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How a Typo Lead to Harvard’s Biggest Plagiarism Scandal

Written by Jonathan Bailey, author of Plagiarism Today

Earlier, we talked about how 125 Harvard students were being students were being brought before the schools Administrative Board on allegations of plagiarism. However, now more details are coming out regarding how the scandal was detected and how it unfolded.

According to Harvard’s school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, the scandal began to unfold in May when assistant professor Matthew B. Platt sent a letter to the Administrative Board noting similarities in 13 take home exams.

Platt, who was grading the exams given to students in an “Introduction to Congress” course, said he noticed similarities between many of the tests including a strings of similar words, a typo and an unnecessary space in a number, that prompted him to take action.

To make matters worse, Platt also noticed that all of the exams in question used, “The same (incorrect) reading of the course material” and also structured their arguments in an identical manner. In fact, the exams used the same two “somewhat obscure” examples to answer the question.

It was Platt’s letter that started the Administrative Board’s investigation into the case and that investigation quickly ballooned from the from the original 13 to 125 exams. According to The Crimson, that number represents nearly half of the class involved and approximately two percent (2%) of Harvard’s total student body.

But even as the fallout from the scandal continues to settle, including the sidelining of the captain of the school’s men’s basketball team, the case has come to highlight how there are many different ways in which students who engage in academic dishonesty can be caught.

Though technology has made it easier than ever to spot copied text, many cases of plagiarism are still caught in more traditional ways. This includes students who have a sudden change in writing style, formatting issues or, as with this case, repeating the same mistakes as others.

In short, while originality detection is a major part of locating and stopping plagiarism in classrooms, it isn’t the only tool that is used. Common sense and observation are still the most powerful tools an instructor has and that makes it imperative for students to be careful with their assignments regardless of whether or not their school uses an automated system.

If 125 Harvard students can get brought before the Administrative Board because an assistant professor noticed similarities while grading tests, then any student at any other school can meet the same fate.

This is why students need to be aware of the dangers involved with turning in sloppy work and be vigilant in not plagiarizing, either intentionally or unintentionally, regardless of what their school is doing at the time.

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