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Ethics Center

Academic Honesty

Lake Forest College is committed to the highest standards of academic honesty. These standards reflect the core values of our institution and, thus, are reflected in our mission statement. The standards include integrity, respect, conscientious-ness, self-discipline, and civility. Such standards are central to the process of intellectual inquiry, the development of individual character, and the maintenance of a civilized community. 



Violations of academic honesty expectations come in many forms, from inserting text from an article without providing any attribution, to writing a report on a concert you did not attend, to falsifying data, to taking the test answers from someone sitting next to you. Perhaps the most typical cases involve plagiarism, taking material from a source, whether a book or web page or another student, without clearly indicating the source. Reflection on the ethical issues surrounding plagiarism can illuminate the reasons academic communities take all these issues so seriously.

What’s wrong with plagiarism? It is common to say it amounts to theft. You are stealing someone else’s words, ideas, data, or pictures. But students are smart enough to realize that there is something wrong with this analogy. What is a typical case of theft? Someone steals your car, your wallet, or your cell phone. An object you owned and could use is no longer available to you; you have literally lost something. In the digital age, what’s lost in the theft may not be the object itself. When you download a song or movie without paying for it, the ‘object’, the digital file, remains. You have simply made a copy. What’s lost is the payment the creator or owner should have received. But if a file is available without charge, as with public domain movies, there is no problem downloading, viewing, and sharing. The original file remains for others to watch, and there is no financial loss to the owner. In many ways, academic plagiarism looks like this last case. If material is merely copied from a source, the original does not change hands, and in academia, authors are not owed payment when others cite their work.

So again, what’s wrong with plagiarism? In terms of what is owed authors, the issue is not so much what you take as what you fail to give. Authors are due credit. They have publicly presented their work for others to use, with the expectation that readers will indicate the source when sharing the ideas. One should not minimize the importance of credit. Though different from financial remuneration, it is highly valued by authors. Especially (though not exclusively) in academia, writers seek to make a contribution—and to be recognized for the value of their work. Failure to provide credit denies this recognition. You may not think this matters much for class assignments, but faculty members often learn of new materials from the research students do. Your reports can introduce faculty to an unfamiliar author whose work is worth examining.

Here the concerns about plagiarism broaden. As a student at Lake Forest College, you have joined an academic community. Such a community is based on dialogue in all its forms, from class discussions to individual conversations with faculty and other students, to reading research materials or experiencing the arts, to writing your own papers. Open and honest exchanges represent the best way for people to learn—and for the community to understand our reality better and to improve the human condition. Many of the expectations associated with academic integrity relate to these fundamental goals. Reporting false results, for example, can lead other researchers down fruitless paths, wasting time and effort. Plagiarism or failing to indicate the sources of material you use can stifle intellectual dialogue by denying helpful paths for investigation. Given our heavy reliance on written materials, it is essential that readers be able to follow the trail of an author’s research. Have you ever used the references in one article to find other useful resources? Faculty do that as well—including the citations in student papers. Failure to provide information about sources that enables readers to find materials blocks further dialogue and thwarts the central goals of our community.

Plagiarism also presents a deceptive picture of your work. When you put your name on a paper, you are certifying that the material presented is your work—except where you explicitly reference another source. Incorporating a quotation, which is, after all, copying, can be acceptable. Academic authors want you to use and to benefit from their efforts, but you must provide attribution. Moral issues arise when you, in effect, present others’ work as your own, whether it’s another student’s test answer or an author’s published material. Such actions are dishonest. Thus, in terms of common moral failings, plagiarism looks more like lying than theft. It is not surprising that Lake Forest College, like other institutions, frames the central academic values in a policy about academic honesty.

Plagiarism also has negative consequences for other students. Even when student work is not explicitly graded on a curve, there are still comparisons to be made. You gain an inappropriate advantage by taking credit for the work of others. You owe it to your peers to ensure that faculty can assess students fairly. Moreover, if you copy another student’s work, that student can face discipline as well. And do not minimize the impact on relationships with your teachers. It is painful to have to deal with students who have violated academic honesty expectations. A trust has been broken, and that is not easily restored.

Cheating in all its forms says something about you. One instance is enough to raise questions, for doubts inevitably creep in. Have you done this before? Do you think such actions are OK? Can your explanation be trusted? Your actions define you for others. How do you want to present yourself? More importantly, what kind of person do you want to be? Such issues raise questions about character. Ethics is not simply a matter of following fundamental rules like those prohibiting lying or stealing. Ethics also involves visions of what kind of life we ought to lead. Do you want to be someone who cuts corners, taking the easy route that involves denying others their due, whether it be recognition or fair treatment?

You must answer such questions for yourself; no one can force you to value integrity. But it does bring benefits to you as well as others. At Lake Forest College, we hope not simply that you learn a lot of facts from various disciplines, but that in at least some areas, you develop your own voice. To do so requires that you understand the ongoing dialogue, whether on the science behind climate change or the demands of social justice. Thus research is essential, but it is only a starting point. Our expectation is that you not only report what others have uncovered, but analyze it, assess it, and perhaps offer your own insights about the matter. Here, plagiarism is often a shortcut that hurts you. If you present others’ work as your own, you deny yourself the opportunity to develop essential skills that will, ultimately, enable you to make contributions, not only in school but in whatever career you enter. Conscientiously developing such skills does take significant effort—but it would bode well for your success in life.