Cheating—the crime of it

A student in the computer lab saw a classmate plagiarizing a paper. He wasn’t sure what to do, so I brought the problem to one of my ethics classes, asking them what they thought was the appropriate response.

Nearly all said that the student shouldn’t do anything. It was the professor’s job to catch the cheater. Plagiarizing was wrong, but students should mind their own business, was the general sentiment. It wasn’t their responsibility to turn in the classmate or put a stop to it. Teachers are the enforcers. That’s part of their job description.

Reports about student cheating are as commonplace as news that this spring will bring flowers. There is a lot of hand wringing about the state of honesty amongst students that goes back a long way, but no one seems to know how to put an end to it.

American schools tell students that cheating is wrong and universities make plagiarizing an offense worthy of expulsion. Most universities subscribe to Turnitin, or some equivalent, where a teacher electronically submits a paper and gets back a computerized report indicating what percentage of the submission comes from another source. During exams, proctors walk around the room to make sure there are no crib sheets.

Japan has gone a step (maybe a mile) further. For a week, Japanese media avidly followed a nation-wide manhunt to find the miscreant who had used a cell phone to cheat during entrances exams to four prestigious national universities.

This student, whose name is withheld because the alleged perpetrator is 19-years-old and a minor under Japanese law, posted questions during the exam to a popular bulletin board that is the country’s largest knowledge retrieval service. Apparently he solicited answers to math questions while in his seat during the exam and photographing the questions, then using the same cell phone to post the questions and receive answers. According to the police, the student has admitted to similar cheating in exams for three other universities.

Yoshiaki Takaki, Japan’s education minister, said, “This deed has greatly damaged the credibility of university entrance exams, which should be fair and just. It is truly regrettable.” So regrettable that the teenager faces criminal charges for obstructing the university’s business operations. If convicted, he could serve up to 3 years in prison or a fine of about $6,000.

Calling the police instead of the provost’s office would get my students’ attention. This is extreme, of course, but the concern of the Japanese authorities is real—cheating undermines the integrity of the educational system.

Students have a hard time seeing this. As far as they are concerned, cheating is an individual matter. A cheater is only hurting herself, they say. Cheaters are depriving themselves of the chance to learn. Besides, if cheaters are caught, they can be expelled. Eventually, a student or two sees how cheating undermines the legitimacy of all diplomas. There is no way of separating the earned from the bogus when cheating is widespread and unpunished.

The reality is that there is cheating can never be eliminated, just as theft can never be eliminated. But steps can be taken to make it less likely. Banning cell phones from exam rooms is an obvious rule to adopt. Better still is for teachers to develop tests that are individualized, so finding answers elsewhere is more difficult (this more readily applies to some subjects than others). And finally, the kinds of entrance exam tests used by Japanese universities (and SAT tests here) need to be set aside in favor of a closer look at a candidates over-all qualifications and not the performance on a single test.

As for the student who saw his classmate plagiarizing a paper: he alerted the professor that he saw a classmate plagiarizing a paper and left it at that. This, I think, was the ethical decision.


4 thoughts on “Cheating—the crime of it

  1. I think this is quite a complex issue. Cheating in exams undermines the integrity of a system in which students who don’t cheat have a legitimate interest, which arguably justifies the student who saw the cheating in reporting the offence, including the identification of the cheat. On the other hand, solidarity and mutual loyalty among students also have their claims. When I was a 9-year-old schoolboy at an English boarding school a great many years ago, one of the teachers overheard one of the boys in my dormitory talking at a time when talking was forbidden. The teacher came into the dormitory and demanded to know which of us had been talking. No-one admitted the offence. The teacher then demanded that the rest of us should tell him which of us was the offender. None of us said anything. The Headmaster was then summoned, and told us that unless the offender “owned up” or one of us was prepared to tell him who the offender was, we would all be severely punished. We all remained silent, so we were called down to the Headmaster’s study and each of us in turn was bent over a piano stool (wearing only our thin cotton pyjamas) and quite severely caned. (I was not the offender but of course I knew who it was.)

    The incident left me with a burning sense of the injustice of collective punishment, and even more a lasting contempt for the values of an authority which encouraged small boys to betray each other in order to escape punishment. Of course the ethics of the situation were affected by the justified feeling that the rule forbidding any talking while we were getting ready for bed was unnecessary, arbitrary and oppressive and that we had no possible interest in helping to enforce it, although I wouldn’t have been able to express that analysis explicitly at the time!

  2. You are right, the more assignments are individualized etc. the harder it is for the students to cheat. How do you ask “what is the answer” to question 3 if question three is an essay that asks creative questions:) Your classes certainly did not produce cookie-cutter questions and answers!

    Cheating at hofstra was not only something that took place, it took place amongst a majority of students–I remember in one case, the professor walked out of the room and 7/10 students whipped out their notebooks or turned to each other to get the answers.

    I have students sign an honor statement that they give me their word that they have not cheated, given nor received answers. Several students told me afterwards that they were amazed at how no one had cheated even when I walked out of the room. Maybe honor and integrity need to be discussed more often than merely threatening students if they plagiarize. I’m not saying it won’t happen even if they are made to sign honor statements, but just maybe it will cause them to pause.

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