If it’s on the internet, it must be true



by Patrick M. Scanlon

10371526_10202689615496391_6476564143098151997_nI’m on a research treasure hunt.  It began when I came across an online claim about college-student cheating that seemed a bit hard to believe.  The search so far says something about how rapidly a contention becomes an oft-cited fact on the internet.

According to Education Portal, “75 to 98 Percent of College Students Have Cheated.”  As the source of that assertion the article cites NoCheating.org, an address that takes us to the website of the Educational Testing Service, where I can find no reference to those data.  I emailed someone at ETS about this but haven’t gotten a reply yet.

The original (I think) page with these numbers is titled “Cheating is a Personal Foul:  The Educational Testing Service/Ad Council Campaign to Discourage Academic Cheating.”  That page consists of a long list of bad news about cheating, including the high percentages that originally caught my eye.

So I plugged “75 to 98 Percent of College Students Have Cheated” into a search engine and received millions of hits. One after another of the linked pages included those percentages, often with a link back to “Cheating is a Personal Foul.”  One page cites Stanford University as the source of the data.

I also landed on a newspaper article, in the January 28, 2012 issue of TimesDaily.com (Florence, Alabama), “Educators see cheating epidemic,” including this: 

In 1940, just 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number ranges from 75-98 percent, according to Michael Hartnett, an English professor at Long Island University whose research led to his writing the book, “The Great SAT Swindle.”

Here’s where it gets interesting.  “The Great SAT Swindle” is a self-published novel.  I found the author’s website with a blog and contact information. I just sent off an email to Mr. Hartnett, who actually is a high school teacher who has done some college adjunct teaching.

It could turn out the percentages are from a legitimate survey, but so far I cannot identify what that might be.  But the comment about 1940 is suspicious because the first reliable, multi-campus study of academic honesty among college students—a landmark study well known among scholars of the subject—is “Student dishonesty and its control in college,” by William Bowers, published in 1964 and based on data from the early 1960s.

On its face, the 75-to-98-percent allegation looks like a low-profile meme, a factoid with legs.  We’ll have to wait to hear what ETS and Mr. Hartnett have to say.  Stay tuned.


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