It would be harmful to design all mathematical contests to be proctorable

This rant is inspired by a debate going on at meta.math.SE. The subject of the debate is what steps the moderators should take to prevent the use of math.SE to cheat in ongoing math competitions. If you have an interest in the subject and an account on meta.math.SE, I encourage you to head over and participate including, if you are so inclined, voting on the poll questions I just posted.

The particular point I want to address is posters who write that the fault is with contest organizers, for not designing their contests with internet age security in mind. A typical exemplar of this viewpoint writes

[Cheating] is a problem with folks using antiquated methods for tests, contests, etc. – methods that are a poor fit to the current information age. Any problems they encounter should be fixed at the source – not kludged here.

I strongly disagree.

How many times in your mathematical career have you heard “math contests test nothing but speed and trickery, and have nothing to do with deep mathematical ability?” “Math contests reward those with strong test taking skills, and discourage those who dislike high pressure gimmicky environments.” “Math contests allow no time for contemplation or discussion?”

I believe that these are all true. This isn’t a case of sour grapes — I test very well, think very fast, and enjoyed math competitions greatly. But I have met many colleagues who think more slowly than I do and nonetheless are superb mathematicians. So the problem emerges, how can we design contests which show students that mathematics has room for contemplation, cooperation and insight, not simply rapid tricks?

In answer to this question, contests like the USAMTS and OMO were born. These contests ask challenging and intriguing problems, require detailed written answers and give weeks to solve them. I loved the USAMTS when I was in high school; every question was well written and interesting, and I pushed myself to write the best answers I could. The OMO is after my time, but it looks like it was designed with similar love.

Such contests are impossible to secure. You can’t ask high school students to live under proctored conditions for a week.

Cheating in contests is damaging to everyone who competes. In theory, of course, participants could simply focus on achieving their own personal best, and not think about their own placement. In practice, seeing cheaters prosper produces disillusionment, disgust and a feeling of wasted effort. This true in any field of competition, but it is worse in competitions where there is no absolute gauge of accomplishment, such as these contests. A runner who finishes the SF marathon in 2:44:05 knows she has a superb race no matter what others may have done; a Math Olympian who sees that someone got 74/75 on the USAMTS has no way of knowing whether his own 72/75 was still a superb performance or not.

If we want there to be contests which reward prolonged thought, we run competitions which can be cheated on. If we want competitors to value their achievements in these contests, we who answer questions on math fora need to be vigilant about shutting cheaters down.

PS A much harder question is how to deal with university courses. Many of the same arguments against high pressure timed exams apply, but part of what universities provide to their students, and to society, is certification of mathematical ability. I am still struggling with these issues.

4 thoughts on “It would be harmful to design all mathematical contests to be proctorable

  1. I declined to vote on your poll since the dichotomy is not that clear cut. I would be in favor of closing and deleting at the request of contest organizers (and nobody else). It’s not really a job for moderators to survey all ongoing contests and scan questions for cheating. However, if contest organizers want to do this work, I see no problem with them contacting moderators about problematic questions. I would also suggest sending a notification in advance of the contest so the moderators can be prepared for incoming requests.

  2. Dear Dr Speyer,
    Thank you for putting in this post.I agree with Mr Francois C. Dorais as well. Because you have participated in those contests, you know how much effort we students put in to do well in such contests.As a member whose team found a place on the OMO leadersboard, I am happy to see some sanity sans diplomatic language from a particular moderator.

    I believe the Nuremberg trials made sure many collaborators with the Nazis did not get away.(some surely did so!) with their crimes.Similarly, math.SE will hopefully have a more respectful policy towards students and not consciously help cheaters.

    You can imagine what will happen if math.SE ignores us;it will earn a bad name for itself as a safe haven for cheaters .I understand the problems associated with having a very particular policy.

    I believe that math.SE should hand out the IP addresses to only organizers of the national olympiads if the need so arises.(All that talk about privacy policy is sheer nonsense;no one is putting the IPs in public domain).This is precisely what the does.

    Lastly, I find it disturbing to see only one moderator so up in defence of the cheaters. It appears that particular moderator believes that intellectual integrity is of no importance as opposed to answering the question. It is amazing to see you put in a wonderful post here.

  3. I am glad you bring this up. The question of finding good evaluation formats, whether it be for contests, ordinary exams, job applications, making friends and so on is extremely nontrivial in the face of potential dishonesty. I think it is an oversimplification to broadly declare the more vulnerable formats to be unsuitable for the current technological era, and in this case, it seems to be more of an excuse to wash one’s hands of any responsibility for aiding cheaters.

    I may be veering off-topic here, but the discussion of the responsibility of moderators reminds me of this meta.mathoverflow discussion (that you may not want to waste your time reading), featuring the very same person excoriating the moderators for not protecting him from a spam flag.

  4. That discussion, and some of the attendant views that were being expressed, have made me really rather glad that what I think of as “the SBS gang” got MathOverflow going before MathStackExchange was up and running. If it had been the other way around, I think I might have been soured by the MSE experience into giving MO short shrift.

    Then again, I’m sure my viewpoint is shot through with academic privilege, elitism, archaism, etc etc.

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