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I am teaching an intro math class this semester, and today was the final, which was given remotely due to the pandemic. A few exam questions popped up on this site (the posts were word-for-word copies of original questions, so this was unambiguous). I shut them down as I found them by flagging the posts, and also editing the question text to a generic [removed] message. My intention was to instantly prevent the questions from being answered, to shut down ongoing comment chains, and (for those which already had answers) to make them unfindable for other students in the class.

A couple hours later, the questions were restored by a moderator, and it was suggested that I had misapplied the contest problem policy by removing post text. It feels quite clear to me that text removal was the ethical action in this case, and it feels arguable to me that it falls within the scope of the linked policy. But, I am happy to listen to other opinions - hence this post.

The linked policy is clear that the posts should be flagged. This was done. Additionally, the policy states:

First and foremost: we believe that the responsibility for the integrity of an exam, contest, competition, etc. ultimately falls on the shoulders of the organizers.

When an instant remedy is needed to preserve exam integrity, then I would tend to read this as asking the organizers to take action. I am not aware of any instant remedy besides post editing. The only downside I can think of is that not all organizers will happen to have the reputation thresholds needed to edit, so it is not available to everyone.

  • Is it within the scope of the current contest problem policy to edit question text to remove time-sensitive offending questions?
  • Is there an argument that it is unethical to do so?
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    $\begingroup$ So I mean instances such as these ones right? math.stackexchange.com/posts/3951993/revisions math.stackexchange.com/posts/3951994/revisions math.stackexchange.com/posts/3951995/revisions (I thought that adding some links might give some context for other users reading your question.0 $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Dec 17 '20 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, thanks, those were exactly the questions in play. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ This could be just a technicality, but it the text of your exam available somewhere online? The FAQ post "“Contest problem” policy" explicitly mentions that it is about questions which are publicly available. (I did not see a link in the comments to the above posts - but perhaps you provided such a link in a flag to the moderators.) $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Dec 17 '20 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ The exam isn't publicly available -- we have a handful of students taking it late for one reason or another, so it won't be made available for the next couple days. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest a moderator delete those question on main post haste. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Dec 17 '20 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson That is not how the contest problem policy is enforced, even in cases when there is clear evidence that a given question is a contest/exam problem. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 17 '20 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ The text is not really gone, it's still in the edit history. Especially the person that had asked the question originally is hardly impacted by this. Maybe it makes it a bit harder to find for somebody else but that seems marginal. To prevent answers you can leave a comment, if you are worried it is not visible enough you could edit a note into the post. Again removing the text does not add much; it just makes the situation confusing for third parties. $\endgroup$ – quid Dec 17 '20 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ @quid, thanks for weighing in. I strongly disagree that obfuscating the text for a third party "seems marginal" - I do think it is enough to prevent most actively browsing students under time constraints from recognizing a question and finding answers. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @GMB what is this believe based on? Empirically we somewhat frequently get the same homework/exam/contest question more than once, which makes me believe that those types of users as many others do not search all that much beforehand. Orthoginally, once it becomes known that such content gets "removed" via edits of course that makes it a sign-post to exam questions. It's ultimately easier to identify such a question in a list. $\endgroup$ – quid Dec 17 '20 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Xander, maybe it's how the policy should be enforced. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Dec 17 '20 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson You are welcome to propose a change in policy by posting a new meta question. However, the current policy does not allow users to delete content because they claim it is from an exam. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 17 '20 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ @quid, the belief (and the initial decision to remove post text) is based on the advice of course TAs, who are themselves undergrads and more in tune with student behavior on these things. I find it hard to imagine a scenario where [removed] text becomes a better flag for exam questions than a question with the exact text on the exam. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Xander, I didn't suggest that a user be allowed to delete content; I suggested that a moderator be allowed to delete content, and not on a whim but in the context of the content pointed to by GMB. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Dec 17 '20 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @GMB I asked a similar question at the beginning of the pandemic, which was not supported by the community. From the responses there, I do not expect that there is much that will be done by this community to prevent such cheating. $\endgroup$ – Michael Burr Dec 17 '20 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @quid, I'm speculating here, but I suppose I imagine them to copy/paste question text into a search engine or the search feature on this site, if not watch the site for possible exam questions coming through. I'm grateful for the info, but still efficacy seems a little beside the point: I am not asking for community resources to be used to remove text, but rather for resources to not be used to undo an instructor's text removal, even if you feel their anti-cheating efforts might have been better spent elsewhere. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 23:12
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As I am the moderator who dealt with those questions, let me address this issue: first and foremost, let me note that, as an instructor myself, I am sympathetic to the desire to prevent cheating. It offends me when students attempt to use Math SE to cheat on exams or competitions. That being said, the goals and policies of Math SE are orthogonal to these concerns. While Math SE has a policy on competition problems, it is not part of our mission to police the site to prevent cheating, particularly in instances when evidence of cheating is not publicly available.

In instances when there is clear evidence of an attempt to cheat, moderators will (1) temporarily lock a flagged question, (2) soft-delete any answers, and (3) delete any comments which answer the question. In this particular case, I did not see clear evidence of cheating, but I still enforced the policy. I will also note that editing a question to delete or obfuscate the text of the question is not part of this policy, and is considered vandalism.

Addressing the two questions directly:

  • Is it within the scope of the current contest problem policy to edit question text to remove time-sensitive offending questions?

    No.

  • Is there an argument that it is unethical to do so?

