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Harvard University is investigating some 125 undergraduates accused of collaborating on a spring take-home final exam in the largest cheating scandal in recent memory to hit the Ivy League.

Nearly half the students in a class of more than 250 are suspected of jointly coming up with answers or copying off one another, said Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education. Independent groups of students appear to have worked together by e-mail or other means on responses to short questions and an essay assignment, violating a no-collaboration policy that was printed on the exam itself.

Although no students appear to have lifted text from outside sources, some apparently plagiarized their classmates’ work, submitting answers that were either identical or “too close for comfort,” Harris said.

A teaching fellow noticed the similarities in May while grading a subset of the exams. He alerted the professor, who approached the college’s Administrative Board, the body that oversees student behavior. The board was worried enough to spend the summer interviewing some of the students and reviewing every exam in the class.

The students whose tests were flagged as problematic — nearly two percent of the college’s 6,700-some undergraduates — have all been notified and will appear before the board individually in the next few weeks, Harris said. Some may be exonerated, but those found guilty could face a range of punishments up to year-long suspension.

The university also plans to bolster its efforts to prevent cheating by better educating students on academic ethics.

Because the course included students from all four class years, some of the accused may have graduated already. Harris would not comment on whether they would be at risk of losing their diplomas.

But, he said, “this is something we take really, really seriously.”

In a statement, Harvard president Drew Faust said that the allegations, “if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends. ... There is work to be done to ensure that every student at Harvard understands and embraces the values that are fundamental to its community of scholars.”

College officials declined to name the specific course or any students involved, citing federal privacy laws.

But the Harvard Crimson identified it late Thursday as “Government 1310: ‘Introduction to Congress,’ ” taught by assistant professor Matthew Platt.

In its official handbook, Harvard specifically instructs students to “assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor.” It also encourages professors to explicitly state their collaboration policies on syllabi, although a recent version of the syllabus for Platt’s class did not do so.

Harvard officials do not plan to investigate other courses or previous iterations of the one in question unless faculty members come forward with new suspicions — and “we don’t anticipate that,” Harris said.

Instead, administrators will consider preventive measures, including the possibility of instituting an academic honor code — an idea that has recently piqued interest at Harvard despite the college’s history of resisting such a move.

Last year, Harvard introduced a voluntary freshman pledge to uphold basic values such as “integrity, respect, and industry.” The pledge was derided on and off campus by professors and public intellectuals who considered it unscholarly. Some noted that students who chose not to sign it could be readily identified.

In a blog post, former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis called it “an act of public shaming.” This year, according to an official with direct knowledge, the college decided to scrap the pledge.

In response to the cheating allegations, Harvard administrators will also explore new strategies for educating students about academic norms — an effort they had already intensified in the last two years due to fears that plagiarism was becoming rampant, especially given the ease of copying via the Internet.

Students have “clearly shifting attitudes toward the whole idea of intellectual property and what’s involved in moving bits and pixels around. ... ” said Harris. “This is not a unique student problem. It’s certainly not a Harvard problem. It’s a national and international problem.”

In 2010, the college formed an academic integrity committee, which spent last year looking at other institutions’ practices, including honor codes. The new cheating incident should spur it to act more quickly, Harris said.

Harvard officials said they could not remember another cheating episode of this magnitude. But in a new memoir, “That Book About Harvard,” 2008 graduate Eric Kester writes that his classmates frequently copied one another’s math and science problem sets and shared test answers in campus bathrooms.

“On final exams, the professors were a little more strict,” Kester said in an interview. “But it seemed it was happening in some form in pretty much every big class, especially the ones in lecture halls where there were more than 75 kids. I think it was a reflection of how intense the school was.”

The school has suspended students for academic dishonesty before. At least one case was famous: as a freshman in 1951, future senator Edward Kennedy had to withdraw for two years after sending a friend to take a Spanish final in his place.

Harvard’s Administrative Board voted on 197 new cases of academic misbehavior in 2009-2010, the most recent year for which data were available. It chose to intensely monitor 144 of those students, suspend 42, and ask four to permanently withdraw. In only seven cases did it take no action.

Other elite universities have suffered large cheating scandals in recent years. In 2007, 34 first-year students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business collaborated on a take-home exam and other assignments; 24 were punished with suspension or expulsion. In 2002, the University of Virginia expelled 48 students for turning in plagiarized physics term papers.

In 2000, Dartmouth College investigated 78 students accused of cheating in a basic computer science course. A college committee spent 34 hours interviewing 27 students and pored over 500 pages of evidence. Then, its members threw up their hands — they still could not determine who had cheated and who had not, and had to absolve all 78 students for fear of wrongly punishing one.

Cheating scandals often turn out to be more complex than they first appear, said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke who has researched the subject and covered it in a recent book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.”

College students, he said, may be especially prone to misunderstanding the difference between helping friends and violating academic norms, because their social and intellectual lives are often intertwined.

“We get our sense of what’s right or wrong based on what people around us are doing. And there are a lot of cases where we tell people that friendship is incredibly important – more important than honesty,” Ariely said. “I don’t want to belittle the problem. But at the same time I think it’s not always as simple as we make it seem.”

In his own classes at Duke, he added, he has students sign an honor code — “I actually get them to raise their right hands and swear” — but tries not to be Draconian.

“You want to give students some sense of being trusted,” he said. “If you don’t, and you train people completely under a paternalistic rule, what will happen in other situations when those rules are not around?”