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A friend of mine is finishing up a masters program and has applied to PhD programs around the nation last fall, as well as within the existing college. She had received several glowing letters of recommendation, including one from a professor of a current class (this last fall semester).

This professor has now accused my friend of cheating and collusion on the final examination with another student in the class; which is absolutely not the case. The final exam was a take-home, open-book, open-Internet exam of which one-of-three portions was multiple choice and she and the other student answered a large portion of their incorrect questions similarly--a red flag it seems. It should be said that every prior assignment working together was encouraged so it seems obvious that they would have similar notes and thought processes.

Now, here's where it gets messy: The professor is behaving as the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. He told them both that the "data is irrefutable" and he "doesn't want an appeal from either of you - my mind is already made up." He has not followed the procedure for the school's academic integrity guidelines in any way which, most disturbingly, completely removes her ability to an appeal. He has made several academic threats such as going to the doctoral programs they have submitted to "let them know of this incident" if they do not show any "credible remorse." He has decided he will come up with a secondary exam that can do nothing but be combined with and hurt their existing final exam grade.

Obviously, my friend is frustrated, angry, stressed out and frightened at these events, especially during this fragile time of waiting for responses to her applications.

So what can be done? The obvious thing would be to go to his department chairs herself and bring to light this ludicrous behavior and, if found that integrity is in question appeal the decision. But this would bring along one major issue: Once done the professor will surely reach out the academic programs to retract their recommendation, which one would assume would look incredibly bad to an admissions committee. She also has an "incomplete" in this class until this is resolved which is assumed to be--or will be--affecting the current school's PhD program application. He truly has her powerless and backed into a corner.

What would you do knowing this decision could affect your entire future, academic and beyond? (This is in the US, if that matters)

Edit for clarification for secondary exam: The professor would not give my friend the new exam until he was able to talk to her on the phone. Her initial and current desire is to just get the exam and complete it to get this whole thing over with without affecting her applications; but she has no intention of admitting any guilt. The professor seems quite annoyed that she did not show remorse or admit any wrongdoing when asking for the exam (I was not there, but his email providing the exam said that the conversation "did not go as he anticipated" and did "little to alleviate his concern," I'm assuming because she did not admit to cheating).

As for the secondary exam, he has given her about half of original multiple choice questions from the first exam, some of which she answered correctly and some of which she did not. His stipulation is that any wrong answers will bring down her final exam score further from what she scored initially and any correct answers will not affect the grade positively or negatively. He has withheld her final exam this entire time so she has no idea which questions she actually answered incorrectly, but this also forbids her from verifying any of his claims as well. Further, she will have to complete additional long-form essays again, which he has not come up with yet.

He has also given her the option of not completing the secondary exam and taking a full letter grade off of her final grade (likely, a B-) and has told her he will not give her anything higher than a B+. I assume she has an A- but, again, she doesn't know how she did on the exam. He has said that he "really wants to give them both a B+" for what that is worth.

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He has not followed and procedure for the school's academic integrity guidelines in any way — Escalate to his boss, documentation in hand. She might also consider pre-emptively withdrawing her PhD applications before the professor can poison them, and then reapplying next year with a different set of letters. – JeffE Jan 12 at 3:38
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@JDoe If she goes along with the professor's program he will be able to present it as a silent admission of guilt. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 12 at 3:50
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Guilt and punishment is generally a matter for the university in conjunction with the prof. Contacting outside universities on an unadjudicated issue would not be a wise move for the prof. Your friend should go to the dean, and tell of the threats. Even if found guilty of cheating, it's unlikely that the prof would be allowed to poison applications – Scott Seidman Jan 12 at 3:51
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You can't tell someone not to appeal; it's always their choice. That's kind of the point. By saying outright "I don't want an appeal", this professor is basically saying "you may well see my behaviour as unfair and/or unprofessional, but I want you to just accept it". It could be argued that's tantamount to an admission that they have grounds for grievance. At the least, it's an instruction to disregard the university's misconduct and ethics procedures, which is itself unprofessional, unethical, and unenforceable. Get everything in writing, and raise a grievance with the university. – anaximander Jan 12 at 13:03
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Do you not think silently taking the secondary exam . . . and then, afterwards, going to his boss is a viable option? — No, I don't. Go to the chair/dean/grievance committee now. Deal with the cheating accusation now. The longer she waits, the more muddled the truth gets. – JeffE Jan 12 at 13:11

10 Answers 10

A student who is falsely accused of cheating should follow the official appeal or grievance process, even if they are threatened with retaliation for doing so. To threaten to retaliate if an appeal is made would be blatant misconduct. The student should keep careful records of everything that has happened thus far.

