Finals are going on for many, and we've had quite a few instances where a student posts a question from a take-home final exam (or something similar).

How ought we deal with this? Should we close these? Currently, we have no compulsion to close these unless they have other problems, though we can squeeze them under "too localized" at times. Delete them? Lock? Or not worry about at all?

To be clear, I'm asking what we should do, as a community and as moderators, if we already know1 that a post is part of a take-home exam (or something similar given to students under a honor code)


A note: While we moderators have access to IP addresses and email IDs of users, we cannot, under any circumstances, reveal them. So, while we may report the incident to the professor conducting the course, we cannot help him/her verify the identity of the poster by providing these details.

1. and this information has been obtained using tools not exclusive to moderators --in other words, the method of obtaining this information does not conflict with SE's privacy policy

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Examples? Most exams are sat in exam halls people are probably just working on past papers which is pretty normal practice right before an exam. –  Magpie Dec 12 '12 at 23:16
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@Magpie We have identified some questions which are clearly taken from a current take-home exam. The PDF file of the exam paper is available online. It includes a future due date as well as a statement that no collaboration or outside resources are allowed while working the test. I'm reluctant to link to them (for now) so as not to draw more attention to the problem. –  David Z Dec 13 '12 at 4:58
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or because it doesn't exist? –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 5:03
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@Magpie if you are really that insistent on having evidence, go find the questions on the main site. They were asked recently and are now closed, but everything you need to verify what is going on is still visible. –  David Z Dec 13 '12 at 5:07
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If we know it is from an exam, and if someone does provide an answer, I say delete (temporarily if possible?), since otherwise we become the hosting site for cheating - a reputation we could do without. After all, just closing a question doesn't make it inaccessible. –  Chris White Dec 13 '12 at 9:52
    
@ChrisWhite: We already do that. I remember my first homework answer on Physics.SE--David deleted it and commented (mentioning that I ought to see the HW policy, edit it, and flag to get his attention). Still people answer in the comments (ergo my "lock" suggestion). Also, I'm wondering if we should make it our duty to notify the profs/etc. –  Manishearth Dec 13 '12 at 9:56
    
@ChrisWhite: Though not all "final exam" questions are covered by the HW policy--the policy deals with HW-type questions. There are HW questions which don't fall under this, which is why I'm saying we ought to be "stricter" in enforcing the HW policy for these. –  Manishearth Dec 13 '12 at 9:59
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@Manishearth Of course I hate to assign even more duties to you mods, who dedicate so much of your time as is. That said, I feel notifying profs is perhaps the most important part, as not doing so risks giving an impression of aiding/abetting cheating should they find out later. In cases involving my own alma mater - and I see one already - I'm particularly keen on not letting this sort of thing be dismissed without some sort of action. It reflects poorly on all of us who took that course, and really should be nipped in the bud. –  Chris White Dec 13 '12 at 10:12
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@ChrisWhite: As long as you guys are helping by flagging/editing/etc, the "new duties" really aren't a burden :) I feel similar about notifying the prof (I already have done so in the case that sparked this off). And this isn't something a moderator may do, you can do it as well if you find something similar (just leave a comment saying you did to prevent multiple emails, and wait for this policy to be hammered out before you start :P) –  Manishearth Dec 13 '12 at 10:16
    
@ChrisWhite: Yeah, what Manishearth said. I'm actually editing my answer to clarify that now. (I even thought of it myself :-P) Don't ever worry that you're putting too much of a burden on the moderators by flagging. The more you flag, the less we have to hunt the site for things we need to do. –  David Z Dec 14 '12 at 0:52
    
I'm featuring this for a little while because it'll be good to get as much community attention as possible on it. –  David Z Dec 18 '12 at 9:50
    
@DavidZaslavsky: Have the questions in question (:-)) been deleted since then? I can't find anything around the 12th that looks like it's from an exam. I know in a similar case in math.SE the questions have been hidden until after the exam... –  jdm Dec 26 '12 at 21:01
    
@jdm: They (at least the two which I can find) were self-deleted. We just closed them (though a lock could have been possible) as Too Localised. –  Manishearth Dec 26 '12 at 21:03
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7 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Let me put up the counterpoint to Manishearth's answer: while we're certainly not required by Stack Exchange to do anything about questions which violate a course policy, it's in the interest of our site to do so, within reason.

