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Honor Code Address

by Hansford Epes '61, College Registrar
August 25, 2002

When you filled out your Davidson application, you included an essay on the Davidson Honor Code. Looking at some of the essays over the years, I've noticed that new students who have visited the campus often write about seeing books or backpacks unattended, or about unlocked doors, or about unsupervised exams.

I've never yet seen an essay that mentioned being impressed by the footnotes in a student host's paper or the thoroughness of its bibliography. Academic documentation doesn't come first to mind when we praise a community of honor and trust. Sadly, however, the lack of documentation -- plagiarism -- is among the first things that come to mind when we hear that the Honor Council has conducted a hearing.

It's easy to see why application essays seldom make plagiarism a major theme; mine wouldn't, either. And it isn't always easy to see why people, especially teachers, get so upset about documentation in a paper. You can write -- though I hope you won't -- papers that have commas in the wrong places, or that do not argue effectively, or that are just plain boring. Write such papers, and you won't get good grades on them -- but no one will suggest that you've done something dishonorable. Get careless with recording where ideas or data or words come from, however, and someone might suspect that your sense of honor is not what this community expects it to be.

Why should neglecting to cite your sources be such a big deal? Why does one sort of error in writing a paper or a lab report or anything else have implications that no other sort of error does?

Let's concede that teachers sometimes cloud the issue of acknowledging sources. Some of us will tell you that we want you to use footnotes; others will say that we want you to use parenthetical citation. Trying to be helpful, some will say you must use quotation marks if you quote more than four consecutive words; others might say six words; and all then get bogged down in whether those counts include words like "the" or "and." Many of us will tell you not to cite "common knowledge," but are unlikely to provide helpful definitions of what "common knowledge" might be or give much attention to the obvious issue of "common to what group." In many classes, you are likely to be engaged in collaborative or group work and not overly concerned with who in the group actually put ideas into certain words, or who did the experiment or provided the data. In such a common effort, you might appropriately wonder where individual responsibility lies. Quite properly, many of your teachers have emphasized the importance of revision as part of writing, leaving you to wonder whether the revision of a paper written for one class might be an acceptable paper for another, or whether careful documentation of sources can safely be left, like punctuation, until the final bit of polishing. Teachers will hand you something to read, praising its scholarship and its academic reputation -- and looking closely, you'll sometimes discover that like textbooks throughout your school years, its pages are remarkably free from footnotes, citations, or anything more elaborate than a long bibliography with no indication of what came from where.

We -- your teachers -- will sometimes ignore such understandable confusion and refer to "plagiarism" either as a crime you already should understand in detail or as a concept you've never heard or thought about before.

It's my assumption that you have thought about plagiarism before; it's my thesis that your thoughts on the subject have become unavoidably cluttered; and it is my hope that if I can helpfully ask you to do anything this evening, it is to clear away the clutter and get to the principle: what are the matters of honor that underlie the concept of plagiarism?

Let me start with a concrete example. I suspect that everyone here would agree that it would be wrong for you to purchase a paper, or to copy one in its entirety from the web or anywhere else, and submit it unchanged over your own name. Your values tell you that to do so is dishonorable.

Why? What value, what ethical principle tells you that the action I described is wrong? Why did you agree that copying a paper is not an honorable action? By what principle did you judge?

Let me suggest one possible ethical principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another person's work. I'm not going to give you time right now to think about that principle; when you do, you'll come up with some exceptions. That we recognize the existence of professional ghostwriters might suggest one of them. So, let me modify the principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another person's work without acknowledging that person appropriately. The acknowledgment might be related in a way to another broad principle: when someone helps us, we express our thanks.

The seemingly elaborate structures of citation and documentation allow us to acknowledge gratefully the help of others, even when those others are people we've never met or people who are long dead.

My example had to do with copying an entire paper, and I said that you were unlikely to think of that action as honorable. I will say to you, as well, that to the best of my knowledge, such things seldom happen at Davidson. We are fortunate to have students who take the Honor Code seriously; you are the latest in many generations to give it life. The extreme examples are seldom the source of difficulty.