Unfortunately the student has no control over what the professor may communicate to institutions the student sent applications to. I think the student should prepare to wait for admissions results, possibly until the next application cycle, when recommendations from other faculty could be used.

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Exactly. A professor might say they don't want an appeal, but that's not really their call. Although I'm most confused about a multiple choice test in grad school — who does that? – guifa Jan 12 at 3:33
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@YuxinZhou one must assume background information in the question is true to answer it. See the beginning of paragraph three. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 12 at 9:26
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@YuxinZhou The student certainly knows whether or not they cheated, and therefore whether or not they were falsely accused. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 12 at 10:29
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"To threaten to retaliate if an appeal is made would be blatant misconduct." Exactly this. Not in academia, but as an NCO in the Army, I would occasionally have subordinates that questioned my handling of their misconduct and threatened to go up the chain of command. My response was never anything but "go right ahead". If you are doing the right thing, an appeal to higher authority should never bother you in the least. – Kevin Jan 12 at 18:10
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@DeanMacGregor: that will vary by school. At my school, an appeal can never increase the penalty for cheating. The appeal board may decide in favor of the professor (upholding the penalty) or the student (removing or reducing it), but they cannot second-guess the professor by increasing the penalty. – Oswald Veblen Jan 13 at 13:39

Let me tell you a story.

Once I was driving in my car when out of the blue the traffic police pulled me over. A single police officer was present and informed me that I drove over a red light. I denied any such thing and honestly had no recollection of ignoring a red light. I also had a passenger who did not see any red light violations. The officer insisted and handed me a fine.

I decided to go to court and proclaim my innocence. The fine amount was not a big problem for me at the time but being accused of something I did not do was always a big problem for me and still is.

So I went to court.

I was a student at the time, intimidated by the court, intimidated by the process, intimidated by those with the power namely the judge and the prosecutor.

The prosecutor got the officer on the stand first and asked his side of the story. The officer related a tale of complete fiction, well a completely different story to how I remembered the incident. Apparently the road was wet and conditions were tricky.

The prosecutor finally asks, "When the light turned red, was it safe for the accused to stop?" The officer answers, "No."

And this is where I made my first mistake.

Suddenly I was thinking why am I even here? Why did he fine me if it was unsafe to stop? What is going on? Didn't he just prove my case? While I am grappling with this the judge asks me whether I have any questions for the officer and still almost dazed I answered no.

Then I made my second mistake.

The judge asks, "So you agree with everything the officer said?" And still completely off balance by the turn of events I said, "Yes".

And the trap snaps shut.

The judge then says, "As you are not an attorney I will assist you with some questions, Officer, was it still safe to stop when the light turned orange?" The officer responded, "Yes"

And then everything made sense. They set the trap, they got me hook, line and sinker and the rest of the proceedings were just them reeling me in.

Note: this was in South Africa and in the traffic courts this would not have been a full blown judge.

I was pretty angry and surely it is a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the people in power who should be acting fairly and in the spirit of the law. I was also disappointed in myself for taking their bait and not just sticking to the truth of what I recalled about the incident.


How does this story relate? Be wary when someone offers you an easy way out of a sticky situation.

In my calmer, less arrogant and righteous old age, instead of aggressively attacking the professor let me consider his position in a kindly light.

As a professor I receive two papers with enough similarities that it convinces me that there was cheating. I feel angry, betrayed, disappointed. I have two courses of action, either I follow the official disciplinary steps or I rap them over the knuckles and hope they learn their lessons. (I assume the consequences of being found guilty of cheating through the official disciplinary channel will be a lot more severe than what they have been asked to do)

What will convince me of the innocence of one of the students?


My advice is to stay calm. You have to live with the decision you make. I would definitely advise against admitting guilt when innocent. Is there any student bodies that could offer support? Is there any counselors at the university the dispute can be discussed with in confidence? Has the student point of view been clearly communicated with the professor?

The biggest problem here is the professor withholding the proof which prevents a defense by the students. My course of action would be to try and convince the professor to go through the papers with me so I can explain why I chose the answers that I did and to see first hand why the professor believes the proof is irrefutable. A heart felt email/letter (without any threats or accusations) could help to facilitate this.

