Stanford, UC Berkeley computer science cheating incidents part of widespread problem: report

When UC Berkeley computer science professor Randy H. Katz took a look at whether students in one class were cheating, he found that about one in seven of his 700 pupils had violated course policy on copying code or helping each other.

When Stanford University probed one 2015 computer science course, it flagged up to 20 percent of students for possible cheating.

Those two incidents — the one at UC Berkeley occurring in 2013 — are part of a surge in “high-tech collegiate plagiarism,” with students across the country driven by dreams of Google jobs and startup riches into improperly copying and sharing code, according to a new report.

“College students have flooded into computer science courses across the country, recognizing them as an entree to coveted jobs at companies like Facebook and Google, not to mention the big prize: a start-up worth millions,” according to the New York Times.

“The exploding interest in these courses, though, has coincided with an undesirable side effect: a spate of high-tech collegiate plagiarism. Students have been caught borrowing computer code from their friends or cribbing it from the internet.

“Computer science professors are now delivering stern warnings at the start of each course, and, like colleagues in other subjects, deploy software to flag plagiarism. They have unearthed numerous examples of suspected cheating.”

Stanford said May 30 it was “continually vigilant” about checking for cheating in all courses, not just computer science. The school would not provide any information about disciplinary action related to the 2015 course, instead pointing to the Stanford Honor Code, which outlines punishments for violations.

UC Berkeley did not immediately provide answers to questions about possible cheating in computer science. Any answers received will be added to this article.

The problems reach beyond UC Berkeley and Stanford to other centers of computer-science excellence, according to the May 29 report in the Times.

At Brown University, cheating in computer science courses made up more than 50 percent of 49 allegations of academic code violations, the Times reported.

At Harvard, the famed Computer Science 50 course saw more than 60 pupils referred to the committee that reviews charges of academic dishonesty, plagiarism and breaches of the honor code, according to the Times.

At Yale University, five students were accused last fall of copying code, with two having charges withdrawn, according to the Times.

School officials at the University of Washington Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering warn students that a “large percentage” of all the institution’s academic misconduct cases arise in computer science and engineering classes, “even though our courses represent only a much smaller percent of the student enrollment.”

The code-copying problem has been around for some time — at Stanford, in the decade up to 2o1o, allegations of cheating more than doubled to 123 from 52, with computer science students as the suspects in the most cases, the Mercury News reported that year.

“A common computer science violation occurs when students work as a team to complete an assignment, even though the rules stipulate that work must be done individually,” the paper reported.

“Also common: students obtaining someone else’s code and submitting that version, after making simple edits to disguise the work.”

After the 2013 incident at Berkeley, students told the Daily Californian student newspaper that help offered during the course meant there was no excuse for cheating.

“The professor and (graduate student instructors) threw homework parties, which were very helpful,” computer science major Alex Danilychev told the paper. “We also had extra credit opportunities throughout the semester. I could’ve easily gotten three times the extra credit I got if I wanted to.”

The reasons computer science students cheat are straightforward, according to the Times.

“You’ve got kids who were struggling with spending a third of their time on their problem sets with the option to copy from the internet,” Jackson Wagner, who took the Harvard course in 2015 and was not accused of copying, told the paper. “That’s the reason why people cheat.”

Also implicated is the “collaborative ethos among programmers, which encourages code-sharing in ways that might not be acceptable in a class,” the Times reported.

And the policies students are required to follow are exceptionally complicated, Yale executive committee chairman Paul North said, according to the paper.

“It is often such a complex task to read these guidelines,” North said, “that the code to be written seems simple in comparison.”

To be sure, students also cheat in other academic disciplines. Stanford’s computer science department head Alex Aiken suggested to the Times that catching cheaters is often a result of looking for them.

“It’s mostly that a lot of computer science professors actually check,” Aiken said.

Photo: A Stanford University student walks in front of Hoover Tower on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto in 2012. (Paul Sakuma/AP)


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  • Frank A ODonnell

    Just like Music Copy, nobody can stop me.

    Or, Everybody Doing It.