Controversial

Reports of Cheating Increases as Computer Science Goes Mainstream

Plagiarism has made its way from traditional journalism-related courses to computer science programs across the country. But instead of copying papers and reports, students are ripping each other’s computer code off and claiming it as their own.

A recently published article by The New York Times highlights the proliferation of this trend, suggesting that plagiarism is becoming increasingly rampant in high-caliber institutions, such as Harvard, UC Berkeley and Brown University.

At UC Berkeley, a staggering 100 students out of 700 were caught plagiarizing computer code.

“There’s a lot of discussion about it, both inside a department as well as across the field,” said Randy H. Katz, a professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department at UC Berkeley.

Perhaps the most devastating report comes from Brown University, where more than 50 percent of cheating allegations related to academics can be traced to computer science programs.

In a move to discourage students from cheating their way through the course, professors are taking several precautionary measures. Some raise red flags in the form of a pep talk about the consequences of ripping code at the start of the program.

Others have resorted to running submissions through a software program that detects code-related plagiarism. Common tools used by computer science professors include Measure of Software Similarity (MOSS) and Codio, an application that closely scrutinizes keystrokes.

David J. Malan, a professor at Harvard, prefers to target the conscience of students by offering a 72-hour window to admit any wrongdoings. Malan refers to it as a “regret clause” Students who are lured into this option will automatically receive a failing grade – without facing disciplinary repercussions for their action (for first-time offenders only).

Malan previously dealt with a massive cheating allegation of 60 computer science students.

“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,” said Jackson Wagner, a computer science graduate from Harvard. “That’s the reason why people cheat.”

Should all students caught emulating computer code be punished extensively? There’s another side to this story that challenges the way some schools are handling allegations of cheating.

Outside of academic settings, copying code is tolerated to a certain degree, making such punishments controversial. It’s normal for programmers to seek help and pull lines of code from online forums, like Stack Overflow. Furthermore, open source software promotes the distribution and modification of computer source code.

As Matthew Hughes from The Next Web points out, software coders are ranked based on their efficiency in finishing coding-related tasks, not originality. But like collegiate computer science programs, there’s a very fine line between straight-up ripping someone else’s work and using snippets to boost productivity.

For example, in the Android operating system, Google programmers used around 11,500 lines of proprietary Java code and a handful of Java APIs. In an epic six-year legal battle, Oracle challenged such practices, alleging the tech giant infringed copyright regulations.

“We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market. Oracle brought this lawsuit to put a stop to Google’s illegal behavior. We believe there are numerous grounds for appeal, and we plan to bring this case back to the Federal Circuit on appeal,” said Dorian Daley, Oracle’s general counsel, in a statement.

More than $9 billion in damages was at stake; which in a surprising twist, did not favor the software firm. Google ended up winning the case after three days of deliberation in a California federal court. In its arguments, Google emphasized that Java software is “free and open” to use.

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