Cheating has long been a great temptation, and the Internet makes it easier than ever
Tales Out of School
Cheating has long been a great temptation, and the Internet makes it easier than ever
Business is good for Kenny Sahr—booming, in fact. And why not? When he launched his new Web site last year, the Houston-based entrepreneur knew he had tapped into a gold mine. “One day, it just hit me that no one had done this yet,” says Sahr, 26. The idea was simple: post university essays on the World Wide Web—a veritable treasure trove of other people’s ideas and words to inspire and inform students around the world. A year and half after launching his site, School Sucks, Sahr claims it attracts 5,000 to 6,000 Web-surfers a day, with as much as 20 per cent from Canada. He has already launched another site in Hebrew. Within 16 months, he estimates, the service will be available in 15 languages. As for what surfers do with the more than 2,500 essays on the site, Sahr— who makes most of his money selling ad space to video-game companies, publishers and other youthoriented retailers—insists that 99 per cent of them “are using School Sucks for decent purposes.” Sure, he concedes, a handful of college students have been caught printing up the essays and handing them in as their own. “But they don’t belong in school anyway,” Sahr adds. “The universities should thank me for helping them find these people.”
Not likely. And university professors and officials would question Sahr’s assertion that “School Sucks is not about plagiarism”—or that it merely provides an independent research tool. But Sahr is right about one thing: it didn’t take the Internet to bring academic dishonesty to lecture halls and exam rooms. Cheating has been around for as long as organized education. And according to both students and university officials, the traditional forms of academic dishonesty—crib notes, stand-ins for exams, and so on—still have their loyal practitioners. Cheating, of course, occurs at every university.
But no one is really sure how many people do it—or whether or not the incidence of academic dishonesty is increasing. At McMaster in Hamilton, there were 60 cases of academic dishonesty recorded in the 1995-1996 school year, down from the 64 in 19941995. The University of Alberta last year saw known offences rise to 25 from the seven recorded in the previous year, when the university began tracking cases. Even those numbers convey only the offences that made it to the formal investigation and review process; others were resolved by individual faculties. Given the number of students at McMaster and U of A—roughly 17,000 and 30,000, respectively—neither set of numbers is especially high.
But a handful of American studies, which have tracked cheating habits more broadly, provide other, startling statistics. According to research conducted by Prof. Donald McCabe at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., more than 75 per cent of students from across the States admit to some form of academic dishonesty. Others have found the incidence to be as high as 90 per cent. “Some material from the United States suggests that the most cheating occurs in business and medicine faculties,” says Dr. Lynn Smith, director of the office of student advocacy at the University of Manitoba, who counsels students accused of academic misconduct. “That should be very problematic for the public, I think.”
The story making the rounds at the University of Alberta goes like this. Last year, a student in a science class attended his exam, but did not bother to answer any of the multiple-choice questions. Instead, he kept the blank exam page, and when the professor returned the tests to the class days later, the student filled in the answers, added several red pen marks—and then claimed his instructor had failed to record a score for what appeared to be a completed exam. “He even made sure he filled in some of the wrong answers,” says Gretchen Hess, U of As discipline officer. The plot was foiled after the professor had the ink on the exam paper analyzed—and found it was different from the red ink he used to mark the real papers.
Tales of cheating are the academic equivalent of urban legends. They can be funny, outrageous, surprising—providing students and official academe with a frisson of vicarious thrills or, more often, the opportunity to chuckle at the perpetrator’s stupidity. But at heart, academic dishonesty is a grave issue.
