On the Control of Academic Dishonesty Among College Students
Most colleges publish statements beginning with a definition of the dishonesty they are concerned with. Though this is plainly necessary it is surprisingly difficult to do. Some of the definitions fail, or are at least misleading, because they concentrate on the overt action, on what can be seen by an all-seeing camera (as it were), rather than on the intent of the malefactor. It is true that intent is a slippery term in the common law, and Oliver Wendell Holmes was quite right in trying to substitute a more objective criterion, such as the likely behavior of "the reasonable person" in the determination of guilt in the world at large; but in dealing with young people in a (to them) novel environment it is both clearer and more humane to talk about motive than about result.
The simplest definition of academic dishonesty in students is this: Offering what is not your own work as if it were, in order to deceive a professor into believing you have answered his assignment. Everybody knows this definition, though when they come to write one they generally end up with something much more complicated. In my experience judging these things I have never met a student who disputed the illegality of the offense charged. They may dispute having done it, but they are never in any doubt about what cheating is.
When a student presents to a professor, in answer to an assignment, work which is not his or her own as if it were, or presents documents otherwise calculated to deceive the professor, in order to receive an undeserved grade, we say that student has violated the University's policy on academic honesty. The actual devices of academic dishonesty are many and cannot all easily be listed; new ones appear as new forms of subject matter and new modes of instruction and evaluation appear. The most common are these: plagiarism; copying from a book, notes, or a neighbor's paper during an examination; obtaining unauthorized advance information about examinations; falsifying or inventing data, or in any way submitting a false report of one's academic actions.
An example of such false report is the changing of the form of a paper or examination after it has been graded and returned, to submit to the professor later for an improved grade, with the claim that the changed parts had been there all along, but had been overlooked in the original grading. Another form of false report is the inclusion of bibliographic references which were not in fact consulted: second-hand reports must always be presented as such. Certain kinds of vandalism are also construed as academic dishonesty if they are committed in pursuit of an undeserved high grade, or to inhibit competition from fellow students. A typical example is a student who forges a professor's signature on some form destined for the Dean or Registrar; but there are far worse cases, of those who deface library books and journals, or who destroy their neighbors' laboratory set-ups.
While there is seldom any question about whether a certain act constitutes academic dishonesty, plagiarism is sometimes not well understood by newcomers to the academic world. In particular, plagiarism is often all but identified with academic dishonesty, especially by professors in the humanities; but there are important differences in the perception of plagiarism, as between professors and young students, which in my experience have led to unnecessary pain and conflict. Even experienced professors, who understand plagiarism perfectly well in the context of their world of scholarship, can mistake its import in the classroom, as we shall see.
It is legitimate and necessary for scholars and students to use, from time to time, the words and ideas of their predecessors, and of their friends and colleagues; we all, if we would see, must stand upon the shoulders of giants. What we may not do is use these words or ideas without acknowledgement, or else our readers will not be able to judge the status of the information we are offering.
Suppose, for example, it is a question of historical fact or of laboratory data. Our readers must know who obtained this information, and under what circumstances. A research paper typically contains partly our own observations and reasoning, and partly those of others. Whatever we repeat that was done by another is no more trustworthy than that other person himself may be, so it is our duty to tell our readers who that person is and where the original report may be found. The reader is entitled to whatever information is needed to form a judgment, something that cannot be done accurately if it is thought that the text being read describes only the work of the author. Even if the author is merely vague on the subject, the audience is thereby missing something that it deserves to know.
It is not, therefore, merely a matter of unmasking vainglory or literary theft that is in question when scholars define plagiarism and prescribe procedures for scholarly reference: footnotes, quotation marks, and the like. Whoever adds to the edifice of knowledge must know what stones he is building upon, else his work may be wasted, misdirected, unnecessarily repetitive, or based on false hypotheses.
In the world of commercial publishing, of torts and contracts, plagiarism has another meaning. A literary property is like a patent or copyright, even if no copyright has yet been established. If a second person makes use of someone's original idea, or words, music or picture in such a way as to deprive the original author of money or repute he could otherwise have earned himself, that second person must pay. It doesn't matter if the second person did it unintentionally, perhaps forgetting that the idea had come from the aggrieved. And it doesn't matter at all whether anyone else in the world cares who the true author was.
