How to cheat good

I just submitted my last set of grades for the semester. This is always a big weight off my shoulders, but since it will be the last set of grades I ever submit at the University at Buffalo, it is an even greater relief. And so I think it’s time for me to “give back” as the kids say.

I had a 24 hour take home (distance course, so “keep home”?) final exam. Students had to submit it in text–and most submitted it in Word. In the exam, I noted that “I expect everyone to behave honorably,” and noted that receiving assistance from others or plagiarizing work was a bad idea.

I would prefer that students don’t cheat. Yes, they really are mostly cheating themselves, so fine. But it also reflects poorly on the community. Rationally or not, what particularly irks me is that it is disrespectful: of me, of their fellow students, of the university, of the institution of learning, and of themselves. And–did I mention–of me? It is particularly irksome when their cheating implies (reminds?) that I am a fool.

So, to help students across the country cheat better, saving themselves both from easy detection and from incurring the wrath of insulted faculty, and leading to a much more harmonious school environment, I offer the following tips, based on recent experience:

1. Don’t cheat off family.

If you are in a class of several hundred people, and you share an unusual family name with another student in the class, it is best if your reply to an open ended short-answer question is not identical, word-for-word. This is particularly true when the answer is wrong, and when it is wrong in an idiosyncratic way. Many profs, as I do, grade “blind,” without reference to the names of the students, but still, it’s easy enough when you find something like this to track back to the names. My suggestion, in this case, is to continue to cut and paste the answer, but to legally change your name. A convenience marriage may do the trick.

2. Don’t talk British.

The only people allowed to use the word “colour” are those with Indian surnames. “Weight,” you may argue, “I was bourne and razed in the english countryside.” I have no doubt, but your Commonwealth heritage is not easily detectable by your surname, so I’m afraid you will need to switch to Amerkin spelling for work in my classes. (If you are Indian, but your surname has suffered from various Colonial incursions, I’m afraid you’ll have to lose the U’s as well.) Otherwise, fair or not, it somehow appears that you have copied your work from another author.

3. You Google, I Google

How do you think I check suspicious work? It’s not like our state university is shelling out for TurnItIn. I am pretty good with that Google thingy. And changing two words won’t send me off the trail. So copy from something a bit more obscure. Or–and this is really tricky–try making up your own stuff.

4. Dont rite to good

When you “write” a sentence like “The veil of ignorance, to mention one prominent feature of that position, has no specific metaphysical implications concerning the nature of the self; it does not imply that the self is ontologically prior to the facts about persons that the parties are excluded from knowing,” you have two ways of being caught up. First, while I make no claim of having anything approaching an eidetic memory (more like an idyllic memory), it may ring some dusty bells and heck, I might be able to pull the book you stole it from down off my shelf, even if you followed the advice of #3. If my memory fails to serve, as is frequently the case these days, Google Print might help out.

The second way you can trip up is by following this with your original words, which tend to be less sophisticated, or equally sophisticated material from an entirely different source that simply does not seem to make sense in this particular context.

As a corollary here, try not to plagiarize the teacher. You will be less likely to suffer her ire, since it will amuse her and her colleagues to no end, but you are more likely to be caught. Steal her ideas and rephrase them in your own prose, because there is nothing teachers like more than knowing that students can write well but have no original ideas.

5. Malaprop big words

Make sure you pick a word that sounds impervious and use it incorrigibly, or inventorate words. We’ll be udderly convinced of your genuinity (not to mention your precedential potential). Snuff said.

6. Use the word “rediculous.”

This almost magical word will cause any instructor to instantaneously turn off all internal plagiarism detection.

7. Borrow from someone who writes as badly as you do.

Don’t do what one of my graduate students did, and steal a text on Korean feminism from someone who wrote slightly better English than he did. I’ll notice the slightly better writing, even before I notice that you have expressed no interest in or knowledge of feminist perspectives in the past. (Once kicked out of our program, he applied to the English department. No kidding.)

8. Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

This is my Number 1 piece of advice, even if it is numbered eight. When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on. This seems to happen in about 1% of student work turned in, and periodically makes me feel like becoming a hermit.

If you follow these simple rules, you are almost guaranteed to pass off your plagiarism and cheating as your own work. This will allow the faculty to remain in blissful ignorance, believing that–despite the low pay–they are spreading knowledge in the world, while at the same time convincing your parents to continue to pay for several more years of school, drunken orgies, and Prada bags. Your classmates who do not follow the above rules will constitute the “low hanging fruit,” easily picked off and tormented by mean-spirited unfulfilled teachers for their own amusement. You, however, will rise above the fray, secure in your superious ability to act smart, even if you don’t understand the text you are passing off as your own.

And what if you follow all eight points and still get caught? Here’s your “get out of jail free” card. Simply say this to your teacher (no, no one has tried these exact words on me yet), and you are off scot free:

“Like a postmodern version of Searle’s Chinese Room, I am able to re-articulate existing knowledge through my command of its (re)presentation and manipulation. Any claim to originality ignores what I like to call our ability to stand on the shoulders of giants. By this, I mean that there is a well-known correlation between book sales and height, and we should use their height to our own advantage, to avoid mud and small dogs.

