How/whether to be a rat
October 25, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Through a misdirected e-mail, I got wind of someone (probably a student) doing something very unethical in an academic setting (i.e., more than garden-variety cheating). I can't find the person online. Try harder to track down the person and report the misdeed, or drop it?

I'm pretty sensitive to anything unethical in academic settings. I like to see it reported to someone who might care. I also have [my last name] as an e-mail address. It's not an exceptionally common last name, but I do occasionally get e-mail meant for other people with this last name.

Today these two things collided, as I got an e-mail obviously meant for something else with photo attachments detailing something that I consider to be pretty unethical. Not going into details, but it hits my tattletale threshold, so I'd like to report it. It's something that harms other people (other students?). It goes beyond cheating on an exam or something, but not to the point of being illegal.

I have the sender's full name, e-mail address, and phone number sans area code. I can't figure out who this person is, though. The name is very common. Googling the e-mail address and partial phone number don't turn up anything. The photos were taken with an iPhone but don't have embedded GPS data. No identifying information in the photos.

First question: given that I don't have all the facts, and don't currently have anyone to squeal to, should I just drop it? I can live with it; I just need people I trust (you) to tell me it's okay to do so, and/or that it would be creepy to pursue.

If -- if! -- I were going to pursue it, any thoughts on how to do so? Try to get more information via e-mail? Some search engine or strategy that I'm not thinking of? I figure that if I can figure out what school this person goes to, or even her location, I can go from there.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know which course or subject or faculty or department it relates to? If there's a security problem in someone's course, the lecturer should know about it.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:13 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let it go, man.
posted by chiababe at 6:13 PM on October 25, 2011

If you can't figure it out in an hour drop it.
posted by edgeways at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

life will catch up with them eventually. i think you should drop it.

although, it's pretty hard to answer without more details. not cheating and not illegal but will harm other students? i guess it all depends on what you mean by harm.
posted by nadawi at 6:21 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

There really isn't enough information here to go on. I draw a pretty hard ethical line myself, especially when it comes to things like cheating, but from what you've told us, there's no way to know what's going on.

I mean, what are we talking about? Are they pictures of the answer key to a major exam? Of a professor caught in a compromising position to be potentially used for blackmail? Something sexual in nature? Schematics for helping to break into a building? I can think of a lot of possibilities that all fall on different levels of someone-needs-to-be-told-about-this. If you want to memail me more details, I can tell you what I would do in the situation.

As we hear it now, though, my vote is for ignore it and move along. I suppose you could try looking the person up on facebook or something to try to find the school (and then you could forward the email to a dean of students), but even that seems like overkill.
posted by phunniemee at 6:22 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Helpful Answers Please - remember the tattoo on your arm you were going to get to remind you? Think of it now. And thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:27 PM on October 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

You can enter the e-mail into the search box in Facebook. You can look on Pipl or some similar stalking service too.

Beyond that, I'd probably just drop it. Running your own sting operation is pretty firmly in the creepy category, I think.
posted by grouse at 6:30 PM on October 25, 2011

I can't even tell if this is related to an institution you're affiliated with (it seems not). From what you've given us all I can tell is that someone, somewhere is doing something you don't approve of that may or may not affect anyone but you.
posted by cmoj at 6:33 PM on October 25, 2011

1. It is very hard to evaluate whether you should drop it without knowing what it is.
2. It sounds like you don't really know what it is either. Assuming that it's not role-specific (i.e., some things students can't do, but you don't know whether it's a student), I am not sure how you know what remaining aspects are true or not, or what it really amounts to.
3. Bracketing all that, this boils down to "How do I find a person on the web." The solutions to that seem pretty conventional, and I would search on that topic.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:36 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would reply to the email with something to the effect of "You might want to double-check email addresses in the future." Nothing consequential, nothing aggressive, just enough to let them know someone knows. Then forget about it.
posted by rhizome at 6:36 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

1) If you knew the institution this person was associated with, you could contact Student Judicial Affairs.
2) You do not know the institution this person is associated with.
3) There is nothing you can do, and you need to chalk it up to someone somewhere doing something stupid, shrug.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Given that it's something that harms other people, then please don't just drop it. Talk to someone that works in a university. Do you know anyone? Can you call anonymously to some appropriate department at an university near you?
posted by krilli at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let yourself off the hook. You have done your best without getting into the stalker zone. Your ideals are good and I admire your convictions.