In particular, the community has been quite clear that we do not want this site to be known as a place where people can take the easy way out of learning. We try to encourage insightful conceptual questions and discourage do-my-homework questions, and accordingly we have what I think is one of the strictest nontrivial policies on homework questions in the SE network. Similarly, we don't want this to become known as a place where people can easily cheat on their exams or other projects. So when we find out that someone is violating an academic policy, it's consistent with our overall vision to make it difficult for them to do so.


Here's what I propose. If you see a question which seems to come from a current take-home exam or some equivalent project:

  1. If you find the policy on outside help for the exam and it does allow help from Q&A sites like this one,

    • Leave a comment linking to both the exam paper and the policy that allows outside help from Q&A sites
  2. If you find the policy for the exam and it does not allow help from sources like SE,

    • Leave a comment linking to both the exam paper and the policy that forbids use of Q&A sites
    • Flag the question for moderator attention. (If you are a moderator, close it and let the rest of us know in mod chat.)
    • Downvote (actually I don't care about this, your votes are your business)
    • Optional: email the relevant professor to give them a link to the question. Make sure to comment on the question if you do so.
  3. If you cannot find the policy on outside help for the exam, or if you do find it but you can't tell whether it allows or forbids help from Q&A sites,

    • Leave a comment linking to the exam paper and saying that you couldn't find a relevant policy on outside help
    • Flag the question for moderator attention. (If you are a moderator, let the rest of us know in mod chat, but don't necessarily close it right away.)
    • Optional: email the relevant professor to give them a link to the question. Make sure to comment on the question if you do so.

In the latter two cases, I would definitely encourage people to be proactive about emailing the professor of the course. I say "optional" only because we can't and won't make anyone do it, but the professor is really the best person to deal with these incidents. And it doesn't have to be a moderator who lets them know. None of our special mod powers are particularly relevant when it comes to informing a professor about academic dishonesty.

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David, I disagree with most of this. You are turning the site into a thought police for students. It is the professor's responsibility, imo, to monitor his/her students, on the internet too, and possibly warn them that he/she will not just rely on the honor system ( cross your heart etc.) but will be checking on the internet for the appearance of questions connected to the exams. The most we should do if we suspect or know it is a take home exam is to state it in the comments of the question, and that the policy of the site is not to collude in breaking an honor system. –  anna v Dec 15 '12 at 13:10
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@anna this is not making the site a "thought police" for students, as what I'm proposing does not involve monitoring anyone's thoughts. It only involves dealing with what is actually posted here on this site. I would add that in my opinion (but it is just a personal opinion), doing any less than what I've outlined here is colluding in violating an honor code or something like it. –  David Z Dec 15 '12 at 19:47
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But David, should then one put in books electronic detectors to see who has opened them and send the information to a data base for teachers? Where do you draw the line between blanket policing ? Maybe the professors should rethink their policy on take home exams, and only give take home homework, as it used to be a hundred years ago. ( I almost said fifty, but I was also given a few take home exams back in 1960). –  anna v Dec 16 '12 at 8:10
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@anna I believe that argument is inapplicable for three reasons: (1) we are not doing anything analogous to checking who has opened a book (2) we are not sending anything to a database for teachers (3) whether it is an exam or homework, it doesn't matter. Only the policy on seeking outside help is relevant. –  David Z Dec 16 '12 at 9:47
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I think that a professor who gives a take home exam on the honor system in this day and age of the internet is either very old or very naive.

Repeating the "warning" that this site does not solve homework problems but it is allowed to show progress of work and show where one is stuck, is within the honor system, because books are allowed in take home exams.

The answers should give no more than what can be found in a book. So the instruction should be mainly for us who answer such questions. If we see that the problem is progressing well and the student is just stuck at a blind spot, one should answer with the appropriate question to unstick from the blind spot.

I do not think the professors should be alerted, they have taken their chances.