“Also, is it really all that original to give me an F? After all, I’ve already received an F from two other profs this semester alone. Be an original: give me a C.

“By the way, I don’t know who this ‘John Rawls’ guy is–is he even in our major?–but I think it’s possible he cheated off me.

“Finally, and I think this is most vital, my plagiarism in this case is a clear indictment of the educational system. After all, I’ve been failed by my high school and by three years of university, while continually passing. I don’t think it can be entirely my fault if I’ve gotten this far by plagiarism, and in this, my last class, you decide that it is somehow ‘wrong.’ Clearly, you should use this outcome as a way of evaluating your own teaching and expectations.”

You have my permission to use the above excuses, verbatim and without attribution, in any discussion with your respected faculty. I don’t guarantee their success, but would be happy to hear from any of you who employ them as to their efficacy.

Update (6/16): Be sure to read the huge number of comments below, because they have some top-notch cheating tips. Also, a few have asked whether they can reprint, borrow this in some way. It got lost with my last blog redesign, but everything here that is original is Creative Commons licensed for non-commercial, attributed use. So have at it, just don’t say you wrote it… and don’t turn it in for a grade!

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  1. Jim Vernon
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    I *love* the Rawls excuse!

    I struggled with Rawls in Ethics 1xx — and by “struggled”, I obviously mean I was too busy with my drunken orgies to read him but wrote a paper citing Theory of Justice anyway.

  2. Posted 6/16/2006 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Dude, you just gave me my new Bible, just in time for third semester of college english!

  3. Posted 6/16/2006 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    A dead giveaway in Physics assignments is seeing a correct answer with ’52’ appended – it’s usually a misinterpretation of another student’s hastily-scrawled ‘Ω’ (omega).

  4. Garrett
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, it was quite funny.

    I’m a student now and can’t get over how many people try to get me to help them cheat. I’ve given up on trying to resist now, but I remeber in 9th grade on a multiple choice test where a girl next to me was copying answers verbatum, I thought I’d teach her a lesson (because the instructor, new and didn’t care). I completed the test quickly, and went to go to the bathroom. When I came back, she was gone, so I went back and changed all my answers to the correct ones. I actually feel bad about that now…

  5. Tina
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Very funny! What isn’t funny however, is the legal process involved in turning in a cheater. One of my students blatantly plagiarized an English comp paper. I needed to go no further than the first stop on Google to prove this (I think we all Google). In spite of the evidence, the University treated me like the criminal. I was cross examined about whether or not I had told her that plagiarism was wrong etc. I had to provide affadavits of other students stating that I had gone over plagiarism in class. I refused to back down and in the end she withdrew from University the day before the hearing was to take place.

    The aggravation and loss of time lead other teachers to pass these students along. (It is against the rules at RU to fail a student for plagiarism. Instead the evidence must be submitted to committee).

  6. Posted 6/16/2006 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I still have a few more semesters of grades to submit, but I truly enjoyed your cheating “suggestions” here. I suppose there are folks who may think that some of these ideas **never** happen; students would never do such foolish things, however I have experienced several. I had a “memorable” experience with rule number 4: “Dont rite to good.” Several years ago a student turned in a term paper on environmental philosophy that was remarkable (although the student’s prior work was C+, I was thinking “A”). I was doing some research in the area at the time, so some of the student ideas were professionally interesting. During a grading break I Goggled a couple of key ideas in the paper. The **first hit** was an equally remarkable unpublished essay by a west coast philosophy professor, who apparently had plagiarized my student! Their papers were virtually identical, except his essay had a few years priority. The “A” thinking vanished as I prepared a case for the University Student Judicial System.
    Come to think of it, but maybe my experience is not so much a violation of rule #4. Perhaps you need another rule: “don’t write on a topic that you professor is **really** interested in.”
    Finally, could I have permission to save the print version of this page and post it on my teaching web page? **Obviously,** I would cite you as author & provide the full web citation for the original.

  7. Posted 6/16/2006 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Yes, copy and paste is tricky, if there are different font styles, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
    Also I remember the surprise of our class when in highschool our teacher started to google sentences of our works. Some students’ world shivered:)

  8. Posted 6/16/2006 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I quote Robert DeNiro in ‘The Untouchables’ — “Like many things in life, we laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true.” I teach an undergrad elective on intellectual property law at my highly selective liberal arts alma mater outside Boston, selective to the point where I probably wouldn’t get in if I applied today. Last fall, a student a) called me the night before the final paper was due and told me he had just started working on it, and b) turned in a paper the next day that “quoted” me directly from our conversation the night before, as if these thoughts were the student’s own.

