A professor at a well-known business school was recently grading papers for a required ethics course. In two of the papers he saw obvious signs of plagiarism. Students were not required to put their names on their papers, just a number identifiable by the administration. Before escalating the problem, the professor e-mailed his entire class saying that the guilty parties could avoid sanction by coming forward now. He received eight e-mails, in addition to the two he had already spotted, admitting to cheating.
Such stories bolster the academic research that suggests business students, both at graduate and undergraduate level, are more inclined to cheat than students in other disciplines. Critics of business and business education leap on such findings to say that this explains Enron, dodgy hedge funds and crooked sub-prime mortgage lenders. They say the whole system is built on fraud. This impression was reinforced further in March when the dean of Durham University’s business school in the UK, Tony Antoniou, was fired for having plagiarised academic work 20 years earlier.
However, in their enthusiasm to eviscerate, the critics may be overlooking some vital differences between a business education and one in, for example, philosophy or electrical engineering.
In spite of their long history – Harvard Business School celebrates its centenary this year – business schools still strain for academic respectability, especially in the minds of their students. For many, the purpose of attending business school is not to receive an academic education, but to get a job.
“The academic values of integrity and honesty in your work can seem to be less relevant than the instrumental goal of getting a good job,” says Craig Smith, a professor of business ethics and corporate responsibility at Insead, France.
Dispiriting research, he says, indicates that MBA students actually become less ethical over the course of their education. “The focus on maximising shareholder value causes some students to minimise other important codes of behaviour,” he says. He adds that the number of graduates of prominent business schools being caught in corrupt practices has forced a “period of useful introspection” at the schools.
The accessibility of information online has affected the definition of plagiarism. Don McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School in the US, has conducted extensive research into plagiarism among business school students. He says that by far the most commonplace form these days is cutting and pasting from the internet. This generally involves using a few sentences from multiple sources, either verbatim or paraphrased.
“Many students are very equivocal as to whether this is actually cheating or not,” says Prof McCabe. “Especially if they paraphrase from a source.” 40 per cent of students in Prof McCabe’s research admitted to cutting and pasting, although he assumes the figure is probably higher.
He adds that students today, both in business schools and beyond, feel much freer than their forebears to define what constitutes cheating for themselves, regardless of their teacher’s instructions. One example is when a teacher requires individual work, many students see no problem in collaborating with each other.
“They argue that they can produce much better work and that they learn more when working together. Business students seem to be more ready to justify such behaviour by noting the emphasis corporations are putting on hiring people who can work together in teams. They argue that their collaboration, even when not permitted, is simply gaining practice at a skill they need to acquire to get a good job and advance,” he says. “And faculty who do not encourage or allow such collaborative work are simply out of touch.”
Prof McCabe says that from the faculty’s perspective, aside from purely ethical issues, it is hard to give academic credit to students who copy other people’s work. Whether the students cheat to inflate their grade or simply as a “time-management” solution, they become difficult for professors to grade. Different schools adopt different strategies to deal with plagiarism. Some delegate policing to faculty, while others put it in the hands of students and a strict honour code. The latter is generally more effective.
At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in the US, students are taught the honour code from the first day they arrive on campus, when they must also participate in some form of community service. “It’s a way of telling them that they are not here just to learn about the bottom line, but how to become responsible citizens of society,” says Aine Donovan, executive director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute. Tuck’s pedagogical approach also minimises the opportunities to cheat, with lots of teamwork and few written papers. Ethics is not a required course at the school, but it is an oversubscribed elective.
“It allows students the chance to think about things which have been bothering them in the rest of their course,” Ms Donovan says.
Most ethics teaching at business schools tends to focus on cases where poor ethical judgments have been made, rather than issues of basic honesty. These cases, such as Enron and Exxon-Valdez, look at the situations in which individuals and companies made appalling decisions. They examine the twilight zone in which business decisions, subsequently seen as “ethical”, were made and the stresses on the people who made them. This tends to provide students with a sliding scale of right and wrong rather than a set of absolutes.
Addressing the more hum-drum issue of plagiarism, Ms Donovan says, can make ethics more personal. Students tend to be much harsher on each other than faculty. They know stepping outside the lines might yield enormous personal rewards, but comes with equal risk and can be lethal for a community.
Business school students are more likely to self-report cheating, she believes, because they are “more forthright, willing to say ‘sure I shave corners to get ahead’, but then have a reason for it. A philosophy or comparative literature student will never admit to cheating.”
Ms Donovan used to teach at the US Naval Academy, where cheating on an engineering test might mean being unprepared when a problem arose on a battle ship. The consequences of plagiarism were dire.
While cheating on a business school paper might not be quite so grave, “these graduates from top business schools are expected to come in to businesses and dazzle. If they’ve short-changed themselves, they will be found out very quickly”, she adds.