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I know this individual who has lied on their medical school application by not disclosing a disciplinary action that they received and is now about to matriculate. They explicitly told me this, in writing. Further, I know from being in the same classes that they cheated in many classes, including after the one in which they were caught.

There is a question on the application asking about past incidents of academic misconduct. The student must answer "yes" to the question if they've ever received disciplinary action, to which they lied and put "no". However, the misconduct isn't noted on the transcript; but if the uni was contacted it holds records that would prove the cheating incident.

This infuriates me and I feel like it's my ethical duty to notify their school of their status.

Is this the right thing to do?

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  • Some new info has been edited into the post; the rest of this conversation has been moved to chat. Please avoid writing answers in comments.
    – cag51
    Jun 8 at 5:37
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    Something you probably want to add to your question is who you are (relative to the individual). Are you another student, a relative, a university employee, ...? You might also describe what kind of honor code if any the school has. Some universities have strict honor codes and the existence of something like that might change the nature of whatever the correct answer is.
    – Flydog57
    Jun 9 at 20:24
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    Clarifying who and where you are is important. If you are in the US and an employee/agent of the current school, non-consensual disclosure of student records as you propose could be a violation of FERPA, a federal law.
    – nobody
    Jun 9 at 23:55
  • Please do not vandalize your own post. Please see here for an explanation, and some alternatives. For what it's worth, I do not think anyone could possibly guess your identity from the question text; millions of people could be facing this dilemma.
    – cag51
    Jun 12 at 0:09
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The medical school should require that the student provide their transcripts from universities where they previously studied. If misconduct should be disclosed, it should appear on the transcript.

You do not have a duty to do anything if you are not involved in providing transcripts.

If you do not have an official role in the enforcement of academic integrity and are not affiliated with the medical school, I suggest you do not get involved.

There is considerable variation in opinion about the appropriate response to cheating if you are not involved in the cheating.

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  • 72
    "the misconduct isn't noted on the transcript." Presumably there is a reason for that. Jun 7 at 2:58
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    @afesafawf you should add this information to the body of the question.
    – Drake P
    Jun 7 at 21:21
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    You want this person to go on to cut people up and do a slipshod job because he or she is used to cheating?
    – user21820
    Jun 8 at 17:02
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    "You do not have a duty to do anything if you are not involved" is about the worst ethical advice ever.
    – Jeff
    Jun 9 at 0:01
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    @Jeff It is certainly not a general ethical principle. Do you have a reason why the asker should involve themselves? Jun 9 at 0:53
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I’m personally against lying, but let’s acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths here:

  1. This individual’s lie was almost certainly motivated by fear that telling the truth would hurt their med school application.

  2. Even many very honest people would lie if you put them in a position of having to choose between telling the truth and being allowed to pursue their dream career (a dream which may well be motivated by noble/altruistic reasons).

  3. Most people in general tell lies, including some relatively consequential ones, over the course of their lives, and especially in early adult life at the age at which one would typically be applying to medical school.

  4. This particular lie might not actually be so big if the disciplinary action the individual didn’t report was not significant enough to be reported on their transcript. (Considering this, one can even turn the question around and ask if it’s ethical for medical schools to ask questions that probe into unverifiable aspects of their applicants’ lives, creating an obvious temptation for lying.)

So, is reporting the dishonesty the right thing to do? That strikes me as a profoundly difficult ethics question. I don’t have an answer. [additional content from a previous version removed — see edit history for details]

Edit: the question has undergone some editing since I posted the answer, and my own update to the answer was also edited by well-meaning users who nonetheless modified my answer in a way I do not endorse.* I can’t keep up with this flurry of activity, so I’ve removed a part of my earlier answer. See the edit history.

Some content from an earlier edit (note: this references now-deleted comments so may not make complete sense): To OP: what I would say in view of the new information is that it’s still not an obvious decision, but I’ll grant that the argument in favor of reporting the dishonesty is stronger than I thought before.

At the same time, I noticed that in response to another answer you wrote a whole laundry list of misdeeds this person is supposedly guilty of, and that you “know” they will be dishonest as a physician. Well, I’m not in a position to argue, and you may well be right in this assessment. However, from an ethics perspective, it seems to me that whether you should report someone for the specific offense of lying on their med school application is quite a different ethics dilemma than whether you should try to sabotage their ambitions to become a doctor because of a whole list of other bad things you know about them, whose truth the medical school would likely be in no position to assess, and about which you might conceivably even be mistaken (quantitatively if not qualitatively).