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Some take home exams are closed book. Some profs and universities really do believe in honor. –  FrankH Dec 14 '12 at 15:39
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@FrankH that is fine, we guide our lives through our beliefs. What I would say then is that a student asking here is the same as a student opening a book even though honor bound not to The book is not at fault for having the information. Nor will the book tell the professor it was opened. –  anna v Dec 14 '12 at 15:49
    
I see your point. –  FrankH Dec 14 '12 at 15:51
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I really do not believe that asking a person is equivalent to opening a book. If there were a magic book that would have any answer you're looking for on the exact page you open up to, then I could see the similarity. Also, it may be (and I think it is) a valid point that professors should probably not give take-home work with noncollaboration policies in the internet era. But they do, and we can't control that. What we can control is how we respond here. –  David Z Dec 16 '12 at 9:50
    
@DavidZaslavsky But David, the policy here is not to answer homework questions anyway, except if they show good work when questioning, and then only hint. They could get that from a book too. The extra steps you propose are really policing where it is none of our business but the business of the professor and the student and the honor system, imo of course. –  anna v Dec 16 '12 at 12:27
    
I still don't think asking here is equivalent to getting the information from a book, because in a book you have to look for it... but that's kind of beside the point. The point is that these students are violating a course policy. When they do so on our site, and we find out, it becomes our business. (Perhaps you disagree with that, and that's fine.) –  David Z Dec 18 '12 at 9:48
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@ChrisWhite what a strange response ! I just believe in the freedom of each individual to define him/herself and the contracts with society within societies rules. Society, for example on a more serious honesty issue, does not require to report to the IRS tax evasion when one perceives it, and the few people who might do that are shunned socially. A student and the academic institution enter into a contract and it is for the two of them to see that the contract is kept not for society in general. –  anna v Dec 19 '12 at 4:33
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@ChrisWhite and since you are getting personal,what I enjoy in this site is that in answering questions I am forced to use my little grey cells, and refresh my physics data base which after ten years in retirement is getting stale. Assures me I am not getting Alzeheimers. BTW I avoid answering homework questions when tagged as such, or look like one. –  anna v Dec 19 '12 at 4:50
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@ChrisWhite That could have been phrased in a manner that wasn't an unprovoked personal attack. Please try to be be nice even on meta :/ –  Manishearth Dec 22 '12 at 7:54
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No worldly authority should be in the position to impose any regulation on an independend website on the internet. It's dangerous to reinforce an academic (or governmental, for what it's worth) imperative.

The problems which come from being known to provide answers to exam questions are worked out in David Zaslavskys answer. I agree with the points there. Nevertheless, no StackExchange user is obliged to answer any question, and other users can point out the source about a question in the comments. If the question is about physics and in accordance with the estabilshed policies quality wise, then the question should be allowed to be answered. It's physics, not capitalism, not politics.

That being said, downvoting would be rude - merely an indicator of the sites emerging normative moral system. Calling someone out for cheating goes to far, we have no responsibility to conform to any institution. I wouldn't even call it "academic dishonesty", that's a suggestive term with a bias. Some users might go to a particular university, some might work for the apple company, some might be member of the russian military. Should the community follow the code of honesty of all of these? Is any of these worth more? Should we pic out particular users and consider their personal take on what's fair?

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This misses the fact that the real professional risk to the student is the professor finding out that they asked for help here, which violates the university's academic integrity policy. Officially, we don't give a flip, but what we can do is pass the information on to the professor. If you ask a question it's a public URL. If someone is so moronic to ask a question that could get them kicked out of school with a username the teacher can identify as them, that's not our problem either. I agree, however, that closing the question should be done based on our standards and nothing else. –  AlanSE Dec 13 '12 at 14:08
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@AlanSE: In what sense to I miss a fact here? Well, I don't think we should have to put up rules to protect people from their own actions. I'm saying we shouldn't take any side - specifically we shouldn't have to help out some institution, with how they handle their test cheating issues, at our cost. –  NiftyKitty95 Dec 13 '12 at 14:29
    
