students who successfully experience, enjoy, and gain from a scholarly community from grade one through college seem more likely to succeed in post school careers. They can carry the successful community model to family life, career efforts, community affairs, and citizenship involvement. When a community model takes hold, it can become a role model in widening arenas. The community model aids individuals in establishing a safety net for people in need; provides a more compassionate environment for individuals needing emotional assistance; and invites the creation and nurturing of methods of support for those in social need.

Our public and many private schools need a major overhaul; the public system has problems threatening its demise and deserting by masses of students. The learning community model may be the change that can stimulate change, hope, and revival of our schools. We scholars need to clearly define a scholarly community in ways and with language that all can understand and phrase its description, goals, and activities in ways that provide an invitation to students, parents, teachers and school administrators, local and national politicians who will have to initially financially support it, and the many citizens without school attending children who must be convinced that it is a viable, workable, and worthwhile model for our schools.


(1) Ken Petress. (2003, August 17). Academic Dishonesty: A Plague on Our Profession. Education, 123 (3): 624-627; and Ken Petress. (2004, February 2). Some Thoughts about Deception. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31 (4): 334-337.

(2) See Richard L. Johannesen. (2004). Ethics in Human Communication, 5th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press {See chapter on human nature ethics].

(3) These observations and conclusion stem from conversations with numerous cooperating teachers supervising student teachers and other College of Education faculty.

(4) These comments stem from scores of school and conference conversations with teachers and school administrators.

(5) Ken Petress. (1999, April 5). Listening: A Vital Skill. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 26 (4): 261-262.

(6) Ken Petress. (2005, May 23). The Value of Precise Language Usage. Reading Improvement, 43 (3): 109-119.

(7) Ken Petress. (2000, October 23). Constructive Criticism: A Tool for Improvement. College Student Journal, 33 (3): 475-477.

(8) Ken Petress. (2004, March 23). Critical Thinking: An Extended Definition. Education, 124 (3): 4611-466.

(9) Ken Petress. (2005, September 24). Questions and Answers: The Substance of Knowledge and Relationships. College Student Journal, 40 (2): 374-376.

(10) Ken Petress. (2004). The Benefits of Group Study. Education, 124 (4): 587-589.
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Author:Petress, Ken
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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