I was the teaching assistant (TA) for a very introductory physics course at a large state university. In the course of grading for this class, I came to learn that my university used the same course material as many other universities had for the equivalent course for more than twenty years. The answers to questions, in particular, were readily available online, through various forums. The syllabus explicitly forbade providing disingenuous answers, as well as any plagiarized responses. To be clear, this instructor was a fully tenured professor; not someone in any risk of losing their position.

After noticing patterns in homework assignments, I began to look for them in midterm and final exams as well. What I initially thought was a couple of bad students turned out to be more than 50% of the class regularly citing online sources word-for-word. Once I realized what was happening, I informed the professor, and I started assigning zeros to the offending students, in accordance with University policy, and the professor did not object to my assignment of zeros. However, all of this was still subject to the lead professor's review.

The professor asked for documentation of the offenses, and was in fact the undergraduate director of the department. I spent the better part of a week accumulating evidence, scouring Yahoo answers and other common homework repositories for the sources of the dirty students' answers. I found a veritable source for every single one. I printed copies of the students' responses, alongside their internet sources, and deposited the six-inch-tall stack of documents at the professor's door.

As far as I know, nothing happened to a single student, and word was never made public of the massive cheating scandal that was blatantly obvious in this course. Multiple athletes were in this (1A) course.

Is this just academia?

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    "As far as I know, nothing happened to a single student" So did they get 0s or was your marking overturned by the professors review? Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 13:43
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    It is entirely possible that things did happen but it would be improper to inform you of it for reasons of privacy, etc. You are probably considered to be a "third party" with whom it is improper to discuss the record of a student.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 16:34
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    I doubt very much that assigning zeros on homeworks that you think have cheating on them is "in accordance with university policy". Yes, most universities will have a policy that students can't get credit for work which they cheated on, but the mechanism is usually not for a TA, or even a prof, to assign a grade of zero. Such actions must usually occur through academic honesty mechanisms, which are tracked through students tenure at a university. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 18:15
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    "Is this just academia" is not a real question. Other than that, I can't tell what you're asking for here? Affirmation? Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 18:17
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    What is a disingenuous answer to a physics question? Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 19:31

5 Answers 5


Beer and Circus calls this the "student-faculty non-aggression pact":

  • Faculty provide an easy class and don't look too hard into cheating
  • Students happily take the easy grade and leave the professor free to do research

I wouldn't say this is "the rule"; plenty of faculty do an awesome job teaching. But, I'm not surprised to hear your report -- some faculty don't care about teaching generally, while others care about teaching but don't care about grades or catching cheaters. Many feel (for better or worse) that cheaters get what they deserve eventually, and don't want to be personally involved in punishing them.

What to do...

I would carefully check the department and university policies -- often, cheating cases are explicitly prosecuted "at the professor's discretion." I would also speak directly with the professor. Speaking of....

I started assigning zeros to the offending students...[collected evidence]...and deposited the six-inch-tall stack of documents at the professor's door.

I suspect this was not the best way to go about it. I would recommend first speaking with the professor, making them aware of the problem, and asking how to proceed. At a minimum, this could have saved you a week's worth of wasted effort. As it is, you assigned a bunch of zeros, and it sounds like your professor was okay with this -- that is some punishment, at least.

Is this just [the way of] academia?

Well, it's certainly a bit dysfunctional. And it's inevitable as long as prosecuting cheaters is a lot of work for the faculty while providing absolutely no "reward" when done successfully.

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    The 'reward' would be maintaining the credibility of the university, surely?
    – David
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 18:12
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    Yes, it's a wonderful service to the community and everyone should do their part. But it's not a metric that "counts" in the way publications or funding actions do. Even teaching / service awards don't generally consider "number of cheaters prosecuted" as a metric.
    – cag51
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 20:06
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    Doesn't it reflect poorly on universities when you see graduates of theirs make a fool of themselves? It's not just the graduate who "get what they deserve eventually". And by the Peter principle they can eventually rise to the highest levels so it's just others that find themselves working for incompetent cheaters. I think we can all relate to that on some level, but I'd be ashamed it reflected poorly on me through association (of having the same degree from the same institution).
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 21:09
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    With the updated question, the "speak with the professor" part doesn't really fit anymore
    – Mars
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 0:55
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    @David: Yes, but therein lies the principle-agent problem.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 10:15

Edit: question has changed.

