Academic Dishonesty

Stephen Brennan • 29 March 2016

Last night I had a sobering experience. A faculty member from another university sent me a message letting me know that some of their students had turned in modified versions of my shell, lsh, for a homework assignment. Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised. Writing a shell is a very common assignment for computer science students. My tutorial based on lsh has somehow managed to climb the ladder to the first page of search results for many queries related to writing shells. So at the end of the day, I guess this was bound to happen. And even though I can’t really be held responsible for what other people do with my tutorial and code, I feel pretty bad about this. Although there’s not much I can do to prevent students from presenting my shell as their own, I feel like I should point out why it’s such a terrible idea.

You’ll get caught.

This shouldn’t be the first reason behind a concept as ethical as “don’t cheat”, but I think it’s the most convincing for people who are considering it. There are a number of reasons why you’re going to get caught, no matter how clever you think you are:

  1. If you can find my code easily, so can your professor. It only takes one bad experience to get a grader in the habit of doing Google searches before they begin grading, just so they know the resources you may have stolen from.
  2. If you can find my code easily, so can other students. Professors don’t even need Google to realize that two assignments are drawing from the same source and modifying the same code.
  3. Just because you renamed things doesn’t mean it’s less obvious. There are many well-researched automatic plagiarism detection tools for code out there, and lots of professors use them. These tools don’t just use text comparisons! They don’t particularly care what you name your variables and functions—they compare structure and control-flow to determine how similar two programs are. It’s difficult to fake these things.

It’s wrong.

Hopefully this one is obvious. Even though legally, my shell is in the public domain, meaning you are allowed to use my code without attribution, turning in my code (however much you modified it) is wrong. When you turn something in, you’re presenting it as your own work. You’re certifying that you took the time to work through the problem at hand, and that you’re turning in the result of this work. If you don’t even bother to cite a source that you relied on, or flat-out modified, you’re misrepresenting your own work. Even when you do cite your sources, chances are your class and/or university has very specific policies about how you can use external sources.

Schools, employers, and individuals take this very seriously. Judging a person’s character can be difficult, and there are few red flags as obvious as presenting someone else’s work as your own. Schools don’t want their graduates to represent them that way. Employers don’t want the liability of a cheater on their staff. People don’t want to hang out with somebody who’s willing to take advantage of others that way. And so, when you do something like this, you’re setting yourself up for a big problem—one that could go as far as expulsion from your school.

You don’t learn.

I know that I wrote a tutorial. It’s easy to believe that by following the tutorial, you will end up learning what your assignment meant for you to learn. But that’s really not true. You can only fit so much into a single article, so I compromised by only focusing on the high-level details. I explained the system calls like fork(), exec(), and wait(), but I didn’t go into the gory details of each line of C. I didn’t spend much time on memory management. I didn’t even justify why I designed the shell the way I did.

Following a tutorial doesn’t give you the learning experience that an assignment intends. When I wrote lsh, I spent a fair amount of time poring over manual pages, trying to get the magic invocations of system calls just right. I didn’t have that clear vision that my tutorial has; I just hacked things together until they worked. A tutorial holds your hand and liberates you from the details so you can focus on the stuff that matters in the problem domain. In the process, it robs you of the experience of researching and dealing with those details, and it prevents you from thinking for yourself and creating your own designs. This experience is a huge part of what the assignment is there for. I’d also be willing to bet that it’s probably something employers value a lot more than being able to follow a tutorial.

This is why I made my code public domain in the first place. I want it to be as easy as possible for people to be able to take my code, modify it, understand it, and build on it. The really exciting part begins once you finish the tutorial, and you start extending lsh with your own code.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now!


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