It is worth noticing that in this world of torts and publishers, a plagiarism from Montaigne or Dickens is no crime at all, since copyright is limited in time. But in a scholar or politician, what is not a tort can still be a sin, even if the material copied has been in the public domain since Homer.
The third domain of plagiarism is the artificial world of student exercises and examinations. Tort is not in question when a student copies a term paper from a scholarly source in a library. The original author earned little enough from having produced the original paper, and surely loses nothing in either dollars or reputation from the student's cheating; he would have no case in court. The scholarly world too has lost nothing. This cheating student is not one of the giants upon whose shoulders we propose to stand; his only audience is his professor, who is not reading the paper for information, and who does not propose to use the data in the paper for anything at all. In practical terms, it does not matter where the words came from, or whether they are right. The thing is an exercise only, designed to show the professor what the student has learned, or what he can do, or has done, in answer to a quite artificial assignment.
The student knows this. He knows there is no "literary property" at stake in his plagiarism, and he knows that nobody in the scientific world, or the historical profession, needs or will use the information he is passing on. Therefore he is, or may be, indifferent to moral instruction which concentrates on the evils of plagiarism as they appear to the scholar or to the commercial publisher.
It is necessary for students to be taught the techniques of footnoting, quoting, and so on, as part of their education in scholarship, and they should certainly be taught the scholarly reasons for these rather elaborate procedures. In particular, that they are not rituals, but rather a necessary caution, and instruction, for the reader. It is also necessary for students to be taught what plagiarism means with respect to literary or artistic originality, and what is dictated both by honor and the law of torts.
But if professors give only these reasons, and only these definitions, they will be missing the essence of academic dishonesty as it must be seen by students as students. Our student plagiarist, reading about "literary theft," need fear no lawsuits, since not a nickel can ride on the outcome; and the danger of falsified or mislabelled data, as in political campaigns or cancer research, is simply not real in the context of a term paper for an undergraduate history course. Given the usual arguments for academic probity, a thoughtful freshman might shrug and conclude that all this is very well but does not describe him.
And it doesn't. The student plagiarist is committing a third kind of plagiarism. It is plagiarism by University standards even if it is from a work a thousand years old, and even if it steals nothing that can be missed or profited by, and even if it stands no chance whatever of misleading its audience concerning its subject matter. All that is necessary is that it be designed to deceive its one reader into believing the "author" deserves a C+ instead of a C.
On the other hand, it sometimes happens that a student commits what is surely a plagiarism by scholarly standards, but which does not seriously violate the code of academic honesty we enforce by our proceedings. One case that came before our court last year was that of a first-year student who wrote a short paper that made extensive use of quotations from the textbook for the course. None were put in quotation marks, but the book they were taken from was listed in a two-item Bibliography at the end of the paper. In addition, most of the quoted material was interspersed with parenthetical references to this or that page of the book it came from, as for example, "(Williams, page 34,35)", and "(Ibbid, page 122)" [sic].
Though not every quotation was thus referenced, and though the student had not followed the prescribed format of footnotes below quotations placed in quotation marks, it seemed ludicrous to suppose that this student was trying to deceive the professor. It was the very textbook of the course, after all, that was being copied from, and the very pages from which the information had been taken were in many cases named; yet the professor, who was as inexperienced in professing as this student was in studying, felt it was his duty to report this "offense" to us.
We are not often faced with such zeal. It was a matter of some delicacy to have to inform the professor that while we accepted all the allegations, the student was still not guilty. I believe we were able to mollify the professor by saying that he could downgrade the paper for its errors of form, and perhaps for not being as original in its ideas as he had a right to expect in this particular assignment; but in the end we had to say that here was a case in which a technical plagiarism, which could be actionable in court were there any financial interest involved, was still not academic dishonesty. It was only a case of a student who still had a lot to learn.
To have to learn the rules of honesty in court is harsh, and should only be a last resort. When a two year old child commits a theft in a grocery store, we gently take the object out of its hands and teach it a necessary lesson in self-restraint, one that has to be repeated many times before civilization makes honesty into second nature. When it is a twelve year old child the matter is more ambiguous. By that time he should know better, yet we all know cases (perhaps our own) where admonition and explanation were better than Juvenile Court. Ten years more, of course, and the child is a man; no excuses then.
