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Everyone benefits from free and open discussion even when the subject is a difficult one, so we thank the Columbia Daily Spectator for initiating this discussion of academic honesty in its Feb. 22 front-page story. The computer science faculty has an uncompromising commitment both to our students and to academic honesty. As teachers, we tend to take academic dishonesty personally; when a student infringes the honor code, they are not just flouting a rule, but they are hurting us as individuals as well as the entire community. There is nothing so depressing as finding clear evidence that a student has betrayed our trust.

We want our students to succeed, both at Columbia and later in life, and so we strongly believe that they should learn and actively practice the highest standards of ethical behavior here. We do our best to discourage unethical behavior by being very clear about what is and is not ethically acceptable in each of our courses. The department has long had an academic honesty policy, which is discussed in every computer science course and can be found here. We are fortunate to have excellent software tools to help us detect academic dishonesty and dedicated faculty and teaching assistants who take issues of academic honesty very seriously.

We understand that Columbia students can feel that they are under a lot of pressure, and that such feelings can lead to lapses in academic honesty. The computer science department is committed to ensuring that all students have available resources that will enable them to succeed in our courses and our program. For example, the Emerging Scholars Program is especially designed for students in our introductory COMS 1004 course who enter with less experience than their colleagues. In this program, students meet weekly to work together on problem solving, discussing, and analyzing a wide variety of problems in many areas of computer science. This program also offers an opportunity to meet other students and build confidence. In Computing in Context, students from other majors obtain real computational skills while solving problems in their own areas of interest. All our courses are staffed by many dedicated course assistants who help mentor our students so that they learn what they need to learn in our courses and are able to succeed.

While academic dishonesty occurs across disciplines, we realize that it has become a highly visible problem in computer science at many institutions in the United States and around the world. This may be partly due to the explosive popularity of our field, and partly due to the fact that software tools make it easier to detect plagiarism in computer science. We do not believe that there is a culture of cheating unique to Columbia or even to computer science. Furthermore, we strongly believe that the majority of our students are firmly committed to academic honesty and ethical conduct. Sadly, these are the students who suffer when others are dishonest.

It is our constant goal to work with our students to help them learn the skills they need so that they may maintain the highest ethical standards and succeed. Our amazing alumni are proof of this. We are pleased that students are stepping up their individual and collective commitment to academic integrity; their ownership and commitment to this issue is key to our culture of honesty, respect, and integrity. We hope that this open discussion of academic honesty will encourage other academic communities to engage with their students in this important process.

Julia Hirschberg and Rocco Servedio are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the computer science department at Columbia University.

To respond to this letter to the editor, or to submit an op-ed, contact

computer science plagiarism academic dishonesty
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