Duke's Cheating Problem

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on August 12, 2011

When Duke Professor Dan Ariely suspected some of his students were cheating, he did what any behavioral economist would do: He let his students run an experiment. The results of the experiment show many students are still tempted to cheat, but a reminder of a strong, direct honor code could be a deterrent, to a point. Ariely’s experiment is also interesting because it took place at a university that has already had a cheating scandal and takes cheating seriously.

Ariely, a professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, where disciplinary action was taken against 34 MBA students after cheating was discovered on a take-home final in 2007, teaches a class on behavioral economics to undergrads at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Last semester, he came to believe that some of the 500 students in that class were glancing at other students’ papers during weekly quizzes based on the similarity of their answers, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Blog.

Those suspicions led Ariely to discuss his own research on dishonesty and cheating with his class. After the discussion, two of his students decided to conduct the assigned research project on the class, using their own classmates as unwitting research subjects in a provocative experiment, he wrote on his blog.

The two students sent the class an email from a fictitious student and included a link to a website said to contain the answers to last year’s final exam. Half of the emails also included a postscript: “P.S. I don’t know if this is cheating or not, but here’s a section of the University’s Honor Code that might be pertinent. Use your own judgment: ‘Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed.’”

The link, which contained no answers, allowed the researchers to track who clicked on it using Google Analytics.

In all, about 69 percent of students who received emails not containing honor code language clicked on the link, and presumably were sorely disappointed. Of students who received emails with the honor code language, 41 percent still clicked on the link.

"This is a tempting email," Ariely said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. "It's hard not to open it. It doesn't reflect cheating, but it reflects falling into temptation."

In his blog, Ariely wrote that students who didn't receive emails with the honor code language thanked the sender for the link, while students who did receive honor code language were "upset and offended."

"I wish the numbers would've been lower. I expected there to be a difference between the honor code and non-honor code [groups], but I hoped it wouldn't be too big," he said. "Forty [percent] is still too high."

Encouragingly, so many students emailed or approached Ariely with concerns about cheating that the two students running the experiment were forced to reveal it before disclosing their findings, he said.

The day after the final exam, he surveyed students asking them to anonymously report their own cheating and the suspected cheating of their peers. Students estimated 30 percent to 45 percent of their peers cheated, while few admitted to it themselves. Ariely said he didn't think many of his students actually cheated on the final exam, given the 70 percent average.

On his blog, Ariely writes that even if few students actually cheat, the perception that many do "can become an incredibly damaging social norm" because students may "feel that it is socially acceptable to cheat and feel pressured to cheat in order to stay on top."

Ariely said he could have done more as a professor to change that. Not addressing cheating on the quizzes "created a culture that this is OK to do," he said. "I created an environment where I was not strict about it or stopped it. I didn't think about the long-term consequences and the local culture deteriorated."

The experiment in Ariely's class suggests that honor codes do work, especially if students are reminded of the code at precisely the right time: when temptation presents itself. But the fact that two out of three Duke students involved in the experiment were willing to click on a link that promised them a big advantage on the final shows just how limited the impact of such codes can be, absent a culture where dishonesty is not tolerated.

News of the Duke experiment comes less than a month after a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business revealed widespread plagiarism in his class, a level of academic dishonesty that occurred despite another strong ethics code that prohibits "plagiarism, misrepresentation, and falsification of data." Apparently zero tolerance is the only cheating policy that works.

--Kiah Lau Haslett

Reader Comments


August 12, 2011 3:33 PM

Perhaps the students just don't care and feel disconnected from the course and the professor. They are spending top dollar to attend a supposedly high quality school that puts them in a class of 500 students! Is that why someone goes to Duke? What a joke.

Someone should study whether being one person in a class of 500 affects one's willingness to cheat. The Duke provost (top academic officer) is truly short-changing the students, perhaps to the point of feel that they feel cheated.


August 12, 2011 5:45 PM

Does it make it OK to cheat if you convinces yourself that you are being cheated?

Regardless if they are being cheated by the school or not, they are going to an institution where there are rules. If they don't want to abide by them, they should take action which might actually change something, they shouldn't make it hard for the people who actually want to learn something.


August 12, 2011 6:21 PM

Unfortunately, over the years this country's ethical and moral fabric has deteriorated so much that its people can't tell right from wrong. Plus, being unscrupulous pays very well and there it little or no penalty for doing it. The current debacle is a perfect example of that.