The student who couldn't spell ibid was analogous to the two-year-old, for all that the professor had passed out a sheet of paper at the beginning of the semester explaining precisely how a "research paper" should be organized and typeset. But there are other occasions of academic dishonesty more analogous to the case of the twelve year old, who knows stealing is "wrong," but somehow has not yet come to see what is so wrong about doing wrong, or who perhaps still distinguishes, for his own convenience, covert "borrowing" from "real stealing." Such a child must surely be taught a lesson, but not necessarily fingerprinted and assigned legal counsel.
The parallel case in the academic world is usually the work of a very young student; I will describe a recent case. The boy was a freshman, and was enrolled in a `preceptorial' course, that is, a course designed for freshmen as a seminar on some rather specialized subject, to give these beginners some taste of what scholarship means, and to relieve the tedium of the usual freshman budget of required classes in math, English and chemistry.
The assignment was a term paper, in which the student was to answer a rather pointed question. (I am changing the question, and even the subject, to protect the identity of both student and professor.) "Was Bismarck a good thing for Germany?" The student hadn't the least idea how to answer. After all, the professor hadn't himself answered it in class. There were two books of required reading for the course, but neither one seemed to say whether Bismarck was good or bad.
So the student went to the library, just as he had done in high school, and looked up Bismarck in the Encyclopedia Britannica. (In high school one often is asked to go to the library and get up a Report --- at least it was so in my day --- and the Encyclopedia, at the high school level of scholarship, is probably a good place to begin.) He took careful notes about the life and times of Bismarck and the Germany of that time. Lots of good stuff in there about wars, treaties, and kings named Wilhelm and Napoleon. Before he knew it he had enough notes for a Paper, maybe even more than enough. For a day or two he tried to think about whether they added up to Bismarck's being a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, but he couldn't be sure. Then came the night before the assignment was due, and without an idea in his head, and his desk covered with undigested notes from the encyclopedia, the result was predictable. He copied out this and that paragraph, stitching them together in what seemed to him a coherent manner. At three a.m. almost anything seemed coherent to him, and all those paragraphs so laboriously acquired, copied and classified seemed as much his property as the paper he wrote them on.
Sure enough, the professor found plagiarism, and reported the case to the Board on Academic Honesty. We looked at the documentation and it was decisive. The assignment had said, "Do your own work, and do not use any secondary sources." The student had plainly copied from a secondary source, of course, but if one were to look into his mind late that night before the assignment was due one would probably have found him thinking that he sure as hell was "doing his own work."
What is "his own work," if not studying from books and then telling the teacher what he had learned? Was he supposed to invent original information about Bismarck? As for those copied words, well, there really wasn't any better way to say them. They were pretty ordinary words, after all, like "By the Treaty of Westphalia, the signatory powers were obliged to..." Would it have been any more honest to have changed that to "The nations that signed the Treaty of Westphalia agreed to..."? And as for that part about not using "secondary sources," that was plain impossible. Wasn't the professor himself a secondary source, and hadn't the whole class been talking about Germany for weeks and weeks, and hadn't there been two books the class had to read? Was he supposed to forget all that while writing the paper; was he to empty his mind for fear of using a "secondary source?" After all, he might have read that encyclopedia article a year or two earlier; could anyone prove otherwise? Would he in that case have been compelled to forget that information while preparing his paper?
Well, there is no telling what other rationalizations this particular student might have provided for himself as he prepared his paper. I expect he knew it was a cheap job, but that he did not really believe, until called to account, that he was being dishonest. What was our verdict?
We were lenient. We recommended to the Dean that the student be admonished, notified that the paper was an unacceptable plagiarism, and that a second such offense, if brought to our attention, would merit a serious punishment. The professor should be notified, we said, that we had found that the paper rather willfully failed to answer the assignment; it should be given a zero (not merely "E") grade. We did not require that the student be failed in the course, though this might well be the consequence of the zero when taken together with the rest of the semester's performance. The professor, if he felt kindly disposed, might allow the student to make up the assignment to improve the term grade, and to demonstrate improvement in his understanding of scholarly virtue, but that was up to the professor.
What we did not do, though the student needed it, was to instruct the student on exactly what he should have done in this particular assignment. Nor did we instruct the professor on how he could have rephrased his assignment to make its intention unmistakable to an inexperienced freshman. As a court we are unable to give the time to such instruction in individual cases, but I believe it is our duty to publish from time to time the results of our experience.
