Adventures in Ethics and Science

As the new calendar year approaches, I can’t help but anticipate the coming spring semester — and to hold out the hope that this one will be the semester in which none of my students commits plagiarism. Otherwise, I’m facing a perfect 12-semester streak.

Near the end of last semester, one of my colleagues related a tale of dishonesty so brazen that it struck us as one for the books. (Or the blogs, anyway.) The crowning offense was that it was committed in the course of an extra credit assignment.

A number of professors offer their students the opportunity to earn extra credit points by going to talks or events that have something to do with the subject matter of their course, and then writing a page or two describing the high points of the event and connecting it to something from the course. (I myself don’t offer this kind of extra credit, but then again I’m a big meanie.)

As you might expect, some of the events flagged as worth going to in order to get extra credit are also the sorts of events that professors themselves might attend — an interesting talk by a scholar visiting from another institution, for example.

Well, my colleague had specified that students who attended one of a number of sponsored talks by scholars visiting the campus and then wrote 600 words evaluating and analyzing the talk could earn some extra credit. My colleague received an extra credit essay about a talk that had relatively small attendance — although my colleague was one of the handful of people who went to hear the talk. Three of my colleague’s students were also at the talk.

None of these three was the author of the extra credit essay.

My colleague then contacted the student of the extra credit essay. The student at first made noises that suggested actually having been at the talk in question. But after my colleague broke the news that the audience was small enough that there was no crowd in which to get lost, the student admitted to not attending the talk. In essence, the student said, “I figured if I still wrote something about the subject of the talk, it would be worth some extra credit, so I did some research on the internet.”

Of course, not a scrap of this research was cited at all. As a result, an attempt to appear to have been someplace one was not — for extra credit points — gets written up as plagiarism.

Sometimes you’re just better off concentrating on the points that were built into your course in the first place.

Comments

  1. #1 Sven DiMilo
    December 29, 2007

    Sometimes you’re just better off concentrating on the points that were built into your course in the first place.

    Well, in my courses you’d have to amend that to “Always.” I think extra credit is counterproductive and either unfair or superfluous. Haven’t we had this discussion?

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    December 29, 2007

    Of course, extra credit is not extra credit at all; since, even if we don’t curve, most of us have a pretty good idea where we want the final average grade to fall, not doing the extra credit is little different from not completing a ‘regular’ assignment.

  3. #3 Travis McDermott
    December 29, 2007

    Whatever happened to attending talks because there fun and cool?

  4. #4 P.D. Magnus
    December 29, 2007

    Gerard: Actually, I tend to normalize grades before adding in extra credit. This Fall, I even forgot about the extra credit until the very last minute– so I couldn’t have been compensating in anticipation of it.

    Sven: In my logic class, students get extra credit for finding errors in the textbook. This allows me to fix errors, since I maintain the book. It also tricks some of them into actually reading the book, which is probably good for them.

  5. #5 Kathryn Burton
    December 29, 2007

    I find the enticement of big grants, trips to wherever you can justify going in a grant and almost no peer review of material produced, either by peers, states or federal agencies that provide the grants, is a major cause of degradation of ethics among college students.

    It is like joining the military, because the grant giving agencies feel they own you, just as they feel they own any open space properties they help buy for public use, through local trusts or mammoth industrial sized NGOs, National Audubon and Nature Conservancy, to be more precise.Many of us areperfectly happy with the arrangement. Too many scholars go along to get along and lie to accomodate the desired results, as easily as they cash those grant checks,
    and that is really too bad.

  6. #6 Alan Kellogg
    December 30, 2007

    Sven Dimilo,

    I’m going to be crude, fuck fair. Fuck fair with a pineapple, and bronze the fruit. Fair is a fraud. Fair is a lie. Fair encourages laziness, apathy, and ignorance. In the study of science you need to encourage excellence. Fair discourages excellency in favor is just good enough. Fair is a betrayal of our young and our future.

    Science as an enterprise works best when you encourage people to do their best. When you insist on fairness you discourage initiative. People see no reason in trying, for it does them no good. When you reward people for making the extra effort, that acts as an incentive.

    But what about those who won’t try? That’s their damn fault, and you can tell them I said that. You don’t give a good god damn, suffer. The real world rewards initiative, the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be. Those who insist on fair are cheating people and promoting the infantalization of humanity.

    Insisting that things be fair degrades people and demeans hopes and aspirations. People are not created equal, and insisting on it only makes life miserable for everybody. Making life better for all means getting folks to do their best in whatever they do. That is why I support rewarding extra credit work in some fashion.

    (If you want my opinion of grades and testing all you need to do is ask.)

  7. #7 Hairy Doctor Professor
    December 30, 2007

    Sometimes you’re just better off concentrating on the points that were built into your course in the first place.

    Yeah, “always” is the ticket. I just got an email request for an incomplete from a student in order to allow them time to perform extra credit to boost their grade. Had the student not blown off five of the ten assigned lab reports and submitted them at the time they were due, the whole extra credit thing would have been a non-issue. I crafted a polite reply saying basically “you have GOT to be kidding” (the grades are due in two days anyway).

    In my logic class, students get extra credit for finding errors in the textbook. This allows me to fix errors, since I maintain the book. It also tricks some of them into actually reading the book, which is probably good for them.

    I do likewise. Reading the book turns into a win-win-win situation — they actually read the book, they get extra credit for finding mistakes, I get a better product out the next year.

    …one of my colleagues related a tale of dishonesty so brazen that it struck us as one for the books. (Or the blogs, anyway.) The crowning offense was that it was committed in the course of an extra credit assignment.

    My personal favorite is the extra-credit term paper turned in to me which was copied verbatim from the very encyclopedia article I had just finished editing for the next edition of the encyclopedia.

  8. #8 Harry Abernathy
    December 31, 2007

    What I find humorous is that the student ended up doing some loose research on the internet, which may have taken more time than the talk itself, and then wrote a report. Although the student did misrepresent himself, he did probably learn something extra by doing some reading. Maybe he should have “framed” the report better, admitting that he did not attend the talk, but instead did some independent reading on the subject and wrote up something.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.