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Probability of two persons getting the exact same answers in a 40 question with 4 choices QCM are high

Given that the birthday theorem applies, the probability a bunch of 500 chimpanzees having the same answers in a bunch of 500 is about 2% (Calculus here)

If it is known they have the same amount of right answers we get about 3.5%(here), far from impossible. Data lies. It can multiply since people tend to make the same choises given the same formation and environement.

Your friend should follow the appeal procedure right now because the professor is either not liking her or not knowing any statistics to estimate the probability and thinks falsely. Yes, naive probabilities will give him a 0.0000004% of probability but it is an error.

Not an exact answer but hope it can help.

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And that math even presumes that the answers are equally likely. Many MC tests tend to have the right answer, a close-to-right-but-not answer, a wrong answer, and a do-you-seriously-think-this-is-right?-were-you-even-in-my-class? answer. Since the close-to-right-but-not answer is more likely to be chosen, that weighs even more heavily in favor of a handful of wrong answers being the same. – guifa Jan 13 at 19:31
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The first probability assumes random distribution. – Ludovic Zenohate Lagouardette Jan 13 at 20:37
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The linked math is wrong. You've written 40^4 (i.e. 4 questions with 40 choices each) rather than 4^40 (i.e. 40 questions with 4 choices each) and I'm not sure what you've got there is even the right formula. Not even a million chimpanzees have a decent chance of two of them having the exact same answers. However, if you are willing to accept a significantly higher chance of two people having the same answers then the probability can become quite high. – Tom van der Zanden Jan 14 at 13:47
    
@TomvanderZanden you know, the probability in a class of 23 person there at least two with the same birthday is about 50% if I remember well. And for the inversion, I will correct – Ludovic Zenohate Lagouardette Feb 10 at 10:33
    
@LudovicZenohateLagouardette I'm familiar with the birthday paradox. It's still incorrect. There are 4^40 possible ways to answer, therefore every chimp has at most a 500/4^40 chance of getting the exact same set of answers as any other. For 500 chimps, the probability of at least two getting the same set of answers by chance is thus at most 1 - (1 - 500/4^40)^500, which is around 2 in 10^19. 4^40 is simply too large compared to the 365 days that appear in the birthday paradox, you need significantly more monkeys to make this work. You're using the wrong formula. – Tom van der Zanden Feb 10 at 12:44

Your friend is in an extremely precarious position and falling back to the just approach may not actually yield the best outcome. In other words the immediate reaction that she should indeed appeal may not be the best course of action, at least not without preparation.

If your friend has access to the questions that she got wrong, she should go back and find the websites/resources that led her to think the answer she chose was the right one and document it. I think in most people's experience with multiple choice tests, the answers can almost always be narrowed down to two even when there are 4 possibles. If possible, perhaps document just how wrong the other possibilities were. She should present that to the professor and see what he says. I assume this exchange will be via email. If he is unswayed, which I expect, then she should meet him in person. In that meeting your friend should prepare to stand her ground that she didn't cheat and leverage whatever relationship and trust she has gained up until this point to get him to waver in his resolve.

If this fails then I would seriously consider taking the second final as the way I understand the situation, her existing grade will still count but this will perhaps be averaged in but only if it is a worse grade?

I don't know the official university guidelines but chances are the repercussions of taking the official path could be much worse. Consider that cheating on a test isn't murder where the people making the guilt/non-guilty decision are going to be looking for extra evidence. They're going to see the same thing that the professor sees which is that they got the same set of wrong answers. The people your friend would appeal to are the professor's colleagues not a group of peers. Keeping in mind that even if she does win this appeal, there would be nothing to stop the professor to take back his recommendations. If she does decide to make an official appeal then one approach she could consider would be asking the schools to which she has already used his recommendation to withdraw it because of an ongoing university issue. By her asking this, it is less likely they'll suspect the problem is cheating and more likely to assume the problem is a complaint against him. As long as she doesn't actually imply anything untrue then this should be perfectly fine. If, subsequent to her asking for those recommendations to be withdrawn, he comes around to withdraw them, it will look better for your friend than if she hadn't already withdrawn them.

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Thanks for evaluating the "most just" route separately from the "most advantageous." I added some more details about the exam to the question. To note: Under no circumstances should she tell him that she made this recording. Unfortunately, this is illegal in this state. All parties to a phone call or conversation must be aware of it's recording in MA. – J Doe Jan 12 at 19:12
    
@DanielR.Collins I took the recording part out. It was never a pivotal part of the "strategy" so the main message doesn't really change. Also the advice of going to a lawyer was predicated on the assumption that they made a recording that is of questionable legality that they wanted to use so that came out too. – Dean MacGregor Jan 12 at 21:36

She should follow the designated appeals procedure. She should file a complaint with the University concerning the professor's behavior in this matter. She should have an attorney competent in this area of law write the university expressing concerns that the professor might attempt to interfere with her application at her current university or other universities, and pointing out any civil liability the university might face if that were to happen.

