Cheating in science

When I was an undergraduate student in Jerusalem, I worked about as hard as humanly possible. We had a huge amount of “heavy” courses in the all-science ensemble, and they weren’t all that organized.

For example, physical chemistry came before the high level calculus courses, so we were on our own to figure out thermodynamics derivations. To make matters worse, my Hebrew, good though it was, made it more difficult for me to follow some of the faster paced lectures.

But I was young and had a lot of will power–and after the military, sitting in a warm room and studying, even until 3 a.m., was not so terrible. Especially with coffee and snacks. So I did pretty well. But there was someone who did better.

There was a student in our group of about 250 students that were enrolled in first year biology that broke all records. Let’s call him R. Well, no matter how hard I would study or how well I would do, R. always did better.

I idolized R. I observed how he dressed, how he walked, how he talked. He asked intelligent questions. He occasionally sought out a lecturer after class for clarification. I drove myself nearly insane wondering what special brain power he had that I didn’t. But no matter hard hard I worked, he always did a little better.

In the course of the year, I rarely talked to R. He was with an “in crowd” and I was always a bit of an outsider. I also held part time jobs and was always in a hurry. The end of the second semester rolled around and it was exam time again. It happened in an organic chemistry exam, given in an enormous lecture hall. As chance would have it, I ended up sitting close to R., separated only by 2 empty seats (as was the rule during these exams).

The exam began and I concentrated and became engrossed in my answers. Stereoisomers and enantiomers. Aldehydes and ketones. Boat-shaped molecules. Lots of fun. And then, about midway through, I heard a whisper. It was R. “Steve, what did you get for number 4?” I was in shock. R. was asking ME what the answer was? He needed to ask ME to get the correct answer?

As it turned, little did I know, but R.’s “extra help” on exams was a well known secret. Most people in the class knew about this. It was generally agreed that he was very smart–but that little extra edge–making sure answer was correct–was enough to propel him to the top of the Dean’s list. To be clear, he probably would have been close anyway–but he wasn’t taking any chances.

I don’t know where R. is today, or if he is still in science. Rumor back then had it that Veterinary School was in the cards. But I sincerely hope that R. is an aberration and does not reflect on science. I know that since my episode with R., I no longer hero worship anyone.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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14 Responses to Cheating in science

  1. Cromercrox says:

    There’s your next lablit novel, right there.

  2. bean-mom says:

    I’m surprised anyone whispered the right answer to him. Aren’t we all supposed to hate kids like that?

    And Steve, don’t you teach at a university? I only did one semester of college teaching, but cheating and plagiarism were a serious serious issue in my classroom. I know two postdocs who did adjunct teaching for the first time last semester, and they were utterly dismayed at the cheating in their classrooms. One of my postdoc friends was so disillusioned by the cheating he saw that it’s reaffirmed his desire to stay at the bench (we’ll leave alone for now the issue of fraud in research).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I blew it! I was supposed to start the blog with an issue that came up in my own course, about whether graduate students should be allowed to write their exams in pencil (given that they receive the entire graded exam back), etc. etc. That’s what brought on the ‘nostalgic glimpse’ of my undergrad years…

      I have to say that I did all my undergraduate and graduate studies overseas, so I don’t know what goes on at the undergrad level here in the US. At least in our graduate program, I would have to say that it’s exceedingly rare that students cheat.

      But it was terribly disappointing for me to find out about the cheating back then. I think it was so much more shocking and disappointing to realize that it was coming from a very smart student, someone for whom I held so much respect–until that moment…

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  4. bean-mom says:

    I would like to think that cheating was rare in my graduate school program as well, although I do not know. And of course your early experience was particularly shocking because it involved someone you admired so much.

