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Copy, chat, falsify: How universities take action against cheaters

Dizzying and cheating students are not a new phenomenon. Of course, the methods change over time - in line with technical progress. But the universities are also upgrading their technology, for example using software to track down plagiarism. The corona pandemic is currently shaping examination formats, control mechanisms and the search for loopholes. With its amendment to the university law, the government also wants to take harsh action against professional ghostwriters in the future. But how are universities currently preventing cheating and what consequences do students face if they are caught?

Cheats and unauthorized devices

When factual knowledge is queried and the memory fails, some students in the lecture hall still resort to the traditional product today: the cheat sheet made of paper. A more modern version for secret reference is the mobile phone with the digital lecture script in your pocket. In both cases it is a question of "prohibited aids" - these are all those aids that were not expressly permitted prior to the examination.

Anyone who is caught using the unauthorized aid will lose an exam. How the offense is shown in the certificate differs slightly from university to university. They can determine this independently in their statutes. At the University of Vienna, for example, an "X" is entered in the certificate, at the University of Innsbruck you get the grade "Insufficient".

Online distance checks, which are frequent during the pandemic, represent a gateway for the unauthorized use of notes. The universities, on the other hand, proceed with massive surveillance and sometimes bizarre regulations. At the Technical University of Vienna, for example, it has recently been customary for students to film their workplace with a precisely defined camera angle of the webcam and to pan their room at the request of the examiner. Printed cereal packaging and bottles with labels were also banned.

Whispers, chats and "coincidences"

Whispering through the rows of benches does not play a role in the currently rare face-to-face exams. The distance is too great, the FFP2 masks are too sound-absorbing, lip reading can be forgotten anyway. In principle, however, this type of cheating threatens the same consequences as with other unauthorized aids.

The online exams at home in front of the PC naturally offer new rooms that can be misused for whispering during the exam. In chat groups on Whatsapp, you can work on some answers together. If the course leader also made a complaint to the group unnoticed, the dizziness can easily be exposed - DER STANDARD has reported on such a case.

The universities try to counter the problem of unauthorized cooperation through technical regulations. For example, only regulated browsers in which chats or emails cannot be opened may be opened. In some places, video monitoring of the hands is intended to prevent attempts to circumvent them using a second device.

For the examiners, the dizziness is particularly evident when several students give identical answers to relatively open questions. They can try to get to the bottom of this "coincidence" by questioning the students at a later date.

Possible lock after copying

In the case of plagiarism, the range of misconduct is wide. It ranges from the unclean quotation of foreign formulations to the acquisition of long text passages, hypotheses or data that are unabashedly passed off as one's own. When serious cases come to light retrospectively and they involve high-ranking politicians, the topic regularly boils up.

For universities, however, the focus in practice is on tracing plagiarism among students immediately after submitting work. Plagiarism software such as Turnitin helps, which shows matches with other texts. The supervisor should then check whether the suspicious passages were cited correctly. If she "only" comes across sloppiness, she can take a milder measure and ask the student to revise the work.

If the problem is more serious, a negative grade or an "X" follows on the report card, and you have to write a new assignment in another course. You can also be banned from studying for a year. Even more drastic sanctions bloom when a deliberate plagiarism in a thesis is only discovered after it has been graded and the title has then been obtained. Then there is a threat of the annulment of the assessment including the revocation of the academic degree.

Friends and agencies

You don't always need agencies to cheat yourself to a good grade by magic. There has always been a tricky possibility through extensive identity checks during exams: fellow students who are friends simply write the exam for each other. Optical similarities between real and fake test specimen are useful, but the hustle and bustle during submission leaves enough loopholes in some places to falsify authorship.

More widespread, however, is the paid engagement of ghostwriters for written work - from seminar paper to dissertation. The student and ghostwriter never get to know each other personally; rather, contact is made anonymously via a financially powerful agency. This is currently not a criminal offense for the agencies, but due to the amendment to the university law, offering foreign feathers will soon result in high fines.

For the students, there are already legal consequences that essentially correspond to those for plagiarism. However, discovering ghostwriting is extremely difficult, because even software is of no use - especially since professional ghostwriters quote according to academic standards. The cases officially registered by universities are close to zero. (Theo Anders, Selina Thaler, March 12, 2021)