    Then this semester a student who got a week extension on the final (a family member died, and yes, I confirmed that with the dean) turned in an excellent paper…but one whole paragraph was lifted from a Boston Globe essay I happened to have read and enjoyed a few months earlier. I asked her if she had “forgotten” to cite this, and referenced the original article. Her reply was to ask me to reevaluate the paper because she thought she deserved a better grade. Can we make “Don’t be such a jackass” Rule #9?

  9. Cam
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    In my grad school days, one of my colleagues received a photocopy of another student’s paper. Now, that’s bold!

  10. Lisa Suter
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Stuart (#147):

    While I understand your distress, I think you grossly misinterpret this site’s discussion if you truly feel that “educational professionals will happily attribute work with any sense of style, consistent grammar and original ideas to copying.” I have taught college composition classes for ten years, myself, and I am happy to say that the vast majority of my students are bright, well-intentioned, and hard-working scholars who do their own writing and do it very well. There are lots of strong young minds out there, eager for a challenge, looking to make their mark on the world or in the halls of academe.

    [I wouldn’t teach writing if I thought any other way. One of the greatest joys in life, for me, is reading, and I find new authors’ work to love every new term.]

    This site, however, is not dedicated to the earnest efforts of those students. It is a place for teachers to blow off steam about the tiny minority of another type of “student” altogether–the ones who lie and cheat and have the effrontery to think educators can’t know (or can’t prove) the difference. It never ceases to amaze me, even after all this time, how much heartache it causes me to find out that a student has turned in work not her or his own. In my experience, it’s only 1-2% of my class roll, so you’d think I wouldn’t care, or could at least keep some perspective about the whole issue.

    (At least on this site, profs are willing to look on the bright side: stupidity is occasionally quite funny! :)

    But it is a breach of trust, and an implicit claim that the student in question thinks his or her professor too moronic to notice, too apathetic to press charges, or too weak-willed and fearful to stick to her guns if the case becomes a legal issue—as it often does. This is a really big waste of *ALL* of our time–not just for teachers, but for students too. We teachers have to use the energy we should rightfully be using to work with *you*, the students we came to this line of work to mentor.

    So please don’t misunderstand: I don’t think most of the teachers here think they are “god-heads”—we’d just like our students to use their own (quite adequate, mortal-type) heads, just like we have to do. Failing that, we’ll have a laugh about some of their more amusing attempts to cheat us–and you–as we continue to do the work you pay us to do….

    But thanks, seriously, for speaking for students. Having been one all my life, I appreciate the candor and the perspective.

  11. Posted 6/16/2006 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    After having caught my first entirely plagiarized paper (Prompting me to suggest the rule that if you are going to a paper mill site don’t copy a free paper; shell out the few extra bucks so that my google search chokes a bit more.) this was a helpful balm on my wounds. [tongue now firmly in cheek] I understand why students would plagiarize on other professor’s assignments but me??!!? So thanks, and I hope you have a colourful summer.

  12. Gail Reed
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    When I worked in the English lab in one of the City Colleges of Chicago, I was often asked to write papers for people. The offer was usually $50 to $100. I always told them that I wouldn’t do it, but if I did, they’d be sorry. Because I can write, and write well, and the teacher would know in an instant that it wasn’t their work. They never believed me – the better the paper sounded, they more they wanted it.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with your point in 4c; I was in English 10, and apparently my teacher is a solipsistic ass. We rarely ever “learned” anything in his class; we merely listened to him ranting or raving for 15 minutes about an obscure author, or more regularly, Freud’s take on _____, and then it would e our turn to take his words, change a few here and there, spit them righ tback at him, and he’d go on for another 10 minutes about how he agrees with our point. By the end of first quarter, we had all figured out that original writing was discouraged; just write or say the teacher’s ideas and you’re guaranteed an A.

    Throughout the course of the year, we wrote perhaps 15 or 20 essays. The grades he gave me ranged from a B- to an A-. However, there was one essay with which I was having real trouble. I failed to come up with a good thesis to begin with, so I went to my teacher for help. He gave me some suggestions. Actually, that’s not really what he did; he told me what to write. And so I did, and later on I received an A for the paper, bearing comments such as “brilliant!,” “well said,” and “excellent paper.”

    After that, I told myself “screw this,” and almost never talked in class, and soldiered on with B+ essays. I wanted to write about my own ideas, not my teacher’s. I received a B+ for the year.

    Within the next few weeks, I’ll be moving to London, and I’ll be glad to do so for two reasons: a) I’ll get to write “colour” without being corrected, and b) I’ll never have to see my English 10 teacher ever again.

  14. Posted 6/16/2006 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Yeah Anonymous Coward, you’ll have that. It’s a strange when copying a teachers ideas is called learning, but copying them from a book is called plagiarism. Sometime you might get the opportunity to learn from a solipsistic ass in a course where said ass is using a textbook they authored; the distinction will become even more grey/gray.

    But, (and it’s a but that might be worthy of two t’s) bad teaching is no excuse for plagiarism. Sometimes a B+ is the price of admission for learning that discernment, even about your professor, is a good skill, just like good writing. Straight A’s can mean brilliant; it can mean uncreative too.