(I have in fact written a number of articles for the student newspaper at my university, during the time I served as judge of these things. It is deplorable that in many colleges the law describes the offenses in such general terms, and the probable punishments not at all. Students of a felonious disposition might be inhibited by advance knowledge of how unoriginal their intended scams in fact are, and how easily detected, as well as by knowing how their predecessors were dealt with. And students like the one who wrote from the encyclopedia on Bismarck might learn less painfully the same lesson as the one administered by our court.)
Originality and Secondary Sources
One feature of the Bismarck case was that the assignment included the phrase "without using secondary sources." It seems to me that an assignment to write a paper "without using secondary sources" is a poor idea. Impossible, in fact, if the injunction be taken literally, even were the assignment to write an original poem. Dreaming or waking, could Coleridge have written Kubla Khan without secondary sources?
Professors themselves never follow such a rule when they write papers. Scholars who write use everything in sight. They spend months in libraries or museums, and their sources are primary, secondary and tertiary, old and new, German and Latin and English, sacred and profane, true and fraudulent. It is not their scholarly duty to draw only on what is already in their minds, but rather to tell the reader both what they have arrived at and how it was come by.
This last is the essence of all scholarship, whether humanistic or scientific. Students should be assigned to imitate this behavior, and understand its purpose and its method, even if the student result is of no intrinsic value and displays no novelty. Of course all professors know this, and in proper contexts they do indeed give such assignments, but they sometimes think they have another purpose in forbidding the secondary sources. For one thing, it apparently discourages plagiarism. On the positive side, it would seem to encourage thought, mental effort and study of the original information (like the novel on which the critique is to be written), rather than a regurgi-tation of someone else's commentary. And to a professor it might also seem that he is benefiting the student by explicitly relieving him of the obligations of extensive library research.
There is in this point of view a rather romantic notion of the possibilities for originality in the mind of the undergraduate. The professor as scholar would consider himself slothful if he wrote a paper on (say) "poetic justice in Hamlet" without first apprising himself of pretty near everything that had been written on the subject before. But then he turns around and asks the undergraduate to do precisely otherwise. Saul Bellow, after a public reading of some of his own work, was once asked by a student how the budding writer should go about developing an original style. "You start by imitating your betters," was the answer. This is where a student critic should begin, too.
But for many professors there is another purpose to the prohibition. The writing of the paper is intended to be analogous to the writing of an examination, where students are monitored in an examination room and forbidden to use anything but their mental equipment, or sometimes a limited resource, like the textbook. The purpose of the exercise, they might say, is not the elicitation of a doubtful originality, but rather a check on whether the student had been "covering the assigned material."
For this purpose, however, the assignment --- to write a paper outside of class "without using secondary sources" --- suffers from the same defect as does an examination without proctors: it is insecure. Furthermore, if the information wanted is merely whether the student had been doing the reading, and understanding it, then a few short factual questions answered in a literal examination room will serve more surely and more easily than will the assignment of a critical paper.
What will accomplish both purposes, the check on the reading and the encouragement of thinking about it, and a third purpose, the education of the student in scholarly practice, and indeed a fourth purpose, which is to give that student some appreciation of what the scholarly world has accomplished in our time, is an assignment that goes something like this:
"If you have some original ideas on poetic justice and Hamlet, please write them up and turn them in. If you can't think of any, or if you think you may be off the track in what you think, go ahead and use the library, or even use that notorious set of crib-sheets called Cliff's Notes, or your fraternity brother's paper on Hamlet from last year (but please notice that I didn't ask about poetic justice last year). I warn you, however, that the more of this stuff you use the more of a scholar you'll have to be. Your bibliography will have to include all of it, and the footnotes will become burdensome. Other people's work may be a help to your thoughts, but you will have the duty of acknowledgement.
"Still, go ahead. In many places I am willing to let you off easy. You will be able to write, for example, 'As Cliff's notes indicates, ...' without citing page and line, as a professional scholar might have to do; that's o.k. with me. But you must not use even an idea without telling me where you got it. Using other people's ideas is no sin; there is no other way to learn, at least at the beginning (cf. Saul Bellow). What I will not tolerate is your passing those ideas off as having been strictly your own.
