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Our students are asked to sign an "academic integrity" pledge with each assignment and exam, vowing that they have not given nor received unauthorized assistance on the assignment.

What (peer-reviewed) evidence is there to support the claim that these pledges make a significant impact on the rate of cheating, plagiarism, and other forms of academic dishonesty at the university level?

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    I come from a country were students are never asked to sign such pledges. When I grew up as a student, from high school to university, the stance about cheating was essentially the following: it's a student's right to cheat, it's a professor's duty to catch them. Did we cheat more than those who signed the pledge? Who knows. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 9 '16 at 0:00
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    Over-and-over, I am reminded that (especially undergraduate) "education" is subverted into "filtering/weeding-out", and almost never interpreted as helping students. My subject, mathematics, is grotesquely distorted by its incarnation as a "school subject" used to "filter/weed-out", although that function has funded the size of contemporary math depts in the U.S. Mercifully, in teaching graduate courses beyond the few "required" (but, still, srsly, all the basic stuff is useful to all mathematicians!) courses, there is no need/sense in giving grades. Phew! Jeez! "Cheating" has no meaning. – paul garrett Sep 9 '16 at 0:16
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    Regarding the title question: I do not think that the intention of integrity pledges is to reduce cheating. I guess, that they shall make punishment of cheating more powerful for the administration. If you signed the pledge and cheated you can get punished for cheating and lying. So I would say: Yes, they work! – Dirk Sep 9 '16 at 1:25
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    Explicit rules with harsh punishments have the advantage that when student A asks student B to help him cheat, B has an easy excuse to say no. – Ben Crowell Sep 9 '16 at 4:22
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    @paulgarrett: My very different (community-college) perspective is that the math discipline will end up as a filter no matter how much the institution desires otherwise. Most of our students will never grok 8th-grade algebra no matter how many times they try, nor under what circumstances. Other disciplines can be made easier in many ways; math has a central unavoidable core of intellectual honesty. Our institution may in fact get rid of any real math as a basic requirement for this reason. E.g., writings of Andrew Hacker. – Daniel R. Collins Sep 9 '16 at 5:12
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There is some research on this, with inconclusive results. Some problems with the existing literature:

  1. These studies typically rely on student reports of cheating (i.e. students fill out an anonymous survey asking if they have cheated and if they have observed cheating)
  2. The effectiveness of such a pledge seems to vary tremendously with context (big school vs small school, online vs traditional class, field of study, how much emphasis is placed on the honor code), and it is difficult or impossible to control for all of this
  3. Many of these studies compare schools with a pledge and unproctored exams to schools with no such pledge and regular exams, which is not exactly the comparison you ask about.

See:

McCabe, Donald L., and Linda Klebe Trevino. "Academic dishonesty: Honor codes and other contextual influences." Journal of higher education (1993): 522-538.

Hall, Teresa L., and George D. Kuh. "Honor among students: Academic integrity and honor codes at state-assisted universities." NASPA Journal 36.1 (1998): 2-18.

McCabe, Donald L., Linda Klebe Trevino, and Kenneth D. Butterfield. "Academic integrity in honor code and non-honor code environments: A qualitative investigation." Journal of Higher Education (1999): 211-234.

McCabe, Donald L., Linda Klebe Trevino, and Kenneth D. Butterfield. "Honor codes and other contextual influences on academic integrity: A replication and extension to modified honor code settings." Research in higher Education 43.3 (2002): 357-378.

Roig, Miguel, and Amanda Marks. "Attitudes toward cheating before and after the implementation of a modified honor code: A case study." Ethics & Behavior 16.2 (2006): 163-171.

Vandehey, Michael, George Diekhoff, and Emily LaBeff. "College cheating: A twenty-year follow-up and the addition of an honor code." Journal of College Student Development 48.4 (2007): 468-480.

Konheim-Kalkstein, Yasmine L., Mark A. Stellmack, and Margaret L. Shilkey. "Comparison of honor code and non-honor code classrooms at a non-honor code university." Journal of College and Character 9.3 (2008).

LoSchiavo, Frank M., and Mark A. Shatz. "The impact of an honor code on cheating in online courses." Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 7.2 (2011): 179.

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    I found an interesting passage in the 2008 paper: "at honor code institutions [...] students perceive that they are more likely to get caught cheating (Arnold et al., 2007). Because honor code institutions often do not proctor exams, the increased perception of the likelihood of being caught cheating may be attributable to a peer-reporting requirement that many honor code institutions have." The paper is: Arnold, R., Martin, B., Jinks, M., & Bigby, L. (2007). Is there a relationship between honor codes and academic dishonesty? – Davidmh Sep 9 '16 at 14:08
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    Dan Ariely reports in The honest truth about dishonesty that signing a pledge to the university code of honor immediately before taking a test does reduce cheating. However, codes of honor as they are typically implemented have no effect, since they are experienced as empty phrases and long forgotten by the time temptation arises. – Kilian Foth Sep 11 '16 at 14:41
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There is evidence that when the integrity pledge is signed makes an important difference in its effectiveness. One laboratory study asked participants to solve math puzzles for a financial reward, self-reporting the number of math puzzles they had solved. Unknown to the participants, the researchers did know the actual number of puzzles they solved.

