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Does it feel like cheating when I do this? Variation in ethical standards and expectations

John Sides points to this discussion (with over 200 comments!) by political scientist Charli Carpenter of her response to a student from another university who emailed with questions that look like they come from a homework assignment. Here’s the student’s original email:

Hi Mr. Carpenter,

I am a fourth year college student and I have the honor of reading one of your books and I just had a few questions… I am very fascinated by your work and I am just trying to understand everything. Can you please address some of my questions? I would greatly appreciate it. It certainly help me understand your wonderful article better. Thank you very much! :)

1. What is the fundamental purpose of your article?

2. What is your fundamental thesis?

3. What evidence do you use to support your thesis?

4. What is the overall conclusion?

5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?

Sincerely,

After a series of emails in which Carpenter explained why she thought these questions were a form of cheating on a homework assignment and the student kept dodging the issues, Carpenter used the email address to track down the student’s name and then contacted the student’s university.

I have a few thoughts on this.

– Carpenter and her commenters present this bit of attempted cheating as a serious violation on the student’s part. I see where she’s coming from–after all, asking someone else to do your homework for you really is against the rules–but, from the student’s perspective, sending an email to an article’s author is just a slightly enterprising step beyond scouring the web for something written on the article. And you can’t stop students from searching the web. All you can hope for is that students digest any summaries they read and ultimately spit out some conclusions in their own words.

– To me, what would be most annoying about receiving the email above is how insulting it is:

– First off, the evidently female Prof. Carpenter is addressed as “Mr.” That can’t be fun. I don’t even like it when people on the phone call me Mrs. Gelman–this occasionally happens when I answer the phone in a high, baby-talk voice–and it’s gotta be that much more irritating for Carpenter when someone claims to love her book and can’t be bothered to determine her sex (or simply to call her Dr. or Prof. and leave it at that).

– Even more annoying is the use of flattery or, perhaps I should say, the devaluing of compliments. I don’t know about Carpenter but, personally, I love love love when people sent me emails or come up to me at conferences and tell me how much they love my books or articles. I’m a little embarrassed at how much I like this (to the extent that, when I receive emails of the form, “I love your book and your blog. I have a question regarding a problem I’ve been working on that we’re all stuck on here. We’re trying to fit a hierarchical model with 4 groups…”, my corresponding blog entry (if I choose to answer the question) would begin “We’re trying to fit a hierarchical model with 4 groups…”), but I have to admit it makes my day, every time it happens.

Anyway, the above email is transparently lying about believing Carpenter’s article is “wonderful.” And that’s just horrible. It reminds me of the time when I was a kid that I asked my mom to demonstrate a fake laugh. Without a pause, she emitted a warm, rich fake laugh, which (inadvertently, I’m sure) caused me to mentally re-evaluate every laugh I’d heard from her in the past. Maybe she hadn’t found my jokes funny at all.

Anyway, for some reason it feels fundamentally abusive to me for this student to be to trafficking in our understandable but somehow vaguely disreputable desire for love, fame, fortune, or whatever. I’d feel similarly violated if someone tried to sleaze a homework out of me by pretending to be a news reporter or a potential source of funds. In any case, it seems like an attempt at manipulation.

– The last question from the student’s email (“5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?”) is just plain insulting. It’s either insulting because the question is so rude, or (more likely) insulting because the student didn’t even bother to think about whether the question made sense before asking it. It’s the same way in which I’m annoyed by receiving spam for lab instrumentation that I would never be interested in, based on a link from an article that had nothing to do with these products.

– Finally, the fame factor. The student in question is “a public figure”–Carpenter didn’t supply any details–but in any case you’d want such a person to show a bit better judgment. This the same reason I more bothered by the tacky ad on the website for the journal Nature than from the spam ad mentioned above.

To me, thought, the key point is that the use of flattery, the original email brought things to an uncomfortably personal level. That’s why I think I was so annoyed by this email that some asshole at Wolfram Research sent to Christian Robert, claiming that a scholarly article of his had “caught the attention of one of [the spammers] colleagues” when actually it was pretty clear that there was no such colleague involved. Always annoying but even more so coming from a well-known source such as Wolfram Research.

Consider another example. Why was I so annoyed by the following fake email I received last year:

I am writing you because I am a prospective Ph.D. student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to Ph.D. programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus today, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

The key phrases, I think, are “considerable interest in your research” and “meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.” OK, sure, I know that when a student says this sort of thing, it’s usually a “stretcher” (as Mark Twain would put it). But every time I get one of these messages and realize that it’s a manipulative lie, it hurts a little bit. At the very least, I think I should’ve be compensated for my time on this. Not compensating me (and other participants in this study) seems to me a sign of disrespect.

