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Professors, Students Must Share Blame for Dishonesty

Column by Audrey Wu
Staff Reporter

I took my Graduate Record Examination last Saturday. For the most part, I thought it was a pointless experience and pretty much a waste of a Saturday morning, especially since I'm a senior who accepted a job offer way back in December. With less than two months to graduation and less than a month before classes end, the last thing I wanted to think about was what the opposite of "pusillanimous" is.

But things did get a little more interesting for me after I finished a math section a few minutes early. I was pretty bored, and I was looking around the testing hall when I noticed a person sitting nearby was working intently - and illegally - on section three. The proctor was standing in the back of the hall; the other GRE administrators were sitting in front reading books.

It was pretty clear to me that this person was probably going to get away with cheating. But more upsetting was that the the person was wearing an MIT baseball cap and a brass rat. And even more disturbing was when I noticed another MIT student, one who I recognized, cheating in the same way. So much for academic integrity.

To those two I'd like to say, you're pretty pathetic. You've demonstrated a lack of academic integrity that brings shame not only to yourselves but to your institution. But then again, we have all done our share of cheating during our years here. The sad thing is, most of us don't even realize that we're doing it.

I have three questions for you: Have you ever collaborated with a friend on a problem set in a class where the professor explicitly stated that problem sets should be an individual effort? Have you ever used a bible? Have you ever given another student a bible? The majority of students here will answer yes to at least one of these questions.

I remember the first time I got my hands on a bible. It was second semester my freshman year, and I was struggling with a problem set. The first time I copied a solution from the bible, I was careful to try to understand the concepts behind the answer. By doing so, I rationalized, I wasn't really copying the solution. That's how I managed to squish the little nudge my conscience was giving me. But it didn't take long for me to get lazy and copy solutions while pushing off learning the concepts later.

And it didn't take long for me to see that most of my classmates were using bibles, too. Who hasn't received frantic electronic mail at the beginning of the semester in which the subject is "Help!" and the content is something along the lines of "Does anyone out there have a bible? I would be forever grateful!" Who hasn't come home late at night to a message scrawled on your message board that reads something like: "I need help! Have you looked at the problem set yet?"

In my four years here, I have learned that problem sets, regardless of what the professor says on the first day of class, are a group effort. I have learned that bibles are an acceptable and even necessary tool, usually even more so than a textbook and class notes, for getting problem sets and lab reports done.

To a certain extent, we can place part of the blame on professors who believe in recycling problem set questions and lab procedures like soda bottles with 10-cent deposits. I have heard the rationalization: "Well, if they didn't want us to use bibles, they wouldn't use the same questions every year."

But to be fair, the problem does not rest solely on professors, administrators, or students. The problem finds its roots in a widespread attitude at the Institute in which students are constantly saying, "Oh, just use my bible," or, "Hey, buddy, here's the problem set if you need to take a look at it." This attitude is so accepted that we forget that what we are doing amounts to cheating.

"But," some say, "everyone is doing it - I have to use a bible and I have to work with my friends to keep up." So I ask you then, are there different degrees of cheating, like harmless little white lies as opposed to great big bad lies? The acceptance we have at MIT towards collaboration and using bibles would seem to point to different degrees of cheating. Does that then make collaboration and using bibles on problem sets morally correct? Is it okay to cheat because everyone is doing it and because professors and teaching assistants seem to turn a blind eye? Or is the truth that in our struggle to stay afloat at the Institute, we've jettisoned a big chunk of our notion of academic integrity?

My sister is a student at Princeton University, a school in which academic integrity is maintained through an honor code. Before every exam, she must write, "I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code on this examination." She must do something similar for written reports. I'd like to make it clear that I'm certainly not advocating an honor code system.

Princeton has its own problems with the honor code. But I do believe that we couldn't have an honor code here at MIT because our notion of what constitutes academic integrity is too blurry for us as students to uphold a clearly defined honor code.

I will receive my bachelor's degree on June 7. The piece of paper I will get that day will embody a lot of legitimate hard work that I put in over the past four years. But it will also embody many hours of working with friends on problem sets, copying solutions and lab reports from bibles, and studying from bibles - activities that have become second nature to me and many other students. Maybe I haven't been as flagrant about cheating as the two students I saw cheating last Saturday. But I sadly admit I won't be graduating from MIT with a clear conscience. Students and faculty alike need to take more care in defining what constitutes academic integrity.