Since my previous update was a bit long, I decided to describe some of what went on during the last part of the semester in a separate post. Some of this might not be news to you if you follow my Twitter feed (and assuming I actually included any of this).
Prior to the second exam in my genetics course, I realized that I was wasting my time by going to class, since my professor just read the textbook slides to us. Since I have to make up the time I’m not at work on the weekends and evenings, I figured that it made sense to stop going to class. I scored something like a 98 and a 99 on the next two exams just by doing the reading and reviewing the slides on my own. I needed a 75 on the final exam to keep an A in the course and I’m relatively certain I did that. I don’t feel like I learned as much genetics as I could have, but I think that’s a general sentiment every semester – you can always study more.
The second semester of my biochemistry course was a bit frustrating. Our last exam was actually about four weeks ago. Instead of a comprehensive final during finals week, our professor assigned group projects which we had to complete by finals week. We did something similar last semester, but unfortunately, none of my group members from last semester took the second half of the course, so the professor assigned me to work with these two guys that I didn’t know. I remembered that their presentation from the previous semester was pretty bad, so I knew I was in for a struggle.
Our assignment was to basically conduct a mini-review of the literature on a metabolic pathway of some sort, write up a paper, and then give a presentation. In principle, this is a pretty good idea for a graduate biochemistry course. Researching the primary literature and presenting before faculty and others is de rigueur for graduate students. In practice, it gives lazy students an opportunity to get others to do their work for them instead.
Right away, I was worried. These guys picked an incredibly obscure topic and submitted it to the professor without letting me know. As I began compiling articles and trying to put pieces together, I would email them questions, noteworthy articles, etc. A week passed, and I had yet to hear from either of them. We set a date to meet on campus the Tuesday before the paper was due and they never showed up. I happened to walk by the GTA office and I saw them in there. It turns out that they were working on papers for other classes that were due before ours was and they didn’t seem too concerned. I wrote up an outline for the paper and assigned them sections to research and write, but I was pretty sure that I was going to be doing it all myself.
I stopped by my professor’s office to try and get a feel for whether he knew what slackers these guys were. He asked me how the research was going and I gently informed him that I was going to end up carrying those two clowns and he told me off-the-record that the same thing had happened last semester. Since our group was small (3 instead of 5) he gave us an extension on the paper, so that helped a bit. Since I knew they were going to wait until the last minute, I chose not to tell either of them about our extension.
The original due date came and went, still with silence from both of them. The new due date was Monday at 8:00 AM and I was pretty finished with all but the two sections I’d assigned them by Sunday afternoon. After a week of hearing nothing from either of them, I finally started getting some work from them. When I started reading them, I nearly lost it. First, they hadn’t really written the sections that they had agreed to, which meant that I was going to have to do most of the research for those sections. I had sort of anticipated that, so I wasn’t too upset. Also, about half of their writing was impossible to understand – neither of them are native English speakers, so I wasn’t too surprised and I was fine with editing for grammar and structure. Not a big deal. However, I started to notice that there were sections which were very understandable, clear, concise, and really good. They also sounded really familiar, so I started going through the articles I’d sent them. It didn’t take long for me to confirm what I had suspected – almost half of the “research” they had sent me had been copied verbatim from the literature. I was furious. Not only was most of what they sent me off-topic, but the parts that would have been helpful were plagiarized, so I wound up having to finish the paper myself.
When it came time to do the presentation, they played more or less the same game. I heard nothing from them until the morning the presentation was going to be given. I had already agreed to do the presentation, since neither of them has a really strong command of English. Apparently, they interpreted that to mean that they didn’t need to contribute in any way.
I was glad my professor gave me some warning that I was going to end up doing it all myself. Part of the assignment was peer evaluations and I absolutely skewered them. I chose not to forward the entire email chain to the professor, since I figured that would be a bit over-the-top. I also chose not to mention in print anything about the plagiarism, because I didn’t want to put my professor in a difficult spot. But, after presentations were finished, I gave him the whole story and he told me that he wasn’t all that surprised.
I heard later from some of my classmates that it had actually happened last semester to one of their groups and that none of them had caught it before the paper was submitted. So, when the paper got turned in, something like 40% of it came back as lifted right off the internet. Our professor had no choice but to report them to the department. Apparently, the department has a board set up to deal with academic dishonesty and they decided that the entire group should be graded as a whole, so they all received a 10% deduction in their final class grade. Definitely glad that I have a healthy distrust of others.
Anyway, final grades should come out on Monday, but I’m not really all that worried about either class, which is a relief.
Now that the semester is over, I’ve got nothing to do but work, my research gig, and study for the MCAT. I’ll be taking it September 11 at 1:00 in the afternoon and am going to start studying next Wednesday. In case you are a relatively new follower, I had actually intended to take it last September, but decided that I wasn’t ready to take it, due to a lack of coursework. My biology courses hadn’t covered any of the physiology content and I fell completely behind. Since last summer, I’ve had a year of biochemistry, a semester of physiology, and a semester of genetics – definitely made the right choice. I’ll start a series of posts on studying for the MCAT sometime next week.