Computer Science Cheating Scandals

Computer Science Cheating Scandals Infect Colleges: Cracking the Code Behind Why They’re Happening

This spring, a cheating scandal permeated the computer science department at Harvard University.

About 10 percent of the students in the school’s renowned Computer Science 50 course — around 60 out of a little over 630 — were suspected of cheating, referred to the school’s honor council for review, and exposed to the possibility that they could be expelled for their actions.

This isn’t the first dilemma of its kind at a prestigious Ivy League school, but it still says something important about higher education and computer science: that either students are pursuing STEM-related fields without having any real interest or skills in them, or that the pressure to get good grades is pushing even the highest academic achievers to cut corners. Maybe both.

The culture of computer science in and out of college

College students are busy. With classes, jobs, internships, and other extracurricular activities, there isn’t much time left to complete homework or even sleep at night.

“You’ve got kids who were struggling with spending a third of their time on their problem sets with the option to copy from the Internet,” said Jackson Wagner — a Harvard student who took Computer Science 50 in 2015 — to the New York Times. He was not accused of cheating, but claims his above statement is “the reason why people cheat.”

Copying code from online sites or from fellow students allows computer science students to save time completing their coursework. Furthermore, because computer science is often considered an exceptionally collaborative field, students don’t always know what is actually considered plagiarism or cheating within a course.

It’s also important to note that codes are intentionally accessible online. Looking up codes is a typical for programmers, and isn’t considered foul play. However, there’s a difference between using a publicly available code as assistance in solving a problem and using it as the solution to a problem.

According to the same New York Times article, “Professors also frequently allow students to discuss problems among themselves, but not to share actual code, a policy that some students say creates confusion about what constitutes cheating.”

So do students not know that they’re cheating, or are they intentionally cheating in an effort to save time? According to an article by The Boston Globe, students may be implementing practices in class that would further them in a more professional climate.

The article states “…scouring the Internet for programming code could be plagiarism at Harvard. But using someone else’s code to give your business an edge can be cause for congratulations in the corporate world.”

How do students get caught — and where?

To outsiders, English and computer science are completely different subjects and fields.

There is at least one similarity between them, though: Just like language in writing, “Many programming plagiarists can give themselves away by the ‘language’ in their code, professors said,” according to the Boston Globe article.

“Each programmer has a style — similar to the writing differences among English students — that can raise a professor’s curiosity if language suddenly changes.”

Furthermore, H. E. Dunsmore, a professor at Purdue University — which is another school that underwent a computer science cheating quandary — said in The New York Times that sometimes, a few students make the same obvious coding mistakes in an assignment.

Doing so is almost always a dead giveaway that there was some sort of cheating involved.

Harvard and Purdue are not the only two schools with cheating problems in the STEM-related field. Stanford University and Brown University also show fervent signs of academic dishonesty when it comes to computer science courses in particular.

“At Brown University, more than half [of] the 49 allegations of academic code violations last year involved cheating in computer science,” said The New York Times.

“At Stanford, the alma mater of the founders of Google, Snapchat and countless other Internet wonders, as many as 20 percent of the students in one 2015 computer science course were flagged for possible cheating.”

Here’s the deal

So what gives? We have a good idea of why college students cheat in general, and we know why computer science studiers are now at higher risk of committing the academic crime. We even know how to spot cheaters. But how did we get to this point?

According to a 2015 US News article, “40 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by men and 29 percent earned by women are now in STEM fields.”

Similarly, more than half of the doctoral degrees earned by men and one-third earned by women are in STEM fields.

An article by The Atlantic furthers this notion. “According to a recent report from ACT, the college admissions testing service, ‘student interest in STEM [Science,Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] is high overall,’ characteristic of some 48 percent of high school graduates tested in 2013,” said the article, citing the report.

In addition, “American high-school students are taking more math and science courses than ever before. Meanwhile UCLA’s respected annual surveys of entering college freshmen show that over the past several years nearly 40 percent have been reporting intentions to major in a STEM subject, not only a large fraction but also a substantial increase from past decades—this percentage was about 32 to 33 percent from 1995 to 2007,” according to the same article.

With that being said, now, fewer people are studying social sciences and other arts-related subjects. Does that mean more people are pursuing degrees in fields that they don’t have much interest in or are really struggling at?

The Atlantic piece discussed the causes behind an apparently widely-known workforce shortage in science and engineering fields in the United States. The article initially introduced under-skilled and unprepared prospective workers as the primary reason of the shortage, but poses the question: Where’s the evidence behind that claim? Is there even such a shortage?

If so many more people are studying STEM fields now than before, a shortage in the workforce wouldn’t make sense.

Overall, it’s possible that the large increase in people pursuing STEM fields may be an underlying cause of the similar substantial escalation in cheating in computer science college courses. Maybe, students are graduating college unprepared because they aren’t completing their coursework correctly. And perhaps, students are submitting mediocre and academically dishonest work because they either don’t want to be studying a STEM field or because they feel pressured by society in other ways.

Those are just a couple potential scenarios. No matter what, though, cheating in higher education cannot go unaddressed, and neither can the actual reasoning behind the growth of STEM fields — or the correlation between the two.

Elizabeth Hartel

Elizabeth Hartel

Elizabeth hails from New Jersey and studies journalism at Emerson College, where she works for two publications: a lifestyle magazine and a music magazine. In addition to education, she also enjoys writing about health and fitness and pop culture.