I have gotten caught up with stuff like this and only on a few occasions, did it come to a resolution. And of those few times, a couple of those I just wish I had dropped it earlier because in the end, it was just not worth it.

People do unethical things all the time. Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes they get caught, sometimes they almost get caught.etc etc.

On preview, what rhizome said. But I would add creating an anon email somewhere then send the info. Stop the trail.

Good luck!
posted by lampshade at 6:41 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think I think that you shouldn't necessarily need to do the investigation work yourself. You're going to end up in an uncomfortable position. Don't drop it - Pass this on to the right people.
posted by krilli at 6:41 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a balancing act: involving yourself in it personally when it's none of your business is a lttle out there, but if it's something rotten that's hurting people then that outweighs it. It's a question of "how rotten is it?" meaning is it rotten enough to justify making yourself into a busybody, and worth the time it takes to dig at it. The most that anyone else can do is to give you a read on serious the matter is or isn't. With no details, I don't think anyone can do even that. All I can suggest is to try and put yourself in the position of each of the people involved and think through how welcome or unwelcome your intervention might be.
posted by tyllwin at 6:42 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is this academic misdeed of a type where someone innocent gets hurt (e.g. maliciously setting up another student so it looks like they cheated, etc.)? If so I'd try to get to the bottom of it.
posted by Spacelegoman at 6:45 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's two competing considerations here:

1. How much harm this will or is likely to cause others, if it is not reported;
2. How much effort it will take to find enough information to identify an appropriate person to report it to.

We don't have enough information here to draw a conclusion as to which one outweighs the other, but if one of the two factors above is large and the other is minimal, that may inform your decision.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:47 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Harmful to other people? This is a no brainer, you should pursue it. People ignoring the harms that others inflict on their peers is a crappy trend in general. Google around, you should be able to piece it together, and go to the university authorities.

It's odd to me that this triggers your tattle-tale meter and you consider it unethical and harmful, but you won't even tell us (the people you're asking to spend time giving you advice) what's going on. Purged of any identifying information, how can it be harmful to tell us the basics? It seems borderline ... rude? ... to be all "I'm thinking about tattling on someone for this horrible thing, waddya think, should I" but not tell us what this person is doing. Annoying.
posted by jayder at 6:49 PM on October 25, 2011 [22 favorites]

Reporting something unethical isn't being a rat - it's being ethical. We're not six anymore - and it's not about whether a kid filched a cookie.
posted by jb at 6:50 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

You should pursue it because it's the right thing to do. Try your hardest - that is, until the little voice in your head says 'You know what? I'm out of ideas.' If you're successful, report it; if you're not, then you did your best.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:53 PM on October 25, 2011

If you're convinced that this person is doing XYZ, where XYZ is an academically dishonest no-no, then I would suggest doing the following.

Set up a Tumblr (or equivalent) having nothing but "DON'T YOU THINK DOING XYZ IS WRONG?" with a wagging finger underneath and a big eyeball on top. Send a link to this page to the person from a throwaway account. Don't have any identifying marks on the page, either for yourself or for the person. Be general, but specific enough so that the person him/herself would recognize that you knew what they were up to.

Then: take no further action.