“Cheating takes away from everybody’s achievement,” says Hess. “If you are working hard and doing your best, it’s not fair when somebody cheats.” The penalties can be severe, ranging from probation to expulsion, with the offence placed on the student’s academic record. Still, some students are always willing to risk shortcuts. And when it comes to cheating in the 1990s, the motto is simple: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
All universities have policies against academic dishonesty, which can roughly be divided into three categories: plagiarism, cheating, and misrepresentation of facts. The third is probably the least common, but some examples are remarkable. Alberta’s Hess recalls one graduate student who, applying for a PhD program, neglected to mention that he already had his doctorate in the same field—so that he could bank a scholarship from Alberta. He was caught, and had to repay the money. Two years ago, according to an administrator at one Ontario university, an undergrad managed to steal a notepad from her doctor. She then used it throughout the school year to write medical excuses to get extensions on essays and to qualify for makeup exams. The woman was caught after turning in a note saying her mother had just died, and that she needed time off; two days later, her mom, alive and well, called the university.
Fred Hall, academic vice-president at McMaster, has also noticed an increase recently in the number of students who forge transcripts. “There are not a lot—we have maybe 10,000 applications for admission a year, and five or 10 that have tried to alter their transcripts,” he says. “But 15 years ago, that would not have happened at all.” A word of warning to would-be transcript forgers: official transcripts bear identifying features that are almost impossible to counterfeit. “We think we usually catch the bad ones,” says Hall, “because they can be traced like dollar bills.”
Not surprisingly, the art of the cheat reaches its acme at exam time. And the preferred method is one as old as pencil and paper: crib notes. “They write notes on their hand, put something on the eraser,” says Chad Boudreau, 22, editor of the University College of Cape Breton’s student newspaper, The Caper Times, which last year conducted an informal survey of cheating habits. “It’s amazing how much you can fit on one tiny eraser.” Boudreau, a fourthyear psychology major, says that cheating at UCCB is not widespread, but is most common among freshmen and second-year students. “First years, they’re kind of young, they’re still goofing around,” he says. “Some of the bad habits they picked up in high school might be continuing.” When seeking inspiration for new ways to deceive, students are, predictably, increasingly relying on the Internet. The Evil House of Cheat—an in-your-face Web site that also offers readymade term papers—includes a helpful tip sheet on “the best way to cheat at exams.” Among them is the Hat Trick, where the student pulls his hat down so far that the invigilator cannot see his eyes— which are directed at another student’s answers. Then there is the All-Knowing TI81—a fancy graphing calculator that can store notes and formulas. Probably the most elegant is the so-called Kleenex Method, wherein the student feigns a nasty cold. “Get some ‘Puffs Extra Thick’ tissues,” recommends the House of Cheat. “And in them write information you don’t feel like studying to remember, and use up a box or two of tissues on the test.”
The old-fashioned methods are still the most popular
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In the plugged-in Nineties, essay-writing services—once the denizens of college-town back alleys and benighted basements—
I are digitized, sophisticated, and just a mouse-click away. Dozens I of them—and most are American—are now available to Canadian ! students on the Internet. Some, like School Sucks and the Evil House of Cheat, make papers available at no cost, but usually require students to upload their own papers before they are given full access to the essay database. The majority of services, however, expect money for their product. Prices vary: Professor Korn, operated out of Brooklyn, N.Y., advertises rates “as low as $5 a page,” while others demand fees of $35 per page. “It’s kind of tempting, because if you’re in a rush you can just order an essay up,” says Stacey Brown, 21, a fourth-year history/native studies major at Brandon University in Manitoba. “But your conscience I says no, I have to just write the paper.”
The scope of the problem is anybody’s guess. Manitoba’s I Smith says that in her six-plus years representing students, she has not seen any cases where the charge has involved buying an ! essay “On the other hand, how do we know?” she asks. “It’s difficult to quantify.” At McMaster, Hall says that occasionally students handed in what were clearly purchased essays when he taught music history and Canadian studies. “You can usually spot them, because they’re so well crafted,” adds Hall, who says that such papers are often submitted by students whose first language is not English. “Those are the sad cases—they’ve got a lot on the line.” Universities, of course, take the threat very seriously. In late October, Boston University launched an unprecedented lawsuit against several Internet-based essay mills in the United States, charging them in federal court with wire fraud, mail fraud, racketeering and violating a Massachusetts law that bans the sale of term papers. The case, legal experts say, is a touchstone for the future of essaywriting services on the Internet.