Anyway, my point here is not to revisit the battle of the fake emails or to again drag the good name of Wolfram Research through the mud. Rather, I’m just trying to trace what was so annoying about the original email Carpenter received. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the cheating–after all, with a bit of care, a student could easily ask lots and lots of questions and get free responses by email–but the fake flattery and personal appeal which has the effect of devaluing actual positive reactions to her work.

I think Carpenter’s mistake came at the very beginning, when she responded to the obnoxious initial email with the following:

Dear [NAME REDACTED],

If you’ve read my article, you should have answers to the first four of your questions. Why don’t you tell me what you think the answers are and if you’ve misunderstood in any way I’ll let you know.

Regarding your fifth question, I guess I need to know more about what you consider “fair balance” and “opposing viewpoints,” as it relates to my article.

Also, could you tell me a little more about your own research project?

Thanks.

Dr. Carpenter

I think I understand why she did this–given that the student was trying to cheat, Carpenter was trying to answer very properly and carefully, even to the extent of signing her emails “Dr. Carpenter” and “Professor Carpenter” (which in normal circumstances would be very unusual signoffs)–but I think it would make more sense to simply not reply at all or give a simple no (that’s what I do when I receive nonsensical requests), or else to respond very directly, for example:

That sounds like cheating to me. I recommend you think hard and answer these questions yourself.

Or, if Carpenter really feels the responsibility to police this sort of thing–and I can respect this attitude, I understand the argument that if there are no consequences, this person would likely continue to cheat–just forward the email directly to the student’s university and let them handle it.

Carpenter’s mistake, I think, was to treat this as a game–to respond cagily and see how the student responds, etc. Asking the student for the name of the professor was another dead end, in my opinion. If you want to report it to the university, fine; then they can take if from there.

I’m not saying that Carpenter did anything ethically wrong or that her cat-and-mouse email exchange didn’t work for her. She treated the student completely fairly and in addition gave us all an interesting case to think about. But as a general strategy in dealing with students who are trying to cheat, I’d recommend a direct approach.

15 Comments

  1. John says:

    I don't know… some students simply do not have the capacity to communicate well, or are very good at it, and it's difficult to tell genuine inquiries from cheating. I agree that this is an obvious case but I've seen others where it's very difficult. In those cases the accusation may be more inappropriate than being cagey. In fact, Carpenter herself may have been a little blinded by the flattery and also been very uncertain. I would have been more likely to inquire similarly giving the genuine reason that I'd like to know where I've gone so wrong in my writing that one can't answers those questions from reading the article.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    John:

    I agree that you can't be sure of the student's intentions. In this case, since the student is studying elsewhere I think it would be fine to pass the information on and let the other university take it from there. Another option would be to post the question and reply for all to see, but I don't know if Carpenter has the sort of blog where she answers questions like that. Personally, I prefer posting responses on the blog rather than emailing them, on the theory that if one person has a question, others might also.

  3. Devon says:

    Andrew, great article, I completely agree. John, I whole heartedly disagree that it is difficult to tell genuine inquiries from cheating. My rule of thumb is that I do not bother the author of anything until I've exhausted all means of answering my questions myself. Which means, by the time I'm wasting someone's else's time with a question, my questions are INCREDIBLE. Well researched, well constructed and require zero flattery as the question itself is so profound, it relays how important I thought their article was to science that I'd spend that much time trying to understand it. If a student wants to learn how to properly address their superiors, asking the right questions is how its done. I start all my lectures with "there ARE stupid questions, and 99% of what you ask, will be one." You may think its harsh, I call it the difference between a good and poor education.

  4. Jeremy Miles says:

    Andew, I love _all_ your …. Oh, that's not going to work, is it?

    (I do own all your books though, if that helps). I basically agree with your comments. I occasionally receive emails like this (I got one this morning – Dear Jeremy, here's my dataset [in Excel format], please analyze it for me.] I suggested they went and asked somewhere else – methodspace.com or sci.stat.consult (I hope that still exists) for example.

    I'm faintly intrigued about one thing though. Why do you "answer the phone in a high, baby-talk voice"?

  5. Phil says:

    I find the student's email offensive too, but not because of the flattery stuff. Carpenter gets it exactly right when she says "If you've read my article, you should have answers to the first four of your questions." That's especially true if it is in fact a good article, as the student says up front!

    I think we all assume — correctly, I think — that the student was given an assignment to read an article and answer questions 1-5. If that's the case, then the student really is trying to cheat. The fact that s/he is asking the author the questions, rather than, say, asking another student to read the article and answer them for him or her [the English language really needs a word for "him or her"], is pretty much irrelevant. The point of the putative assignment is for the student to demonstrate the ability to read an article and answer the questions; getting someone else to answer them is wrong.

    I disagree with Andrew, I think Carpenter's initial response is excellent. Let the student know you're on to them, encourage them to do the assignment, do it politely…seems good.

