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Math TA posted false solution online to catch students in violation of academic integrity
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Math TA posted false solution online to catch students in violation of academic integrity

A teaching assistant (TA) for MAT 202: Linear Algebra intentionally posted a false solution to a problem set question on Slader, a forbidden online resource. The post aimed to gather additional evidence of a pre-existing pattern of academic integrity violations in the class, according to an email from senior lecturer Jennifer Johnson obtained by The Daily Princetonian. 

On May 8, Johnson, the course’s head instructor and co-director of undergraduate studies in the mathematics department, wrote in a Blackboard announcement to students enrolled in MAT 202 that she had obtained “strong evidence” of students copying homework solutions from forbidden online sources, such as Chegg and Slader, “despite clear instructions and multiple warnings.”

“We have reported many of you to the Committee on Discipline for these infractions,” she wrote.

The Committee on Discpline (COD), comprised of faculty, students, and administrators, adjudicates “violations of rules and regulations pertaining to any academic work that is not performed in class.”

Johnson declined to comment on the exact number of students reported, but in an email sent to Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Joyce Chen Shueh and later obtained by the ‘Prince,’ Johnson referred to the students suspected of academic dishonesty as a “very sad list” and the the COD’s preparation of documents as a “large task.” 

Through several obtained documents, the ‘Prince’ is aware of at least 21 students who were suspected of academic integrity violations in relation to a MAT 202 problem set due in mid-April. That problem set came after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to move online, meaning students completed it remotely.

On May 16, Johnson told Chen Shueh that a MAT 202 TA had posted an intentionally-incorrect phrase online in order to more easily identify students using forbidden resources. In her email, Johnson wrote that she did not have firsthand knowledge of the TA’s actions and “never looked at the Slader or Chegg websites” herself.  

“On 5/11 one of the MAT202 TA’s alerted me that he had looked at Slader, where he found and modified an incorrect solution to one of the homework problems,” Johnson wrote in the email, later obtained by the ‘Prince,’ with the subject line “update on COD investigation -- further details.” 

According to Johnson’s email, the TA modified a wrong solution by adding a “specific marker in the form of a reference to a Theorem that had no relevance to the problem at hand.” In so doing, the TA sought to “provide stronger evidence of wrong-doing should students choose to violate the rules and copy the posted solution.”

"The TA rewrote this pre-existing wrong solution to problem 23 in Section 8.1 in order to add a specific marker in the form of a reference to a Theorem that had no relevance to the problem at hand. This unique marker was designed to provide stronger evidence of wrong-doing should students choose to violate the rules and copy the posted solution. It was chosen to show that the student who reproduced it had not read the copied solution carefully and checked its details, since the irrelevance of the quoted theorem was quite obvious. The TA assured me that no markers were added to the other problems in Homework 9 that were identified as problematic by our instructors. While I believe the TA's having taken this initiative is peripheral to the case, I wanted to be transparent about the facts as the Committee considers these cases."

- Jennifer Johnson, in an email to Joyce Chen Shueh obtained by the 'Prince'

“It was chosen to show that the student who reproduced it had not read the copied solution carefully and checked its details, since the irrelevance of the quoted theorem was quite obvious,” Johnson added.

Johnson declined to comment on the TA’s actions or the ongoing investigation on May 12, and did not respond to an additional request for comment on May 24.

One accused MAT 202 student who spoke to the ‘Prince’ expressed frustration with the TA’s approach.

“I don’t think a TA should ever do this, or ever take this power,” they said. “They don’t have that position … That’s the position of professors, teachers, COD, other people. A TA is not there to create whatever traps for students and allow this to happen, and it seriously affects the trust that students could have.”

The ‘Prince’ contacted every TA and graduate student listed under the course’s staff on Blackboard twice. Most declined to comment or did not respond. One TA confirmed that they were aware of a fellow TA posting false answers to Slader but declined to provide their opinion on the practice. 

Investigating “Arthur Dent”

The Slader answer that, according to Johnson, had been “modified” by a TA, was written under the pseudonym “Arthur Dent”  — the same name as a character in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The answer, which corresponded to problem 23 of MAT 202’s ninth problem set, has since been removed from the website, along with three other posted solutions from the same account. 

Based on the Slader solution written by “Arthur Dent,” students were flagged for including the statement, “the eigenvalues are orthogonal” or for referring to several out-of-place theorems.

The TA assured Johnson “that no markers were added to the other problems in Homework 9 that were identified as problematic,” according to the May 16 email. Two of the other three “Arthur Dent” solutions, however, were responses to problems on MAT202’s tenth problem set. 

