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.