"One warning. If every idea you express turns out to have come directly and undigested from Cliff's Notes, or from your fraternity brother, your paper will not get much of a grade, even if it is knee-deep in acknowledgements. I want you to exhibit to me that you have read and understood Hamlet, at least on the primary level of what it is about, what it says, who gets killed and why, and I want you to exhibit an understanding of the other things you've read, including good old Cliff. You are not, repeat not, to pretend to a knowledge or an understanding you do not have. Get all the help you can find, even as I do when studying a new problem."
Note: Since the giving of the assignment is one of the crucial features of any attack on the problem of academic dishonesty, we will come back to this subject in Chapter 5, The Assignment, where another professorial monologue, similar to this one, will illustrate a somewhat different emphasis.
There is something else the professor should do, that comes halfway between forbidding the use of models ("no secondary sources") and requiring them, complete with footnotes, bibliography and a burdensome session in the library. The professor should exhibit to his students models of what students in the past had submitted in answer to the sort of assignment he is giving now, with explanations of how these old papers did or did not answer the assignment.
"Imitate your betters" is sometimes not even possible, after all, when the betters are so much better as to be out of sight. To ask a freshman for a 1000 word commentary on an event in ancient Rome is quite reasonable, but to offer him Gibbon as an example of how this should be done is ridiculous. To forbid the reading of Gibbon is equally ridiculous. What the student needs to learn is how an idea or a chapter of Gibbon (say) can be brought to bear on the problem at hand, and then how to write the result in such a way that it is clear what part of the exposition was due to Gibbon and what part to the student and his other reading. But it is not to be expected that the undergraduate, even having done his work well, will sound like Gibbon. He won't even sound like his own professor, as we all know.
For younger students scholarly papers and books, however essential to their education, are still in many ways inappropriate as models. They are not 1000 words long, and they are intended to be original, to enlighten their audiences, not merely show that the author has learned something every professional more or less knows already. If an average student is to imitate his betters in minor exercises in the forms of scholarship, let him begin by imitating better students, studying student papers selected by his professor from recent years, before going on to greater profundity as his experience accumulates. (Not that he shouldn't also, and even primarily, read the greatest literature he can find; only that he must be more modest in finding models for his own writing for classroom purposes.)
In teaching mathematics (my own subject) there is something we do that corresponds to this idea: We assign exercises, and then, after having read or graded them we hand back a set of model solutions to those very exercises, solutions in just the detail and style we would expect from students. While it is not usual to do so, it would also be good to make photocopies of some of their solutions, the ones that exhibit characteristic errors, or maybe worthwhile devices of the sort most students should have been expected to discover for themselves. This kind of thing is done in courses in expository writing, and in workshops in creative writing, where new work is read aloud or passed around in typescript and then criticized by the members of the class as well as the professor. It is also done in graduate seminars, of course, where a more elaborate student research paper is often the basis for discussion. But at the early undergraduate level in the humanities and social sciences, realistic models are almost never shown or explained to the students. It is in papers at this level that, apart from copying in examinations, the largest amount of student academic dishonesty is found.
I discovered the value of such models myself, quite by accident, when I was in my second semester of college, at the University of Michigan in 1942. The course was called Expository Writing, and the professor was an unforgettable crank named Amos Morris, who had some theories of prose meter by which he thought to analyze the rhythms of good prose in the way that poetry is analyzed by conventional prosody.
Professor Morris assigned us a thousand-word paper each week. The first few papers were on various simple subjects, like what we had done last summer, or what we remembered of our grandparents, but then our later assignments were mainly to analyze our own previous papers, using the categories of analysis he was teaching us in class, that is, his own theories of prose metrics and so on.
I was stumped, and I well remember the pain of each Thursday evening when I had to put together something I had spent the week worrying about, and the pain of each Monday, when the paper came back with a grade of C or C+. I was not used to grades that low. In the sixth week of the course I went to see Professor Morris; it was a routine meeting, such as every English professor had with everybody in the class, probably twice a semester.
I asked Professor Morris why my grades were so low. He said C+ was not "low"; my work was quite satisfactory. I said I thought I should get an A in the course, or at least that I wanted to. He said he thought I could not, that my writing was simply not that good. And then I got the inspiration to ask to see some papers written by students in my class which did have an A grade, and he had the good sense to tell me to sit in a chair in the corner of his office and read three or four such papers he happened to have on his desk. While I was reading them he went on with his next student interview.
