CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University is investigating 125 students accused of collaborating on a spring take-home final exam, in what could prove to be the largest Ivy League cheating scandal in recent memory.
Nearly half the students in an introductory government class are suspected of jointly coming up with answers or copying off one another. Groups of students appear to have worked together on responses to short questions and an essay assignment, violating a no-collaboration policy that was printed on the exam itself, said Jay Harris, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education.
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 Thursday.
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 2 percent of the college's approximately 6,700 undergraduates — have 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 yearlong suspensions.
The university also plans to bolster its anti-cheating efforts by better educating students about academic ethics. It notified all undergraduates and their parents about the incident Thursday.
College officials declined to name the course or any students involved, citing federal privacy laws. But the Harvard Crimson identified the class late Thursday as Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, taught by assistant professor Matthew Platt.
The course included students from all four class years, so some of the accused may have graduated. 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."
In its official handbook, Harvard instructs students to "assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor." It also encourages professors to state their collaboration policies on syllabi, though 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. Instead, administrators will consider preventive measures, including an academic honor code.
The idea has recently piqued interest at Harvard, though in the past administrators and faculty have resisted it, saying that students should know how to behave without a formal code — an attitude that has prevailed at other top schools such as Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Last year, Harvard introduced a voluntary freshman pledge to uphold basic values such as "integrity, respect, and industry." The pledge was derided by professors and public intellectuals who considered it unscholarly. 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 intensified in the past two years because of fears that plagiarism was becoming rampant.
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. 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.
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 2000, Dartmouth College investigated 78 students accused of cheating in a basic computer science course. A college committee interviewed 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.
Yet Thursday in Harvard Yard — where freshmen have just started moving in — the situation seemed straightforward enough to some. Megan Taing, 18, said she was confused and surprised.
"I can understand the pressure of having a really hard assignment," she said. "But they have to own up to it."
Globe correspondent Melanie Dostis contributed to this report. Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com.