In addition, she should think back on her time in the class to any actions that might indicate behavior toward her that was suggestive of any violation of federal law due to any protected category into which she might fall. One example of this would be any form of sex or race based discrimination. Any behaviors that she can recall along those lines would of course could be valuable additional information that the attorney could include when the letter is written to the university. I'm not suggesting making something up, but she should think back on things that might have been ambiguous at the time they happened that now in light of everything that has happened could have appeared to be some form of discrimination. I realize that the professor wrote a letter of recommendation for her earlier, so showing discrimination could be a tall hurdle, but if any discrimination is being shown toward her it should be brought out in the open.

No matter which way she handles this, the possibility exists that the professor could cause her some difficulty at her current school. I feel that making a fairly aggressive response is the way to give her the best possible outcome both at other schools and at her current school as well.

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"I'm not suggesting making something up" Well, everything else you're saying kind of suggests you do. So far we have a case of academic misconduct, no indication whatsoever from OP that this is a case of discrimination, but you suggest spinning it as a discrimination story anyway. I get that's probably "good tactics" legal wise, but it's also pretty despicable. – Cubic Jan 13 at 10:47
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Not despicable in any way. The professor seems to be acting in a way that is disproportionate to the alleged offense, and in violation of university policy. Perhaps the professor just has a chip on their shoulder, or perhaps something else motivates them. It is completely fair in light of the current situation that the student recall the professor's behavior for the semester to see if anything else happened that at the time she just dismissed, but looking at it now she might be able to see it as part of a pattern. To suggest that she not look back for a pattern of misbehavior is bizarre. – Itsme2003 Jan 13 at 15:33

One thing that does have to be considered, is that in the grand scheme of things, quite often TWO different people will pick the exact same winning lottery numbers, quite at random. i.e. there's a 290 million-to-one chance against it happening, but it happens a LOT. CASE IN POINT: the january powerball drawing: 3 winners.

Particularly when two students have studied together throughout the semester. It can almost be considered surprising if there wasn't a lot of correlation on the wrong answers!

Finally: high correlation on wrong answers is much more enlightening about the test design itself. It often means there's a demonstrated deficiency in the match between the test and the material.

EDIT: another point I'd make is that, good or bad, professors have FAR LESS power than this OP assumes. I've personally witnessed at least half a dozen cases recently where professors/APs/Lecturers were themselves accused by students of inappropriately exercising their power over students, and each and every one of those professors was literally sweating bullets as the administration bent over backwards TRYING to find the professor at fault. Now, granted, these were all in state institutions (various states), where there's a decidedly anti-tenure twist in the administration's long-term vision...but...

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It is also partly a matter of how well the wrong answers are designed. Often, on a multi-choice test, one or more choices are so obviously wrong that they might as well not be there. That increases the probability of hitting the same answer by accident. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 13 at 5:30
    
I don't see how this answers the question. The question was not "How do I prove her innocence" but "What should she do re: appealing/not appealing". – Joe Jan 14 at 15:37
    
@PatriciaShanahan, very true. I hold a patent in educational testing...this kind of thing is what gives designers lost sleep. Joe, one of the essential components of filing an appeal/challenge, is "do I have a credible defense? Do I reasonably and beyond some level of doubt prove at least that the professor's reasoning is flawed, and that the probability of random correlation is much higher than he imagines?" – dwoz Jan 16 at 2:08

Firstly having a multiple choice take home exam as part of the final mark is not a valid method of examining a student and shows a very lazy processor! (Unless workings are also required to be submitted along with the answer, as without having more information than an answer to a multiple choice question, it is not possible to see if someone has cheated.)

I think the issue is partly one of timing….

The professor is willing to let the “cheating” pass with a lower grade and an additional exam, so solving the problem quickly.

Or the appeal process is used that will take some time and generate work for the professor, it may be reasonable while the appeal is going on for the professor to inform the other academic programs about it (All he has to say is that “I withdraw my letters of recommendation for reasons I am not permitted to tell you”, and leave the “reading between the lines” to others). By the time the outcome of the appeal is known, it may be too late to get into the PHd.

