Adventures in Ethics and Science

Back in December (or as we academics call it, Exam-Grading Season), esteemed commenter Ewan told us about a horrifying situation that was unfolding for him:

Probably not totally relevant, but frankly I’m still in a little shock.

Graded exams Friday evening before heading out for weekend. Noted some really strong efforts (take-home exam), some really lame, nothing special. Then: two word-for-word identical, typos-and-all, answers with *many* unique characteristics compared to all other answerers of that Q, even down to the same joke-aside-to-the-professor.

Ack, really? Check. Yep, really, and true for about four Qs (of 27) on this short-answer format take-home final (given this way because somewhat akin to Janet, I also want them to demonstrate knowledge even if they have to use a book or the net for some facts/help. Anyway..).

I’m still in shock; some details adding to shock are unpostable b/c of identification possibilities in public.

I send email to the two: “I need to speak to you regarding your final; are you around next week?”

From A: detailed reason, perfectly fine, why no. Also unbloggable.

From B: “Yes. If this has anything to do with similarities between A’s paper and my own, I want to talk with you privately.”

Well, there goes any possibility that I was wrong, huh? Wow. And what a response to send!

Oh, and: f*ck.

That last part of Ewan’s comment is relevant because I suspect some students believe that the people grading their papers are giddy with glee when they find evidence of cheating.

We are not.


It feels much more like a punch in the gut to those of us who have done our best to help our students learn the material, and who want only to see those students demonstrate that our efforts and theirs have resulted in understanding that can be usefully applied.

Cheating comes across either as not really caring about learning the material we have knocked ourselves out to teach you, or as believing that we who are grading the exams are dumb enough to be fooled, or, at best, of not trusting yourself to show what you have learned and/or not trusting us to recognize when you have tried your very best to learn the material and then to show what you know on the exam. (It’s true that doing your very best to learn the material and then to show what you know on the exam is sometimes not sufficient to earn you a particular grade that you think you need, but losing a teacher’s good opinion of you may be a more significant loss than losing a letter-grade from where you hoped to end up.)

Please, kids, don’t do the crime.

Anyway, given the word-for-word match of those four questions (approximately 15% of the exam), and the fact that it was a take-home exam (which seems to provide opportunity), and the fact that student B acknowledged, in his reply to a suitably vague request to speak to Ewan about his/her exam, that he/she was aware of a similarity between his/her paper and A’s paper, it seemed pretty clear that Something Bad Had Happened.

(All of this assumes that the students were not allowed, in completing the take-home exam, to use a classmate’s paper as a resource.)

In any case, in the aftermath of the discussion with B, Ewan took the necessary but painful step (seriously, kids, do not put us in this position!) of reporting the incident to the University.

And now, some additional information:

Just wanted to follow-up. Student A back in country, confirms the copying from student B. Which was, I actually think, to their credit. Seemed very surprised that I would have reported the problem to the University without talking to them first.

Still feels awful. A claims, and I don’t doubt, that he’s the hope of the family and being supported by aged relatives working in second- or third-world conditions to send him here, had planned to return there and practice medicine. Yuck.

Undoubtedly, any motion forward here will be constrained somewhat by the policies and proclivities of the Dean of Cheating at Ewan’s University. However, the Dean of Cheating may be receptive to Ewan’s input, as the one teaching A and B in the course where the cheating went down.

I’m guessing B, as the student whose exam was copied (and who volunteered this information to Ewan, although not before asked — more on this in a moment), did not receive the most severe penalties available. I’d think, though, that a lot would turn on how it is that B came to have access to A’s answers.

If B willingly shared the answers with A, that strikes me as the same level of participation in the crime as B’s asking for those answers and submitting them as his/her own. Snitching first may get you the better plea deal on the cop shows, but I’m not sure it ought to in an academic milieu.

On the other hand, if B’s answers were taken without B’s consent — say, because A got access to them while B was taking a shower, or made a deal with B’s roommate to access them on B’s computer while B was at another class, then it strikes me that A (and perhaps an accomplice) would bear all the responsibility for the crime here. I think that would be the case even if B could have taken more steps to secure the exam-in-progress — whether password-protecting the computer file, or hiding the paper in a desk drawer. When you’re focused on doing your best on a take home exam, you shouldn’t be responsible for anticipating and thwarting any conceivable espionage attempt.

