Collaborative Cheaters?

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Apparently, a number of econ grad sudents at UVa are being investigated for cheating.

An “alarmingly large fraction” of the first-year class of economics graduate students at the University of Virginia were involved in a cheating incident that came to light this month, according to the department chair.

Department officials said that some problem sets from textbooks used in introductory graduate economics courses have answer keys online. At least one student found answers for a course taken by all first-year students, and apparently shared the information with classmates. Though the solutions were apparently available, David Mills, chair of the economics department, said students should have “known it was off-limits,” but that they instead “used it without the professor being aware.”

My initial reaction was "is finding the answers online strictly cheating"? Sure, it would be better if everyone were motivated by the rush one might feel at getting through a particularly tough problem on their own, but let's be honest here. If the problem sets said "no outside materials can be referenced", then I can see where the online search was a violation. But I'm betting it was a lot less clear than that. No truly devious methods were used to find the answers, and I believe the professor should have had some expectation that, if he were using problem sets taken straight from a text, answers might be available (much like the beloved tradition of providing answers for the odd-numbered questions in the backs of math textbooks)from the same source. Again, if warning against it was given, then the case for cheating would be clearer.

That aside, however, in re-reading the lede, I was struck bu the first three words encapsulated in quotes above: "alarmingly large fraction". Two options here: one person found it, and the information spread; multiple people had the same idea and each spread the word, though to a smaller group each. Either way, I find it fascinating that in the competitively-driven world of grad school economics there was still an individual propensity to reduce the advantage held by the person or persons who originally found the solutions.

Supposing that the line was clear and that using the solutions should be considered cheating was obvious to all involved, what aside from some sense of altruism could account for the original discoverer increasing the level of information in others, considering that the marginal person added to the "group in the know" increases the chance for being discovered? And what about the loss suffered from a reduction in class standing by not being the only person to score, say, in the top 1% (providing that the person is smart enough to make a few errors to reduce suspicion)?

3 Comments

Wow, the article is completely unclear about the actual circumstances and rules of the game, preventing me from making a sound moral judgment. But it seems that in this case, any and all help must be considered cheating.

If grad students aren't permitted to look at the correct answers ultimately provided a non-student and non-professor, are they permitted to look at the correct answers generated by fellow students?

Of course, there are two types of students: those that study in groups, and those that don't (i.e. they study alone or not at all). Are those that "study" (i.e. do homework together) in groups cheating? At both Columbia and GMU, I almost always studied alone, and never felt at all cheated by those who studied in packs...

Are UVA grad students permitted to ask other students and the econ faculty for help, or is that cheating too?

"Alarmingly large fraction" is a spectacularly imprecise number. It depends entirely on the sensitivity of one's alarm.

Triticale,

An entirely true point. This could simply be an administrator expressing shock at finding more than one.

My issue still holds when considering the second person, though. If it was the case that the solution was found by a single individual, there is still the question of why the person shared what she had found. It increases the chance of being found out, and the returns for the high grade are lowered the more other people there are that do as well.

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