You probably cannot do much now.

Once I realized what was happening, I started assigning zeros to the offending students, in accordance with University policy.

As a TA, you should have spoken to the professor about the situation before taking any action. Student misconduct is squarely in the professor's area of responsibility.

I printed copies of the students' responses, alongside their internet sources, and deposited the six-inch-tall stack of documents at the professor's door.

This sounds like you are trying to provoke the professor, instead of helping. I fear you have done serious damage to a relationship that should be collaborative.

Is this just academia?

Not really; all types of institutions are subject to occasional corruption.

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    I did inform the professor once I started recognizing it, and the professor did not object to my assignment of zeros. The professor asked for documentation of the offenses, and was in fact the undergraduate director of the department. I meant, "Is this just the way academia is?", not, "Is this phenomenon exclusive to academia."
    – user116180
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 5:13
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    @JoshMcK Please edit your question. When you have done so, I will probably delete this answer. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 7:41
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    @J... The question changed. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 22:16

I experienced a related situation when I was supervising a written exam as TA: I caught a student cheating who actually (though probably accidentally) admitted cheating ("I couldn't read anything" - yea but already trying to read other's answers is cheating).

When telling my prof, he decided to nevertheless have the exam graded regularly. His explanation:

  • In a legal sense, we'd be in a situation where my word would stand against the student's word - we did not have hard proof. Our claim of the student cheating would therefore be very weak.
    This is something I consider extremely important nowadays: given the difference in power between student and examiner and that even confessions of cheating are not reliable indication of actual cheating*, it is IMHO extremely important to accuse students on the basis of solid evidence only.

  • In his experience, students who cheated/were caught cheating had always anyways failed the exam due to lack of knowledge - which was actually the case.

  • The official penalty for cheating was failing the exam, so correcting the exam and failing the student on that basis was safer and just had the same outcome in terms of the need to redo the exam.
  • In terms of pedagogy, they had had the reprimand I gave them during the exam plus everyone else had seen someone being caught cheating.

* While marking each homework that is considered cheating 0 without any interaction with the student does not induce any bargaining problem, I gather that it is common to take a more strict view on students who do not admit cheating when accused. I'd argue from that that students may expect to minimize their losses by confession - which would be sufficient to put most interviews with students who are accused of cheating into the realm of that study.

I found a veritable source for every single one.

Your situation is similar to my catching the cheating student: there's a definitive smell, but not a solid proof: that would require you finding evidence that each student did actually access that web page (during the time of that homework) and maybe even proof of them copying the relevant part.

Without such proof, the professor may still deliver a lecture about cheating or depending on what is up to their discretion assign some more homework that is not found online, announce that homework grades do not enter the final grade, ...

As such proof is not realistically possible, the usual way out is to allow all kinds of sources but require proper citation. This is not only a good excercise of how academic writing works, but it also reverses the burden of proof: regardless of whether the thought was the student's own, it's up to them to check whether the thought has been published before and if so, cite it.
Thus, a lack of citation is far easier to proove than a student using forbidden study material.

Is this just academia?

Something went wrong here quite obviously. I'd say: on both sides, students cheating and the prof having dysfunctional rules (whatever is done: either condemns without proper proof, or doesn't enforce rules).

OTOH, academia is like the rest of the world.

  • There will be inexperienced profs (who may learn and do better in future)
  • There will not only be brilliant teachers but also mediocre ones, and finally
  • Students are usually comparatively inexperienced due to their age and
  • may actually cheat.