Screenshot of Arthur Dent’s user page on Slader before the account and its solutions were taken down by Slader. The screenshot initially appeared on a Reddit thread created by an anonymous student in MAT 202. 

The “Arthur Dent” account was created in April of 2020, according to an email from to a student enrolled in MAT 202 which was obtained by the ‘Prince’ and originally posted in redacted form on Reddit.

“The email address I see for that account appears to be fake,” the Slader representative added.

Another student in the class similarly communicated with Slader about the account. To this student, the website’s moderators confirmed that the answers “were nonsense but written to look like they were reasonable,” so the “user account was deactivated and its solutions and ratings removed,” according to their email exchange, forwarded by the student to the ‘Prince.’ 

According to its terms of use, “Slader will have the right in its sole discretion, for any reason or no reason at all, without notice or liability to you or any third party, to terminate your account or your access to the Web Site or Services, with or without cause.”

The policy further states, “You may not post, submit or transmit any content that ... you know or reasonably should know is false or misleading.”

Slader did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the ‘Prince.’

This student also called into question what they saw as inconsistencies in Johnson’s account of events. Johnson wrote that the TA “found and modified an incorrect solution to one of the homework problems” and “rewrote this pre-existing wrong solution” to include the chosen catchphrase. The student, however, noted that such a claim was incompatible with how Slader functions.

Through navigating the website, the ‘Prince’ found that Slader does not allow users to “modify” pre-existing solutions posted by others. When a new solution is posted, it does not replace previous ones, but rather is added on as an additional solution. Users are also able to comment on and rate existing solutions. There were no comments on the “Arthur Dent” solution submitted in April, as of the times of the screenshots on Reddit and in materials distributed by COD to accused individuals.

When a student screenshotted and posted the solution to Reddit — and when instructors screenshotted the solution — the “Arthur Dent” response was the only listed answer. The Slader page for Section 8.1, problem 23 had no existing solutions at the time of publication. 

Screenshot of the Arthur Dent solution to Section 8.1 exercise #23 as it appeared on Slader before being taken down, originally posted to Reddit by an anonymous student.

In her May 16 email, Johnson referred to “the TA’s having taken this initiative” as being “peripheral to the case,” but she wrote she wanted to inform Chen Shueh for the sake of transparency. 

The suspected MAT 202 academic integrity violations reported to the COD involve four problems on Problem Set 9. The ‘Prince’ obtained “analysis” that MAT 202 instructors had conducted on the suspected infractions and shared with the COD.

In this analysis, an instructor wrote that “due to the poor quality and irregularities of the online solutions” to problem 23 — the question to which the TA had posted a false solution on Slader — “there [is] more evidence available here than from other questions” to carry out academic integrity investigations.

Students accused of violations were sent a “packet” with various documents, including a partially-redacted portion of a list containing suspected students’ names, the question(s) on which they were suspected of consulting online sources, the source that matched their response(s), and question-specific comments the unnamed instructors had made in their analysis.

The five accused students who shared information with the ‘Prince’ were all suspected of consulting Slader for problem 23 — the Slader response that the TA modified — with their observations marked “23S” and comments indicating similarities between their answers and the 'Arthur Dent' Slader response.

Of the 21 accused students the ‘Prince’ learned of through obtained COD documents, all 21 were suspected of a violation related to problem 23. Eighty-one percent of these students did not have any listed comments for the other three questions, meaning that 17 of these 21 students were flagged solely for the question that the TA answered incorrectly on Slader.

“If that’s written by a TA, you can’t say that’s peripheral,” an accused student said to the ‘Prince’ in reference to Johnson’s May 16 email. 

Johnson stressed in her May 8 Blackboard post that the violations came “despite clear instructions and multiple warnings.” She had previously warned students that course instructors had observed likely violations of academic integrity.

Over a month earlier, on April 4, she informed students that instructors had raised academic integrity concerns when grading homework, and warned students that “it is not acceptable to simply copy solutions from an online source.”

The collaboration policy for the course stated, “Solutions copied from an online solution manual are a violation of the expected standard of academic integrity.”

The pattern of academic integrity violations Johnson claimed to observe significantly impacted the remainder of the class.

Johnson explained in a May 8 announcement that as a result, the final exam would be designed differently than originally intended. There would be “tight deadlines” for submitting work, and the focus would be on “exam problems that are not easily solved using internet resources.”

Her primary goal, she wrote, was to assure students who “have maintained their academic integrity” that it was “safe to continue to do so when taking the final exam.”