  15. Zach
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I will say though, in the very least, students who cheat are at least better preparing themselves for the world ahead. Business is about cheating. It’s about taking the ideas of others and, in some cases, improving upon them (though I can think of numerous times where this is certainly NOT the case). So I would argue that in a way, it is a form of learning. Just not the kind professors appreciate.

  16. Posted 6/16/2006 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I have two stories that are related to this article and the comments made.

    First, when I was a college freshman, I was wrongly accused of plagiarism. It was a literature class that I actually rather liked. I had just turned in the second paper of the semester and I hadn’t really put much effort into the first. Since, we were allowed to write on anything that we had covered in class, I was excited to let my mind lose and tackle something really interesting. Having been in college for all of two months, it was a very upsetting and humiliating experience to be accused of cheating. He didn’t believe me until I showed him all the sources I read (for ideas, not content) and my methodology for writing the paper. I realize now that it was just the sort of cynicism shown here that lead him to think I had plagiarized.

    Finally, in a more recent example, I was extremely surprised to get an A in a class I had expected to fail. It was a World Lit. course and I was trying to hold down a full time job and take a full load over the summer. I am not defending myself but I had three papers due at the end of the class and I only completed one. I had finished the outlines for the final two but just ran out of time before I could get them into a coherent essay from. In defeat, I turned in the one paper along with the two outlines for kicks. I am forced to wonder if I had cheated and tried to slap together some essays if I would have still made an A.

  17. Posted 6/16/2006 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I have two stories that are related to this article and the comments made.

    First, when I was a college freshman, I was wrongly accused of plagiarism. It was a literature class that I actually rather liked. I had just turned in the second paper of the semester and I hadn’t really put much effort into the first. Since we were allowed to write on anything that we had covered in class, I was excited to let my mind loose and tackle something really interesting. Having been in college for all of two months, it was upsetting and humiliating to be accused of cheating. He didn’t believe me until I showed him all the sources I read (for ideas, not content) and my methodology for writing the paper. I realize now that it was just the sort of cynicism shown here that lead him to think I had plagiarized.

    Finally, in a more recent example, I was extremely surprised to get an A in a class I had expected to fail. It was a World Lit. course and I was trying to hold down a full time job and take a full load over the summer. I am not defending myself but I had three papers due at the end of the class and I only completed one. I had finished the outlines for the final two but just ran out of time before I could get them into a coherent essay from. In defeat, I turned in the one paper along with the two outlines for kicks. I am forced to wonder if I had cheated and tried to slap together some essays if I would have still made an A.

    (edited for grammar and spelling, teaches me to post before proofreading!!!)

  18. lilzilla
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Intro programming class. Girl A and Girl B hand in identical assignments. When Girl A is called in to talk to the prof, she strenuously denies having engaged in any wrongdoing, though “my boyfriend helped me out with it”. Girl B is called in and asked the same question, and says “well, my boyfriend helped me out with it”. Awkward silence from the prof. “But I think he has other girlfriends”.

  19. Mormegil
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    When I was in High School there was no world wide web, or at least we had never heard of it. I once handed in 3 pages I photocopied right out of the encyclopedia, and told my teacher “just read the parts I highlighted.” He got a good laugh out of that and I turned in my real paper.

    At the time it was funny because it was so absurd, but now I realize that what I considered satire is for others a reality. How depressing.

  20. Rusty
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    “Its better to cheat than repeat”
    “When in doubt look about”

    I am 17 and have a 162 IQ. I cheat, it doesnt mean im stupid, its just why try hard at subjects your never going to see again and your most certainly not going to major in, such as International Baccalaureate Spanish 3…. haha, I hated that class with a passion

  21. Ted
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I teach in academic writing courses at two universities in Tokyo. These are courses for English majors, so the courses are meant to prepare students to actually write MLA style research papers or essays about novels they have read in English.

    The student who copies too much and includes “Click here for more information” is always good for a laugh, or a sigh.

    One caveat regarding rule 7: “Borrow from someone who writes as badly as you do.”

    I had a fourth year student last year join my second year academic writing class. He’d failed with another teacher in second year, failed with me in third year, and was well on his way to not graduating because he just couldn’t pass this required course. I failed him last year because he didn’t turn in the paper. I tried to cut him a deal–100 words in English every week for 12 weeks about his topic and I would pass him. It’s not his fault that he is a fourth year student who should never have been admitted to the English department in the first place, and once he was there never received the instruction he needed.

    So, he plodded along for a few weeks, then turned in a 2500 word research paper. One paragraph at the beginning and end from him with the rest soon found with Google. He swore up and down that he hadn’t copied. He cried great salty tears before many of his classmates in the hallway after class. Even faced with the offending website, he swore he hadn’t copied.

    Rule 7 B “Borrow from someone who writes as badly as you do. However, if you get your girlfriend to write your paper for you, make sure they know how to cheat good.”

