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About Utah: Keeping honor can be tricky

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2008 12:59 a.m. MDT

Sometimes, trying to do the right thing can be so trying.

Take the students at the University of Texas at San Antonio as an example. For the past several years, members of the student government association there have been working on writing a school honor code.

Just this past month, they finally came up with a draft of the UTSA Student Code of Conduct and posted it on the university's Web site.

In no time, they were alerted to someone in violation of their code.

It was, uh, them.

In one particular section, it was pointed out, the Texas honor code reads almost identical to wording in the honor code at Brigham Young University.

You guessed it. It's the section on plagiarism.

The codes at both schools state that "Plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft that violates widely recognized principles of academic integrity."

And both define "direct plagiarism" as "the verbatim copying of an original source without acknowledging the source."

Nothing like getting shot with your own gun.

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But it turns out UT-San Antonio didn't actually copy BYU's copy.

It got its wording from the same source as BYU, namely the Center for Academic Integrity, a South Carolina-based organization that consults hundreds of institutions of higher learning about such things as ethics and academic integrity and how to write a proper honor code.

The difference between the BYU and Texas codes is that in its section on plagiarism, BYU cites CAI as a source for its definitions and content. The citation is right there in a footnote at the bottom of the page.

The students at UTSA, who also received their wording from CAI, did not do that. Didn't even think about doing it, according to Akshay Thusu, the student in charge of the program.

"We didn't mean to do anything wrong," a beleaguered-sounding Thusu said by telephone from San Antonio. "Honest."

"It is only a draft," he said. "It is not the finished project."

He said he has been in contact with CAI officials and they have told him not to worry about the citation.

Still, he said, "We may submit a citation anyway. We think we have put together a good honor code and we want to make sure it gets approved."

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Meanwhile, at BYU, they're hardly bothered that somebody copied something that they copied from somebody else.

"By the time we were made aware of this it was already being taken care of, and that's what's important," said school spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins, who said she does not know who first noticed the similarity of the honor codes and blew the whistle on UTSA.

"We first learned about this from the media," she said. "So it wasn't something that came out of BYU, at least not to the knowledge of my office and the honor code office."

And they're sworn to tell the truth.

Steve Baker, director of the BYU honor code office, said he welcomes other schools looking at BYU's code and using whatever part of it that might be useful to them.

"We're all trying to accomplish the same thing, and that is to clearly explain what we're talking about," he said.

Baker said he feels sympathy for the Texas students.

"It can be difficult, writing an honor code and getting everything right," he said. "I'll admit, it worries me sometimes, that we're making sure everything is being attributed properly."

Defining honor is a tricky business. If you're not careful, you can break the rules merely by writing them down.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.

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