We don't have to, but you also can't keep a user from sending the link to the professor. Both the exam and the question are effectively public knowledge given how they've been posted openly to the internet. I'm more in agreement with what you wrote than not. I'm just trying to say that the question of "how do we deal with this" pertains to something that could get a kid kicked out of school. –  AlanSE Dec 13 '12 at 14:45
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@AlanSE: I don't want to make a rule against sending a link to the professor. I'm arguing against making it an obligation to do eighter. –  NiftyKitty95 Dec 13 '12 at 15:07
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Nobody is arguing for making it an obligation. –  David Z Dec 18 '12 at 9:49
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I feel that moderators should not be obliged to help uphold the rules of other institutions, and we should not use any on-site powers to deal with such issues.

What I feel we should do is:

  • Be stricter and more vigilant in enforcing the homework policy on such posts.

  • Add a comment linking to the paper that it is from.

  • Downvote (?)

  • Fire off an email to the relevant professor.

The identification issue can be circumvented, to a degree. There is a way to verify if a user has a given email address (the URL of the avatar contains the md5 hash of the email), though this is not exactly reliable, as the email used to enter the gravatar can be changed without having to re-verify it. Also, it's complicated.

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I'm for "stick to the homework policy" because it already encourages teaching over doing-work-for. –  dmckee Dec 12 '12 at 22:07
    
Weren't you the one harping on about privacy on my thread about downvotes? Doesn't like you have much respect for privacy here. –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 0:05
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@Magpie: The papers can be found if you are looking for them, and you don't need moderator powers to do it. The votes cannot. In the case that sparked this, someone (two users independently, in fact) found out and posted/commented, with links to the take-home paper. This has already happened many times before, on Physics as well as other SE sites -- generally the prof comments, though in this case it is someone else who commented. I did not use any mod powers to find it. –  Manishearth Dec 13 '12 at 7:15
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I think it is a bit over the top to inform a Professor. It's not in the site's interest to do so. It would just be a case of the site not minding their own business. It also allows for "imposters" to frame their peers by creating fake accounts in their peer's names.

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People come to this site sometimes to get help with a question that they are struggling with. We can choose to help them, like a kind tutor, or we can inform the professor and get them kicked out of school. I think the people who come to this site are usually genuinely interested in understanding how to solve the problem, and helping them will enhance their understanding of physics. It's not our problem if the universities don't like it. We are external to the universities. We are here to help people with physics questions. –  Mew Dec 19 '12 at 8:30
    
Re:over the top: Hmm, a lot of the users here have very strong feelings about academic dishonesty. SO do I. To me, it's not really the "site" doing anything, more of the community--who also are porfs/students/etc IRL and it is their business to help out other academicians. This emailing may happen even if we don't have a policy, having a policy keeps a check on such things. –  Manishearth Dec 19 '12 at 8:35
    
Re:imposters: While we moderators have access to potentially identifying information, we can't use it here (privacy policy). Though there is a way for the professor to verify what email the user has (but it's complicated, let's not get into that). So we ought to keep in the email that "please note that this user may not be who he says he is"/etc. It's really up to the prof how to proceed (I would recommend deleting the question from the paper as well as warning the class) –  Manishearth Dec 19 '12 at 8:35
    
Yes, we are external, and I'm not asking anyone to be obliged to do this. I want to have a policy that establishes boundaries for off-site activity (and also decides what is to be done on-site). A recent case was when a student just copy-pasted two questions from a take home quiz. He didn't even touch it up to become a more specific q, he was clearly interested in cheating. –  Manishearth Dec 19 '12 at 8:38
    
Anyway, your input is appreciated :) I knew that this would be a controversial issue, which is why I posted on meta. –  Manishearth Dec 19 '12 at 8:39
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It is not the job of the moderators or members to act as parents or policemen.