    Yes. Anyone could claim that any question on Math SE is part of an ongoing exam or competition, and use that as an excuse to vandalize content on Math SE. Given blanket permission for users to delete content because they claim that the content is part of a competition or exam would enable trolls vandalize the site. Please adhere to the competition problem policy, and flag posts for moderator attention.

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    $\begingroup$ HI Xander, thanks for taking the time to respond and handle the situation - I appreciate it. If I'm reading correctly, it seems your concern is with bad users impersonating instructors in order to vandalize. I would be quite surprised if this were common. But even if so, it is already the effective site policy to take instructors at their word, at least to close questions. Removing question text feels like a short step from there. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ In any case, if this is unambiguously against contest problem policy, then I will wishfully hope that this thread might push towards a rethink of the policy. As mentioned in the OP, flagging questions for mod attention is not typically a fast enough fix. While I completely understand that moderators are time-constrained volunteers who can't promise to police cheating, it seems like quite a bad policy that asks moderators to actively protect or restore posts under credible accusations of cheating. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @GMB How do you determine whether or not an accusation of cheating is credible? And, again, please note that preventing cheating is not part of the SE mission---we just aren't equipped to adjudicate such accusations. The questions themselves probably should all be closed and deleted (they are of low quality), and I wish that the community would do a better job of policing such low quality questions, but vandalizing questions is not the correct action. Leave comments (particularly in response to answers), flag the questions, and/or vote to close the question (for lacking context). $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 17 '20 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ First, I hear you about the current policy, and will keep this in mind in the future (thanks for pointing me to it). As for adjudication, I'd speculate that no adjudication process is needed: my understanding is that there is currently no such adjudication process for cheating-based close votes, and that system is not abused. Otherwise, I'd guess that reputation thresholds needed to edit + a reasonable edit message ("[removed]", not spammy links or whatever) would do it. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @GMB If someone on this site accuses another of cheating, and the community is to take action, then there is a need for the community (or for the moderators) to adjudicate that claim. In cases where a user can point to a specific webpage on which contest or exam problems are posted, it is relatively simple to adjudicate such claims. The community (nor the moderators) are not equipped to adjudicate more ambiguous claims. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 17 '20 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ Please also note that "This question is an attempt to cheat" is not a valid close reason. Most attempts at cheating can easily be closed for lacking context, but the fact that a student is attempting to cheat is not sufficient. Again, the community is simply not equipped to distinguish attempts at cheating from other questions. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 17 '20 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, Xander. I am surprised to hear that "question attempts to cheat" is not a valid close reason, while still being a valid reason to ask people not to answer a question. I believe I have seen questions closed for cheating before. Anyways, it makes sense that adjudication is effortful, and so we would need to trust or not trust claimed instructors by default. It seems the current policy is "not trust." My opinion is that "trust" would be far better. I hope you or other mods will consider this, but I can also agree to disagree. Thanks for your time on this. $\endgroup$ – GMB Dec 17 '20 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ @GMB I am convinced upon seeing your replies and discussions that your concerns are genuine, and I must admit it is frustrating that the community doesn't grasp your being an instructor immediately. I trust you, and I think you did the right thing by leaving a comment and requesting people to not answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Teresa Lisbon Dec 18 '20 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon I am not sure that anyone ever claimed that GMB was disingenuous, and I believe that my actions to lock the questions being discussed here (which is an action which is not in line with existing policy, as no evidence of GMB's claims has been provided) is an indication of how seriously I took the claim. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 18 '20 at 3:27
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson Understood, sorry for the misunderstanding, I merely meant to sympathize with GMB who felt unhappy that he was not able to stop his students from cheating on the site, despite us being strongly against it. The worst feeling is having all the hunches but no concrete evidence. Thank you for taking the matter seriously. $\endgroup$ – Teresa Lisbon Dec 18 '20 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ This issue can also be considered as a copyright violation, in which case the questions should be pruned from the site (not just deleted, where they remain in the database and visible to 10k+ users). $\endgroup$ – Cris Luengo Dec 20 '20 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ @CrisLuengo I suspect that this is not true. It is generally not possible to claim to own the copyright on a mathematical problem or exercise. Reproducing an entire exam is likely to fall on the wrong side of copyright law, but individual problems (like recipes) likely are not subject to copyright. Of course, it would be advisable to consult an actual lP attorney. In any event, one would need to demonstrate that one holds the copyright---this is a higher hurdle than demonstrating that a question comes from an active exam or competition. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Dec 20 '20 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ The scope for vandalism seems low. There's no legitimate reason to delete questions with answers more than (say) a day old: the damage would be done. If vandalism occurs it would need to be by someone who wishes to disface or eliminate a current question, and who isn't worried about the consequences of being shown to be a liar: i.e., probably a new user or someone pretending to be a new user. The solution is simple: don't allow these requests from new users, or for questions with answers older than a day or so. $\endgroup$ – Joe Slater Dec 23 '20 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ I realize that adjudicating claims of cheating could be hard. But, in my opinion, the policy of not policing (or doing anything to discourage or even make cheating difficult) should be revisited. It seems like a classic "big tech--we don't care about the implications of what we create." The purpose of the site is to answer (genuine) questions. The unintended consequence is that a nearly perfect cheating tool has been created. To completely dismiss this unintended impact seems unfortunately typical. $\endgroup$ – TravisJ Dec 29 '20 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Jean-ClaudeArbaut sorry, that makes no sense. The OP asks, as an instructor (i.e. one concerned) whether the rules permit him to address the fraud. This answer says no, he is not permitted to do that, because of vague hand-wringing about "the mission". This is not about asking SE to address cheating, it's about permitting the person concerned to address cheating. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Jan 1 at 10:39

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