The Big Deal About Cheating

Originally published 8/8/2002

We’re told often that cheating is a bad thing, that it will only hurt the cheater in the long run. Cheating is like masturbation – everyone’s done it but no one admits it. If it is self-abuse (I’m talking about cheating now) then why should we care? Why do we get upset over someone who cheats?

Have you ever been a direct victim of cheating? How would you know?

The obvious example of a cheater is some rubbernecking student who copies down the response from the brainy kid sitting next to him. There’s no doubt that this is cheating in its purest form, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not quite in the range of egregious criminal activity.

From the cheater’s perspective, there are a number of reasons to go for it. In a completely unscientific survey of website guestbook entries regarding cheating (one such site can be found at which includes the quotes below), I found that many students who cheat consider it to be a matter of fairness and/or entitlement. For instance, one student wrote:

“I think that cheating is common in schools and very understandable. This is because teachers give too much work and a lot of hard tests that force you into cheating. Therefore I think that teachers should STOP giving so much work and tests or else cheating is cool with me. I also think that teachers and people who work at school are bad at catching cheaters(that is a good thing) and that cheating is completely necessary at this current time. CHEAT ON!”

The interesting thing here is the sense of self-righteousness. The student feels that the teacher isn’t being fair by assigning “so much work” and thus as a matter of course he is simply rectifying the situation. Additionally, the sense of entitlement is clear: “cheating is completely necessary at the current time.”

For others, though, cheating is a way of thrill-seeking, a competition between himself and the authority figure:

“I think cheating is the way to go if it is the right kind of test. I was known as one of the best cheaters in my class and am proud of it. It made my life a lot easier when it came to tests. I just developed a system around seventh grade and have been using it to get in the top ten percent of my class. I won’t dicuss how I cheat but I have to say it is fun to make up your system and try it. “

The challenge here is not with a desire to rectify a grievance against the teacher, but rather a competition to find out who’s smarter – the teacher or the student. Ironically, because the educational process is so formulaic this student doesn’t realize that merely “developing a system” of getting around school rules is not really that great of achievement.

This does not mean, of course, that there isn’t difficulty in following the rules. For many people (not just students), the pressures to succeed (or at the very least, not to fail) are so great they feel that they have no other choice but to cheat in some manner. This is perhaps the only group that focuses primarily on the consequences of cheating as a motivating factor. Additionally, they are the only group that actually cares about the outcome of the act, and probably underwent some dissonance making the decision to cheat.

Finally, others think that cheating is not only okay, but a responsible way of getting through life. Web site provides these words of wisdom:

” Cheating is the way to success. Many see it as a half-ass way of doing things, other see it as ethically wrong. We, however, see it as the intelligent way to go about getting through life. Join us in our quest to cheat the world as we update our database of cheats and tips that will alter your life for the better”

The contempt people like this feel for those who do what they’re supposed to do may just be the primary reason why teachers hate cheaters. When cheating extends beyond the classroom into the professional realm our reaction become more complex. On the one hand, reaction to elements of cheating can be extraordinarily vitriolic. In others, its the absolute lack of reaction that becomes noteworthy

Part of this has to do with how people in our respective professions reflect upon us. Perhaps if we believe that the indiscretion of another will not reflect poorly on us we are not nearly as if our lives are made more difficult by a radical shift in industry reputation. For instance, journalists who fabricate stories used to be shunned. News sources that were found to have been less-than-forthright as to the sources were exposed and publicly castrated. Nowadays a magazine can completely engineer facts in order to entice the reader to purchase, with little or no consequences.

Take, for instance, an example of Time Magazine. In July of 1995 Time published an article called Cyberporn by senior writer Philip Elmer-Dewitt. In a rush to beat Newsweek to print in order to sell more copies and get ahead by capitalizing on America’s fears of cyberpredators, Dewitt cheated. Dewitt was covering the publication of Martin Rimm’s own “study” on pornography on the Internet. Despite advanced warnings of the hoax from several reputable academics, Dewitt published his story, but fabricated some of the statistics himself. For instance, at one point he made the claim that “83.5% of Internet traffic is porn.”

For Rimm’s part, the study was a hoax. He was not a Carnegie-Mellon University Researcher, as Dewitt had claimed (or Rimm had presented himself), but rather an undergraduate with a track record of fraud and deception. The “statistics” in his study were so flawed as to be considered imaginary. Perhaps Dewitt should have been clued in when Rimm made him sign a non-disclosure agreement about the contents of the study.

Now, back in 1995 the concept of web sites and email addresses still needed to be explained to the majority of Americans. Time’s cover, that of a young boy, eyes wide with prurient shock at what he sees on the computer screen, only contained a hint of a preview of what was to be found inside. There, Time did not fail to deliver: augmented photos were aplenty, including one where a man’s naked legs were wrapped around a computer monitor simulating technological copulation.

