Academic Integrity in the Department of Physics & Astronomy

The university system operates on the assumption of academic integrity: that its members are fundamentally honest. This allows for the free interchange of information among its members which is the cornerstone of knowledge and learning. People share their ideas openly, knowing that academic recognition is earned and not bought; when the work of others is used it will be credited to them. This is true whether we consider a grade on an assignment or a Nobel Prize.

However, the system beaks down when its members do not respect this code of mutual respect. Cheating on an exam, by looking at a neighbour's work or taking in materials that are not allowed, is a clear case of academic dishonesty. However, academic dishonesty also occurs in the following cases where it may be less clear.

  • 1. The work submitted (for publication or for grading) is represented as being one's own, even in part. As all work builds on that of one's predecessors or colleagues, this means that their contributions must be properly referenced. Note, however, that a paper which summarizes research in a particular area can still be a useful contribution to the field because it provides a coherent overview that would not be obtained by reading any of the individual studies, as long as the work discussed is attributed properly to the original authors.

    Most scientists collaborate at some level with other scientists and their graduate students, and this exchange of ideas is often the most productive and rewarding time in research. Trying to explain your thoughts to someone else is a great way to sharpen your own understanding. For undergraduate Physics students there is often a fine line between collaboration with a fellow student -- which is encouraged as it helps in the learning process -- and “copying” which is dishonest and hurts everyone. It is crucial to remember that your main goal in an assignment is not to “get the answer right” but to understand every step so that you can use the fundamental ideas again and again for different situations. The approach to use is a 3-step one.

    • (1) Start by working individually, as this is when you both learn what you don't know and develop the ability to recognize similar situations when you encounter them again.
    • (2) Discuss your results and approach with a colleague to check your understanding and correct it when wrong. Be sure to ask “why” your colleague uses a certain approach rather than blindly following, so that you will recognize when to use it the next time.
    • (3) Again work independently as you complete the assignment. This final stage both establishes the work as your own and is your final test of your understanding as you attempt to make everything self-consistent. Usually during the final writing you still come across things that you don't understand, and at this point it is appropriate to confer again as long as your writing then continues independently.

    In step (3) it is crucial that you do not work from notes that you copied from your colleague in step (2), as this will prevent you from truly understanding the work. Copying also makes it very easy to include errors in your submission that will be the same as those of your colleague and will be considered evidence of cheating. Moreover, copying from a friend also risks subjecting him/her to an accusation of cheating and a loss of marks, with both parties possibly receiving zero. If a colleague provides a key idea that is essential to the solution of a specific problem, as opposed to helping you understand the course material in general, it is appropriate to acknowledge this contribution and you will not be penalized for it as long as you do not copy directly.

  • 2. Falsifying information. In science, this usually means adding, omitting or modifying data in laboratory work so it “fits” the desired results. Not only is this dishonest, it is also poor science, as unexpected data often leads to the discovery of new phenomena. The fundamental rule for experimental data is that it must be reproducible within the experimental uncertainty.

    One obtains “poor” data regularly in scientific research; the main problems are experimental “noise”in the data due to differences from point to point which fall within the estimated experimental uncertainty. If this noise is so large that it masks the effect that we are looking for, one normally repeats the experiment with care given to the operations that could have caused the noise. Often the solution is to repeat the experiment many times and average the data until the experimental uncertainty becomes acceptable. If the data is reproducible but deviates from the expected, then one must believe the data and search for an explanation of the deviation, which is often the most exciting time in experimental physics!

    There are several possible goals of a research experiment:

    • (1) to discover new phenomena,
    • (2) to measure properties of materials not yet studied, or
    • (3) to test existing theory.
    The goals of an undergraduate laboratory experiment are somewhat different, as goals (1) and (2) are usually absent. In addition to goal (3), these labs are designed to improve student understanding of the physics, provide familiarity with laboratory techniques and apparatus, and develop scientific writing and group-interaction skills. The time constraints of an undergraduate lab usually prevent repetition of an experiment to improve the data collected. For this reason, it is important that the lab instructions be read carefully before starting to avoid outright errors in data collection. Such errors will be penalized in the marking of the report. However, problems with data that are beyond the student's control will not result in a reduced grade for the student as long as the uncertainty in the data is estimated properly and possible errors are discussed. Adjusting data to “fit” a theory or handbook data is academically dishonest. If they do not agree within the estimated uncertainty then you must look for a reason to explain the difference. If you cannot find one it is probably because you have made an error in your calculations, and it is time to discuss the experiment with a Lab Demonstrator!

Penalties for academic dishonesty

Because academic integrity is the keystone of the academic world, there are penalties for academic dishonesty ranging right up to expulsion from the university. Full details of the University's policy and penalties can be found at