Cognitive Enhancement and Academic Dishonesty

At Duke University students who engage in “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” breach the university’s policy on academic honesty.

Wow! Really? This is not a recent development, but I only just learned about it from this article and I’m frankly quite surprised.

An understandable desire to curb illegal activity on campus, or a well-intentioned concern with student health – motivated either by paternalistic considerations, or by the idea that the university stands in a guardian relationship with respect to its students – might also have been cited as motivations for banning “unauthorized use of prescription medications”. Both understandable motivations, though I wonder how they relate to academic honesty.

So why claim that it’s a breach of academic honesty? Why claim that students who do this cheat? Also, precisely what constitutes unauthorized use — does this pertain only to those students who illegitimately obtain medications like Adderall, Ritalin, or modafinil, or must students with legitimate prescriptions for conditions like shift work sleep disorder and ADHD obtain authorization from the university too (see this story)? And how about students who illegitimately supply their otherwise legitimately-obtained pills to other students; have they breached Academic Honesty policy?

How about other putative cognitive enhancement techniques. For instance, what if you “enhance academic performance” by using some other non-regulated substance that works for you; is that cheating? Alternatively, this paper reports that atDCS (anodal transcrnial direct current stimulation of the brain) accelerates learning new words in healthy subjects. Suppose you’ve enrolled in a language course at university. You are diligent and want to get the most out of your studies, so you employ this technique. Have you cheated? Or suppose you’ve taken a course in memory athletics, learned to power nap, or are wealthy enough to afford employing a private tutor. Are those also instances of cheating? If so, why; if not, why not; and how will our answers to these questions square up with this part of Duke University’s policy on academic honesty?

In an opinion piece published in the Daily Sundial three years ago one student writes:

Academic dishonesty is a greater reason for a student to get expelled, and taking these prescription drugs is academic dishonesty. Adderall and Ritalin give an unfair advantage to a student, similar to steroid abuse in sports. It is unfair for the students who do not use them during testing. Students who cheat their way through their academic career should be expelled and they should give up their space to students who work hard for their academic success.

The problem with this argument though is that if what’s meant to be unfair is that at present only some students get to use these medications to enhance their performance while others don’t, then why not make these medications more easily available to everyone? Presumably the reply would be that these medications might have untoward side effects. Cool, I dig that. Let’s not allow people to harm themselves. Or, hold on, maybe I don’t dig that after all. Hmmm, I’m not sure. But, whatever the case may be, note firstly that that’s a medical reason to restrict access (see above), and secondly, that studying for longer periods of time because one is drowsy and one just can’t concentrate on the material also has untoward side effects. Sleep deprivation is very unhealthy, even dangerous if one drives to the exam venue the next morning while feeling totally wasted from getting insufficient rest, and getting low grades on an exam can also adversely affect a person’s life by restricting their employment options.

Alternatively, if our concern is that students should not self-medicate and in effect run blind on what other effects those medications might be having on their health, then wouldn’t a better solution be to make it easier (not harder) for students to get their hands onto these medications by obtaining and filling prescriptions legitimately, but to then ensure that their physician monitors their health on a regular basis? I discuss this latter option here.

One might think that I’m just ignoring other important considerations here, like, for instance, that maybe we don’t want some students (those who are prepared to take the risks by medicating themselves to “amp up their brains”) to up the stakes for other more cautious students (those who aren’t prepared to do this), and in this way to coerce the cautious majority into having to take these medications just to remain competitive. Why should we let one bunch of reckless delinquents up the stakes for others, right? No, wrong. Remember that we already permit (in fact, we encourage) students to work hard – doggedly hard, often so hard that they totally wreck themselves, that they sideline having a social life, and we might even view such individuals as being the most committed of our students – in the laudable pursuit of academic excellence. We also permit students to engage the services of tutors, etc. So really we’re back to the same arguments that I already mentioned above.

I’m honestly puzzled about why “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” constitutes academic dishonesty per se. Do other universities also have such policies? Should all universities adopt such policies?

Please flick me an email or tweet at me (buttons at the bottom of this page) if you know of another university (perhaps your own?) that adopts a similarly dim view of cognitive enhancement on grounds of academic honesty (or perhaps academic integrity).

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