Hopefully, this will either guilt them or creep them into not doing XYZ.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:55 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Make a throwaway email address, and write them that you've learned what they're doing and that you have notified the authorities. If you can't really track them down, you may as well scare the poop out of them.
posted by hermitosis at 7:04 PM on October 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

If you can't find anything about the sender, you can try searching for your own name in similar places. If it's less common than the sender's, you might at least find the university or city your doppelganger is at, which would give you a lead.
posted by Pwoink at 7:05 PM on October 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

considering how much trouble you're having figuring out the basics here, how confident can you be that something unethical is actually happening? seriously.
posted by facetious at 7:06 PM on October 25, 2011 [14 favorites]

It's unethical, but not a crime? Lobby your representatives to write some new laws, or drop it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:16 PM on October 25, 2011

Can you Google various combinations of information in the email and photos to find the appropriate college, course(s), faculty, and/or students? If you can find one, you may be able to track down the others, and if you can track down someone authoritative who would be affected (course instructor, TAs, college dean) you may be able to alert them to the problem.

If you can view the full email headers, you may be able to figure out where it was sent from, though with web interfaces like GMail being so prevalent these days, that gets harder.
posted by WasabiFlux at 7:45 PM on October 25, 2011

Perhaps you might channel your detective proclivities into something more useful, like helping people negotiate applying for jobs or college admissions. This seems like a lot of time to pursue something for which you don't have any factual information. Maybe it's a RPG.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

You actually don't know the situation. Drop it.
posted by spaltavian at 8:10 PM on October 25, 2011

If you have to go all junior detective squad to figure out who to report this to then I think you should drop it, from that angle anyway. How could you ever be sure you had found the right place to report it to?

I'd simply write back to the person who sent this and say you have the wrong email address, which is something you should consider more carefully in the future when sending this kind of unethical stuff around. "and really, I find this so repugnant that if it was obvious who to report this to I'd have forwarded it along."
posted by phearlez at 8:18 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is impossible to evaluate without know (a) the misdeed, and (b) how badly others will be hurt and how.

If others are certain to be harmed, I would pursue it.

BTW, try You'll find this person's info/location there via their email and phone number. Yep.
posted by jbenben at 8:26 PM on October 25, 2011

The difference between a "Tattle" and a "Tell" as explained to the kids that rode my school bus:

"Tell" is what you do when something someone is doing is going to hurt them,you, or another person.

"Tattle" is what you do to get another person in trouble.

With the limited facts in your question, it is hard to determine what type of harm will occur to others. I would just drop it.
posted by JujuB at 8:59 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

You can't keep quiet if it's harmful to other people.

But if you really can't trace this person, there's not much you can do about that.

Track them down if you can. If you can't, don't let the guilt cycle hit you. You've already done more than most people, as is evidence in this thread and the advice you're getting.

Don't be ashamed of wanting to stop people from harming others. Good for you.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:13 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

All I can imagine that this might be is that some student got hold of a photo of an upcoming exam or assignment well in advance, and is circulating it to his/her buddies. So my advice is based on that assumption.

I'd try googling any text in the photos. Sometimes lecturers reuse stuff from previous assignments, sometimes they will directly quote their own lecture notes, or the course outline, etc. That would help you identify the course. If you can do that, then absolutely email the lecturer to give them a heads up.

If you can't identify the course, I can't really imagine an easy way to report the student. You COULD email the student at that account, give a fake reason for asking something about their school (survey?) and try to find out some identifying info from that, but I wouldn't do it, personally.

I think if you do decide to take this further, your goal should be to let the appropriate teacher know that there is a leak of his/her exam material (if that's what this is), rather than to identify the exact student. It is notoriously difficult to prove student cheating - the lecturer is not going to get permission to search the student's email accounts, and provision of an email by a third party (you) probably wouldn't be sufficient, as the student will argue it could have been faked, or sent by someone else to get them in trouble, etc. But if you can warn the lecturer that the material has been leaked, he/she can change the exam, and you'd be doing everyone a favour.

A couple of maybe relevant points: if just a couple of students get access to cheat material, it probably won't harm the other students much, or at all. Even if the course is graded on a curve, two or three students doing better than expected won't change everyone else's grades too much. If it's a small enough class that it will make a big difference to grade ranges, it probably isn't graded on a curve, and/or the teacher will know the students and their work well enough to be very suspicious when otherwise incompetent students suddenly ace a test.