But … the fact that B was aware of the similarity of B’s and A’s papers suggests that what went down was somewhere between these extremes, that B may have “offered help” that crossed the line under some kind of duress. This duress might have taken the form of, “I’m the hope of the family and being supported by aged relatives working in second- or third-world conditions to send me here, and I had planned to return there to practice medicine, but I totally can’t if I fail this course (or get a grade too low to get me into med school).” There might even have been a credible threat of self-harm along with the desperation.

If that’s how things unfolded, I’m inclined to say that B was over his/her head and made a bad call that came from a place of good intentions. Copping immediately to the facts when contacted by Ewan suggests that B recognized it as a bad call. Assuming no established pattern of such bad calls in B’s record, leniency is probably in order (along with an internal record kept by the Dean of Cheating to discourage further such bad calls on B’s part).

Then there’s the matter of A.

A clearly cheated — that’s what copying B’s answers is. It was a violation of the rules of the exam, and it undermined not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of it (under which the point of the exam was to serve as a measure of what the students had learned and understood from the course).

Minimally, A shouldn’t get any credit for the stolen answers on the exam — perhaps not any credit for the exam at all (since there may now be some doubt as to whether the other 23 questions on A’s exam were completed honestly).

Beyond this, the University has an interest in maintaining a record of the incident to discourage A from crossing this line again. One bad mistake in judgment when one is a student may be an important learning experience. A pattern of such mistakes is a problem that needs to be identified and addressed.

Should there be further punishment for A?

My gut feeling is that this might depend a lot on the particular circumstances. A did admit to copying rather than denying it (which is something a surprising number of cheaters will do even when presented with evidence that, absent a time-machine, it could only have been cheating), which speaks to some awareness of crossing the line. If this is really a first offense, I’d be inclined to assume that A can be rehabilitated — and then to use the resources of the Dean of Cheating to support that rehabilitation. If, on the other hand, there is a record of A doing this sort of thing before, it may be the case that some administrative sanction (maybe suspension for a term) is necessary to get A to take the opportunity to redeem himself/herself seriously.

Do A’s circumstances warrant leniency here?

I think it’s worth taking account of the pressure A feels himself/herself to be under, and to help A find better ways to respond to these pressures. (I take it this should fall to the Dean of Cheating, or the campus counseling center, rather than to Ewan — we academics are not generally trained to do counseling ourselves, and need to recognize the limits of our own expertise so we don’t muck things up.) And in some sense, I think it’s crucial for A to recognize that it is precisely A’s duties to family members and to homeland that require that A not cheat.

His/her family members are making sacrifices for A to get an education, not just a piece of paper with fancy writing on it. Getting that education means learning the material on offer and developing effective strategies for completing assignments while balancing (or juggling) other responsibilities. With respect to the end of getting an education, cheating is not an effective strategy.

Serving people in his/her home country as a physician will require that A get the relevant knowledge, not just the appearance of knowledge. While it is the case, I’m sure, that medical students and pre-meds might argue that there’s a disconnect between the subject matter taught in the classroom and the actual knowledge needed to practice medicine well, I’m guessing that doctors need to be able to make good decisions when they are feeling overwhelmed by demands. Working out sensible ways to weigh those demands and make good decisions is something any patient would want his or her doctor to be able to do. Developing a habit of cheating, on the other hand, is a way not really to deal with the demands. When a patient is in front of you, whose paper can you cheat off of?

That’s my read of this situation, but, as I’ve noted before, you commenters are incredibly smart and insightful, so please add your thoughts in the comments. I know Ewan will appreciate the input.

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    January 20, 2010

    I’ve had similar experiences (on an open-book, in-class exam, at a school with an honor code). The honor code adds to the situation – I was not allowed to be in the room while the students took the exam, and they had to write (in their own handwriting) something about not using anything that wasn’t allowed in the exam. The honor code meant that the institution had a very formal set of rules for dealing with the situation (including a formal hearing with a committee that included bothe faculty and students), so my only decision in the matter was whether to report the incident or not. I did report it – I was pretty upset, after trying very hard to make a class interesting and challenging, and was also pretty insulted that students would expect that I wouldn’t notice identical essays (down to spelling and grammar editors). The typical penalty at that institution was suspension for a semester.

