Cheating in science — and life

Not too long ago, one of my teenagers brought up an age-old ethical issue that recurs and festers, and at least theoretically, provides an opportunity for open discussion on “what do we want out of life?”

The issue at stake, is of course, cheating at school, university and life. And how do honest kids and adults deal with it, knowing that cheaters so often seemingly benefit from their actions, and rarely get caught or punished.

The issue was brought up regarding math and formula memorization, and reminded me of a very similar situation in undergraduate physics. At the time, our professor insisted that the students should be responsible for memorizing an entire page-worth of formulae. As a professor now myself, I abhor this practice of forced memorization — yes there are always a select number of concepts and terms that must be understood — but memorization of formulae is, to my thinking, a complete waste of time. Time that could and should better be spent learning to solve problems.

Of the ~250 students in my undergraduate physics class, I know that many simply made formula lists — so did I, in order to waste my time memorizing them. But others put those lists in their pockets, and in the course of a 3 h exam, excused themselves to the restroom to peek at the formulae when the need came up. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever was caught. What would the university do, escort the students into the bathroom stalls? Strip the students down to their underclothing and beyond to ensure they don’t hide cheat notes on their bodies, like a prison search? Unthinkable.

Despite warnings about the dire consequences of being caught, it seems that cheating is rampant in high school and university. And I don’t mean just the run-of-the-mill type of “Dear Student: should your granny die before the midterm exam” cheating described by Stacey Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.” I mean real, bona fide cheating during an exam.

I witnessed this not just in undergraduate physics with the silly memorization of formulae; one time, in a chemistry exam, I sat next to the class brainiac. The student who always got the highest grade on every exam, in every course. I was in awe of this student who always ended up at the very top of ~250 students, and it didn’t matter what field: organic chemistry, calculus, physical chemistry, computer programming. It was a remarkable feat. And then one day, I sat near him during an exam. After the first 15-20 minutes, he turned to me and whispered “What did you get on numbers 6, 9 and 10?” I was in shock. Why was he asking me? I had always been a very good student, but this guy was #1! Why would he even trust my answers, even if it had been ethical to ask?

I realized that it wasn’t just me that he asked, but that he did a nice sampling of people around — most of whom were in his study group. So unlike what most people envision, the cheating that goes on does not make a poor student get an “A” on an exam; it makes an “A-” get an “A” or an “A” student get the highest “A” or “A+.” The rich get richer through cheating.

Such cheating is not limited to high school or undergraduate education. I’ve witnessed cases of students who have written a graduate exam in pencil, and later erased their wrong answers and filled in a correct answer, followed by an appeal. Years ago, there was a case where a student was caught doing this, because the original exam had been scanned on a copier machine, so there was proof of alteration. But such cases are admittedly rare.

I’ve heard that medical schools frequently break up their exams into ‘bite-size portions’ to prevent the restroom issues. In other words, a 3 h exam might be broken into four 45 min. segments, with a short bathroom break after each segment, but the students are not able to go back to previous segments (even if they finish another segment before their 45 min. is done). To me, this seems like a reasonable approach.

But none of these trips down memory lane help me to answer my child’s question and address how  a responsible adult responds to a youth who raises such an issue. What do I say?

Life, I say, isn’t fair. From where we are born, with what parents we are given, gene endowments, socio-economic situation, etc. And cheating is another aspect that isn’t fair, and we see it in day to day life, at all levels. There will always be the cheaters who will get ahead — perhaps even benefit from a scholarship and praise that they do not deserve — but you, as an honest person, will go farther in the long run. And most importantly, you will do so based on integrity and merit, and with a 100% clear conscience. But remember also, that if you choose to go into the sciences — and it seems that there is a good chance for that — once the academics and exams are done, your career will be based on integrity, and how rigorous and repeatable your work is. Your name will ultimately be made by doing honest science.

And that’s the best I could do — although I wish I could do more…

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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