Academic dishonesty

I have been a teaching assistant in IIT Bombay since 2007. In otherwise a continuous stint, there was a gap of one year when I worked in industry after completing my masters. I prefer programming and lab related courses. I take a perverse interest in figuring out which student has copied his/her assignment. There have been many instances of cheating in those courses; and my intention is to comment on it.

One of our professors who does not mince words in classroom and is reputed to be a very hard-working person (not just by local standards), remarked once in the classroom that when someone cheats, he is essentially saying that he is incompetent. ‘Why would anyone cheat or import if he can do it by himself’, he wondered. He went on to say that this applies to individuals as well as to nations. This is definitely true in its own context. I know some students who were technically weak but did not cheat and those who were sharp and technically sound but did not mind cheating when they got half a chance.

During my M. Tech., I was close to a group of undergraduates. I found them to be sharp and clever; one of them was perhaps brilliant. They were usually well-behaved, even in their private spaces. Although their behavior on ‘profile-reading’ was like that of a drunkard in my village during Holi. I remember going to their hostel once and finding out that one of them calling another one ‘chutiya’ while others were looking at him with amusement. It turned out that in a lab examination, they all were in the corner cheating and the ‘chutiya’ among them refused to be a part of this activity. That an individual refusing to be a part of his peer group activity, which he thought to be unethical, is rare in our style of society. It is also natural that a group ridicules a member of it who does not take part in its activities, evil or benign. But one expects a group of students to be more tolerant of a ‘black sheep’.

No doubt that cheating is beneficial in short run and there are certain temptations, with some reason, to indulge in it. But we can not ignore the fact that we live in a society which tolerates such dishonesty to a great extent. All individual pursue their interest, not always consciously, but it is a mistake to believe that all of them pursue their interests at any cost at most of the time. What stands out is the gall of this group to contemptuously ridicule one of their member who did not pursue those benefits at the cost of his dignity.

How cheating is perceived and how it is defined varies individual to individual . What seems to be a case of cheating to some may not look like a case of cheating at all to many others. Still, it is possible for an academic community to define what constitute as unethical practice and to expect from its members to honor the code. The best way to maintain such standards is internal censure. When this internal censure weakens, dishonesty increases. Copy and paste in seminar reports submitted by our students are rampant and it is tolerated to great extent. Last year in a panel discussion ‘what is research’ a professor remarked, ‘there have been cases of plagiarism in Ph. D. thesis.’ It was also tolerated because they didn’t ‘want to appear on the front page of Times of India.’ This is odd; to admit at one hand that they can not maintain some basic ethical standards for fears real or imagined and to demand more autonomy on the other.

Unless pointed out in great clarity, many of students caught cheating would not like to see it academic dishonesty; partly due to ignorance and partly to avoid accusation of being corrupt. Who likes to see himself a moral cripple? Therefore they devise ingenuous arguments in their defense. I do not know many supporting it in public without giving one reason or another. ‘Everyone does it’ is one of such reason they usually give to their peers. It will not be hard to prove that not everyone, or even most of the people, in this society are cheater. But proving a fact is one thing and caught in a feeling is another. In a society where everyday someone accuses everyone else of some wrongdoing, it is not all very unnatural for people to believe that being so must be the natural state of their society.

I know at least one Teaching Assistant who was making a case to the instructor, who was also her guide, in favor of such students. She argued that usually there is a ‘lack of time’ to complete these assignments therefore it is natural for these people to ‘do-what-they-have-done’. I suspect that there would be many others with similar opinions. Her guide was not convinced about it but he was of view that punishment should not be very severe for ‘all in the IIT do it’. There is definitely some element of truth in the insinuation that ‘all of them do it’ but I also suspect that Indian mind is prone to compare everything with the worst.

Lack of time can hardly be  an acceptable argument. That particular instructor has mentioned may times in the classroom that if someone is having difficulty in assignments, he should approach him. Besides why do they not submit a partial assignment? There is a very thin line between ‘discussing with friends’ and cheating and this line is often transgressed. This need not be the case, but this is the usual experience. The ‘lack of time’ argument for cheating is no more convincing that the argument our academicians often put forward for not honoring their teaching commitments i.e. they have to spend a lot of time in meetings and committees. And they have their strikes to attend too. As far as students are considered, this reason sits oddly with my personal experiences. These time-starved students spend an unusual amount of their time in being social butterfly. I do not remember many times when I did not see a hostel room either empty or occupied by more than one person chatting, watching movies, chit-chatting with unusual amount of laughter. Doing individual assignments is a solitary activity. Spending time in solitude does not come naturally to an Indian who is extremely gregarious by nature.

Temptation to get as many marks as possible by fair of foul means aside, there is perhaps a conviction — consolidated by past experiences and with some reason — that they can get away with it; especially when they belong to a majority. This is perhaps the reason a cheater usually start his case by saying ‘everyone does it’ and try to pull the weight of numbers on his side. In a society where constitutional morality is low and foundation of institutes are weak, ‘rule of number’ often prevails over ‘rule of law’.  As of the temptation of cheating, promotion of brutal competition has its own cost for it can create a society which is callous and self-serving. In such a society, skills such as leadership, gardening, art, empathy, honesty, and desire to help each other etc. counts for little. [see, The rise of meritocracy, Micheal Young]

Should universities or any institutes punish these family members? There can be many arguments for it (and some against it). It is naive to believe that those who are doing it are merely a ‘victim of system or society’ or doing it due to ‘lack or time’; they know what they are doing and they seem to know it very well. They are doing it to fetch rewards at the cost of their profession and institute, and perhaps at the cost of their colleagues too. Sympathy for young aside, they are greatly tolerated by faculty because they themselves have breathed the same air which their students are breathing now. Even if we accept that these students are merely acting under one illusion or other, there is a limit to which a university should tolerate them. These students may not care for their own reputation and dignity, but when the dirty linen comes out in public it irreparably damage the reputation and dignity of the institute. Their will be a demand for outside censure; and it would be hard to deny even by those who are all for academic autonomy. An academic community must convince itself of the importance of a strong internal censor. And if the  academic community is inwardly convinced that this is not a serious issue then such an institute must have an evil fate. Lack of competence may not force people to cheat, but those who cheat religiously not only have parasitic characters, they are often very incompetent people. No institute can survive, let alone flourish, without a competent and dignified academic community which does not live up to even basic academic standards and ethics.


[1] : Prof. H Narayanan on personal ethics[2] Stuyvesant Students Describe the How and the Why of Cheating, A news report. The New York Times, Sep 25, 2012.


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