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Possible cheating uncovered in popular Harvard computer class

Visitors gathered around the John Harvard statue. The school was embroiled in a cheating scandal in 2012. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Multiple Harvard students, possibly more than 60, have been suspected of cheating in a wildly popular computer science course and had their cases referred to the college’s Honor Council, a step that can lead to expulsion in the most extreme cases.

David Malan, the lead professor in the introductory course, confirmed that multiple students in the fall semester had been referred to the council, which is composed of students, faculty, and administrators who recommend penalties for academic dishonesty.

The review was first reported this week by the Harvard Crimson, which said that more than 60 students — or about 10 percent of the course’s 636 students — had appeared before the council. The course uses a multi-tier system that combines automated digital sleuthing and human follow-up to check for plagiarism.


The inquiry follows stepped-up scrutiny at Harvard since massive cheating was discovered in a 2012 government course, which resulted in dozens of students being forced to temporarily withdraw from the college.

A Harvard spokeswoman declined to discuss the computer science cases.

“We believe strongly that integrity is the foundation of the academic experience at Harvard College,” the spokeswoman, Rachael Dane, wrote in an e-mail. “As a matter of policy to protect the privacy of our students, the college will not comment on and will not confirm or deny cases being heard by the Honor Council.”

The Computer Science 50 class Malan leads is so popular that lectures are held in Sanders Theatre, and its staff has numbered more than 100 teaching fellows, graders, and multimedia producers.

The course is “demanding, but definitely doable,” a description on the Internet reads. “Social, but educational. A focused topic, but broadly applicable skills. CS50 is the quintessential Harvard [and Yale!] course.”

By 2015, the course was being offered at Harvard and Yale with a combined enrollment of more than 1,100 students. Lectures are live-streamed and archived for later viewing.

Specific examples of possible cheating at Harvard were not available, but computer science professors elsewhere said that computer ethics in academic instruction are vastly different from practices outside the ivory tower.


For example, scouring the Internet for programming code could be plagiarism at Harvard. But using someone else’s code to give your business an edge can be cause for congratulations in the corporate world.

“Code is very frequently shared, and so your average programmer is cutting and pasting code from others all the time,” said Lee Spector, a computer science professor at Hampshire College in Amherst.

It’s not known what the specific requirements are for the Harvard computer science course, but Spector said that generally the key in academia is ensuring that students know what is permissible and what is not. If wholly original material is required, then copying programming could be considered an offense. But in many cases, Spector said, students are allowed to borrow snippets of code if they flag them for the professor.

Many programming plagiarists can give themselves away by the “language” in their code, professors said. Each programmer has a style — similar to the writing differences among English students — that can raise a professor’s curiosity if language suddenly changes.

In his e-mail to the Globe, Malan outlined the protocol for reviewing student projects and seeing whether their code “matches” code used by other students.

“We cross-compare all of those submissions against each other and also compare them against several years’ worth of past submissions via an automated process, the result of which is a list of ‘matches,’ ” he said.


To the computer, the professor said, those matches appear quite similar.

The teaching staff reviews “those initial matches with their own eyes, my own included,” Malan said, to whittle down “the list of matches to only those matches that do, in all of our eyes, seem to suggest an act that the course deems not reasonable.”

The teachers then refer those cases to the college’s Honor Council, which reviews the cases independently, he said.

In addition, Malan said, the staff has begun reviewing student submissions more frequently before the end of the term. Students who commit a questionable act have 72 hours to report it to the staff.

The disclosure might result in a low or failing grade, but staff will not refer the matter to the council except in cases of repeated acts, Malan said.

“With students now encouraged to take ownership on their own, we’re also more comfortable referring cases to the council once that window has passed,” Malan said.

The Honor Council was created following the 2012 cheating scandal. In that case, approximately 125 students enrolled in Government 1310: Introduction to Congress were investigated for possibly cheating on a take-home exam. Harvard announced in early 2013 that more than half the students had to withdraw for “a period of time.” Affected students said the punishments amounted to two semesters for most.

Globe correspondent Jacob Geanous contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@
. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.