    I’m sure cheating goes on at all levels… but I admit I was pretty surprised to see the extent of it when I taught a class for the first time. It might have been peculiar to that particular class, and cultural misunderstandings…. I’m guessing with you that it probably is much more prevalent among undergraduates or master’s degree classes; in Ph.D. programs, after all, the grades don’t really count for that much! (you just need to pass them and get on with your thesis work! And the students enrolled are supposedly there for the love of learning)

  5. ricardipus says:

    At the University of Toronto, some large exams used to be sat in a dismal old barn of a building called the “Drill Hall” (a relic from post-war, or maybe war-time, days I guess). It had huge and noisy ventilators at the front, and a massively high ceiling. And it was well known that sitting at the back, it was possible to have a perfectly normal conversation without anyone even moderately far away being able to hear you. Drill Hall is now, I believe, long gone (and good riddance to it!).

    Come to think of it, a Classics class I took at one time had rather a lot of chatter going on during in-class tests – the back rows were plenty far enough away from the professor for discussions to go on un-noticed.


  6. Steve Caplan says:

    As I later understood, at one point the university would hire people to watch the students during the exams. They had instructions to take away an exam from a student who talked or even looked at nearby students. These people, usually women, were known as “aunties”, although they were not warm and fuzzy- they did their job. When budget cuts came in, the university left the Profs. to deal with this, and they assigned grad students who couldn’t have cared less to watch over the students. And this of course eventually leads to a whole new lesson in morality. If everyone else is cheating, are you being naive and even harming your own career by not displaying survival skills and keeping up? A tough question to ask…

  7. We take cheating very seriously where I work, with penalties going up to being slung out of the University. The biggest problem these days, obviously, is plagiarism of written work, so everything major has to be submitted electronically and is scanned with various bits of plagiarism detection software.

    On exams, we used to patrol our own, but now we hire back retired faculty to do it, who are far more eagle-eyed and fierce. Have to say, though, that even back in the day we would NEVER have “sub-contracted” it to a grad student – that would have been a disciplinary offence. Faculty members ONLY, was the strict rule.

    A bit about the joys of “invigilating”, as we call it, in a post here, which might amuse.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      It definitely is not right to have grad students supervise an undergrad exam, although as a TA in a lab course, not only did I supervise exams, I wrote them and graded them…

      • The TA as a species has no real equivalent in the UK, Steve, but I guess they would basically qualify as academic staff.

        Grad students in the UK do demonstrate (supervise) undergrad labs – though always under the direction of a supervising faculty member – and even grade the answers. Never heard of them setting questions, though! And at my Univ we don’t even let the postdocs run tutorials (small group teaching sessions) now. This is probably because the feeling is that, with students paying big fees, they should be getting our “A-game”.

        It is actually a bit of change from years ago – as a first year PhD student in the mid 1980s I used to run lab classes completely solo, do tutorials, and even gave a lecture! I think actually that that was sometimes inappropriate – but the set-up these days is arguably too far the other way, with the faculty (like me) doing teaching that would be good experience for some of the senior postdocs. They often want to do some teaching to enhance their changes of getting a faculty job.

  8. cromercrox says:

    It has recently come to my notice that whenever I flag a manuscript for acceptance at your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N – an occurrence of such rarity that people hold street parties, complete with bunting and free lemonade – my assistant will run the text of aforesaid manuscript through a plagiarism detection engine. If more than a few per cent of a manuscript looks like coming from somewhere else, my assistant will alert me to this. It’s only happened once – so far – and was quite innocent (a matter of some autocitation and quoted phrases here and there) – but we do it for every manuscript we accept.

    What has the world come to, eh?


  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Autocitation? You mean “self-plagarization”? As in “I couldn’t have said it better myself…”

  10. MGG says:

    I remember the first time there was large scale cheating in my class at Veterinary school. The professors those days used a cyclostyle to make copies of the question paper and some smart guy had bribed the Professor’s assistant and got hold of a copy of the questions the day before the exam and shared it with everyone in the men’s dorm. When we got our answer sheets back, there were guys with almost perfect scores and a few of them were people who barely scraped by. When the subject is something where you had to memorize intricate details for about 6 different species…it was just too much to take for everyone who worked hard to memorize all the details….I remember feeling so cheated and wanting to strangle the people who did it. But we couldn’t prove a thing and we had to finish the semester with whatever grades the whole class got, even though the Professor gave the “suspects” a hard time at the viva-voce.

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