Academic integrity stands at the core of the academic mission. Its rules concerning plagiarism and cheating reinforce the value of original thinking and recognition of the work of other scholars. Violation of academic integrity rules or policies are not a matter of law, but of the community of scholars to which you, as a student, have been invited to participate in your time at Cornell University. Should you go on to graduate or professional school, and perhaps even a life in academia, learning to abide by these rules, in short, by doing your own work or acknowledging the work of collaborators, will forge the ethic of the life of a scholar. If you do not continue on in higher education, these rules should nonetheless become part of a sense of personal authenticity and individual integrity that qualify you for citizenship in our global community.
Plagiarism and cheating did not begin with digital technologies, but those technologies may be contributing to a recent proliferation of reported cases. The uncertainty about how to cite sources found on the Internet and in non-traditional formats stands at one end of this spectrum of behaviors; accessing the answers to problem sets from instructors’ manuals that have been placed on-line or purchasing papers from commercial websites is at the other end. The availability of material from the Internet, sometimes in willful violation of copyright laws, for example, with file sharing of entertainment such as music, videos or games, may be blurring the lines between what is and is not actionable in a court of law and what may, or may not, constitute plagiarism or cheating. Suffice it to say that technical availability of the Internet as well as the material discoverable or downloadable on it does not necessarily mean that the use of those systems or materials is legitimate.
As often happens in history, technological advances have outpaced market, legal or behavioral adjustments. You happen to be living in one of these periods. The vicissitudes of life do not excuse you from legal or ethical behavior, although they may challenge you to a greater degree than other generations of students who may not have faced as many easy opportunities to evade law or policy. Consider your fate as a gift. Whereas other generations may not have had as many temptations to cheat or plagiarize as yours does, previous generations may not have had to think as deeply about those choices or make hard decisions that do indeed shape a person’s character. The social effects of new technologies also suggest for your generation a greater challenge. Whereas previous generations who could not so easily evade the law therefore challenged it openly in protest and civic debate, your generation may be depriving itself of an opportunity to exercise citizenship by evading law and policy rather than confronting it openly. Do yourself and your generation a favor: if you don’t like a law, for example copyright or the legal drinking age, write a letter, form a group, organize a protest or foment a political challenge to it.
The highest responsibility faculty, staff and administrators have in higher education is not to turn out students with excellent grades or, in the case of professional education, proficient doctors and lawyers. It is to help shape citizens of the United States republic and of the world. The education that we offer you about file-sharing and copyright is for the purpose of making you aware of laws you may want to change. The rules that we impose regarding academic integrity are designed to teach you about the values of disciplined learning. Thoughtful protest or conformity require discernment and conscious choice – in other words, the very essence of what it means to be a citizen.