Johnson clarified on May 9 in a Blackboard announcement: “As instructors we watched with growing dismay as we saw more and more evidence that there was a problem. In the end the evidence was so compelling that we had no choice but to file a report with the Committee on Discipline.”

One of the accused students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ said they were conflicted in their views on the situation. They noted that students “weren’t forced to go onto Slader,” but they also said that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” 

“If you cheated or did something wrong, that’s wrong. But I also believe that trust and mutual respect goes both ways, and to have a TA doing that on their own accord is just not something that should be happening at Princeton,” they added. “That I think is completely wrong, and I think the math department needs to come out and state that that’s wrong.”

They also felt that the TA’s actions were unnecessary, given the previous announcements and indications that cheating had been observed.

In her May 16 email to Chen Shueh, Johnson wrote that she and Professor Mark McConnell, the course’s co-head instructor, had reviewed the problem set submissions and “independently agreed that some students appeared to have submitted straight ‘cut-and-paste’ copies of the Slader solutions” before she was alerted to the TA’s “modification of the posted incorrect solution.”

“If you take Jennifer Johnson for her word — which, I don’t think she has any reason to lie — I think in the end maybe it is ‘peripheral’ in that they already identified that there were these issues,” the student said. 

Still, this student was frustrated that a TA felt the need to “do extra on top” to catch students.

“They are already aware of it. Why does a TA have to take it upon themself to go to something, when obviously the professors and teachers have it handled?” this accused student said. “For you to go and purposely make an online solution, only to me seems like you’re trying to gain favor with the teacher.”

Ethan Thai ’21, co-chair of the Peer Representatives, a group of students who defend their peers in Honor Committee proceedings, said he felt the practice of posting intentionally-incorrect responses on Slader to identify students for cheating “goes against what most people would think of as a justice system.”

“The point of having an Honor Code and Honor Committee isn’t to test how many students could break it under circumstances. It’s to give us a sense of fairness,” Thai added. “The system isn’t fair if instructors are actively rigging it.”

Chen Shueh deferred comment to the University Office of Communications on behalf of COD, which — though providing a more general on-record statement — declined to “comment on an ongoing investigation.” 

Potential for leniency

In a Blackboard announcement on May 9, Johnson urged accused students “to trust that the penalties imposed will be proportionate to the infraction” and to be forthright with COD investigators.

Rights, Rules and Responsibilities (RRR) states that if the COD determines that a student “ought reasonably to have understood that [their] actions were in violation of University regulations, [...] the penalty will normally be suspension or suspension with conditions from the University.” 

Given the course policy, which allowed for collaboration, one accused student alleged that it would be “nearly impossible to track down” who actually consulted Slader and Chegg. Students who did not consult these resources, they said, may have heard the incorrect answer from friends who they were permitted to collaborate with.

“There’s no way of tracking who reached out to an online source versus who reached out to a friend,” they noted. “Who cheated versus who just collaborated.” 

One of the other students interviewed by the ‘Prince’ noted that the stress and potential punishment felt disproportionate given the alleged infraction.

“This is totally different than if you were to cheat on a midterm or final. Sure you can get suspended, that’s totally okay,” they noted. “But for a p-set, on one question, based on two words? That’s a little absurd in my opinion.”

Thai said that, while uninvolved in COD proceedings, the Peer Representatives have seen the Honor Committee employ a “range of penalties” in the past year, including “some more lenient to be a little more accommodating [sic].” He and co-chair Grace Masback ’21 clarified, however, that they can only speak from experience with the Honor Committee, as they do not work with the COD.

“My hope would be — considering [that] the virtual circumstances of the class ... really just set up conditions for these MAT 202 students — the Committee on Discipline would look a little lower than a one-year suspension,” Thai said.

In an email on May 21 to Chen Shueh obtained by the ‘Prince,’ Johnson and McConnell wrote that while they “had no choice but to refer this matter to the CoD,” they “feel that there are some mitigating factors when considering the penalties for students found responsible.” 

“The issue of students copying from online sources comes up regularly, as it did this spring, but once we moved online with all the other aspects of the course, the distinction became less clear,” they wrote. 

Johnson and McConnell wrote they felt that while students should have known the use of Slader and Chegg constituted a violation, “the collaboration policy made it easy for students to rationalize their ... dependence on these sources.” 

“Slader and Chegg present themselves as online ‘tutoring’ and that sort of help is generally permitted,” they explained. “Students convinced themselves that their consultation of these forbidden sources was OK by re-casting it as a form of help that was acceptable — looking at someone else’s shared solutions as a learning tool.”