Reaction was immediate and swift — on the Internet. Dewitt, once a somewhat respected journalist, was trashed seven ways from Sunday. He was taken to task about his shoddy reporting and lack of qualification of sources. Eventually he admitted that perhaps he could have done some more thorough research on the quality of Rimm’s work. Time, on the other hand, only printed a minor retraction several weeks later, buried deep within the magazine.

Time never felt any consequences to their actions. In fact, even a more public scandal with CNN over a ethically questionable report on Vietnam could not derail the mainstream media magazine juggernaut. We, the public, simply didn’t care. (Personally, I think I’ve picked up Time twice – total – since the Rimm controversy).

Okay, so what’s the damage? Who was really hurt with Marty Rimm and Time magazine’s cheat? Unfortunately, quite a few people have suffered, though perhaps they haven’t known about it.

Immediately after publication, on the floor of the US Congress, Senators stood waving Time magazine’s Cyberporn issue screaming about the “fact” that “83.5%” of the Internet was pornography. This had to stop!

At the time the 1996 Telecommunications Act was being drafted, and Congress decided to install its draconian “CDA” – Communications Decency Act. When the CDA was ultimately shot down by the Supreme Court, Congress went back to the drawing table to come up with one that would pass constitutional muster. Eventually, that was shot down as well, but the spectre of another CDA-like law remains ever-present. By cheating, Rimm and Dewitt caused wheels to be put in motion that can not be stopped. Very real threats on electronic, public, and private communication exist due to these two clowns’ attempt to cheat their way to prominence.

Okay, so that’s the media. We don’t trust the media anyway (and with good cause, apparently). But what about those people that we are supposed to trust? The people who work with things that the Man on the Street can’t possibly understand? Recently there has been no shortage of scandals involving these people.

Perhaps the most recent example involves the accounting scandals that are plaguing Wall Street at the moment. Quite frankly, the methods that companies are able to shift large sums of money around escapes my ability to grasp the totality of consequences. But this was an area where people feel trapped. Because they do not understand these nuances, they have no ability to know when they are on the wrong end of its outcome.

Then there are the scientists, researchers, and academics. Perhaps, for those who are trying to stop cheating within schools, the prospect of these people cheating is the most damaging. After all, if you can’t expect *these* people not to cheat, how can we in good conscience expect it from our students?

In 1992, for instance, the American Association of University Women created long-lasting damage when they knowingly published a fallacious article that schools shortchanged girls. According to the AAUW girls were ignored in school, were not encouraged as much as boys, and basically were getting the short end of the stick.

Closer examination revealed that the AAUW, a group completely unheard-of before the report, actually fabricated a “study” that gave the numbers they needed. The entire gamble was a promotion for the group. The director of the group figured that by the time a retraction was printed, a) few would ever know about it and b) no one would care. She was right.

To this day there is an erroneous assumption that girls are shortchanged by schools. The true victims of this myth are those who desperately need the help – Black males. Focus and attention which was severely lacking in the first place was further removed to enable the perception that girls get more encouragement and attention. What the lasting effects of this cheat were, well, we can only guess.

Then there’s the political story of how government environmental scientists attempted to manipulate public policy by planting evidence of an endangered species in Southern Washington state.

Then there’s the academic who wrote a book on gun violence, claiming to use evidence that had been destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Interestingly enough, his mentioning of time travel was notably absent from the book.

These are just some of the examples, but there are several more. The main questions to ask now, though, are 1) why do we care, and 2) what can be done?

So why do we care? Part of is a very normal response regarding being treated unfairly. After all, if you have to do the work, then so should they.

Another has to do with the element of respect, and how cheating is disrespect aimed towards us. As noted by one of the quotes above, the disdain that some cheaters feel towards their audience (and their peers) can be pretty damn insulting.

Sill another reason why we care could be traced back to the frustration with how a cheater can make our own lives more difficult. A teacher can attempt to implement even more anti-cheating methods in the classroom which make even dedicated students be inconvenienced. A bad accounting practice by Anderson Consulting means that another accountant who is doing his job now has to go through another level of trust-building for his clients. An academic who cheats casts a shadow not only on other academics, who then have to run a gauntlet of close scrutiny but also have to face from those he expects honesty. In other words, someone who cheats makes our lives more difficult.

In other, we believe, at some level, we are harmed directly. We believe, even though we may not be so eloquent as to how, that we are are a direct victim of cheating.

So how do we stop it? What can we do?

There’s no way to answer this question at once. There are still so many more questions that need to be addressed first. Besides, I’ve already written one doctoral dissertation!

Nevertheless, to answer the question for yourselves, ponder these questions that may lead us to an answer:

Can we create an environment where people will not be afraid to fail? If so how?
Can we provide a more creative form of thrill-seeking that can eradicate the competitive nature of the cheater who wants to test his intelligence?
Can cheaters be taught to think beyond the immediate goal to understand the consequences of what they’re doing?
Can cheaters ever care about others, or is cheating by nature a selfish activity?
Are there really ways to safeguard ourselves from being cheating victims?

Things to ponder…