    As for Ewan’s case, and the student’s excuse – in my experience (with other plagiarism cases), students don’t take a wrist-slap seriously. If nothing happens, they think they’ve gotten away with it – and I’ve encountered enough repeat offenders that I’m not willing to let anyone get away with it. That goes double for a student who plans to be a physician in a 2nd or 3rd world country. That student has things that he or she needs to know in order to do the work well. I don’t want a doctor who doesn’t know his or her stuff, or who is in the habit of cheating when faced with a difficult situation.

  2. #2 Rosie Redfield
    January 20, 2010

    I think that when cheaters get caught it’s very rarely a first offense – just the first time they got caught. They’ll probably continue to cheat even if they’re punished.

    Admitting to cheating when you know you’ve already been found out is no big test of character, just the smartest thing to do. Crying is a popular strategy too, and pleading family pressure.

  3. #3 Katherine
    January 20, 2010

    I never really thought showing someone your answers meant you were an accomplice to cheating, I always really considered it to be just allowing someone to cheat, if you know what I mean. Seems like a bit of a grey area to me. Of course the “give me $ and you can have my answers” isn’t very grey at all though.

  4. #4 Dalek Thay
    January 20, 2010

    This position you take that cheating is unconditionally bad for a student is nonsense. And spewing rhetoric that reflects it is sort of like saying MJ is pure evil and hurts everyone. You can’t expect students to believe it, and it damages your integrity in their eyes.

    Hypothetically, if someone were about to lose their scholarship and be sent back to a third world country, it’s on the table as a last resort. There is always the possibility of learning the material for real later, but sometimes the system gives you no second chances.

    I’m not about being lenient at all, but I firmly believe evaluating the amount of skill or training a student has needs to be kept separate from disciplining said student.

  5. #5 foole
    January 20, 2010


    Snitching first may get you the better plea deal on the cop shows, but I’m not sure it ought to in an academic milieu.

    I sort of agree (I don’t think it should be allowed on cop shows/cop real life, but that’s a different story). That being said, I knew of at least one incident when I went to university in which this sort of thing was used. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a wonderful thing when you need a confession, eh?


    Minimally, A shouldn’t get any credit for the stolen answers on the exam — perhaps not any credit for the exam at all

    Wow, I was surprised by this. I was thinking that minimally that A should automatically flunk the course. I mean, it sucks that she/he is the hope of the family, but to think that A could theoretically get a B or a C for the course after having cheated on the final exam astounds me!

    Hypothetically, let’s say that A only gets the questions he cheated on stricken off and goes on not to cheat in any other classes and manages to graduate with a 3.0 GPA. And let’s say there’s a person C who never cheated on any exams and graduates with a 2.95 GPA. And let’s further say that A and C end up competing for the same job upon graduation. It seems horribly unfair and unjust that peson C gets shafted for being honest.

    I realize that GPA is not a good measure of knowledge learned and personally I don’t care if someone has a 4.0 or a 2.0 — if you learned something, that is really all that matters. But there are real world consequences to giving person A a slap on the wrist and those consequences are not just to person A.

    I’m also inclined to think that person B deserves a somewhat severe punishment since she/he did not come forward with the information about cheating until confronted about it (and it is clear from her/his response that she/he had prior knowledge).

  6. #6 S. Rivlin
    January 20, 2010

    From my experience as a teacher, a mentor and a manuscript reviewer I learnt that cultural standards are different between east and west. Language (English) deficiencies are also contributing to one’s decision to copy, cheat or plagiarize. Most students who come to the US from developing countries bring with them enormous pressures from and responsibilities toward the family they leave behind. Many of these students are very inteligent and smart yet, they do not trust these traits alone to help them succeed. While a teacher or a mentor should be aware of these circumstances, they should not in any way provide protection for the culprit from punishment. Forgiving such misbehavior only encourages the culprit to repeat it, maybe in a more sofisticated, harder-to-uncover way, leading, if said culprit finish his/her studies, to the formation of a potentially habitual cheater.