Basically I’m saying, consider carefully your motivation here and whether it can ethically justify ruining this person’s career goals (assuming your actions will have that effect). There was another question on academia.se recently where someone asked if they should report their former roommate to the academic department that hired him for being generally a bad person, lying, cheating and whatnot. There was more or less a consensus that this would be quite inappropriate. I’m not saying it’s obvious that one should never warn schools about people with a bad character - again, what strikes me about your question is exactly how non-obvious it is what is the right thing to do in such a situation. But it’s something to think about very carefully at least.

* apparently this was done out of an objection to my use of the strikethrough formatting feature, which I find strange considering that this feature is offered by StackExchange, presumably implying that they approve of its use and believe some writers would find it useful.

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    @afesafawf well, the call is yours to make and you obviously have more information than you gave us. So yes, I can imagine situations where it would make sense to report the dishonesty. That’s why I said I don’t have the answer. Even with the new information you’ve given, it does not seem like a completely obvious choice.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 7 at 15:19
  • @DanRomik What you say is very interesting - in fact, that ethics might have some analogy with the game-theoretical "common knowledge"-like infinite iteration of arguments. Nice idea. Jun 7 at 15:22
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    While there are seeds of reasonable feedback here, I downvoted because I think it carries them way too far—essentially saying that 90% of practicing physicians have lied on application materials or something more serious, which in my opinion is far from accurate. Jun 7 at 18:54
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    Here's another uncomfortable truth: a substantial fraction (order of magnitute: half) of falsely accused students in experiments on plea bargains were found to "admit" misconduct as part of a plea bargain if offered a known, slighter punishment on admission rather than holding on to truth and undergoing a misconduct "trial". See e.g. papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2071397 or doi.org/10.1007/s12103-020-09564-y Jun 8 at 14:28
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX This is irrelevant to this case since the OP mentions that there are far too many accusations to call all of them as "false accusation".
    – O_huck
    Jun 9 at 12:27
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You note in a comment that the violation doesn't show up on the student's transcript. What you've run into is the fact that most colleges and universities these days are completely unwilling and unable to deal appropriately with academic misconduct by undergrads. There are several reasons for this:

  • They're afraid of lawsuits, and unlike in a rape case, there is no identifiable victim who could also potentially sue them.

  • Cheating is extremely widespread (e.g., freshman physics students using Chegg on homework, or on online exams during covid). Therefore the relevant administrators would be overwhelmed if they tried to take every case seriously.

  • Most faculty don't want to go through the work of reporting cases of dishonesty.

  • There may be state laws prohibiting the school from doing anything on a first offense, or from taking action beyond minor stuff like giving an F on the assignment. With these "first time is free" rules, every time is effectively a first time, because violations never actually get recorded.

What you're proposing is to do an end run around this system and report the violation directly to the graduate program that the student is applying to. While I understand and share your frustration, such an action would be problematic:

  • The school being applied to probably will not accept such information, nor would they have the tools to verify your reliability or the strength of the evidence.

  • It creates a situation where the student doesn't know that they are being blackballed. This is sneaky and dishonest. If the student knew, and felt that you were wrong or your action was unfair, they could argue their side. Keeping it secret from them means that they don't even have these options.

Two wrong don't make a right. Your school has a system that has rules and checks and balances. It's frustrating that that system likely lets off almost all dishonest students with a slap on the wrist, but you can't fix it by sneaking around and playing vigilante.

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    This is my fault for not clarifying. The violation is documented and the student received disciplinary action. It is recorded on several documents that would be sent to the med school if they were honest and checked the box that says "yes" to previous disciplinary actions. The faculty that reported did go through the trouble to report and get them suspended.
    – user141459
    Jun 7 at 14:43
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    The "end run" point is key here. In the criminal law, sometimes a court orders that someone's criminal record should be kept secret in perpetuity (usually when that person was convicted as a juvenile of an offence that caused considerable public revulsion, or when that person has testified against their vengefully-inclined accomplices). Anyone who writes to that person's subsequent employer revealing the crime can expect to find themselves in very hot water indeed. This situation seems quite closely analogous. Jun 7 at 15:00
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    I think this is an overly harsh statement about universities. Many of them handle such cases appropriately, even severely, but, then, treat the matter as settled rather than force it into the student's future. It is possible, actually, to make mistakes and then figure out how to do better. Young people do a lot of that. A good system provides help rather than condemning the student to a lifetime of failure. Ease up.
    – Buffy
    Jun 7 at 15:51
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    @DanielHatton: where I am, criminal record entries are deleted after certain periods of time (stated in the law), and some convictions are not reported at all in the "normal" criminal record excerpt. Compared to this, academic misconduct (and in particular misconduct that is not in the student's transcript and thus was either judged not to be of sufficient severity or not sufficiently proven) carrying a perpetual penalty of being denied further studies seems completely out of proportion to me. (side note: AFAIK you need to provide a criminal record excerpt to get approbation as physician here) Jun 8 at 14:36
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    @Buffy The "easy up" defense can be used for almost any crime. It just means "drop your morality to the level of the criminal". Also, if the crimes were that minor and insignificant, then there's no point in hiding them.
    – O_huck
    Jun 9 at 12:31
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Ultimately, you're just giving the medical school more information so that they can make a more informed decision. At that point, it will be up to them to weigh the situation. They will either choose to ignore your email (possibly suspecting that you were motivated by a personal vendetta), to contact the person to obtain a clarification from them, or to revoke their admission decision. That being the case, I see very little downside to presenting this info to the medical school.