  22. Tom
    Posted 6/16/2006 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Inspiration is not the same as plagiarism, folks.

    And a friend helped me understand that plagiarism is not the same as copyright infringement.

    Resorting to plagiarism is most often the action of someone who is lazy (intellectually), not necessarily stupid. People do not usually get paid when they don’t do their job at work, so why should a student be rewarded with a degree? F = FAILURE & FIRED.

    Loved the article. Brilliant. Thanks.

  23. Bill
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    I have a terrible urge to plagiarize this somewhere just for ironic value.

  24. Bill
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Ok, so the use of “ironic” broke rule #5, since plagiarism in that context might be apropros, but would not be irony. Excellent post.

  25. WNight
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    Your Chinese-Room excuse is interesting, and I think this is most vital, examines the nature of knowledge and ability. Life isn’t a closed book test and while I myself test well, I would much rather work with a creative person who can make the work of others work for them than some tortured genius who elaborately reinvents wheel after wheel.

    The core issue is dishonesty, and I think this is most vital, as a dishonest answer can’t be trusted at all, despite the technical skill of the liar. However, I do feel like the system is stacked in such a way as to almost guarantee cheaters. For instance, grades are assigned largely on the whim of the teacher and can have little reletion to the classwork and much to interpersonal relations, a grading curve, or an “Only 3 As” policy.

    Great grades, unfairly, are required for many positions and further education. By inaccurately manipulating those grades, even unwittingly as you describe by your “[…]less likely to suffer her ire, since it will amuse her[…]” comment you are playing god with a students future. Until the system is fixed such that a students dreams of a success aren’t turned to a nightmare of low grades and “Would you like fries with that?” jokes through unrealistic policies of the schools. While it’s possible for anyone with a documented disability to get out of anything they consider remotely dull (I used this to my ability during my least-favorite classes) someone who “merely” reads at half the speed of their fellows is going to be stuck taking the same timed tests and made to appear an idiot, by transcript alone.

    And so I re-submit that the Chinese Room point is very vital, as that’s a much better model than the rote learning one for producing a useful person.

  26. Sergei Shelukhin
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Heh :)
    We had a hilarous cheating failure during our final essay in high school that illustrates #3 very well. Here (well, it was true when I was finishing high school 5 years ago), students have to pick one of 6-8 topics (most are semi-specific topics about some classic book/author or some problem/whatever in context of some book, and one is usually some kind of “free topic” about some problem or area of life “in general”) and you have to produce an essay in 3 hours or so, in class. Most people choose free topic (I did ;)). Amoung the few of those who have taken complex book-related topics in our class were two guys sitting on the opposite sides of the class. They both took the same topic and their essays were identical, word by word. They got essay bases off the internet and printed them out in tiny font, except that they both had the same set, and they pikked the matching essay to copy; the same essay for both. They were given the lowest mark that enabled them to pass, just out of mercy :)

  27. Posted 6/17/2006 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I’m tempted to a) share my funny story, and b) make a serious comment. So I’ll do them both, in that order.

    I’ve never cheated, but I did once deliberately do poor work to get a better grade. See, I had one creative writing class taught by an overworked TA who really didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t have time to try to figure it out. He just split us up into small groups, gave us vague assignments, told us to peer-review each other’s rough drafts, and then he got on with his own studies while we worked with each other.

    I wrote my first paper for the class, and gave it to the rest of my group to be peer-reviewed while I PR’ed theirs. My comments were things like, “Move this paragraph to here, eliminate this sentence, refine this point, take out this blatant spelling error, discuss this further, et cetera.” Theirs went, “Wow! This is really good!” I got a B, they got an A.

    That was when I figured out how the teacher graded. He looked at the rough draft, looked at the final draft, and the more changes you made, the higher your grade. Needless to say, my rough drafts got substantially worse immediately afterwards. :)

    And the serious comment: I’ve seen all sorts of comments on this entry blaming lazy teachers, incompetent teachers, arrogant teachers, and one notable entry where someone with a “162 IQ” and the inability to use apostrophes properly blames having to learn about things that he doesn’t want to. The fact of the matter is, those are all just excuses. People use plagarism to avoid having to absorb and comprehend the knowledge they’re supposed to be learning for the course (which is why you can’t just recopy the encyclopedia–it’s not enough to know you’ve read it, forcing you to restate it in your own words shows you understand it.) They know that it’s wrong, and every “blame the teacher” line is just the next line of excuses after “I didn’t do it.” Even if you didn’t have the honesty to do the work, have the honesty to admit it’s your own fault.

  28. Posted 6/17/2006 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    WNight: As I noted, I generally grade blind to try to minimize the bias that I might have–say–toward an attractive student. That said, I see no problem with grading higher for ideas that attract me.

    It’s not playing god to say I know what I think is right. I think saying more than that is probably a bit too egotistical. Nonetheless, the process of education is one of learning form people who are experts: that is, from people who have spent more time with a topic than you have. That doesn’t mean that they are always right, but it does mean that they tend to represent (often) the consensus of current thinking on a topic.

