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I am applying to a master's programs right now and am in a bind.

My professor accused me of academic misconduct in one of my undergraduate classes. After I submitted my assignment I had asked a question on an online forum about an assignment and posted a short excerpt of my work. I was asking a question out of intellectual curiosity to better my work for the future.

This had not been an issue with other professors in our department. This professor was strongly against posting anything online, so he found my post online and stated that I violated his rule of knowingly or unknowingly making my solutions available to other students. I had no intent to cheat, and I didn't feel anything I posted was a solution since they were short snippets of code. I felt this charge was a stretch, but the school sided with the professor and he will fail me for the class.

My school says the records of this academic misconduct process are sealed, and there will be no notation on my transcript, just the failed grade.

Graduate school applications ask if one has been involved in any type of academic hearings and to explain the circumstances. The application also asks me to explain any failed grades. I fear if I disclose all this information it will hurt my application. As far as I know the graduate school will not be able to find out there was any misconduct, unless they contact student affairs and I permit them to see those records. The graduate school just requires the official academic transcript. I'm wondering if graduate schools also check other academic records.

Any guidance on what I should do?

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    Be honest and explain the situation. – Luigi May 25 '16 at 1:14
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    Was there an academic hearing? – Kimball May 25 '16 at 3:10
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    I ran into this issue recently because I posted my assignment on Code Review, it got Hot Network Question status, and everyone found it. I was scolded but pointed out that I retained rights to my work per university guidelines and the syllabus mentioned nothing of posting your work online. Didn't get any complaints after that email was sent. No way would I take a 0 in a class for something like that. – Insane May 25 '16 at 9:35
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    @WetlabWalter In my department, we explicitly tell students that sharing the model solutions, which they get after their work is assessed, with subsequent years is an academic offence. Teaching is not just the broadcasting of knowledge, otherwise we'd just stick it all online and go find ourselves another job – Yemon Choi May 26 '16 at 3:03
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    @WetlabWalter If you want to write at least 100 hours' new material of exercises each year, calibrated and arranged in suitable progression to reinforce the concepts being covered in class (this is approx. how much I provide for my second year course to 180 students, with full solutions I should add), then be my guest. We can commision you – Yemon Choi May 26 '16 at 11:38
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I don't see what the "bind" is. You are being unambiguously asked to disclose something, so....you should disclose it. If you just mean "Oh no, behaving ethically may not be in line with my purely selfish interests": right, this is how ethics usually work. You shouldn't lie, cheat, steal, injure, rape, murder...even when you think you won't get caught. That's what "shouldn't" means.

That they also ask you to explain your failed grades is a good break for you: you should explain carefully what happened. If at all possible you should enlist a sympathetic faculty member to write something corroborating your story in their recommendation letter. If you are fully believable then you have a shot that those who are evaluating your application will actually believe you. They may well think that the professor went overboard and end up weighting the failing grade less strongly than a failing grade that was awarded because you (say) failed the final exam. In fact, if there is something objective you can do to show that you have mastered the material of that course -- e.g. doing a reading course with another faculty member -- then I strongly encourage you to do so.

[I'm kind of annoyed to add this but...your academic dishonesty is not in any way protected information. For all you know, your letter writers could bring it up independently of what you tell them. Or -- much worse -- when you are N years into your graduate program, your old professor could meet someone in your new program and happen to discuss you. If it transpires that you were dishonest on your application, that could be grounds for dismissing you from the program. You sure don't want that to happen. Sigh -- be good; big brother might actually be watching.]

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    I suppose it depends what one takes "My school says the records of this academic misconduct process are sealed" to mean. If this process of "sealing" is serious, then one might hope that the request for information implicitly concerns only unsealed matters. I don't think it's unethical to hope the request doesn't include sealed records, although it'd be unethical to lie once one knows that it does include them. And if the "sealing" is serious then that old professor who discusses it is worse than the questioner who gets dismissed... – Steve Jessop May 25 '16 at 14:19
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    Certain kinds of sealed court records, for example, in certain jurisdictions, you can sometimes be legally entitled to deny ever having happened, and leaking details is a serious offence. Whether it's ethical or not to take advantage of that right probably depends why you're being asked and why they were sealed, but if the university is going to throw around heavy technical terms like "this process has been sealed" then they probably should provide some guidance what that means, since they are intentionally alluding to the judicial process. – Steve Jessop May 25 '16 at 14:23
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    @Steve: You are right that I am not interpreting "the records are sealed" to be anything like the court records you describe. I am confident that it just means that it does not appear on the transcript. If it really meant that the student was somehow ethically permitted to deny that it ever happened, then that in my opinion would be a form of academic dishonesty! Compare for instance the third to last paragraph of integrity.ou.edu/students.html, which construes things as I do. – Pete L. Clark May 25 '16 at 15:02
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    Whereas saying that the records are sealed when in fact your professor is permitted to discuss the case at dinner-parties is just common-or-garden, non-academic dishonesty ;-) Basically, I think the questioner's hopes have been unduly raised by that remark. – Steve Jessop May 25 '16 at 15:04
  • If the description of events is accurate, I'd go so far as to suggest volunteering a link to the published information as corroborating evidence. – The Nate May 26 '16 at 1:45
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Yes, you should disclose it, BUT you should frame it as in-your-favor as possible. Something like this:

"I am not sure if this falls within the realm of what I am required to disclose, but in the interest of being completely honest I will include it here:

There was an incident that occurred during the _____ year of my undergraduate degree. After turning in an assignment, I posted a portion of my answer in an online discussion forum, in hopes that the discussion would help me to reach a deeper understanding of the material. Even though I only made the posting after turning in the assignment, and the replies to my posting did not in any way affect my answer to the assignment, my professor for the class felt that this represented academic misconduct, and I received a 0 in the class.

It was not my intention to violate any rules, and I truly regret that this misunderstanding occurred. I have definitely been more careful with what I post online since then. I have not had any further incidents or accusations, and I hope that this will not be counted against me in my future academic career."

The idea is to acknowledge what happened, and show that there was no intentional dishonesty on your part, but to do so in a way that shows humility and a willingness to learn from the experience. Don't try to argue your case, don't insult your former professor/university, just neutrally describe the situation (as demonstrated above) and trust that the reader is a reasonable person capable of making their own judgments.

The word "misunderstanding" can be your friend here -- even if you aren't sorry for what you did because you don't think you did anything wrong, you can honestly say that you are sorry that the misunderstanding happened and that you have been more careful since then.

(Just don't copy my example above word-for-word, that'd be plagiarism... ;-) )

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    "Yes, you should disclose it, BUT you should frame it as in-your-favor as possible" - One could not get a better answer than this. (y) – luis.espinal May 26 '16 at 13:35
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It is difficult to be objective about ourselves, especially under embarrassing circumstances, but if what you say is true and accurate, it is possible that the school administration sided with the professor unfairly.

I was once shocked to be falsely accused of 'helping' a fellow student when I simply confirmed the question (NOT the answer) in an official community college online forum for a hybrid class. The question I answered resulted from a delay in receiving the textbook and the student was afraid he had jotted down the wrong question from the library. I never even hinted at an answer but was rebuked by the professor. This was early in the class and I don't recall any serious ramifications (incidentally, this teacher turned out to be so completely incompetent in the class subject matter that I chose to meet with the department head (CIS) and academic dean to discuss her 'teaching' style. She is now retired.) My point is that faculty are not omniscient nor infallible.

From professional experience, I have found it works out best to be up front and honest as soon as possible rather than leave things in a somewhat murky grey zone for extended periods. This is easiest if you have a sympathetic professor or counselor to help guide you thru any appeal process and are willing to do what is necessary to right the inadvertent wrong rather than justify the wrong doing however innocent.

From what you describe, you seem to have had little or no motive for posting what you did other than intellectual curiosity, a trait that should be vigorously encouraged in education. Assuming this to be the case, it still does not speak well of your judgement to presume that you could post something academic online and no one else would find it. Search engines are remarkably capable tools as you have discovered. Even if not mentioned, you must assume professors use plagiarism detection tools etc. Putting the best light on this rather big negative, one could argue that posting publicly is further evidence of your innocent intentions.

Given the apparent grey zone into which you fell, perhaps you could collect any policies on academic dishonesty published by your school as well as the class syllabus given out by your professor. Read them and summarize how well you complied with them (if you did).

The fact that other professors did not give you an 'F' for similar previous posting is not any more convincing than telling a police officer that you have been speeding in that section of town every day for a year before and never got a ticket. The fact that you have been violating the rules regularly might only add to your sentence.

However, if you feel singled out unfairly try to find similar precedent for online posting from yourself or other students that was endorsed or approved by the professor. Try to find an unbiased person (not family or close friend) or better yet, professor that you respect willing to review the particulars of your case and give you advice. Appeal any adverse decisions as appropriate. No truly innocent person willingly accepts guilt.

Most importantly, learn from this experience and become better, not bitter. Keep in mind the big picture: Academic dishonest is unethical not arbitrarily, but because it deprives you (and other students) of a full education and honest and fair evaluation of your accomplishments.