Business School Grad

August 12, 2011 7:25 PM

Extremely sad that behavior I'd expect from 11-year-olds is rampant in an MBA program in a top university. Students who give in to cheating are disappointing on so many levels. Thankfully they are easy to spot once they graduate because that kind of lazy work ethic is hard to hide.

Devil's advocate

August 12, 2011 8:30 PM

Silly experiment.

Current Duke MBA

August 15, 2011 1:09 PM

This article is very misleading. The comments here suggest that people aren't even getting that this article is not about the business school, but rather the undergraduate Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. The business school had one cheating scandal a few years ago and has taken the appropriate actions to prevent further examples. Cheating among undergrads is a far more common issue. Articles like this are creating and furthering a reputation that the Fuqua School of Business does not deserve.

BW's Louis Lavelle

August 15, 2011 1:27 PM

Point well taken. I restored a few words that were cut during the editing process. The second paragraph now makes it clear that the cheating took place in the professor's economics class at Trinity. Thanks for pointing this out, although I'm not sure how many people actually misread the post. Of the six people who commented on it, only one referenced cheating "in an MBA program at a top university."

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek


August 16, 2011 6:14 PM

Apparently Duke's honor code doesn't preclude MBA students cavalierly conducting probably unethical research without the authorization of the institutional review board.

At some schools you would be kicked out for being so stupid. They really put their colleagues in a terrible position.

Fuqua Alum

August 18, 2011 2:44 PM

Mr. Lavelle:

The Current Duke MBA's comment is correct. As a Fuqua alum, I had to read the piece again to determine that the article pertains to a Duke undergrad class and not a Fuqua MBA class.

I appreciate your additional comments, but I do believe your edited article still obscures the fact that you're talking about an undergrad class. If you describe Professor Ariely by first focusing on his Trinity College role - rather than his experience at the Fuqua School - your distinction could be a lot clearer.

I think this is important because I do believe many readers are probably assuming you're talking about the Fuqua School. After all, this is Bloomberg/Business Week - not USA Today.

BW's Louis Lavelle

August 18, 2011 6:49 PM

I appreciate the input, but I believe the post now states quite clearly that the cheating took place "in that class" of Trinity undergrads. It never said the cheating took place at Fuqua, and the fact that some people mistakenly read that into the post doesn't change that.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

Person who took this class

August 19, 2011 1:03 PM

From the perspective of someone who took the class, the article is somewhat misleading. Most of the answers were similar because the students did the work and usually the answers were obvious.

Taylor O

August 24, 2011 11:47 PM

I would never condone cheating. However, the future of us fellow MBA students is being determined by who can memorize every last detail of some absolutely BS distinction between Oligopoly types in Econ classes like this and learning central planning style Keynesian stimulus economics that is repeatedly failing so the motivation to learn is entirely absent.

International student

August 25, 2011 4:18 AM

There are many variables that could influence a student for cheating, the first one being the definition itself of "cheating". I studied in Germany where it is usual practice for professors to give students the examination papers of previous years for practice for their own exams. Had I been in the group that received the "tempting" mail, and based on my previous experience, I'd have thought "finally they did it" and would have gone for it without even thinking. Moreover, the honor code abstract included is ambiguous and leaves to interpretation of what "documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual" are. Under that perspective, if a student can afford a book that most of his/her classmates can't he/she would be getting a document that grants "unfair advantage". Maybe the best conclusion for that study would be that the Honor Code needs to be more assertive.


August 30, 2011 10:27 AM

This just in: Ugrads learn to block Google Analytics next time and cover their tracks better before cheating online.

johnny b

September 12, 2011 1:44 PM

too bad some schools do not expel cheaters. why not? could it be the money they receive from rich parents, donors of the schools or from taxpayers who have the privlege of paying the tuition for these cheaters(another word--fraudsters--criminals in the making). of course these cheaters will most likely end up running for elective office and unless there cheating is made public, no one will ever know(like they would be known in a small community).


January 8, 2012 10:04 PM

I would not even consider this cheating. Every fraternity will have folders with past exams in them. If a professor is so lazy as to not change the exam every year, then he/she is cheating the class. I would click the link without any qualms.

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