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When Does Collaboration Become Cheating?

When is collaboration by students on a problem set commendable and when is it cheating?

Does MIT need an honor code?

Is there a meaningful relation between these issues and the realms of professional life in which MIT students will work after graduation?

These and other questions involving intellectual integrity, on campus and in post-academic settings, will be the subject of an October 21 MIT Colloquium, "Success and/or Honesty: In Here, Out There."

President Charles M. Vest will open the colloquium and introduce 10 panelists and Institute Professor Robert M. Solow, the 1987 Nobel Laureate in economics, who will serve as interlocutor for the plenary session in Kresge from 4:15-6pm. Remarks by and exchanges among the panel members, as well as interaction with the audience, will be stimulated and guided by the interlocutor.

At the conclusion of the plenary session, Provost Mark S. Wrighton will offer a summation.

The plenary session will be followed by smaller group discussions, with food, organized by the various MIT academic departments and by special meetings for freshmen hosted by teachers in the science core and HASS disciplines.

Professor Travis R. Merritt, head of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Office and chair of the MIT Colloquium, has with his colleagues assembled a diverse panel for the Kresge Auditorium discussion. On the panel will be:

Shirley A. Jackson `68, Distinguished Research Physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories.

Pauline R. Maier, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT.

Margaret Marshall, immediate past president, Boston Bar Association.

Donald L. McCabe, associate professor at Rutgers' Graduate School of Management.

Kenneth Olsen `50, founder and former president, Digital Equipment Corporation.

Arun Patel, MIT senior in architecture.

MIT Physics Professor Robert P. Redwine.

David G. Steel, MIT graduate student in physics.

Kelly M. Sullivan, MIT senior in mechanical engineering.

MIT Associate Provost Sheila Widnall `60, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Members of the MIT community have been invited by a letter from President Charles M. Vest and Professor Merritt to participate in the colloquium.

"We all have a stake in this matter," they said in their letter. "Both faculty and students have expressed a high level of interest in the issues as well as a wide range of experience and opinion relevant to them. We hope that on October 21 people from all walks of our academic life-faculty, research and administrative staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and alumni/ae-will take an active part in discourse that will carry through into a yearlong series of practical activities designed to make things better."

Among the topics the colloquium will explore, the letter said, are:

The effect on individual behavior of competitive pressures to succeed or survive.

The need for greater clarity in defining the limits of allowable collaboration and teamwork in relation to individual achievement.

The efficacy of academic honor codes and professional standards of ethics versus a common sense of human decency.

The role of likely detection and well-publicized punishment in deterring dishonest practice.

Professor Merritt, in an article in the September issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, said that many faculty are aware that "academic dishonesty here is not just the undergraduates' problem, but rather the result of a sort of unconscious collaboration among all of us."

He urged faculty to think about, among other things, ways of reducing "the sense of relentless pressure and overload which drives our students to cheat" and ways to "make crystal clear to students in our classes precisely which kinds of collaborative teaming are permissible (and even laudable) on homework, and which ones are not."

In preparation for the colloquium, Assistant Dean for Research Alberta Lipson and other members of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs staff have been conducting exhaustive surveys, by questionnaires, of experience and opinion relevant to academic dishonesty at MIT. It is expected that some data from the surveys will be made available as background for the October 21 event.

A version of this article appeared in the October 7, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 9).

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