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CHEATING at Harvard

By Caitlin E. Anderson

With term papers and exams piling up, students face pressure to produce a lot of work in not much time.

For students who have kept up with assigned reading and begun long-term projects early, reading period can be a time of polishing papers, doing the suggested reading, and reviewing course material.

For others, however, panic and desperation set in. Under deadline pressure, some students may become careless about citing sources, or even knowingly cheat to make the grade.

In 1993-4, the Administrative Board acted on 25 cases of academic dishonesty, ranging from willful cheating and plagiarism to sloppy citing.

Few examples of plagiarism are as obvious as the one English department Teaching Fellow Lisa K. Hamilton says she experienced a few years ago in one of her sections.

"It was fairly blatant," she says. "The student just retyped a whole article about an author about whom I knew quite a bit."

But most cases of academic dishonesty are harder to detect.

Assistant Professor Andrew P. Metrick, head tutor of the economics department, estimates that his department sends about two or three students each year to the Ad Board for incidents of academic dishonesty.

But Metrick says the Ad Board sees only a fraction of the academic dishonesty that actually occurs.

"Like all crime, really, more goes on than you actually detect," he says.

And even when academic dishonesty is suspected, there is often not enough evidence to support a serious investigation, Metrick says.

Last year he received an anonymous letter stating that there was cheating on an economics exam. Metrick says that the department combed through the exams and found a little evidence to support the letter, but "not enough to go on."

"Our methods of detection are just not sharp enough," he says.

Metrick says he believes that professors often deal with cases of academic dishonesty on their own, another indication that more cheating goes on than the Ad Board actually sees.

University rules require instructors to alert the Ad Board at the slightest suspicion of academic dishonesty--a policy Metrick supports--but he says he suspects that many professors deal with students on a personal basis.

"I get the sense that the professors screen things on their own, often do their own investigation," he says. "It's very traumatic for Faculty members to send things to the Ad Board because the penalties for students are so severe."

Hamilton also says that more plagiarism goes on than is actually reported.

"I'd say that I get suspicious at least once or twice each year," she says.

But the difficulty of confirming academic dishonesty means that plagiarism often goes unchallenged.

"I can speak for other TF's that there are a lot of times that ideas or even whole paragraphs look really suspicious," she says. "You know that something is from somewhere, but you just can't spend hours in the library looking for the book," she says.

Ingenious Disingenuity

Harvard is not elementary school, however, and writing a few facts and figures on their palm won't get students very far on the Ec 10 exam. Sophisticated classes give rise to sophisticated cheating, and past Harvard students have proven to be very devious.

An instructor who asked not to be identified says one student used a number of tricks to disguise a plagiarized article.

According to the instructor, the student moved material from footnotes into the main text, started the transcription in the middle of a paragraph, and omitted phrases that contained references to authors that the instructor knew the student wouldn't have read.

Finally, the student checked out from Hilles, Lamont and Widener every copy of the book from which the article was taken.

But the instructor was familiar with the article, recognized the plagiarized text and exposed the cheater.

Past students have also devised crafty ways to cheat on biology exams, requiring instructors in the department to introduce deterrents, says Professor William M. Gelbart, head tutor of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Gelbart says one recurring problem involves students who--dissatisfied with a exam grade--change answers on a corrected test and ask their instructor to take another look.

Students are permitted to ask for a "regrade," if they disagree with an exam grade, but changing answers for a regrade is cheating.

"We've suspected that some 're-grades' were of newly-introduced material," Gelbart says.

To prevent students from changing answers, then submitting exams for regrading, Gelbart says his graders refuse to regrade exams that were taken in pencil.

"Even that wasn't enough," Gelbart says, "because if spaces were left blank the student could just fill them in. So we've started photo-copying exams randomly as a deterrent."

Gelbart also says that the instructors for Biological Sciences 1, "Introductory Genetics, Molecular, and Developmental Biology," change the format of the labs each year so that students cannot use data from previous years.

"Having learned from experience, we announce that all labs are different from the year before," he says. "In the past it's been clear that students used data from previous years, even if the format of the lab had been changed."

Gelbart says that recent cases of academic dishonesty in the biology department have involved various kinds of take-home assignments--collaboration on lab reports, or take-home writing assignments.

Gelbart adds that he is pleased that cheating seems to be in decline in the biology department. Although eight students from his department went before the Ad Board in 1994-95 in two separate incidents of illegal collaboration, he says he is not aware of any Ad Board cases from his department in the past two years.

But statistics on academic dishonesty in different departments can be misleading, because different disciplines are susceptible to different types of cheating.

Gary Feldman, chair of the Department of Physics, says that in his seven years in the department, he does not remember a single case of academic dishonesty.

He suggests that one reason for his department's exemplary record may be the format of the average physics exam.

"Our exams are not susceptible to the easiest forms of cheating since they emphasize problem-solving," he says. "They are usually open-book or allow notes or formula sheets."

Professor Clifford H. Taubes, head tutor of the Department of Mathematics, says that his department does not see much academic dishonesty.

"It doesn't happen at all in upper-level classes, and we only have one or two each year in the 1,000 or so students in introductory calculus," he says.

According to Expository Writing Preceptor Anne E. Fernald, plagiarism is an emotional ordeal for the instructor as well as the plagiarist.

A few years ago, a student in one of her classes submitted a transcription of an article for a class assignment.

"The thing that shocked me the most about the case was how angry I was because the student had betrayed the reason for coming to college," Fernald said. "By transcribing something out of a book, she...gave up any goodwill I had toward her, or helping her with her situation."

Michael J. Prokopow, Allston Burr senior tutor of Adams House, says that dealing with academic dishonesty is difficult for everyone involved.

In his four years as Senior Tutor of Adams, Prokopow--who represents Adams residents before the Ad Board--says that he has dealt with four or five cases of plagiarism.

"They were across the spectrum, from students who knowingly and willingly plagiarized to students who did not exercise enough care in differentiating their ideas from those of others," he says.

Prokopow says that in every case, he approved of the way the Ad Board handled issues of academic dishonesty.

"I think they do a fine job," he says. "I was impressed by their sensitivity and their confidentiality."

"Students say it seems harsh, because some students are really just confused," he says. "But all of us as scholars have to be very scrupulous. I always tell my students to err on the side of hypercaution."

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