Very likely the outcome will be along the lines of “not proven”, so the processor will still be able to say he/she believes (but could not prove 100%) that the students cheated and the students did not show any remorse. The student can respond with the result of the appeal, but by that time questions has been put into people’s mind……

This is way each student should have a personal tutor that they can discuss this sort of issue with “of the record”…..

(I am assuming that the word “professor” is being used to mean someone that is a little more than a post dock, rather than the UK usage of the word. As if the professor is a top person in the department the politics may decide the outcome of the appeal.)

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it is reasonable while the appeal is going on for the professor to inform the other academic programs about itNo, it isn't! While the appeal is underway, the entire situation should be absolutely confidential. If I did what you are suggesting, I would almost certainly lose my job, despite having tenure, and rightly so. Or perhaps you mean "It is reasonable to assume that the professor would inform..."? – JeffE Jan 12 at 13:04
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@JeffE, It depends on what to processor said in the recommendation and if he still stands by it. All he has to say is that “I withdraw my letters of recommendation for reasons I am not permitted to tell you”, and leave the “reading between the lines” to others. – Ian Jan 12 at 13:24
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@JeffE I interpreted that statement as meaning it is reasonable to assume that, given the strange things we've already seen of this professor, that they very may well also retract their recommendations. – Dean MacGregor Jan 12 at 18:29

Going straight to the appeal is the obvious answer, but not always the best one.

As of this moment, begin documenting everything. Before your friend says another word to the professor, they should secure any documents pertaining to this event (if they have any). They should also try to acquire what they can through other channels before coming back to the professor. Once done, calmly explain to the prof that they did not cheat and losing marks is simply not an option. Without knowing more about the accusation or being shown the proof, they will have no choice but to appeal the decision unless the accusation is dropped.

Send this communication in the morning. If you receive no response by the end of the working day, begin the appeals process. You do not want a vindictive prof having time to build a case against you (and ideally this should have been done the same day the accusation was dropped).

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-Check if the professor has a history of such accusations,

-Ask to see the evaluation or have it checked independently

-Document all communications and ensure that all rules and regulations are followed by both parties if not issue written communications asking them to be followed and if not why?

-As part of appeal raise the concern on future prospect and get written confirmation that appeal will address reprisals in all forms

-Prove the statistical possibility that such an event could occur and has occurred in the past and that they have not been flagged previously

  • Be open to some sort of compromise ( at least give the professor an opportunity to save face)

  • Let the professor know your intent is strong and you are not open to bullying and threats but your open to work it out regardless.

  • Both of you need to be adamant that its not cheating , if one of you gives then both will pay the price.

  • Ask what other possibilities exists just something like this could happen and explore if they are applicable. ( same notes, same books same , lectures etc)

  • Regardless of what happens , if you know your right stick to your guns , it will help your self esteem and let you sleep at night.

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The professor needs to know that your friend knows how to go for his throat on this (metaphorically) and isn't afraid to do it. Trying to reason her way out of this is not the right approach because she is trying to argue with a crazy person.

Crazy people cannot be reasoned with, but they will modify their behavior when it becomes clear to them that it will be personally damaging to them if it continues. That is why your friend needs to figure out what her rights are and how to stand up for them in the way that will be most damaging to the professor.

I suggest that your friend figure out how to make an accusation of professional misconduct and to begin proceedings. It doesn't need to be an appeal to the professor's accusation, it needs to be an accusation of its own for the way he's behaving. Certainly, if he withdraws recommendations before the process has concluded, that would be grounds for disciplinary action. Your friend doesn't need to do anything yet that will be permanently damaging to the professor, but she would do well to start the process and get some other people involved.

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I'm not sure if threatening the professor is the best first attempt at resolving this. – Ric Jan 13 at 21:03
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No, no and no. Once you -- the student -- step out of the official and ethical way, there is no chance you win. – yo' Jan 13 at 23:45
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Crazy people...will modify their behavior when it becomes clear to them that it will be personally damaging to them if it continues --- [citation needed] – JeffE Jan 14 at 2:58
    
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that your friend go outside of official channels or do anything illegal. The threat against the professor should be that he should lose standing within his professional community, lose his job, or get a reputation as a whacko. I'm not suggesting she press the issue to the full extent that she can coming out of the gate, but she should make it clear in a real way that this is the way things will go so the professor will choose to step off. – Mike Ryan Jan 14 at 5:28
    
As for the request for a citation, this is actually addressed in In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon, Ph. D. – Mike Ryan Jan 14 at 5:38

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