But the principles behind the extreme example stand behind less extreme ones as well. Given the assumption that work with your name on it is fully your own work, written for one specific class, how would you react to a paper that was fifty per cent copied from elsewhere? Ten per cent? One paragraph? Four words, or six, with or without "the" or "and"? Don't think about the numbers; think about the principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another's work without appropriately acknowledging that person. All the methods of documentation exist to provide ways to acknowledge help appropriately and in ways that represent a kind of agreement between you and your reader. Which of many ways you use may vary from class to class, and learning different sets of rules is annoying at best. But the method of acknowledgment has little to do with plagiarism; the principle that plagiarism violates concerns the existence of acknowledgment.

I must add one caution in which method seems to overlap principle. Just providing a list of your sources, assuming that might free you from the need to put quotation marks around specific passages and citations next to them, or to give specific references for particular facts, dilutes your acknowledgment, making it so general that it could be thought dishonorable. For college work, simply listing sources at the end usually will not prove adequate.

That is true in part because there's a second principle at work. I referred earlier to a community of honor and trust. Our Honor Code exists as an expression of community, not just of individual actions. A paper you write, or any other work you submit, is not something you trade in for a grade in a private transaction with a teacher. Your papers and your other work represent one of many ways in which you contribute something to a community of learners. Your reader, even if the teacher is often the only one, can learn from your paper. Your reader may want to pursue the subject further, and your careful citation of sources helps the curious reader share your experience of inquiry. Citation and documentation are both acknowledgment and assistance, in other words. They help you give to others as well as record what you have gained from others. It may be difficult to see a footnote as an act of giving, but it is one; make it as helpful as you can. It leads your reader along the path you have explored.

Each of you will encounter discussions of plagiarism and the like in many of your classes. My examples center on papers in part because of the nature of what I teach; the principles of not accepting credit for another's work apply as well to problem sets, to lab reports, and to many other types of assignment. In different classes you will hear about different methods of acknowledgment and about some differences in expectation. If you are left wondering, raise questions with your teacher. If it's late at night and the teacher isn't around to answer such questions, always tell your reader where your material came from. It's much better to document or cite your sources too often than too rarely.

In addition to principles, you might even consider a practical rule -- which I adapt from a phrase so widespread as to be common knowledge: Do ask; do tell. Ask your teachers what their expectations are; tell what your source was if you have any doubt whether you need to.

The slogan may get you through the two a.m. dilemmas -- but only if your notetaking has been good. The slogan is worth remembering for emergencies -- and it is worth remembering, as well, that it is difficult to retrace your research at two in the morning to find a page number or a URL that you forgot to write down.

But the practical slogan doesn't do what this evening should do: remind us all that the Honor Code is not a set of rules, but an affirmation of ourselves as a community.

Ours is a community of learners. We help each other to learn, and one ultimate purpose of citing and documenting sources lies in extending a helping hand to your reader. As a community of learners, we value ideas highly; and we show our gratitude to those who have helped us shape our own. We also value words -- and we know that someone who puts them together well deserves acknowledgment.

Ours is a community of service. In a society that happily has come to understand that each of us lives in the community of all humankind, and of nature as well, we must still remember that the community we serve isn't entirely elsewhere. The unspoken downside of our concern for community service lies in the temptation to believe that the communities we seek to serve are in various ways the communities in which we do not routinely live. But we do live in the routine communities of the early morning class, or the afternoon seminar, or the lab at whatever time. We serve others in those communities by helping them learn, by being models of taking responsibility every day for our own actions and our own work, and by expressing our gratitude to others for helping us learn.

Ours is a community of trust. Trust means that we have expectations about each other. But with matters of academic honor, as of all other kinds, our highest expectations should be of ourselves: to embody the values we admire, to make the Honor Code our own, and to be able to say -- in my case, many years since I signed the pledge that you signed this evening -- that the Honor Code is not just a cluster of idealistic words. I can tell you, on my honor, that it has long served and enriched and enlightened the Davidson community. I trust you to cherish its benefits and to keep its light aglow.