Cheating in Science: School is a Breeding Ground
Cheating is most frequent among the "best" students today.
Updated February 7, 2024
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In my last post I described some instances of cheating in science; summarized some data about the percentage of scientists who, on anonymous questionnaires, admit to cheating; and ended with the question, "Why do scientists cheat?" Cheating--by publishing fraudulent data--completely destroys the purpose of science, which is to discover truths; so why do they do it? In answer to that question, I suggested, "Many so-called scientists are not, in their heads, really scientists. Instead they are still students, going through one hoop after another to reach the next level. To them, cheating in science is like cheating in school; and who doesn't do that?" Here I will elaborate on that suggestion.
The Structure of Compulsory Schooling Promotes Cheating
Our system of compulsory (forced) schooling is almost perfectly designed to promote cheating. That is even truer today than in times past. Students are required to spend way more time than they wish doing work that they did not choose, that bores them, that seems purposeless to them. They are constantly told about the value of high grades. Grades are used as essentially the sole motivator. Everything is done for grades. Advancement through the system, and eventual freedom from it, depends upon grades.
Students become convinced that high grades and advancement to the next level are the be-all and end-all of their school work. By the time they are 11 or 12 years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test. They see little direct connection--because there usually is none--between their school assignments and the real world in which they live. They learn that their own questions and interests don't count. What counts are their abilities to provide the "correct" answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And "correct" means the answers that the teachers or the test-producers are looking for, not answers that the students really understand to be correct.
A high-school student whom I was once trying to help with math homework summed it up nicely to me. After a few minutes of pretending politely to listen to my explanation of why a certain way of solving certain equations worked and another did not, she exclaimed: "I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I don't need or want to know why the method works! All I need to know is how to follow the steps that the teacher wants and get the answers that she wants." This was an A student.
Students recognize that it would be impossible to delve deeply into their school subjects, even if they wanted to. Time does not permit it. They must follow the schedule set by the school curriculum. Moreover, many of them have become convinced that they must also engage in a certain number of formal extracurricular activities, to prove that they are the "well rounded" individuals that top colleges are seeking. Anyone who really allowed himself or herself to pursue a love of one subject would fail all the others. To succeed, students must acquire just the limited information and shallow understanding that is needed to perform well on the tests; anything beyond that is wasted time. All of the top students learn that lesson.
In many cases the rules about what is and isn't cheating in school are arbitrary and have nothing to do with learning. If you create a summary sheet of the terms and facts relevant to a test and then consult that sheet while taking the test, you have cheated. However, if you create such a sheet and commit it to a form of short-term memory that lasts just long enough for the test and then vanishes, you have not cheated. If you create a term paper by copying out large chunks of other people's writing and pasting them together, that is cheating; but if you do essentially the same thing and then paraphrase sufficiently rather than use the copied paragraphs exactly, that is not cheating.
Students understand that the rules distinguishing cheating from not cheating in school are like the rules of a game. But in this case it's a game that they did not choose to play. They are forced to go to school, forced to do the assignments, forced to take the tests. They have little or no say in what they study, how they are tested, or the rules concerning what is or isn't cheating. Under these conditions, it's hard to respect the rules.
Teachers often say that if you cheat in school you are only cheating yourself, because you are shortcutting your own education. But that argument holds water only if what you would have learned by not cheating outweighs the value of whatever you did with the time you saved by cheating. If, by cheating in Subject X you gain more time to really learn Subject Y--which you care about, and which may or may not be a school subject--then have you really shortcut your education by cheating?
In my experience talking with students, the argument against cheating that makes most sense to them is the argument that by cheating they are hurting students who didn't cheat (but they correctly add that this argument applies primarily in those rare cases where the teacher grades on a curve). They see the "system" as an enemy and hold few qualms about cheating to beat it, but they generally don't see other students as enemies, and so they feel bad if they think their cheating hurts other students.
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why cheaters are sometimes caught is that they share their cheating with other students, and somewhere in the sharing the word leaks out to school officials. For example, a student who steals a copy of an upcoming test shares the copy with everyone in the class, and then someone tells the teacher. The problems that arise from the "students versus the system" attitude that schools promote are serious and endless. The honest student, who reports the cheating, becomes a ratfink.
In other respects, cheating to get high grades seems to many students to be a win-win-win situation. They want to get high grades, their parents want them to get high grades, and their teachers want them to get high grades. Teachers generally don't look hard to see cheating and often ignore it when they do see it, because the higher grades--especially on standardized tests--make them (the teachers) look good too. And many parents, far from deploring their children's cheating, are ready to go to court to fight any school officials who dare make an accusation of cheating.