  7. #7 Ewan
    January 20, 2010

    I know Ewan will appreciate the input.

    Oh, indeed. And I very much appreciate Janet offering her space, time, and thoughts here. I’m trying to avoid inserting my own opinions quite deliberately, for the moment, in hope of avoiding influencing commentary.

    A couple of clarification/expansion points:

    * Student A volunteered that other answers were also cribbed, to greater or lesser degree, just not so blatantly. So there appears to be some considerable chunk of the exam that’s not A’s work.

    * B voluntarily supplied the paper “as a reference source” – it’s not akin to the ‘stolen while in the shower’ case where I would agree that B gets little if any blame – but both A and B made comments suggestive that it was not B’s intent for answers to be copied/copied so directly.

    * The policy here is surprisingly (to me) discretionary: I am required to report the incident but *not* required to initiate any proceeding beyond whatever sanction I choose to apply in-class. [This feels very odd, possibly in part because I did my grad work at U.VA. where there's a single-sanction, one-strike-and-expelled, system.]

    * Student A appeared very, very affected by the brief talk we had on their return to the country, to the point that I called the counselling centre and handed him my office phone. I hope that helps them. Janet’s comments about my own feelings and worries are spot on.

    * Discussing this with my seven year-old tonight, I discover that one of his classmates routinely copies his answers on tests! Need to raise that with his teacher.

    Thanks for listening.

  8. #8 Scott Belyea
    January 20, 2010

    Little or no sympathy for either, I’m afraid.

    This sort of thing is really just a form of theft. And there are two other aspects that weren’t mentioned in your post.

    * Given the intense competition for whatever follows on for these students (admission to advanced programs or whatever), a part of the theft would be from their fellow students.

    * It’s also a seriously negative comment on their approach to life – faced with an exam that one either couldn’t do well or couldn’t be bothered to do well, the alternative chosen by both was to cheat.

    At a minimum, neither should get any credit for the exam. Beyond that, it might be reasonable to consider circumstances when deliberating possible further punishment.

  9. #9 Zen Faulkes
    January 20, 2010

    “Do A’s circumstances warrant leniency here?”

    No.

    “Circumstances” can just be a synonym for “sob story.”

    Student A cheated. How Student A’s family views Student A is not the instructor’s problem.

    An instructor should put on the syllabus what is considered cheating is (many institutions define it in their policies), and what the punishment for it is. Then, the instructor should not deviate from it.

    Note to faculty: Faculty are often tempted to handle cheating punishments themselves and not report cases of cheating, reasoning that reporting it to the appropriate administrator is too much hassle. Not reporting cheating can violate the institution’s policy, and leave faculty open to lawsuits.

  10. #10 Dalek Thay
    January 20, 2010

    Yeah, thinking about it now, I guess suspension for half a semester is okay, so long as there is always a way pick up where you left off when you are half a semester out of phase. Severe, but it’s not abusing the university’s ability to change your grades for the purpose of enhancing the university’s reputation.

  11. #11 Namnezia
    January 20, 2010

    I don’t know… I still think that college students are adults and should be treated as such. If they cheat it is they who are doing themselves a disservice by throwing away an opportunity to gain understanding of the material. If caught, I would just fail the student in the exam and leave it at that. If failing the exam causes them to fail the course, then they are welcome to take it again next year. I don’t think there is any need for further disciplinary action.

  12. #12 Well..
    January 20, 2010

    I did my undergrad at a top tier school with a 100% no-tolerance policy for academic misbehavior. For starters, getting caught cheating or copying anything was an automatic zero on whatever assignment/test/exam it was. And there was a broad definition of that, including not footnoting enough or having your lab report being ‘sort of similar’. So we were terrified in general. After that, depending on the exact nature of the infraction, the case would be referred to a university panel on academic misbehavior that would hear the case and judge the penalty. It ranged from pass/fail in the course and no grade; getting kicked out of the class; getting suspended for a semester; being expelled. Nobody went through the doors with any illusions about how serious they were. On the whole, it made the majority of the students very serious about not committing academic offenses. And the limited group who weren’t intimidated just kept on tryin’ anyways. My experience is that the threat of penalties keep most people in line provided that they are enforced. And the born cheaters are hopeless anyways. My school was very unsentimental about the whole thing. Note also that it was an extremely large and diverse student body with many of the same immigrant issues described here. Bottom line is the rules were made clear and people knew they were cheating at their own risk.