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    The fact that other professors did not give you an 'F' [snip] I would say, this is indicative, that other professors are "fair and honest police officers" and just this one is being a dick, because when it's his word against mine, the judge usually sides with the officer. I'm repeatedly shocked when I read about American academic culture here on SE; I fail to see, how restrictions on sharing knowledge are acceptable. – LLlAMnYP May 25 '16 at 7:26
  • I talked to the student advocate attorney, who said technically I'm in the wrong even if I had no intent to cheat. Another attorney I talked to said this charge was a stretch. Even the case officer handling this said I had a compelling case, but later after consulting his boss, the case officer deferred to the professor not wanting information being shared online. – json100 May 25 '16 at 8:32
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    @TheMathemagician My initial rant is a bit harshly worded, but in this type of scenario I don't see your justification as a valid defense for this kind of policy. You seem to be thinking along the lines of a "take-home" test. I find the practice questionable, but that's beside the point. It allows other students to copy the solution only if the professor gives everyone exactly the same assignment and then does not follow up with having the students defend their solution. His policy is accommodating his laziness, not promoting academic honesty. – LLlAMnYP May 25 '16 at 10:56
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    only if the professor gives everyone exactly the same assignment and then does not follow up with having the students defend their solution -- Yes, I'll have to avoid doing that in my 400-student class next semester. Don't want to be lazy! – JeffE May 25 '16 at 12:05
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    Not giving all students the same assignments is prima facie unfair. It is practically impossible to ensure that two different questions assess the same things in the same ways unless the differences are so trivial as to be irrelevant to an answer. So even if it was reasonable to expect instructors to provide different questions to each student, there would be strong reason not to do so. – cfr May 25 '16 at 12:18
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The rule is to disclose everything, as has been pointed out in the most upvoted answer (by Pete L. Clark). But, obviously, behaving ethically does not equal blindly following arbitrary orders, so this does not answer the question at all (I am surprised to find such a blatantly wrong statement being upvoted!).

So, to summarize: you believe the punishment to be unjust, and thus you don't want to suffer any negative consequences. This is not necessarily unethical, although it is prima facie questionable (by refusing to follow the rules you disagree with, even assuming that you are in fact "correcting an injustice", you are also disrupting the normal functioning order of academia).

Here's my advice: firstly, you should make sure that you are indeed innocent of wrongdoing, at least in the ethical sense. Can you point out how the professor discovered the code online? If the professor could find it, then other students may have been able to find it too, putting you at fault despite your claims, unless the professor made use of information that other students did not have access to; this would make your behaviour careless, even if your intentions were good. Secondly, you should make sure that you do not have access to other means of correcting the perceived injustice (appeal). Thirdly and more pragmatically, you should consider that the academic world is small, and there's a non-zero chance that you will be found out, at which point the system will show no mercy.

Weight your options carefully, both morally and pragmatically: you are offered a chance to argue your case. You say you have a good case. Maybe you should take that chance.

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  • "so this does not answer the question at all (I am surprised to find such a blatantly wrong statement being upvoted!)." The question was Should I disclose academic misconduct on a grad application? I said [Y]ou should disclose it. You seem to have a rather idiosyncratic take on what it means to not answer a question at all. – Pete L. Clark May 31 '16 at 18:05
  • @json100: An honest, considered belief that you didn't do anything wrong is the best reason to appeal. Perhaps it is true that the appeals committee tends to favor faculty, but that is a statistical statement and you claim to be an extreme case. By the way, the purpose of an appeal is to find out the truth and arrive at the right verdict: how could they do that if they do not reserve the right to adjust in either direction? "At the core of the issue, I didn't do anything academically dishonest" Not appealing undermines your position on that, in my opinion. – Pete L. Clark May 31 '16 at 18:14
  • By the way: "and the attorneys I spoke with agree that the professor is being unduly punitive." Taking academic advice from an attorney makes about as much sense as taking legal advice from a professor: namely, not so much. Neither you nor your professor broke any laws, and the attorneys are not going to evaluate your grad school application. It is moderately encouraging to have some professional adult take your side, but you would do much better to talk to other faculty members about it. – Pete L. Clark May 31 '16 at 18:17
  • @Pete L. Clark: The original question quite clearly aimed to receive good reasons; instead of which you adopt a condescending tone to state that, essentially, "ethics=following the law, whether or not the law is just". So, you are technically right - you do offer a kind of answer the question. However, you seem to lack basic understanding of ethics, and thus you have missed the point, and offered a very uninformed answer. – tom_q Jun 7 '16 at 9:28

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