This has possibly happened before, so that they have institutional experience and procedures for dealing with it. And if it's for the first time, it probably won't be the last, so they'll need to develop such procedures eventually.

The other answers and commenters seem to be placing themselves in the ethical position of the medical school: what to do after hearing an allegation. And that ethical position is very difficult. (So you should not be upset or morally indignant if they ignore you, or appear to ignore you.)

But I would argue that your ethical position is less complicated. It is not unethical to put a medical school in an ethically tricky situation: it should be used to facing ethical challenges. So long as you can do so without violating any privacy regulations, making an allegation is not unethical.

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    I think what @DanRomik wrote in his answer is a bit more tilted towards reality in the sense that providing this information to the medical school may likely lead to career sabotage, more so than causing the med school to carefully weigh the gravity of the misconduct. I would be very carefully in walking down this road, and rather accept the "unjustice" in a few people being let off.
    – Erik
    Jun 7 at 17:35
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    No one is entitled to a career as a doctor, nor entitled to be admitted to any particular medical school. The career of doctor does not exist for the sake of creating careers in medicine, but for treating patients. If the medical school concludes that patients are best served by removing this potential doctor, their judgment should be trusted. Jun 7 at 17:43
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    Very good analysis. I do think there is a dilemma for OP, since they are considering being a part of the chain of causality that might lead to the lying student being kicked out of medical school. You are of course correct that no matter what happens, a good share of the ethical responsibility for it would be shouldered by the school itself. I am not sure I agree with “your ethical position is less complicated” though. If OP were to act, knowing that institutions are fallible and can make mistakes, they are also going to have to live with their own decision and the consequences it led to.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 7 at 19:01
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    @BetterthanKwora: I'm glad to see your straightforward stance in your comment, and completely agree that doctors are for treating patients, not pursuing careers in medicine in themselves, and that cheaters are not entitled to a doctor's career or admittance to medical school. That said, I have a slightly different perspective, as in my answer. =)
    – user21820
    Jun 8 at 17:44
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3 questions for you:

  1. Are you motivated out of personal interest or morale obligation?

If you just want to see the person "punished", that is not your job. If you feel the individual will be a detriment to the medical profession and possible cause harm, then you need to act.

  1. Was his behavior an isolated incident or part of a pattern?

Many people been put into situations where they felt the "wrong" decision was the only one left to them. In my experience that is rare, and most people own up to it afterwards. Unfortunately, several of the discipline cases I've dealt with were repeat offenders with a pattern of behavior that required action.

  1. What is your expected outcome?

Are you out to punish the individual; protect the profession, open a seat for a more deserving applicant or make yourself feel better for "righting a wrong". There are many reasons to inform the medical school; make sure you are doing it for the right reason, or you regret it later.

You need to decide what is the right decision for you to live with. He will have to live with the consequences of his actions. Make sure you can live with yours.

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Perform a calm evidence-based evaluation of the risk that your inaction will allow such a person to go on to become a cheating, lying, 'doctor', who treats patients badly, potentially harming or killing them for the sake of his/her own career. Take into account that others' lives are not toys. If you believe the risk is high enough, then you have enough reason to do what you want to stop such a person from getting into a medical profession. Just for example, it would have been far better for thousands of people if this quack doctor never got his medical license.

If you choose to report this, you should provide upfront as much information as possible, emphasizing how to verify your main claims, because they may not reply to you to ask further (whether it is due to unwillingness to address the issue or something else). By providing all appropriate information, you minimize the excuse the school can potentially give for ignoring your report. Also be careful not to reveal your personal identity, for your own safety.