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It is not our job, true, but we do feel obliged to. And this proposal is not just for mods--we're talking about community members as well here (a lot of whom have strong opinions about academic dishonesty--frankly, so do I) –  Manishearth Dec 16 '12 at 5:33
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The jokers who ask for help will eventually fail, so why bother? I am extremely uncomfortable in the notion of violating somebody's privacy by contacting them or their teacher in real life. If you want to do something, close the question or if they persist, ban them. I am against this kind of self-righteous bullshit at the cost of somebody's privacy. PS: Harsh words are not directed at you Manish. –  Antillar Maximus Dec 16 '12 at 15:26
    
Hm :/ We're not really violating a user's privacy here. This is a public site, one should know the risks when posting on such a site. (note that we're not using any private visible-to-moderators-only information in this whole process). So I personally see no problem in contacting the prof. Though this post is not meant to force anyone to do something about it (we're not mandating that the community follow the steps in DZ's post), it's just to establish boundaries on what we can and can't do. So far, the community agrees with DZ. –  Manishearth Dec 16 '12 at 18:24
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How is taking somebody's online information and contacting somebody in real life not violating their privacy?? Instead of playing with semantics, take a look at the spirit of the argument. Do any of us want somebody from an online site interfering with our life? I sure as hell don't!! The boundary is very clear to me. You moderators have only two ethical options: Close the thread, ban the user. This is the extent of your brief. If you say otherwise, I'd like to request that my account be deleted. –  Antillar Maximus Dec 16 '12 at 18:37
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The proposed procedure does not use any information from the poster's SE account, because nobody contacts the poster. We don't know or care who they are. We would be contacting the professor, who has publicly posted contact information online. When people post contact information publicly, it is not a violation of anyone's privacy to use that information to contact them. –  David Z Dec 16 '12 at 21:36
    
And even if mods used the full extent of their dark and mysterious mod powers, there is still no violation of privacy. There is in general no expectation of privacy (at least under US law, which is what SE follows) with messages you give people, outside of spouses, lawyers, and doctors, and only then when those people are acting as such. –  Chris White Dec 18 '12 at 22:59
    
@ChrisWhite: Technically we are bound by the moderator agreement, and it is considered a privacy violation if we use the data given to us by our "dark powers" for non-moderation purposes (this counts as a non-moderation purpose) –  Manishearth Dec 19 '12 at 8:41
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@ChrisWhite, while what yo say may be true, yet I am fundamentally opposed to anything beyond deleting the thread and in an extreme circumstance, banning the user if he/she is spamming these boards. –  Antillar Maximus Dec 19 '12 at 16:29
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Considering both the users name and email ID can both be hidden very easily on this site, informing the professor won't (in most cases) achieve anything other than alerting him/her to the fact that a student has broken the honour code. If the student is smart, both the name and email ID will be hidden.

That being said, as @Nick Kidman said in her answer here - The purpose of this site is to answer physics based questions. We already have a strict homework policy, and homework-sounding questions are routinely closed.

I think the easiest way around this is to just be careful to strictly enforce the no-homework question policy. If the user is asking a conceptual question that is related to a question on the take home exam (and since it isn't a homework question) closing it will be in violation of our policy. I think it will be overstepping our boundary as a third party to inform the professor in such a case.

It is definitely useful to be on the lookout for "suspicious" looking homework questions, and generally be more strict/careful/aware/other-relevant-adjective with closing said homework questions. But informing the professor in question is going too far in my opinion.

--

P.S - I don't know if closing a question prevents people from commenting on it as well... so perhaps we should consider preventing comments also on the suspicious questions?

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Closing a q prevents answers, that's about it. (Though there are some other mystical internal things that happen). Locking a q prevents voting, answering, commenting--pretty much anything (except flagging) that can change the state of a post. We lock posts rarely (three reasons: due to a content dispute, due to too many comments, or if a good post is no longer considered on topic), but it never hurts to request a lock via a custom flag. –  Manishearth Dec 23 '12 at 13:45
    
Right... So then maybe we can implement David's suggestions about leaving a comment linking to the paper in question + policy on external help? Basically it's only the informing-of-the-professor issue that I have a problem with. –  Kitchi Dec 23 '12 at 13:51
    
Yeah, a lot of people have an issue with that--the intention of this meta post was to get such opinions. Just a note: Remember that the email to the prof isn't something we are forcing on the community. It is just a suggestion. We cannot force them to email, neither can we stop them from doing it--though we can try to establish boundaries. –  Manishearth Dec 23 '12 at 14:30
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