Academic integrity charges: a guide for faculty

Margaret Fleck, Fall 2015

Sadly, academic integrity violations do occur in our classes. Nothing can change the fact that prosecutions are painful. However, we can keep the pain to a minimum by ensuring few cases are appealed and the appeal hearings run smoothly. Here are some suggestions, based on problems that have been uncovered at appeal hearings.

The student code

The ultimate reference for academic integrity violations is the student code. Some of the relevant sections are filled with bureacratic detail, but you should read the section defining specific violations. Your course should set specific policies, perhaps including a reference to the model departmental policy. However, this must be done within the framework set by the student code. Among other things, if we don't follow the student code, we risk having students complain to the college.

Course Policies

Written course policies should include specifics about common activities which are or aren't allowed. The details should be tuned to the knowledge and culture of the students in your class. For example, students in introductory courses should be told explicitly that "showing" someone their code via email or pastebin would make it easy for the recipient to plagiarize it. Students in an upper-level class will need guidance about when they may use third-party library code and how to properly acknowledge the source.

It is not enough for your policy to be clear to another instructor. If the students can make a credible case that it wasn't clear to them, they are likely to get a reduced penality on appeal. Be simple and straightforward, so your policies are accessible even to students with limited English fluency.

Make sure policies are highly visible, e.g. include reminders in early homeworks/MPs. Like faculty, students frequently do not read information buried in long documents. Although ignorance is technically not a defense, this is cold comfort if you have to sit through an unnecessary appeal hearing.


Trust itself is a valuable commodity. Our students have group living situations. We teach them to work as teams and they will work in teams after they leave here. Teams do not function without a basic level of trust.

Student members of appeal committees take a dim view of policies that ask students to treat their housemates and teammates as dangerous strangers. Try to put yourself into the student's shoes. How much trust do you place in your spouse, your child, other faculty members, or your close research collaborators? You should ask students to follow standards (e.g. for securing code, checking data supplied by a collaborator) similar to your own.

Group projects

The student code ( procedures section) requires that

When two or more students have been accused of cooperating in an academic infraction, any fact-finding inquiries should establish their independent responsibility and the sanctions for each individual should be decided separately.

Therefore, if you charge a student with plagiarism of a group project, you must establish that this individual student had knowledge of the plagiarism. This creates some real challenges for us, as instructors, when designing policies and submission procedures for group projects.

Two policy features can make it much easier to establish individual guilt:

The first two provision helps you establish which student(s) to prosecute if only part of a project was plagiarized. The combination of both provisions blocks the "free rider" defense, in which a student claims that their teammate did all the work and is responsible for the plagiarism. Students are forced to either admit up front that they didn't participate (and then get a zero) or they can be charged with plagiarism because they misrepresented someone else's work as their own (whether or not they actually did the copying).

Frequently, a solution is submitted by only a single team member, who may also be responsible for editing a rough draft from the team into final polished text or code. This final author can potentially change the submission or introduce plagiarized content without the knowledge of the others. Two policy features may make it easier to establish what actually happened:

Sadly, it is not always possible to tell when text or code by another author has been plagiarized, particularly when the plagiarism involves routine review of background information or utility code. Before charging co-authors, ask yourself what features of the submission should have seemed suspicious to them. What checks should they have carried out once they became suspicious? In this particular case, would these checks have revealed the original source of the code/text? Because our students (especially undergraduates) have very little experience, it's important to include suggestions and expectations in your course policies.

Prompt Detection

It is easier on everyone involved if academic integrity violations are caught quickly and charges submitted promptly. This is particularly important for violations in spring term. With most people gone over summer, an appeal that can't be heard by the end of spring term is often delayed until fall. In particular, try to run automated cheating detection programs (e.g. MOSS) in a timely manner, as assignments are submitted.

Collecting evidence

When you suspect a problem, collect evidence in an organized way. Make a full copy in a separate space. The original copies may change or disappear, or you could lose access, or you could have trouble finding them (e.g. in your giant inbox). Make notes about what you have uncovered. Most of the time, the evidence will sit in an unopened folder. However, if the case is appealed, you will need to produce all your evidence in an organized way, typically months after the incidents in question.

In particular, for the very common case of plagiarism, you should assume an appeal committee will ask to see:

If you meet with students in person, make a brief note of the date and what you discussed and file it with your other evidence. Similarly, keep notes if you observe suspicious behavior (e.g. in a case involving exam cheating).

Notice that MOSS results eventually disappear, which can be an issue when infractions from spring aren't heard until fall term. Make a copy of the key parts of the MOSS analysis and/or be prepared to rebuild the MOSS results ahead of the hearing.

The role of course staff

In larger classes, the first suspicion is often raised by a member of your course staff. Staff often help with collecting and organizing evidence. However, with the possible exception of a few very experienced senior TAs, they do not have the training or maturity to take the matter further. It is your responsibility to decide whether to file charges, speak with the students, determine the appropriate punishment, and so forth.

Is this really an academic integrity offense?

An academic integrity charge is a serious matter, even when your suggested penalties have a minor effect on their course grade. The FAIR record remains confidential, with nothing on their transcript, unless they commit multiple violations. However, applications for work or graduate school may ask students or their recommenders to disclose integrity violations. (Imagine, for example, a job requiring a security clearance.)

Charging someone with an academic integrity offense is appropriate when they have done something dishonest or negligent. This system is not intended for penalizing sloppy work that doesn't rise to the level of culpable negligence. Remember that our students are not all future CS faculty. They often make mistakes that you would not have made at their age, because they have less grip on the subject matter than you did. Try to see the events from their perspective.

If you believe that the student has been sloppy but not negligent or dishonest, you are allowed to punish them by giving reduced credit without filing an academic integrity charge. For example

If you do feel that an academic integrity charge is warranted, treat the case with the seriousness it deserves. State your charges clearly, have your evidence organized, make sure students are properly informed, and come to any appeal hearing well prepared.

Reporting violations

Violations are reported officially via the FAIR system: look for the "Academic Integrity Violations Reporting" option in the lefthand menu on my.cs. If you are new to the process, ask Lenny Pitt for advice and help. Depending on the circumstances, you may also wish to meet with students in person and/or exchange email.

When the case involves multiple students, you will need to file a separate FAIR report for each one. Although some of the text may be shared, each individual filing must indicate what role this individual student is alleged to have played. If the role is unclear, it is ok to charge someone with the disjunction of two offenses, e.g. "plagiarism or facilitation of plagiarism."

Show students the specifics of the charges and the evidence against them. If they refuse an in-person meeting, email it to them. If students are aware that you hold damning evidence, they are less likely to appeal. Furthermore, the department looks very bad when students only learn critical details of charges and/or evidence at the appeal hearing itself.

The appeal hearing

We try to minimize the need for appeal hearings, but sometimes they are required. At the hearing, you and the student(s) will present your sides of the story to a committee consisting of the chair, two faculty members, and a student member. Do an organized and professional job of presenting your evidence, your interpretation of the evidence, and why your charge and punishment are justified. Among other things, hearings go much faster if everyone is prepared.

If one of your TAs was heavily involved in collecting the evidence, it's appropriate for them to be at the hearing and present the evidence. However, they should play a supporting role. You are the one bringing the charges. You should be familiar with details of the evidence and present a clear summary of your case.

After the hearing, the committee will deliberate on its own. You'll receive its finding, including both the decision and the reasoning behind it, via Lenny Pitt.


I would like to thank the numerous faculty, students, and grievance committee members involved in appeal cases, and subsequent discussion, over the past few years. This document has been heavily shaped by the specific examples and issues presented in these hearings.