I do not remember the subject of that week's paper, but I do know that the samples I read were particularly illuminating because I had myself been struggling with the same assignment just a few days before. I also do not recall whether those papers were good ones from a literary point of view, or from a scientific point of view, but I know I did learn from them what he, Professor Morris, considered a first-class student response to his assignment. And that it was sure different from what I had been doing. And so, for the rest of the semester, I wrote and handed in only "A" papers. And I did get my A in the course.
There are those who exalt originality to such a degree that they would contemn my method of getting an A from Professor Morris. They are wrong. I was seventeen years old at the time, and I was to have courses from perhaps forty different professors over the course of my academic career. If I could have learned just what pleased each of the forty as well as I learned how to write something to impress Amos Morris, my repertory of scholarly devices would have been something to be proud of. This is training, not sycophancy, and for those of us who are not geniuses there is time enough for such originality as we are capable of when we are grown and gone from college.
My later papers for Morris were not plagiarisms. I did use models, but I did not make copies; I imitated my betters, but I did not repeat their work. I might mention that the second sentence of this paragraph, the sentence just before this one, with the semicolon in the middle and parallel construction throughout, is of a form that was especially pleasing to Professor Morris, may he rest in peace. He called it a "periodic sentence," and the example of it that he gave our class was, "He went his way; I went mine." Good example. Not only does it illustrate the 'periodicity' he was speaking of, but (as literary criticism has since taught me to recognize) it illustrates his personal philosophy, too. If a different drummer were anywhere around, Morris would hear.
I used periodic sentences profusely to get my A; old Morris couldn't resist them. To this day I have to be careful not to overuse the device.
Unlike plagiarism, the definition of cheating on examinations offers few difficulties. Typically, the student is expected to come into an examination room empty-handed except for pen and paper, and maybe a hand calculator, and answer the set questions with every device he can command from his own memory and wit. He is not to copy a neighbor's paper, or look at it for information, or talk to a neighbor, or consult a document smuggled in from the outside. But that is only what is typical of a setting that can be monitored; examinations and other assignments subject to cheating are sometimes more complicated.
For example, some examinations are called "take-home." This is often the most important examination of the term, the final assignment, where what is required is extensive and not to be done in a single three-hour sitting. It could be a computer program that is asked for, in a course in engineering or in computer science, or a set of calculations in some other science, or even a critique of some length for a course in literature --- a task for which some leisure should be granted the student if the professor is to get a good idea of what the student has learned, or can do.
Take-home examinations are generally accompanied by instructions concerning the degree of outside help the student may call on. In some cases the test is "open-book," meaning that the student can consult the textbook, the library, and his own notes, but is forbidden to ask help from any other person. Or, he may also be forbidden to use any book except the textbook (because other books sometimes are the source of the problem assigned, or are known by the professor to contained detailed instructions concerning problems of the type assigned).
All this sounds fair enough, and not much different from the assigning of a term paper as is common in English or History courses. But where a student writing a term paper has no difficulty talking to his roommate about the paper, even when the roommate is also trying to answer the "same" assignment, things are different in examinations. Two students asked to say something particular about poetic justice in Hamlet may quite honestly discuss Hamlet at length, and argue the point, and yet turn in substantially different analyses, each his own work as asked. But two students asked to write up the same lab experiment, composing a computer program to organize the data in such a way that certain consequences are made clear, cannot discuss what they propose with each other without arriving at a similar document, because such an assignment (often) has essentially only one correct answer. That's what makes it an examination rather than a paper.
Our court has had several cases of assignments of just this sort, where two or three (in one case, four) students who were suite-mates in the college dormitories were taking the same course. This is common; students with the same interests often live together and talk over their studies day after day. They learn together, as people do who work together at Kodak or Xerox (two notable Rochester companies), and though after a time it becomes clear who is the clever one who can usually provide the answer to a tough problem, it still cannot be said that they don't all learn from one another. This sort of thing is, and should be, encouraged. Kodak and Xerox certainly do.
