By Hugo Gye
PUBLISHED:18:42 EST, 14 September 2012| UPDATED:18:42 EST, 14 September 2012
The Harvard cheating scandal which has rocked the world-famous university and cast doubt on more than 100 students began with a minor typing error, it has been revealed.
125 undergraduates are currently being investigated over allegations they collaborated on a take-home exam paper for a course entitled ‘Introduction to Congress’.
And a leaked letter from the professor who uncovered the cheating reveals the similarities between different students’ answers which he believes cannot have been the result of coincidence.
The tell-tale signs included obscure political references, phrases repeated word-for-word, and an extra space inserted into the number ‘22,500’.
Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, wrote to the university administration on May 14 detailing his plagiarism concerns in a letter recently obtained by the Harvard Crimson.
He initially cast suspicion on 13 of the 279 students taking the ‘Introduction to Congress’ course – but when the university looked in to the allegations, they found 125 possible incidents of cheating.
Two of those allegedly implicated are the captains of the university basketball team, one of whom has withdrawn from college for the year while the other is expected to follow suit.
Members of the football team have also been named as among the alleged culprits – but Mr Platt originally told officials that he was particularly concerned about some of the college’s baseball players.
Some of the evidence marshalled by the professor involved a number of students answering questions with the same correct but unexpected response.
A question about the increasing power of the parties in the House of Representatives elicited references from many students to Congressman Henry Clay and the 1910 Cannon Revolt, which Mr Platt described in his letter as ‘somewhat obscure’ answers.
Several exam papers also shared exact phrases – for example, many students referred to ‘Freddie Mac’s stealth lobbying campaign’.
And two different students mistyped the number ‘22,500’ as ’22, 500′, the extra space suggesting both answers drew on a common source.
Furthermore, Mr Platt wrote, when it came to a bonus question on the exam, ‘all the answers use the same (incorrect) reading of the course material in arguments that are identically structured’.
The students implicated in the scandal are facing charges of academic dishonesty that could bring a one-year suspension from school.
‘These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behaviour that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,’ President Drew Faust said when the cheating scandal was uncovered last month.
Each student whose work is in question has been called to appear before a subcommittee of the Harvard College Administrative Board, which reviews issues of academic integrity.
Possible punishments range from an admonition, a sort of warning for a first offense, to being forced to withdraw from Harvard for a year.
Recent Harvard graduate Eric Kester argued in a book published earlier this year that the extreme pressure to ‘be the next Mark Zuckerberg’ drove students to plagiarism, and said that he had frequently witnessed cheating while he was an undergraduate