If the material is being sent around to all except a few students, on the other hand, it will be even more obvious to the lecturer that something odd has happened. Also, everywhere I've worked, at least, good students who suddenly do badly in one exam usually get bumped up a grade, or their previous work is used to determine their final grade, etc.

(All of the above is informed by my own experience as a university lecturer).


Finally, just in case it's something else, like the student is blackmailing the prof, or sleeping with the prof, or whatever, it's hard to see how those sorts of things are really going to hurt a lot of people, as you suggest. One student getting a much higher grade than deserved really doesn't affect everyone else's much, as I said above. It might hurt the PROF, of course, but that's going to happen anyway if you report the situation to anyone who doesn't already know about it.
posted by lollusc at 11:48 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

If the offender expected a reply from her intended recipient, she probably already knows that she accidentally emailed the wrong person. So if she gets in trouble, she might tie it back to you, whether or not you actually become involved in turning her in. Make sure your email address doesn't give away your name or other sensitive info when someone Googles it or otherwise searches it. I would refrain from replying as well.
posted by delight at 1:35 AM on October 26, 2011

If it was merely someone cheating, I'd agree with the folks who say drop it. But causing harm to other people? Yeah, that's over the line, and --- if possible --- should be stopped.

'Cheaters never prosper'; they are, in the end, only hurting themselves. But hurting others is something else entirely.
posted by easily confused at 2:26 AM on October 26, 2011

This is a waste of time. It is also enveloping you in negative energy. Flag it (in your mind) and move on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:30 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

If this is someone trashing someone else's research, I'd say put Hal_c_on on the case, but it's hard to know what to advise not knowing something about the nature of what they're up to.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:35 AM on October 26, 2011

You're the wrong person to be investigating who the sender of your email is. The only investigative work you need to do, as it's worrying you, is who to report it to. Is the phone number in the format of your country? Is there a charity in that country that deals with academic misconduct? If you're still drawing blanks, give hal_c_on something to do in bed!

We can't make an ethical decision for you without knowing what the situation is.
posted by westerly at 4:56 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Drop it. Your question basically acknowledges that you don't have enough situational information to be pursuing this, and yes, it is a little creepy at this point.
posted by mrs. taters at 6:04 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something that often works better than regular googling: plug all the information you have into google image search. That will sometimes turn up totally different, and much more helpful, results.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:11 AM on October 26, 2011

It's not your responsibility to research ethical violations at your school. There is a Dean of Students whose responsibility it is. Call the Dean's office, explain the scenario, and let them decide. Tell them unequivocally, up front, that you insist on confidentiality.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 AM on October 26, 2011

I would probably search and find the person... just out of curiousity.
I probably wouldn't try to "report" it, unless it's something, in my opinion, pretty bad.
You could always respond and "scare" them by saying you have most of their information.

google = first, last name and city/college. search facebook for name.
But I guess if you don't know where they are from, what college they go to (if they even go to college), this could be tricky.
I mean, if you really wanted to get into it, you could respond with something like, "hey where did you get this?" or "Who/what is that??" or something similiar and see if they respond with more information to help your search.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:50 AM on October 26, 2011

My answer varies widely depending on the age of the student(s) involved. Are we talking about second graders, or high school students, or college students?

It also sounds like this is one student doing something that harms other students. I don't find that as upsetting as a situation where a professor is doing something that harms their students. Or god forbid a kindergarten teacher.

Assuming that everyone involved is over the age of, say, 16, I would probably let it go. You say that the activities involved are unethical but not illegal. That's a pretty narrow range of activities, and while unpleasant, I would put it in the "people do bad things sometimes" bucket, shake my head, and move on.

If this involves young kids, or teachers doing something that harms kids, I would be a LOT more proactive.
posted by ErikaB at 12:51 PM on October 26, 2011

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