    I also (still) disagree with Andrew about the other fake email (asking for a meeting) that he refers to, in which the response to the email was part of a student's research project. I mean, of course, Andrew, you can be offended or irritated by whatever you please, including this comment, or the color of your neighbor's car, but there are some things you're not going to convince me that _I_ should find irritating. Experiments like the one in this video this video rely on unsuspecting (and thus in some sense unwilling) subjects, and can and do inconvenience some of those subjects, but as long as the inconvenience is small and there's good reason to do the research, eh, what's the big deal. (Do check out that link, it's pretty cool. The experiment comes part-way through).

  6. Andrew Gelman says:

    Jeremy:

    Right after talking with the baby, sometimes I continue speaking in that voice.

  7. Andrew Gelman says:

    Phil:

    Carpenter's response is fine; it just seemed a bit much to me. She wrote:

    Why don't you tell me what you think the answers are and if you've misunderstood in any way I'll let you know.

    Regarding your fifth question, I guess I need to know more about what you consider "fair balance" and "opposing viewpoints," as it relates to my article.

    Also, could you tell me a little more about your own research project?

    But given that the emailing student was trying to cheat, why bother with all this runaround? Why not just say that the student should answer these questions on their own? Again, I don't think there's anything wrong with Carpenter's response but it seems a bit of overkill to me. It can work in the context of a story for the blog but I wouldn't recommend it as a general strategy.

  8. Bob Carpenter says:

    What always amuses me is how strongly people feel the need to act as internet police. As usual, XKCD (#386) sums it up best.

    I'm guessing Prof. Carpenter (no relation) had better things to do than deal with a student at another university.

    And isn't there some blame for whoever assigned this errant student a book report as an assignment?

    I used to let my students bring in whatever resources they could muster for their assignments. I just asked that they acknowledge their sources. After all, that is how the real world works.

    For instance, they could all work together on their homework and I'd grade them collectively. The problem with this scheme is that counterintituively, it's regressive. The best students at working on their own tend to be better at working together and better at getting appropriate outside help. Also, the better students have little motivation to work with the weaker students.

    Devon's advice is spot on. I often find that by the time I've formulated an appropriate question, I've answered it for myself.

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Devon, Bob:

    The flip side of this is that many students don't realize how useful it can be to ask a couple questions. They'll just sit there confused because they don't realize that it's ok to ask.

  10. Kathy says:

    Maybe she don't have ability to understand questions at all and she want author to do that for her. I don't know,if she is smart enough to do all this I guess she could come up with some kind of answer and ask you 'am I far off?' If she can send email she must have access to internet and do little research. Profesors do this kind of things for years and students think thay can get away with it. ;)

  11. Chris Lysy says:

    Interesting read. The web really boosts accessibility, with only a small effort it's possible to annoy people across the globe. The issue here is that this is not some random spammer requesting financial help from the king of Nigeria. It's a student asking for your help. If you are a helpful kind of person you probably at least read these emails. If the student is cheating, they are taking advantage of your generosity.

    The danger is that these types of emails wear you down and you become paranoid or closed-off. I think the best thing would be to set some personal guiding principles for how you would like to deal with this kind of situation and then teach your own students propers etiquette. This is not an issue that will just disappear.

  12. DanK says:

    I do research in a field that isn't a close match for my department. Because of this, I get a fair volume of flattering email from people who say they'd like to work with me on things that I don't actually do. I think if my field were a better match with my department, I might occasionally fall for some of this stuff.

    Re: the idea that it's sometimes okay to let students bring outside resources to bear on their assignments, I think that's fair sometimes, but not generally. When you give a student a grade in a course, you are attesting to their education in that subject. Students who copy and paste brilliant essays on Wittgenstein are not philosophers, they're secretaries. The fact that they can often do so in the real world as well is an indication that there's more of a demand for secretaries than for philosophers. But it does make group assignments any more useful a measure of what the professor really needs to assess.

  13. Bob Carpenter says:

    @Andrew: I didn't mean to imply that students shouldn't ask questions in class or that you shouldn't e-mail paper authors. Just that you should try to answer questions yourself before e-mailing the author of a paper or book for clarification.

    I ask questions in classes and seminars all the time and encourage people to interrupt me when I'm presenting, which is the main reason I prefer the board to pre-canned presentations.

    Rarely, a student will ask too many questions in class, or someone will ask too many questions in a seminar and the issue will have to be taken offline (note the usage of "offline", Andrew).

  14. Interesting read. As a TA at UVic I have found that it is ncredibly difficult to catch cheaters from the real thing. Last semester we started taking submissions online and then running them through Copyscape, which scans the internet for copied material. It's made catching fraudulent papers significantly easier, but due to the large amount of papers that are still handed in by paper form it is difficult to scan those as well without scanning the papers to PDF form first.