Cheating is Rampant in Schools, Especially Among the "Best" Students
Not surprisingly, surveys show that cheating is very common in schools. In fact, if "normal" means what most people do, then school cheating is normal. On anonymous questionnaires, as many as 98% of students admit to some form of cheating and roughly 70% percent admit to repeated acts of the most blatant forms of cheating, such as copying whole tests from other students or plagiarizing whole papers. When asked in such surveys why cheating occurs, many students give the kinds of answers that I just discussed in the paragraphs above. When asked whether they consider cheating in school to be a serious moral offense, many if not most say no. The rates of cheating and reasons given for it are pretty consistent at all levels of formal education, at least from middle school on through college.[1}
The surveys also reveal an overall increase in amount of cheating in recent years and a shift in who does most of it. In times past, the most frequent cheaters were the "poor students," who cheated out of desperation just to pass. Today, however, the highest incidences of cheating are among the "best students," the ones destined for the top colleges and graduate schools (see Pytel, in Note 1). As one high-school graduate put it in a call-in to an NPR program on school cheating, "I was in honors classes in high school because I wanted to get into the best schools, and all of us in those classes cheated; we needed the grades to get into the best schools." (See Education-Portal, in Note 1.)
Apparently the "best" students today are driven as much by their own sense of desperation as poor students were in the past. They feel that they must get top grades and get into the top schools or else they will let everyone down who is important to them, including their parents and themselves. Not getting into the top schools is, to them, out and out failure. These are kids who are smart and hardworking, who would do well even without cheating, but who cheat to get the extra edge they feel they need to be seen as truly the best. They are like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens taking steroids.
And, then, some of those top students choose science as a career.
The Continuity Between Cheating in School and Cheating in Science
Let's take the example of Bob, who decides at some point in college to go on to become a scientist. He makes this decision not because he really loves science or has some burning questions that he wants to answer through scientific methods. His own sense of curiosity was drilled out of him long ago. Rather, he decides to become a scientist because (a) he has always done well in science classes (only partly by cheating), (b) others have encouraged him to become a scientist, and (c) he sees that scientists have relatively high status and he would like that. In his gut, he doesn't really quite even know what it means to be a scientist, but he thinks it would be a good career.
So, Bob applies to and gets accepted into a graduate program in science leading to a Ph.D. Now, as a graduate student, he is in some sense "doing" science, as he carries out the research he must do for his doctoral dissertation. But is it "real" science, or is he still a student going through hoops? He finds that as he works on his research project--a project that was designed more by his advisor than by himself--he is not getting quite the results that his advisor expected. The advisor seems disappointed and is lavishing much more attention and praise on another Ph.D. candidate who is getting strong, positive, publishable results.
Bob gets worried about his future. He's working hard and, through no fault of his own, it's not paying off. So, the old habit of cheating returns. By manipulating just a few numbers, in some of his data sets, he turns statistically insignificant results into significant ones--results that lead to a much-praised dissertation and to a number of publications in prestigious scientific journals.
Bob has many ways to rationalize this cheating to himself. His advisor assigned him to a bum project; the laboratory conditions were not adequate for getting the expected results; the numbers he changed came from observations that may have been flukes; and he had to do this because otherwise his whole career was in jeopardy. The problem is that now his cheating has serious consequences. Bob may see himself as just doing what he had to do to go through another hoop, but others see his work as a serious scientific contribution. Every act of cheating in science pokes a hole in the scientific enterprise. Science absolutely depends upon honesty. Bob cheats because (a) he feels pressure to cheat, (b) he feels he's still really a student and not yet a scientist, and (c) he has a long history of cheating as a student and rationalizing that cheating.
And where does this end for Bob? At what point will he be done with hoops and become a "real scientist," motivated solely by the search for truth? When Bob becomes a post-doctoral fellow working in someone else's lab, he is still in some ways a student, still needing to prove himself so he can get a real job. Then, when he becomes an assistant professor in a university science department, there are still hoops to go through. He must publish research articles in respected journals in order to get tenure. It's "up or out" after seven years as assistant professor, and now Bob has a young family to support and "out" is not, in his mind, an option. The pressure to cheat may now be even stronger than before. And suppose he does get tenure. By this time the habit of cheating has become rather fixed. It has worked all along. Moreover, by now he has his own graduate students, and to support them he must get grants. Also by now he has a high reputation, which he enjoys in spite of his uneasy knowledge that it is not entirely deserved. To keep getting grants, to keep supporting his students, and to keep up that high reputation, he must continue getting strong, publishable, positive results. The hoops never end.
One of the tragedies of our system of schooling is that it deflects students from discovering what they truly love and find worth doing for its own sake. Instead, it teaches them that life is a series of hoops that one must get through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others' judgments rather than in real, self-satisfying accomplishments. Fortunately, most people manage to get off of that track, or largely off of it, once they leave school and begin to enjoy more freedom of choice. But some never get off of it; they are perpetually like students, constantly striving to impress others in ways that lead them through one hoop after another. Some of those become cheaters in science--or in business, or law, or politics, or ....
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1. Summaries of surveys on school cheating and students' reasons for cheating can be found at the following: (a) Joan Oleck, "Most High-School Students Admit to Cheating." School Library Journal (03/10/2008); (b) Barbara Pytel "Cheating on the Rise"; (c) Education-Portal.com, "75 to 98 Percent of College Students Have Cheated"; and (d) Regan McMahon, "Everybody Does It: Academic Cheating is at an All-Time High," San Francisco Chronicle (09/09/2007).