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A former student of mine asked for advise. This student has been accused of cheating on an assignment. By their account, approximately 8% of their project is nearly identical to a partial solution posted by a student who took the same course in the past. My former student claims that they never consulted GitHub, rather they just built the project using the description in the handout.

The former student also claims that the remainder of the project, much more complicated, bears no resemblance to the GitHub posting, per the accusing professor.

The matter is further complicated in that the student has been unable to see the GitHub posting as it was removed prior to the student being accused of plagiarism. I was contacted because I have talked about academic dishonesty in my classes, and given examples to students. The student asks how to proceed.

From my end, I suggested that the student email the professor, and ask for the specifics so that they can be examined. The professor indicated that the case can go to the academic review board, and points out that it will be likely upheld there. I reminded the student that apparently 90+% of the project appears to be original, and the student denies using anyone else's code. The student wondered if they should admit, as the professor is suggesting.

My advise was to only admit to what you have done. Ask for the code allegedly used in the project, and in writing justify how the submitted project was developed, explaining the commonality with the GitHub code, if possible. And before that can be done, the professor should supply the alleged copied code which is relied upon for the assertion of academic dishonesty.

Is there anything else which I should consider or suggest?

  • How was "8%" determined? Using an automated tool like MOSS? How similar were the codes of other students in the class? In my experience, a MOSS similarity score of 8% with hits randomly scattered throughout a project would probably be completely innocent. However, if the similarity score was 80% for a module that was 10% of the whole project, it would be a very strong indication of a problem with that module. The details matter a lot. Any process that is reasonably fair to the student should allow the student to see the evidence and offer an explanation for apparent copying. – Brian Borchers Feb 21 at 5:55
  • 8% was assumed as the professor stated that 80% of part 1, which was worth 10% of the total project, was allegedly copied. There was no discussion about any tool used to determine that. – mongo Feb 21 at 6:32
  • If there's evidence that 80% of part 1 of the project was copied, then the student will have a very hard time denying that they cheated on that part of the assignment. Depending on local norms, the punishment for cheating on part of an assignment might be anything from a warning to expulsion from the university. The best strategy for the student is probably to beg for leniency rather than trying to deny cheating. – Brian Borchers Feb 23 at 1:24
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Rather than arguing it with the prof, who seems disinclined to do so, let it go to the review board and argue it there. The student doesn't actually need to do the analysis them self before they have a review scheduled, but then, you can both insist that you have full information in which to defend yourself. Serve as the student's advocate if you are so inclined.

If the student uses well designed code as they were taught to do, there may be, in essence, only one way to properly express the solution if it is small and well defined. That won't be true for a large program, of course.

But also insist that the student should get the benefit of any doubt as the overall impact on the system is small, but that on the student is large.

I agree with the advice you have so far given in this, by the way.

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