    Grades are a way of communicating this back to the student. I realize that they are used for more than this, particularly for entry into graduate school. I don’t mind this–it’s not as though things change in graduate school: you are still expected to be able to articulate the position of the instructor.

    I prefer when students engage in the material in a critical way. In each of my syllabi, I make clear that the sole criterion for an A is that the student teach me something. But the nature of the beast is that we are humans grading humans.

    How this can possibly be used as an excuse for theft is beyond me. I certainly don’t expect students to reinvent the wheel. No one will do well in one of my assignments by starting from scratch. I simply ask that they not present material that is not their own as their own material; i.e., plagiarize.

    I’ll reiterate an earlier comment. It’s not that plagiarists or cheaters are stupid, or even that they are lazy (though this is often the case). It is that they are dishonest. If you draw from someone else’s work, the modern Western view is that you are expected to cite that work. (Indeed, the only way the “shoulders of giants” things works is if your readers can identify the giants.) When you fail to do so, you are implying that you have come up with the material on your own.

    I see several comments above that say “so what?” It really is a question of honor and ethics. If you are willing to be known as a dishonorable person, and to bring disrepute to your school and classmates, then you will plagiarize–and there will always be people who do. Just as there will always be people willing to mug others at knifepoint, or steal a purse left unguarded. Just because it works for you, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. And just because you have excuses, even good excuses (society unjustly distributes wealth, school is boring, etc.), doesn’t change the social fact that it is unethical behavior.

  29. Steve
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Interesting and amusing article, thanks!

    I sometimes wonder about students. When I was an engineering TA, I supervised a lab where the experiment did not go well. In fact, it pretty much failed to show what we had hoped it would show. But, when I was grading a few lab reports, I was surprised to see perfect data and perfect graphs. What the writer had done was to use the information from his textbook to massage his data and graphs to be “presentable”. The problem was I am of the school that believes that science is messy, and I am highly suspicious (sp?) of perfect data. The offending student received a C on this paper because I was restricted by faculty on how low I could go.

    It is my experience that such works of academic dishonesty are ignored or encouraged by the actions of the instructors. Certainly, there is an ethical question ont he part of the students, but there is just as much blame to be placed on lazy instructors. There is an unstated contract between a student and professor that should preclude cheating in all its forms. But, it has been my unfortunate experience that the contract is broken more often by the instructor than it is by the students.

  30. Cody
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I once turned in a 15 page term paper with nothing but “Blah blah blah blah. Blah, blah blah blah….” you get the idea. My teacher was amused enough to give me a D for proper punctuation rather than the F I deserved.

  31. R. J. Berge
    Posted 6/17/2006 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    When I attended college all students were required to form their responses to tests with a pen. The pen was used on a parchment-like substance called paper. Typewriters, for the few students who had them, were not electrified. Yes, that’s correct; manual typewriters, very heavy manual typewriters that spit out smudgy letters which often had to be corrected using, of all things, an eraser.

    Plagiarism was usually accomplished by copying something from a book in a library using the ever-present pen. Cut and paste was not an available option. There were no copy machines. That’s right. No copy machines. And Cliff Notes, well, they didn’t exist either.

    Oddly enough, it was easier to simply sit down and think about a test question for awhile then it was to locate someone else’s thoughts and borrow or pilfer those thoughts for your own use.
    And most students did just that; think, that is. But not all, not all of us.

    College doors in those days were not clamped shut with high-density magnetic locks opened only with a plastic key card whose identity is verified via intranet with a computer database encrypted with some unhackable 256 bit military-grade algorithm. No, in my day most doors were easily opened with little more than a pen knife or a clumsily duplicated key, and those individuals who were naturally inclined to burglary could sneak into the professor’s chamber late at night while the unsuspecting faculty member was enjoying his or her very dry martini and pondering lofty and irrelevant socio-economic concepts. You could leisurely search through the instructor’s simple manila folders for previously submitted papers on the testable subject matter, remove those bearing a non-scarlet “A,” and then stealthily secrete those papers between shirt and chest and take them back to a remote dormitory room for purposes of perusal and plagiarism. The process was repeated in reverse during the next evening, usually with the assistance of an inebriated colleague standing guard outside as a look-out.

    Of course, we knew enough not to simply copy the stuff we had stolen. We re-wrote it using our own words. It is, after all, the thought that counts, especially Grade-A thoughts.

    Very tidy, and no one ever got caught – except me. Then I was forced, like a horse being broken or a bird being caged, against every natural human tendency towards freedom, comfort and ease, to extricate myself by actually doing something original and creative. I will never – ever – forgive the noxious administration personnel who dogged me without mercy like rabid Nazis for the remainder of my academic career, claiming all the time that they were doing me an immense favour – yes, favour – simply allowing me to remain enrolled against their better judgment. The vermouth-breathing scoundrels even required me to provide handwriting samples, just to make sure it was I who had written the stuff I handed in. I despised every dreadful degrading moment I had to endure on my loathsome journey to graduation and degreehood. And, I am sad to report, the process of thinking long and hard before plagiarizing has become a life-long habit, but not one I can comfortably recommend to others due to, ahem, natural inclinations.