  13. #13 Kim
    January 20, 2010

    Sadly in my undergrad years I saw first-hand. It was a direct plagiarism of a search from GOOGLE on the topic of choice for a graduate class. The grad student in my lab had to report it to the teacher. The foreign student was given a wrist-slap, and all was fine. Of course, there was so much to consider from the foreign student’s family. Personally, I find this an insult to our system; I also wonder how severe the punishment would have been for an American student?
    Grad students from abroad know better. They roll the dice because they know they’ll get away with it.

  14. #14 kevin
    January 20, 2010

    Very good discussion. But I don’t see anyone discussing ways this could have been avoided. Obviously, people will cheat. They always seem to.

    I used to not say much about “academic integrity” in my classes. Figured they already have heard it, and the cheaters will cheat anyway.

    Now I talk about it on day 1, with stern reminders for takehome projects, etc. And saying it all up front on day 1 completely heads off the “but I didn’t think it was cheating / I’m from some un-named eastern culture that doesn’t call this cheating” excuses.

    For this semester, I plan to also say in class on day 1, and with reminders during big projects, papers, etc., something like “if you are under a lot of pressure, etc., to the point you feel you need to cheat just to get by, come see me and maybe we can work something out.” Don’t know if anyone will take me up, or what I might offer such a student (like student A) in advance — an extension, alternative assessment, etc. But when it comes time for me to be brutal in the face of a sob story, I can at least feel better about it myself, since they should have come to see me before cheating.

    -kevin

  15. #15 Colin
    January 20, 2010

    Give me all the theory you want about what GPA really measures but that number wouldn’t exist if it weren’t used. The grade from a class distills performance in that class; the GPA distills performance across many dozens of classes.

    There is only one number that 4+ years of college gets distilled into and if cheating doesn’t impact that number then what’s the point?

  16. #16 Paul
    January 20, 2010

    Although it’s sometimes easier to handle these situations on a personal level – just the instructor and the students – it’s sometimes helpful to involve the academic honesty departments at your university.

    If a student is cheating to get through your class, he is probably cheating to get through other classes as well. Unless you happen to be eating lunch with his other instructors on a regular basis, such behavior patterns will go unnoticed. Letting a kid off the hook – even just giving him a zero for the exam or assignment – might not change his behavior.

    A lot of students are focused on the short term, not the long term, which is why they cheated in the first place. Even if they get caught, being able to “escape with a zero” might not seem so bad.

    Having said that, I will also say that academic honesty departments are not always interested in academic honesty. Sometimes is much less of a pain in the ass to work something out with the students in question than it is to go through formal channels. You need to get a feel for what position the university *really* takes on the issue, rather than what the words say.

    I recommend that Evan – and anyone – talk with their fellow faculty members about their experiences with the university’s academic honesty department (or whatever your university has) to learn what it’s all about before diving in. Are they unbiased, or do they tend to favor the faculty or the students? Is their primary concern adhering to the honesty policy, or avoiding lawsuits, or keeping retention rates high? Different institutions have different priorities.

    And above all, make sure that if you put your specific policies in your syllabus. In many ways a syllabus is a legally binding contract. Spelling out your policies ahead of time can avoid student “misunderstandings” as well as protect you in the event of a dispute.

  17. #17 Bill
    January 21, 2010

    I think you’re focusing too much on the grade and not enough on the fact that the student didn’t learn the material. Even if he or she wanted to go on to an advanced degree, or they were from another culture, they would not have the knowledge to be good students further on. As we used to tease the pre-meds in chemistry, usually when complaining they should get partial credit, “oh you made a mistake, you just killed someone. You meant to do A but you did B”. Of course I went to a school with a single sanction honor code. It wasn’t something you feared, but enjoyed because you had the ability to schedule your own finals, write checks without ID, and people respected each other. People even turned themselves in to the student run board knowing that the only punishment was dismissal.

