The Same As It Ever Was

Accusations of plagiarism made a big stir on campus this year, but debates over cheating are nothing new

Vilsa E. Curto

This spring, when allegations of cheating arose after Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 was accused of plagiarizing passages from other novels for her book “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” a media blitz erupted. But when a number of students were caught cheating on midterms and homework assignments at the College 25 years ago, the issue quickly slid under the radar.

Although these incidents have long faded from memory, in November of 1980, two professors reported instances of cheating during fall semester midterms.

William H. Bossert ’59, then-McKay professor of applied mathematics, investigated allegations that several students had cheated on weekly homework assignments, The Crimson reported on Nov. 4, 1980. Bossert, whose course Natural Sciences 110, “Automatic Computing” was the second-largest class at the College, reported the names of a few of the suspected cheaters to their senior tutors and advisers.

Only a week later, 13 students in Science B-16, “The History of the Earth and Life,” taught by late professor of Geology Stephen J. Gould, were caught cheating on their take-home midterm and received zeros, according to a Crimson article.

These incidents caused little stir on campus, but for some, they exposed a competitive atmosphere at the College that can push students to cheat in extreme circumstances.

Bradford P. Stoner ’81, who was a pre-med student in Quincy House, says that he remembers a prevailing “intense concern” at the time, particularly among pre-meds, that some students were “bending rules.”

“There was a general sense that Harvard students were honest—except when the stakes were very high, like trying to get into medical school,” Stoner says.

Stoner cites instances where students sabotaged their lab mates’ chemistry experiments.

But he says that cheating is not a flaw of the College but of human nature. While the competitive atmosphere of Harvard encourages people to “look for an easy way out,” he says, “the stakes are so much higher at a place like Harvard because the spotlight is on you.”

Stoner adds that if accusations of plagiarism, like those brought against Viswanathan earlier this year, had occurred at a lesser-known university, they would not have created the same “national fervor.”

Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba also says that the controversy has drawn so much attention because of the “brand name” that Harvard carries. In addition, Verba says that the $500,000 advance given to Viswanathan for her two-book contract added to the media attention.

CHEATING IS STILL RARE

While these incidents show that speculation of cheating occasionally come to the surface at the College, several professors say that they have only rarely encountered instances of dishonest student behavior.

Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry emeritus Elias J. Corey writes in an e-mail that in his 39 years of teaching at the University, he has never seen any undergraduate or graduate student cheat.

Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, Kenan professor of government, writes in an e-mail that in over 40 years, he has only encountered two instances of plagiarism in his courses.

“I remember once hearing someone say, ‘You are not a professor until you have clapped your hand on the shoulder of a cheater in the exam room,’” Mansfield writes. “By this standard, I don’t qualify as a professor.”

Verba, who has been teaching at the University for over thirty years, says that he does not remember any instances of cheating. But he adds that this may be because many cheaters go unnoticed.

“It’s very difficult to know what is the frequency of things that don’t look like they’re happening,” Verba says.

While technological advances have facilitated plagiarism through the arrival of the internet, he contends, it has also become easier to catch plagiarism with the use of search engines to detect copied works.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.