    So you see how easy you have it. Now all you need to properly perform plagiarism is Google, a little bit of bandwidth, and a purloined word processor. You don’t even need to leave your dorm room. The only way you can get caught is by being really, honestly, truly and unrepentently lazy and stupid.

    Life is so much better now.

  32. Jane
    Posted 6/18/2006 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    You know… I wouldn’t mind reading through all the comments if half of you didn’t copmlain and gripe about being British or American or Canadian or just plain ANAL. Everything that the author wrote, no matter what style, was meant to be that way and if you don’t catch any humor… Too bad for you. Just shut up. I don’t care where you came from.

  33. Heather
    Posted 6/18/2006 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Excellently said. I’ve managed to fill the better part of two hours at work reading this thread, which goes to show my academic honesty has paid off with a job that gives me depressingly little to do.

    Having recently graduated, I’m reminded of some amusing paper-writing goofs I was witness to. One of my many work-study positions was in the student writing center, proofreading papers for interested students. The theoretical purpose of the center was to help students improve the organization, tone and topic-centeredness of their papers. In reality we had two kinds of students: the lazy ones who wanted living spell checkers and the paranoid grad students who would take their essays to three different evaluators because they were sure we were missing some grievous error. However, for students whose schools have similar programs, student writing evaluators are probably the easiest way to make your plagarism harder to detect, because they will kindly point out differences in word choice, font color, and writing style, and many of them will take cash to make the corrections themselves.

    One case of headdesk from that job I’ll never forget is the freshman who brought in her first World Cultures response essay. The formatting was weird, and after about a page and a half I started to get a headache (but not, surprisingly from the subject matter). I mentioned that she needed to double space all of her academic papers, and she said, “Oh, but I already did; it took forever for me to go through and add the extra spaces.” I looked closer, and sure enough she had put:

    two spaces between each word. And then four spaces between sentences.

    Finally, I will admit that even though I love creative writing and am not particularly lazy, I once plagarized an paper. It was a 15 page thesis for my high school senior Bible class (parochial school) and I wasn’t religious. I had put off doing it until the day before it was due because I just didn’t want to. I stayed home sick and spent the day taking 15 pages of material to make a persuasive paper on apologetics. It was almost as much work as writing the paper myself, so I didn’t feel too bad when the paper got a 998 out of a possible 1000 points (-2 for an typo) and was lauded before the class as a sterling example of pre-collegiate work.

  34. Fiona
    Posted 6/18/2006 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Dear god – are you so stupid you can’t see irony Steve etc etc??? The spelling issue isn’t about what’s right or’s about being consistent with your local norms…To plagiarize a favourite author “Irony is of course the key word here. Americans don’t use it much (actually I’m being ironic; they don’t use it at all)
    Bill Bryson: Notes from a Big Country

  35. kg2v
    Posted 6/18/2006 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I remember one class in college, where I was accused of plagiarism. Truth was, I had NOT plagiarized, and was eventually able to prove it to not only the satisfaction of the dean, but to the satisfaction of the ethics board – at MY request! It was that, or fail the class. It seems the conclusion I wrote to a term paper had a word for word identical conclusion of a published book on the topic. Thing is, I had never SEEN the book. There were all of 4 known copies of a self published work, and the professor owned one of the copies. The other 3 I did not have access to. For some reason, the dean and the board believed me, but the teach always insisted that I copied this paragraph from the author of this book.


    Always did wish I got to read the book – it sounded interesting once I found out about it

  36. Another teacher
    Posted 6/18/2006 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Another tip – only use a word if you know what it means. My favourite trick, if I’m not sure whether if you’ve plagiarised, is to use the unusual words in coversation with you. If you don’t understand me, you’re about to get investigated …

    And I agree – it’s about consistency. I feel for the students who have been accused of plagiarism for working harder – and it’s a good reminder as we get cynical to go softly and look for a real explanation with an open mind – because it *might* be true. Maybe.

    Oh yes, I’m English :)

  37. Posted 6/19/2006 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    1. Great read Alex, can’t believe the number of comments. Seems like everybody loves to hear about cheaters? hmmm

    2. let’s not forget about cheating by *teachers* (to help their students on standardized tests) like as made famous by levitt’s paper

    Again it was patterns of errors was one factor that gave them away … when students copied the teacher’s errors!

  38. Ken
    Posted 6/19/2006 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I taught high school history, and once gave an assignment on the Popes (you know, the Catholic ones…). Anyway, this one student wrote a looong paper on Pope Alexander, obviously copied. You know, the one who lived his whole life in England, was friends with Jonathan Swift, wrote “The Rape of the Lock.” Oh well, he was Catholic….

