Monday, November 22, 2010

Cheating your way to the top. Shadow scientists?

Is it relevant to Mermaid's Tale to refer to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction on how much professional and pervasive cheating goes on among students?  Posted on Facebook by a co-blogger of ours.  It's pretty disgusting, in our supposedly leading--Christian even!--society.  Universities know it goes on, but why do they/we tolerate it?  Could it be because to police the system would jeopardize our flow of tuition money?  That is perhaps cynical, but not as far-fetched as it may sound.

This cheater's honor role of topics includes, among many other things, fradulent papers for students of ethics--amazingly!--but he claims nothing in science.  Maybe we scientists are so technical that a hack writer can't fake it for us. We need lab notes, DNA clones, and so on.  Maybe we can't cheat......or maybe just not in the same way.  Or maybe it takes a scientist to do sham science well.

The people who hired this guy were students, supposedly getting an education in their chosen fields.  But presumably they'll graduate one day, thanks to their hired gun.  What do they, or we, do when they (we) become professionals?

Is there a fine line between them and us?  In science, have we not trained students to exaggerate, stretch, rationalize, omit citation to relevant literature or precedence, construct artifactual 'significance' and over-estimate study 'power'? Do we not train students in 'grantsmanship', massaging the truth in whatever way it takes to get a grant, because "you have to, to get funded"?  Do we accept the habit of running to the news media with exaggerated claims, and pious statements that our dramatic discoveries will of course require further funding?  Or dividing what should be one, careful, measured paper into countless fragmented paperettes, to make sure out CVs look spectacular?

Shadow scientists, too?
These may be comments about society, but they may also be relevant to science.  At what point is dishonor what it is--dishonor--rather than just how things are?  How much of this, how much fad and momentum, and bureaucrats' portfolio protection, etc. goes on?  Could it be detrimental to science, by pushing lots of clever people to game the system rather than doing what would be more careful science?  Or wasting funds on what we can buy expensive gear or design huge studies to do, when real questions go unanswered or inadequately addressed.

Or would a more honorable system not distract attention in wasteful, inefficient directions, pushing people instead to think hard, take their time, and try to develop better answers to nature's questions?

Each of us has to answer these questions for him/herself. For many, perhaps things are fine.  The System as it now is, is bountiful for those who are good at it.  For others, it's a source of worry, or even real sorrow.  In any case, for those who need to game the system, we know a nice ghost writer to recommend.

We think that striving for honor is worth the effort, even if it seems to be in vain much of the time.


Texbrit said...

I would assume that there are far more qualified applicants from around the world than there are academic student slots to accommodate them. Therefore, why not crack down on this kind of cheating? It wouldn't interrupt the flow of money if there is always another student waiting to take his/her place!

Ken Weiss said...

It's a part of our culture. Every culture has its flaws and dishonor (or standard of what is 'honor'). In ours, at least, living on the brink of truthfulness for individual competitive gain is our religion (God has nothing to do with American religion, perhaps?).

Universities reflect the culture. They are being run explicitly as businesses. Since we've evolved a credentialist society, degrees substitute for demonstrable skill so they become the coin of the realm. Everyone needs a handful, and if they've been to graduate school they need a handful of published papers or even a grant of their own to get a regular job.

Given that we've allowed this to build this way, we're stuck with it until we change. It's only natural that people will do what they must to 'get ahead'.

Usually, it takes major trauma to make people work together, cooperate, be generous on a societal scale. And there are always profiteers, even in wartime.

We have a proliferation of universities, including online ones, and everyone's trying to out do everyone else. Real universities are trying to match the online fake ones. Universities are establishing branch campuses in wealthy countries, like oil-states.

If there is nobility to be found anywhere, it's not easy to identify it. Unfortunately, we can't say that underlying this is the increased spread of high quality education itself. Because there is more and more pressure to guard paying clients by making courses easier and easier to students won't be upset or leave.

They get cheated in the end. The good students get less of an education than they deserve. The not-so get bled for their tuition money, entertained for several years, and then dumped out on the streets with poor training, often not even able to write a coherent sentence.

Anyway, the nature of our society today is that dishonesty of the kind reported here, along with professional dissembling (not to mention ubiquitous advertising, a model of going to the brink of truth) have become our way of life.

Maybe something less than global trauma will lead us back to a more honorable state, but it's not clear how, or when that will happen.

James Goetz said...

I wonder how much it would cost to buy an academic essay on the ethics of buying academic essays.

Ken Weiss said...

For a fee, anything can be arranged! Bearing false witness is not a rare trait these days, but perhaps doing it for free is....

Ken Weiss said...

We didn't mention GPA manipulation as part of the honest dishonesty of university life. Grade point averages are seen as key to getting into medical and other graduate schools, though admissions officers who are fooled into admitting automatons aren't doing their jobs or can't tell quality from quantity.

Students we know drop classes in which they aren't getting an A--even up to the end of the semester--to get a 'Withdrawn Passing' on their transcript. This preserves their GPA numerically, although again any admissions officer fooled by that kind of clever dishonesty are fools.

And the surgeon carving on you when you next get sick may be one of these cheaters.

On the other hand, until our society simply says zero-tolerance for shading truth, we get what we deserve.

occamseraser said...

...same as it ever was ...

I insist on meeting potential grad students who want to work with me IN PERSON. Grades and GREs are not irrelevant to me, but they never tell the full story re: motivation and preparation. Many excellent students never transition into independent researchers.

Yes, grades are inflated. Yes. there are cultural biases in standardized testing. But there is also what I'd call reference-letter inflation too. I'm stunned if someone actually expresses a reservation of any kind in a letter of rec.! And I ignore letters if they're nonconfidential.

but to be honest, it ain't so different today than it was way back when ...just packaged a bit slicker.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree totally with all your points, except the very last. I'm not so sure things haven't slipped, though slicker they are without doubt. But honesty is as important.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Great post.