Then, of a sudden, the roommates are forbidden to talk about the very thing that is most on their minds: the final exam question they have just brought home with them. A whole week of this. They eat together, and go out for beer and pizza together at 2 a.m. Can anyone imagine that one of them will not say "I'm having a bit of a rough time with #3"? So Mr. A does say it, and his roommate Mr. B mentions that the professor discussed something of the sort on that Thursday when A was absent. "Did I get the notes from you that day?" asks A, and B says, "No, I don't think so. Gee, I gave you all the others you missed; how could we have forgotten that one?"
Observe that there has as yet been no cheating on the exam. Friends can talk to each other, after all. And now Mr. B gets out the notes for the December 4 lecture that A had missed, and that in the course of things he might very well have given A at the time, but which contains exactly what Mr. A (or anyone else in the class) would need to answer Final Examination Question #3. But there is a catch. Mr B didn't really understand that December 4 lecture, and his transcription of the professor's words turns out to be a bit garbled. Mr. A reads the notes and cannot understand them. He asks B if he is sure the notes are right. B looks again and is puzzled; he thinks it's right, but since his understanding of recursively enumerable functions has always been dim he can't tell. He asks C, the third suitemate, who also doesn't understand the material very well, and C gets his own notes to compare with the others. Before long all three friends are converging on a common text, which turns out to be wrong in a very peculiar way, quite meaningless, actually. No cheaters here, or are there? At what moment in this process did the cheating begin?
The three friends then write their own separate solutions to Question #3, and the rest of the test. The morning the papers are due in the professor's office, Mr. D, a friend who lives elsewhere, comes around to see how everyone's doing. He is on his way to the Computer Science Building with his own paper and offers to take the three roommates' papers along, saving them the trip. They give him their papers. C knows him well, and all three have often studied with him. He wouldn't cheat, they believe --- actually, they don't even think about it --- and besides, the exam is due in half an hour.
But the three friends were wrong: D does read their papers, on his way over to turn them in, because he had trouble with Question #1. He hasn't much time, so he copies #1 from the paper that looks best to him, hurriedly, and then deposits all four papers in the professor's mailbox at the crack of 10:00 a.m. when they are due. The professor turns up five minutes later and collects the lot.
What does the professor discover? A, B, and C have practically identical garbled replies to Question #3, that could not have happened by chance. As long as he is looking at these three papers he checks whether #1, among others, shows signs of collusion. They don't, quite, but by golly B's #1 is identical with D's. He then reports all four students to our court.
Supposing the court actually finds out, through internal evidence and the reports of the students, exactly what happened, as outlined above; who is guilty of what? D is plainly a cheat by any standard, but did A, B, and C, collaborate in his cheating by giving him their papers in time for him to copy part of them? And the collaboration of the original three: is it cheating to show a fellow student exactly that passage of a (legal) notebook that is needed to answer a question on an exam? One might argue that using so pointed a reference (though in this case it was an incorrect transcription) constitutes "not submitting your own work." But if the class notes were legal to use, the crime must have taken place in the conversation and not in the consultation of the notes. But the conversation was not what produced the document. And can't roommates even talk?
Well, they were all found guilty of something; this is not the place to describe the verdict. The professor was also found guilty of something, but our charter as a court did not permit us to punish him. The professor had given a poor examination, one that did not admit of security. It was pure luck that enabled him to discover the most egregious of the offenses, the copying by D of B's Problem #1. If the ambiguous collaboration of the three roommates had not attracted his attention to B's paper as a whole, the similarity of the copied problem would have passed notice, because correct answers are usually similar. Only when for some reason they are placed side-by-side and studied will actual identity exhibit itself. Then how many other cases of copied answers went undetected by this professor in this very insecure examination? An answer copied at leisure can be changed enough in appearance to evade suspicion.
I cannot believe that the nature of the subject ever makes it necessary for examinations containing numerical problems or mathematical proofs of limited scope to be conducted "at-home." Lengthy projects, yes. But there the document must either be honest or purchased from a ghost writer; for no amount of mere discussion or consultation of notes will eventuate in identical papers. If the professor is seriously interested in finding out what the student knows and can do, so that he can give that student a grade that compares him honestly with his classmates, the professor must find a secure way of giving the examination. The matter of necessarily lengthy assignments such as term papers will take a separate discussion.
Ralph A. Raimi
May 17, 2004