But in the past, shutting down such companies has proven problematic. The services’ standard defence is that the essays are intended as research tools. And most of the Internet mills post dire warnings about the consequences of plagiarism. Sahr has an entire Web page on his service devoted to telling students why they should not hand in School Sucks essays. “The essays are free, so students should know their professors also have access to them,” he says. Prof. Mark Webber has heard such arguments before. Essay services “always say they’re not doing anything wrong,” says Webber, co-director of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at York. “But it’s very clear to anyone who’s talked to these people, or to the students who hire them, that they know damned well what they’re doing.”
In 1989, while associate dean of arts, Webber spearheaded an attempt to shut down a local essaywriting service. Working with officials at York, police charged two individuals with uttering false documents, an offence under the Criminal Code. The case was thrown out after a preliminary hearing. But the investigation was enlightening, says Webber.
“We found one student in high school who had all of her OAC English essays being written by these people,” he adds. The students involved, from institutions across Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, were disciplined, but Webber remains frustrated that the case ended in failure. “Education,” he says, “has such a low priority in government and society, it wasn’t taken to be very important.”
Professor (handing back essay): ‘I don’t think this is your work.’ Student (shocked): ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, sure it is.’
Prof: Well, I can go show you the book that it’s taken from. ’ Student (more shocked): What? That can’t be! The service I bought it from promised they’d write it from scratch!’
—anecdotal version of incident at York, mid-1980s
“Cheating does go on,” says Amanda Walker, 22, a third-year sociology and philosophy major at the University of Toronto. In her academic career, Walker has seen or heard of an array of techniques, from getting graduates to “edit” papers to rejigging essays written for other classes. Knowing that people cheat, says Walker, “is frustrating, because teachers are deceived and elevate their standards because of this ‘excellent’ work.” Still, she suspects she knows why it happens. “It’s hard to get an A, and if you want to get to the second level, if you want to get your MA, you’ve got to be in that range.”
The real cost of cheating, of course, transcends penalties and ruined reputations. At its core, academic dishonesty undermines the spirit of a liberal education, where—in theory at
least—the act of learning is more important than marks. Last October, Smith’s office held the first-ever academic integrity week at Manitoba. At workshops across campus, students were given information on the rules of academic conduct, advice on where to get help if they were falling behind in their studies—and an “Integrity IQ” quiz. Among the most common misperceptions of students who wrote the quiz: fudging lab results, and getting answers from someone who had already taken an exam were not really cheating. “We’ve had a high number of cases where the rules aren’t clear to students,” says Smith. “They get accused of cheating and they are most upset.”
In the battle against academic dishonesty, professors, meanwhile, are honing their own tactics. In exam halls, many now make students sit alphabetically—increasing the likelihood that they do not end up beside a friend. Photo identification is increasingly common. And many professors insist that teaching assistants, who know students well, be present. To guard against plagiarism, York’s Webber now makes undergrads hand in papers in stages, from outlines to rough drafts to finished product. “If they tried to buy all that work from someone else,” he says, “it would break the bank.”
As universities step up their efforts to discourage cheating, Sahr, for one, has nothing but praise for them. And although he refuses to believe that his service encourages plagiarism, he contends the media attention paid to School Sucks and similar services has, if nothing else, forced universities to rethink shopworn ways of gauging the abilities of students. “School Sucks frightens a lot of professors,” Sahr says. “It is forcing mediocre teachers to give more creative assignments—not just the same ones they’ve been giving since the Kennedy administration.” In the end, he argues, no matter what tools for cheating are available, the decision to break the rules is one ultimately made by students. “So, yeah, let’s help students make the right decision,” he says. “We trust them to learn, and hopefully we can trust them to learn honestly.”
It is a sentiment that could have been lifted straight from the book of Golden Rules. □
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