    In your case, student A abused his/her privilage to go to school and doesn’t deserve to waste his relatives money and time. Student B did a disservice to A and deserves the same fate. Being dishonest, and then coming clean AFTER getting caught is not exculpatory. In the abcense of a single sanction, they should at least have to fail the class.

    I used to deal with similar situations all the time while teaching at Texas where we went to great lengths to try to prevent cheating, and the only time I didn’t fail the student for the entire class was when he turned himself in before the exams were even graded. For that, he only failed the exam with a 0 that was not droppable. He worked his rear off and became one of the better students in the class.

  18. #18 Art
    January 21, 2010

    Be aware that the ‘I’m a poor foreigner who doesn’t understand the culture being financed through school by my elderly and poor grandparents (parents died from [insert dread disease here])and the last remaining hope for my tribe/village/family/clan’ scam is an old one. Back in the early 80s a guy I went to school with used that line for everything from getting laid to excusing his poor performance and cheating. Busted with a huge bag of weed he played that card to get off. His accent would thicken and his mannerisms become more stereotypically foreign when he was going for sympathy. It was pretty funny to watch.

    Thing was he was the well provided for son of a diplomat who spent most of his life in NYC. Only visiting India a couple of times a year. His father was quite wealthy and his son quite the spendthrift. He used to toss around money to get girls and paid his tutors to take exams for him.

  19. #19 JMG
    January 21, 2010

    Hypothetically, if someone were about to lose their scholarship and be sent back to a third world country, it’s on the table as a last resort.

    I disagree with this line of reasoning. If a student (from the developing world or elsewhere) is in danger of losing their scholarship, that’s mostly their fault, particularly in the lower years of university. If one has a scholarship, and needs it to proceed in school, then they had better get working. This doesn’t mean I’m insensitive, and I do feel bad for this person, but it does not make cheating right in this situation. It just means that you have a greater burden on your shoulders than others who have other means of paying for their education.

  20. #20 S. Rivlin
    January 21, 2010

    Many of the student cheaters not caught during their schooling become the cheating scientists that are not caught doing their fraudulant science. The importance of imposing harsh punishment on cheating students cannot be over emphasized. It also must be a severe punishment that would deter other students who may consider cheating.

  21. #21 Ewan
    January 21, 2010

    foole said above: I’m also inclined to think that person B deserves a somewhat severe punishment since she/he did not come forward with the information about cheating until confronted about it (and it is clear from her/his response that she/he had prior knowledge).

    Agree. I concede that this would be a hard thing to do – turning in a presumed friend – but it’s still a clear action.

  22. #22 William
    January 21, 2010

    What is the function of punishing cheaters in academia?

    To impose morality?
    To legitimize the efforts of those who do not cheat?
    Revenge / Justice?
    To prepare the student for the remainder of his / her life?

    If it were solely the latter, I’d find that ironically laughable since cheating is so often a successful strategy in so many endeavors.

    If I indulge my own Idealism, I can rejoice in that “punishing the wrong” is the right thing to do.

    But what is the actual purpose of it? I ask this question without intending to sound as though the correct answer is to let it happen willfully. Rather, in defining the function and purpose of punishing cheaters in the first place, ought to be the answer here,

  23. #23 S. Rivlin
    January 21, 2010

    “What is the function of punishing cheaters in academia?
    To impose morality?
    To legitimize the efforts of those who do not cheat?
    Revenge / Justice?
    To prepare the student for the remainder of his / her life?”

    What’s the function of punishing cheaters (criminals) in any other endeavor? I think all of the above.

  24. #24 Jim Thomerson
    January 21, 2010

    We had a stolen exam situation. For the first time, I had an exam done at the copy center. I had my twitches about doing it that way. When we got the exam back there were supposed to be 80 copies. There were 79. We thought about it and figured out that a particular student had stolen a copy. I marked all the remaining exams on the back with a tiny green dot. The student turned in a dot free exam, and two other students turned in xerox copies. We turned in F grades for the three students and reported the incident to the Dean of Students. Dean of Students said we should not have given the F without going through the University process. I told Dean that it was my course and I give the grades and that is that. Students accepted the F grades and we heard no more about it.

