How a typo helped reveal Harvard University cheaters

The Harvard Crimson | The Miami Herald
Harvard Assistant Professor Matthew B. Platt made a recent discovery that led the university to investigate about 125 students it accuses of cheating on a take-home exam. He noticed that two students inserted the same superfluous space in a statistic, writing “25, 500″ instead of “25,500.” The similarity led him to believe the coincidences were “not the product of chance,” Mercer R. Cook and Rebecca D. Robbins report in The Harvard Crimson.

Another problem:

He wrote that one of his teaching fellows originally detected suspicious similarities on that question, which read, “Describe two developments in the history of Congress that ostensibly gave individual MCs [members of Congress] in the House greater freedom and/or control but ultimately centralized power in the hands of party leadership.”

Several students answered that question with the same two “somewhat obscure” responses—the Cannon Revolt of 1910 and longtime 19th century Congressman Henry Clay, Platt wrote.

When news of the scandal broke, Mary Carmichael reported in The Boston Globe that, in response, “Harvard administrators will also explore new strategies for educating students about academic norms — an effort they had intensified in the past two years because of fears that plagiarism was becoming rampant.” My coworker Craig Silverman pointed out last week that journalism, too, has been plagued by reports of plagiarism in recent months.

Edward Wasserman responded to Silverman’s piece, writing about “the zeal with which textual borrowings are being ferreted out and denounced as a sign of moral failure.”

My fear is that what’s condemned as plagiarism is actually a slippery thing, and sometimes comes so close to what journalists are supposed to do that if we’re not careful, we’ll end up not so much protecting originality, but criminalizing routines that are integral to some of the most broadly beneficial practices of contemporary reporting.

Wasserman describes the journalistic functions served by reuse of others’ work in the past, offering as an example the rewriting of press releases; journalism, he writes, is a “quintessentially derivative enterprise.” While praising the imperative to credit other reporters’ work, Wasserman writes: “…it would be a pity if aggressive information gathering were suppressed by the heat of some moral hysteria.”

Credit isn’t owed indefinitely to the person who unearthed a momentarily sensational fact, and boilerplate doesn’t deserve to be saluted as if it were deathless poetry.

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  • Al

    How smart do you have to be to know:
    that copying on an exam is cheating;
    and copying without even reading what you’re copying is stupid.

  • http://twitter.com/GlennF Glenn Fleishman

    Aren’t we still discussing whether this was cheating or group studying with poor parameters set by the professor, given that teaching assistants provided a contradictory message?