The researchers found that signing the statement of honesty after self-reporting was no more effective at curbing dishonesty than having no pledge at all (about two thirds of participants overstated the number of puzzles solved). But signing the statement of honesty before self-reporting had a measurable effect on reducing dishonesty (only about one third overstated their performance).

Shu, L. L., Mazar, N., Gino, F., Ariely, D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(38), 15197-15200.

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    I find it hard to believe that 2/3 of people would lie for a bit of money... I'll remember that. – Tomáš Zato Sep 9 '16 at 8:00
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    @TomášZato In some cases it can be optimistic counting - "wait, did I count that puzzle yet? let's be on the safe side and assume I didn't". or optimistic pass conditions: "I had it mostly right, I'm sure that counts". Or cheating the time: "Time's up, but I see the solution to this puzzle now, so let's count it". Or skipping the verification: "If I find any mistakes I lose money, so why would I look for them?" It's the grey that leads us to dishonesty. Unfortunately there was no test without monetary reward to compare to. – Peter Sep 9 '16 at 13:36
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    Unless I am misunderstanding it, how would signing after the fact make one less prone to cheating? You have already reported the number (cheated or not). – Davidmh Sep 9 '16 at 14:01
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    @Davidmh: I agree this answer could be clearer, but the linked paper explains what "after" means. The difference is between two one-page forms, one of which has a signed declaration of correctness at the end (as is typical on tax forms, customs declarations, blah blah). The other has essentially the same signed declaration of correctness at the top of the page. There would be no causality violation in the "end" signature having an effect. It's not like they self-report, hand over their form, and then on their way out of the building someone asks them to sign. – Steve Jessop Sep 9 '16 at 14:37
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    @TomášZato Which way is it hard too believe? Is the number way higher or way lower than you'd normally expect? – fedja Sep 9 '16 at 21:36
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An indirect answer... Similar to highway speed limits (I'm thinking of the U.S. in this analogy), the effect is not at all to induce everyone to conform... but it has a useful inhibiting effect, generally reducing behaviors that are collectively dangerous.

So, based on some decades of observation of 20-ish peoples' behavior, a great many will have a very positive reaction to being implicitly trusted, and many more will be inhibited from behaving dubiously, while, yes, still, a certain number will see "a business opportunity"... to game the system, for what it's worth.

An idea that I only glommed-onto in the last few decades (I'm old...) is that one should not corrupt one's dealings with the vast majority to defend against the ... infelicities... of a tiny minority. E.g., it's not a good thing to behave distrustfully to everyone just because one anticipates that there will be people trying to game the system rather than learn anything and demonstrate that knowledge in some (stylized but...) reasonable fashion.

Yet I do have many qualms about how this happy idealism could apply to kids in less-advantaged situations. As in the question of whether it's really a crime to steal bread for one's starving children in a hostile situation... well, no, perhaps it's not actually immoral to "cheat" in certain circumstances. (I recall the quote on my homepage, that it is illegal for both rich and poor "to beg, to steal bread, and sleep under bridges"...)

It may be true that all these fictions have financed "education" in the U.S., and elsewhere. Still, presumably, education is preferred to dys-education? To ignorance? But/and why do we give grades and frighten or penalize people about real-life issues?

Very strange, in my opinion... and/but this is veering away from the literal question... sigh...

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The point is not so much to prevent cheating as to make it clear that cheating (as defined in the statement) is unacceptable and that all parties involved understand and accept this.

This meas that if cheating is detected at a later date you have a very clear and mutually agreed statement that what the accused person did was unacceptable and reduces any arbitration to establishing the facts rather than arguing the toss in terms of academic morality.

While this may not prevent determined cheats it will certainly remove any ambiguity for anyone tempted to cheat on the spur of the moment.

It also means that you have a definite legal basis for a civil contract where accepted academic practice is not covered by general civil or criminal law.

Equally it meant that any academic sanctions have a basis in a civil contract rather than just being arbitrary, especially in the context where academic qualifications are increasingly seen as paid for commodities.

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    As as student, if I'm given a paper to sign saying I won't cheat, what I understand is that cheating is common and acceptable (among students at least), and my school doesn't believe there's some common morals I should subscribe to that preclude teaching, necessitating a signature. – einpoklum Sep 10 '16 at 15:06
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I graduated from a very small (~1200) college that uses an honor code. It has been my general experience that simply having an honor code is far less important than having a culture that is centered around the honor code. For example, my college welcomes every incoming class with a huge honor ceremony where the students sign the pledge. The signed pledges of the current students are hung in the dining hall as a daily reminder, and this has been the tradition for ~100+ years. The honor code is also framed in every classroom and required for all major assignments. There is also a student-led (faculty and staff also play a part) honor court, which handles any alleged violations of the honor code. At my alma mater, there are relatively few violations per year.

In contrast, I know students from colleges that have a younger, less salient honor code and culture who have out-right admitted to cheating. While this is by no means empirical, I've talked with others who have had similar experiences.

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