  25. #25 Katherine
    January 21, 2010

    I like Kevin’s policy, and the others that say “set out a policy at the beginning of the course, to prevent misunderstandings or ‘misunderstandings’”.

    At my uni we had a lot of group projects (engineering) so it was a bit more complicated than the exam situation (in my mind anyway). How can you tell the difference between people that deliberately coast along on the rest of the team’s work, and those that genuinely felt that they did enough work to get a B or whatever but other team members want A+++s and put in way more work? The former is obviously wrong but in my experience both are considered to be the same by university staff and both are punished with disciplinary action. Often groups were randomly assigned rather than letting the A+++ people choose to work with each other. Or you would just pick someone and then find out that your expectations differed wildly from theirs.

  26. #26 AF
    January 22, 2010

    There is a problem, which is that most universities effectively have a “one strike and you’re out” policy if it gets reported through official channels. Honestly, that seems disproportionate to the actual crime that was caught, though perhaps not to the suspected default behavior of the student. (I mean, if you caught them once, they probably do it a lot. It’s not disporportionate to that doing-it-a-lot, but you can only prove the once.) It also means that if I don’t have stone-cold evidence and some reason to believe it’s a pattern, I don’t send it upstairs–I deal with it myself.

    That, in turn, creates an information vacuum. Lots of faculty handle it themselves because they feel the official action will be disproportionate. If university disciplinary bodies could collect reports and be trusted to exhibit some proportionality (i.e. the first offense gets treated differently from the second, and a first offense after numerous suspicions gets treated differently from a first offense out of the blue) then faculty wouldn’t be left in the difficult situation that they are left in.

    And yes, I’ve heard the “I’m my family’s only hope to have someone who goes to medical school and provide for them in our poverty-ridden home country” line. I felt bad for the family.

    Also, it’s been asked, what’s the point of discipline in an academic environment? I taught a premed science class, so maybe I’m a special case. But as I see it, a known cheater is probably not someone you want at your operating table.

    For the situation at hand, I’d let off B pretty lightly, because they had no expected gain from the situation. Student A I would pass upwards; and my only hesitation would be that by doing so Student B might get dragged up.

    In general, caught cheaters are both dishonest and dumb. (Cut-and-paste including an aside to the prof? Are you kidding me?) When I’m feeling particularly sardonic, I feel like the downstream realworld system can tolerate dishonest, and it can tolerate dumb, but we better be sure to weed out the overlaps early.

    My last comment: I always schedule the confrontations for the end of the day. I am too drained, too punched-in-the-gut, to deal with anything else afterwards except for a stiff drink.

  27. #27 S. Rivlin
    January 22, 2010

    “But as I see it, a known cheater is probably not someone you want at your operating table.”

    And how about an unknown cheater? Would you let an unknown cheater operate on you? I believe the message to the budding cheaters and those who may consider cheating as a way to advance their careers must be strong and uncompromising. All university students are adults; they know right from wrong; if they are familiar with the no-cheating rules, which they should be, but still choose to cheat, they eventually have considered the consequences and should not expect leniency.

  28. #28 AF
    January 22, 2010

    Would you let an unknown cheater operate on you?

    See my sardonic statement above about what the system can handle :)

    Somewhat more seriously, I understand you. On the other hand–these are 18 year old kids. We call them kids when we talk about them. And kids can make dumb calls in bad situations. I know when I was 18 I certainly did (though not this particular bad call…) For the one-off that happens in a bad situation, you need a punishment that is less than an institutional death penalty.

    There are also 18 year olds who habitually game and cheat the system, who really do need to be knocked about. The death penalty makes sense in that case.

    You could very well institute a death sentence for stealing anything worth $50 or more, and then say “well, they knew the consequences” every time you executed a thief. It wouldn’t improve the justness, or even the efficacy, of the punishment any to do so.

    My point is, really, that there’s a lack of calibration of punishment to crime, and that lack puts everyone in a bad position.