And of course you have to take responsibility for your actions. But this applies whether you act or do not act. So choose what you think is the best path.

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Just report it. The potential damages caused by a doctor with criminal inclinations is just too much. They come across the most vulnerable people in this profession who blindly rely on them. If their past behaviour is excusable, it's up to the School to decide.

I will just mention a small story which may be (slightly) relevant. I have a friend who worked with me some time back. He was accused of inappropriate behaviour by a female coworker (stalking and eve-teasing). When reported, he merely got a slap on the wrist and everyone else instead convinced (peer-presssured) the female to "forgive" him, claiming it was a one-time thing. I don't know if he did such things in future or not (he didn't tell me himself) but currently, that guy is the manager there (after gradual promotion), and I hear that such behaviours are rampant in the office (I have left the place but stay in touch with friends I made there, including that guy). In fact, recently a new recruits left the job due to such harassments. And the guy (manager) was once telling me about how he received a complaint about one of the employees from some other group working with them in temporary partnership. He just laughed and told me that he summoned the accussed and candidly told him that this is no big dea and that he had done similar things "back in his time" so he understands.

I will just say that I personally will never jump to convict someone, but hiding evidence is just promoting crime in future, in one way or another. Let the evidence be there, what the judge (School) decides is their job.

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The system you describe where:

  • the suspension is on the student's record, but the record isn't sent to medical schools unless they specifically request it, and
  • the medical schools don't specifically request this method unless informed by the applicant that it contains something worth reading

seems bizarre and unlikely to me. I would first consider it a possibility that you've misunderstood how the system works.

Maybe the university's department of academic integrity makes a judgement call about whether an academic infraction is severe enough to send to medical schools? If this is the case, you shouldn't override the judgement call based what you've heard: you have much less information and context than they do!

Maybe some medical schools will in fact request these records no matter what the applicant says, and include the question as a sort of "gotcha". If this is the case, there is no point in contacting them.

Maybe some medical schools don't want to consider this information until necessary; maybe they want to extend their students some amount of trust, and won't request the records until something else comes up. If this is the case, they still don't want you to contact them.

Maybe there's something else I haven't thought of...


...or maybe the system really is broken. If this is the case, what's the point of going around the system in the case of one individual you've heard about? Their offense may not even be the worst offense. If the system is broken, maybe your report will mean that someone even less honest will get their spot.

If you're really convinced the system is broken, try fixing the system. Contact the medical schools and the university's department of academic integrity to verify that you've understood the facts as they really are. Then point out the problem to them. (I'm making this sound easy, but it probably involves making the same argument lots of times to different people and being both persuasive and stubborn.) If you do that, there's a chance they'll treat everyone more reasonably.

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    ... or maybe the university decided that after suspension (and possibly some other punishment) the case should be considered settled and they reserve the possibility to put misconduct to the transcript to even more severe cases. Since OP claims they know the student cheated after that incident, the university obviously did not consider the misconduct sufficiently severe (or sufficiently proven) to expel the student. (At least where I am, "disciplinary action" covers a range from time out during university sports to falsification of graduation documents which is a matter of criminal law)... Jun 9 at 22:47
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    That's what I was thinking of when I suggested "maybe the university's department of academic integrity makes a judgement call about whether an academic infraction is severe enough to send to medical schools". It might be that a case of cheating is severe enough to merit suspension, but not to merit a a record on the transcript. Jun 9 at 22:54
  • Ah, OK - I read that as yet a separate point. Jun 9 at 22:55
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I would take a slightly different view. It is not your job (assuming you don't work at the university records department) you aren't the original accuser (or convector) and really have no duty to act here. and I have no opinion of wether this person would be a good physician or not (having worked admissions at my medical school it is an incredibly hard question to actually answer). But the correct person to approach is the original faculty member who brought him up on these charges at the university, to ask why these aren't on the transcript? A suspension would seem to rise to something on your transcript (since normally any break would be reported such as a leave of absence, etc). While you say you have written evidence of this, you presumably weren't the originator of the process at the university. Your doing an end-run of the university discipline process would likely be viewed as highly suspect by the medical school (given the huge competitive nature of medical school all sorts of sabotage during the pre-med process are highly common, which they would likely suspect this as)

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    Yeah, in any case one can present them with the concrete (verifiable) evidence. What the school does with it is their responsibility.
    – O_huck
    Jun 9 at 13:08