“If they were not copying, but instead writing down a solution so that they could go back and use it to understand, possibly filling in missing details or correcting small errors in the solutions they found, then it was surely OK, they reasoned,” Johnson and McConnell added.

Johnson and McConnell also noted on May 21 that they “can see in the student submissions” that some students used Slader and Chegg solutions as a learning tool, while others “copied with perhaps a vague plan to understand it later, or just to get it done and collect some points.”

As RRR states, however, “Neither the defense that the student was ignorant of the regulations concerning academic violations nor the defense that the student was under pressure at the time the violation was committed is considered an adequate defense or a mitigating factor” in COD proceedings.

According to University Spokesperson Ben Chang, the COD has adjusted its work by holding hearings remotely via Zoom but continues investigating and adjudicating cases as required by RRR and in accordance with established procedures.

“As stated in Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, ‘Observing basic honesty in one's work, words, ideas, and actions is a principle to which all members of the community are required to subscribe,’” Chang said. “This includes during times as trying as we are facing now with COVID-19.”

“Cheating is never acceptable at Princeton,” Chang added.

In his statement, Chang laid out a number of different announcements and options that students had to “seek support and assistance” after classes went online.

"The University adjusted undergraduate academic processes to account for these unforeseen and difficult circumstances a number of ways, as detailed in the letters to undergraduate students from Dean Jill Dolan of March 19 on expanded P/D/F options and March 27 on further grading refinements, as well as the April 16 end of semester message about academic processes from Dean Dolan and Vice President Calhoun, which also stipulated a transcript notation for 2020 and expanded resources for students facing academic difficulties. And on May 5, Dean Dolan wrote to all undergraduate students to remind them of Princeton's commitment to academic integrity and underscore that all the support resources for students remain accessible virtually. She urged each student 'to reach out for help as soon as you need it; don't wait, since there's no shame in needing support.'"

- University Spokesperson Ben Chang in a statement to the 'Prince'

“The bottom-line is while these are challenging times for every student, each and every student has had options and opportunities to seek support and assistance — but none of these included the option to cheat,” Chang added. “The vast majority of students have, in fact, abided by the rules.”

The cases ignite debate

Multiple accused students who spoke with the ‘Prince’ said that the process adversely impacted their ability to study for finals, which took place shortly after Johnson informed students of the investigation.

“The stress started to climb as the 202 exam approached, and it definitely impacted the amount I would have studied because more of my mental attention would be on this situation instead of focusing on my exams,” one student said.

“It definitely impaired my student process,” another noted. “There’s just this extra amount of stress in whatever you’re doing.”

Another accused student who spoke to the ‘Prince’ expressed frustration that the math department and COD would “crack down” during a “situation where everything is at its toughest.”

“Some of my relatives have the virus ... My dad isn’t able to work ... I’ve been having to deal with this, and it’s been a pretty hectic time,” they said.  “And now, for a single problem I’m being crucified for this. I just find the lack of sensitivity from the math department really telling.”

A day after the original announcement, Johnson addressed some of these concerns via Blackboard, writing, “There are many rumors flying about and we hope that people can set this aside and focus on their studies. We realize that this is difficult, but we must try.”

“We do understand that these are difficult times, and that some students may have made some bad decisions under the extra pressure of this semester. We know that learning got harder once we moved online and it may have been difficult to resist temptations and keep your values in perspective. We are acutely aware of these issues,” she wrote in a Blackboard announcement. 

Johnson’s announcements sparked widespread discourse among the student body. Over the course of a week, more than 120 posts on the matter appeared in Tiger Confessions++, a private Facebook group frequented by students, which currently has around 3,650 members.

One student who self-described as having been accused wrote to Tiger Confessions ++, “I can’t sleep and I can’t eat and I can’t focus.” 

“MAT 202 reported me for cheating when I didn’t copy any answers and I am terrified,” confessed another. 

Another poster expressed frustration that students could be punished for using the Internet on “open collaboration” problem sets. “Like students don’t regularly get answers spoon-fed to them from TAs and other students anyways?,” they asked.

Some students on Tiger Confessions++ disagreed, arguing that the University’s academic integrity policies were fairly applied to the situation.

“Those 202 kids got what was coming to them,” one wrote. “Don’t cheat and you won’t have to be in this situation. No excuses.”

Several accused students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ also said they did not feel informed about how the Committee on Discipline operates prior to being investigated. 

“I think all of the uncertainty that’s emerged around this situation, and the fear, and the panic is just another example of the fact that there should be more clear information,” said Masback. “Especially in our whole online school system.”

Editor’s Note: The ‘Prince’ granted anonymity to those students accused of academic integrity violations who agreed to be interviewed.

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