I may add some context: for us,

  • homework itself was rarely graded, it was mostly considered an offer for self-study.
    Homework that was graded were either

    • reports on certain questions and I think the topics where handed out according to what was of interest for the teacher that year, i.e. new topics.
    • reports on experiments - here the whole labwork performance was graded
    • reports that were presented during a seminar, so the student was questioned on the topic. And they all used the cite-properly strategy explained above.
  • Graded excercises (undergrad/introductory) had the excercise being done during excercise lessons with TAs being around who had an eye on cheating besides helping. Some of these excercises were supposed to be group work, btw.

  • In general, noone cared how we acquired knowledge, the emphasis was on having the knowledge when examined. Failing exams, particularly during the first semesters, was very common (we had exams with pass rates at first try of ≈ 25 %).
  • Collecting exam questions and studying with such collections was usually encouraged.
  • Important exams were oral.

You can't do anything if the student is just looking at his/her classmate's paper. you can only warn him/her to pay attention to their jobs, but you can't give zeros to them. because just looking at another one's paper isn't a reliable reason. It may the student says I have a neckache! That's why I turn my head! (but in fact, he/she is cheating) and you can't prove the cheating. you can only assign zeros to students who have cheating papers with them or who have their hands full of math formulas; because these are reliable and you can prove the cheating to higher university staff. perhaps the professor you're talking about is aware of my statements.


There is an argument that cheating should be clearly and formally forbidden, but it is not important to enforce that.

The reasoning is based on that the student does harm only to himself.

While enforcing it is not fundamentally important, it may still be desirable to enforce it, but with lower priority when short on resources.

The base assumption may or may not be valid, the student may in some context do harm to others, like gaining an objective competitive advantage. But note that, except for the final grades, an advantage in grading of exams or classes is not an objective advantage in the world outside the university. An objective advantage would be receiving a certificate or final grade that has a value independent of what was learned.

For example, this is a valid approach in the following context:

There are introductory lectures that are needed as base for a lecture later in the curriculum.

In studying physics at an university that includes a lecture on statistical mechanics, there will be an earlier lecture of thermodynamics. It is not important to have valid grades for thermodynamics, because a student does not need the grade, but only the knowledge to get a good grade in the lecture about statistical mechanics. A good grade in that implies understanding the underlying concepts used.

A student cheating in the thermodynamics lecture without gaining the knowledge just needs to learn it later. There is no way to understand why pressure and temperature interact the way they do without knowing how they interact.

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    Yes, but if hard working non-cheaters would have otherwise been sitting a full standard deviation above the crowd, now they're mired in the middle of the curve and their hard fought performance is not reflected in their grade with respect to the rest of the class - so I would challenge the notion that cheaters only harm themselves. When it's 50% of a class cheating that seriously disadvantages the non-cheaters by debasing the value of their grade.
    – J...
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 16:31
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    @J... I specifically argue that a grade does not have an inherent objective value. An university is a system to invest time and money, objectively, to gain knowledge objectively. Additionally, the gain may include certificates, but they are not fundamental, and may or may not be related to knowledge or of practical value. Grades are implementation details of the system. For an entrepreneur, a certificate does not have objective value, but gain in knowledge objectively does. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 16:44
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    @J... One could argue that a certificate has inherent value, only weakly related to knowledge. For example, a PhD allows to a be accepted for specific job. But in principle, value is not inherent in the certificate, because being accepted is only of value if the knowledge is sufficient to be kept in the job. Strictly speaking, a perfect fake PhD combined with the knowledge has the same value. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 16:55
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    Most graduates aren't going to be entrepreneurs. They will seek employment. Employers look at grades, so grade dilution therefore impacts the probabilities of a graduate to secure an interview.
    – J...
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 19:47
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    @J... In the practical case I have personally participated in, it did not negatively impact the statistics of success of the non-cheaters. I think it was in math for physicists. Weekly exercises were graded, simply by giving points for answering individual exercise questions. There is no interaction of individual grades at all. A grade objectively represented a level of competence, which may be valid or not. Nobody else needs or wants to know. Being surprised seeing a ∇ in an exercise is not a good strategy, no need to enforce learning it. It worked perfectly fine. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 22:07