On copying data

Yesterday I was presented with a real life ethics problem. A classmate asked if he could see my data from a lab so that he could copy it. We had to build a blinking light and then do a few measurements on it and his light never worked so he couldn’t get the measurements. The lab manual in this class specifically forbade the copying or false manufacture of data, and so I said no.

You would have thought I spit in my classmate’s face. He acted like I was being totally unreasonable and even enlisted a few classmates to try and pressure me into sharing my data. I refused. Eventually he gave up but not without a few comments about how it’s “not a big deal” and that I should “help others out.”

But the truth of the matter is that it is a big deal. My TA is a bright fellow and I’m pretty sure he would notice if 4 people (two sets of partners) had the same data. Academic dishonesty convictions can follow you for a very long time and have serious ramifications on your future. Even putting that aside, my ethical “red light” was flashing like crazy and I knew I couldn’t do it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m always open to helping out my fellow students. I’ll help explain (to the best of my ability) confusing topics, I’m happy to work though homework problems with other students if it is allowed, I’m willing to share notes if you miss a day. On the other hand, I will not give you straight answers on homework and I’m not going to give you my code unless the professor allows it. I’m willing to push boundaries of conventional thinking, I’m willing to break stereotypes, but I don’t budge on academic rules.

If an engineering research lab fabricates data, someone is going to find out and the reputation of that lab will be on the line. If a company copies code from someone else, they could be subject to lawsuits and destruction of their product. No one benefits from trying messing around with plagiarism.

People like to make lawyer jokes about how sleazy and unscrupulous attorneys are, but as a whole I’ve seen the complete opposite. Attorneys know that crossing professional responsibility lines can result in loss of your law license, malpractice lawsuits and huge fines. In general, they know where the lines are and try earnestly to stay inside of them. I think law school really taught me to be very careful of those pitfalls.

Well this turned into a bit of a long sermon, but the topic is really important to me. Ethics are not a joking matter.

One Reply to “On copying data”

  1. You were right to refuse requests to copy your work. If you allowed it, not only could you hurt yourself but you really wouldn’t be helping him. You’d be reinforcing his dishonesty.

    I worry about that guy. He wants you to break published rules, and even persuaded others to support his dishonesty. He considers rules and ethics “not a big deal”. He isn’t driven to find why his experiment didn’t work or to fix it. He tries to divert his own shame onto you. He’s likely to try to do this in the real world, and until he’s caught he can do much harm. I’d distance myself from him, and not worry about his opinion (or others who share his opinion). They can only drag you down. If you had complied and then got trouble I doubt any of them would come to your aid. If you still respect any of his conspirators I’d take them aside and explain your position. Hopefully you can avoid a toxic environment.

    Reputation is fragile. It is hard to maintain but easy to tarnish. Maintain high ethics and you will be much better off.

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