  39. Posted 6/19/2006 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    My favorite excuse ever offered as to why a student couldn’t turn in her final paper on time is, I am not kidding, “because I am planning to have sex tonight.”

  40. Max
    Posted 6/19/2006 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Ward Churchill.

  41. Jackie B
    Posted 6/19/2006 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    This article was vey amusing. Since we are sharing plagiarism stories, I am reminded of one from my first year of teaching. Since I teach 8th grade grammar and composition, I required evidence of the whole research process over the course of several weeks. I had discussed/explained plagiarism to my classes, but many chose not to heed my warnings. I had students to plagiarise me, but mostly they copied from the web. One student plagiarised her rough draft from the Internet and was surprised when I caught her. She was referred to the administration and received a zero for the rough draft grade, but still had the opportunity to submit an original final draft. Imagine my surprise when I read her final draft and it, too, was plagiarised, this time from the library’s encyclopedia. She tried to say I didn’t give her enough time to write an original report. The following year, I showed my students how I catch plagiarism and showed them examples of students’ writing that had been caught. They took great pleasure in laughing at their peers and took the lesson to heart. That year I had only one instance of plagiarism.

  42. Katie
    Posted 6/19/2006 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    As a Political Science TA, I was amazed to discover several students actually cited the website from which the cut and pasted entire pages of texts. A good rule of thumb is don’t list where you are plagiarizing from in the bibliography or in the annotation.

  43. Posted 6/19/2006 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Katie: For what it’s worth, I tend to assume that students who do that really do have a bad grasp on what plagiarism consists of. Of course, if all the material is cut and paste, that is another story. But if they have failed to quote properly–but have cited the material–I tend to assume “stupid” rather than “dishonest.” They will still get a zero on the assignment, though…

  44. Diane
    Posted 6/19/2006 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Someone (Pete Seeger keeps nagging at my mind–though I haven’t been able to validate this) once said, “…when you borrow from one person, it’s called plagerism, but when you borrow from hundreds of people — it’s called ‘research’.” Anyway — as a former H.S. teacher, I have to agree, what irked me the most with cheating was not that kids were doing it (which was just sad, really)–but that they were doing it so half-a**ed.

  45. Posted 6/19/2006 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    if no one minds, i’m just going to copy this fulltext on my blog sans attribution now…

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Oren Sreebny's Weblog on 6/16/2006 at 3:30 pm

    Alex Halavais on How to cheat good…

    Recently we had a presentation from, a company that markets an online service that claims to detect possible plagiarism in student works. While there was some interest in the service here, I think we came away with more questions than answ…

  2. […] Alex Halavais » How to cheat good. […]

  3. […] While I have two posts chock-a-block full of stunning insights and thoughtful interventions into modern theory (not to mention the controversy—oh, the controversy!) simmering on my mental back burner, until they reach maturity I thought I’d pass on Alex Halavais’ instructive epistle to his students, How to Cheat Good (via BoingBoing), a list of 8 rules students looking to cheat successfully really ought to follow. I’ve had students break a good number of these rules, much to their dismay and my entertainment, and I agree with Halavais that if students would just get smarter about how they cheat, the world would be a better place: they’d pass, our egos would be stroked (‘cause we’d think we taught something), and the college community would turn into a decent semblance of a functioning society rather than something out of John Adair’s picture of the post-War pueblos.* […]

  4. […] No post de Alex Halavais sobre dicas para plagiários (indicado pelo Solon), vários leitores deixaram comentários com suas próprias dicas e experiências. Minhas favoritas, até agora: My favorite from the time I TA’ed in math: the guy that copied somebody else’s homework verbatim… down to the page numbers the original had put on the bottom of the page. Since the perp had smaller handwriting, I found an absolutely unmotivated “-1-” on a line be itself, right in the middle of the page. Beautiful. Best part: among ten possible groups of people, this genius had chosen another one in my group to copy from, so I could actually lay the two versions side by side and play “spot the 10 differences”.And if your assignment is writing a computer program, just copy someone else’s, and change all of the variable names to be players from a well known football team. This cunning ruse will throw anyone marking your assignment off the scent. In fact, so much so that you can even turn up to class the next day wearing a jersey and scarf from said team, and nobody will suspect a thing.As an Organisational Behaviour lecturer (Yes, In England. Get over it. And as far as I could tell, the point was about consistency, not spelling), my best advice to students who want to plagiarize is as follows: 1. If asked to write an essay about the Hawthorne studies (a set of seminal studies in the field), try to avoid paragraphs comparing Hawthorne with Edgar Allan Poe and Melville.2. When copying and pasting from a website, even if you do the formatting thingy, remember to remove the lines referring to other products on offer from the site, as well as all references to the colection of links at the bottom of the page. Yes, really. […]

  5. By on 6/18/2006 at 10:16 pm

    Cheating Successfully…

    I used to consult for schools and social service organisations that were struggling to manage programs for children with behavioural problems. One of my favourite memories from that time is of a parent who approached me after I had given a talk, descr…

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