Punishment: a story for medical educators

Acad Med. 2000 Mar;75(3):241-4. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200003000-00011.


The author recounts an incident of cheating by two first-year medical students, and how it was handled. One of the students, George, had waited until the last minute to write what he called a "stupid" paper that was required as the final examination in a health policy course. His classmate Ellen offered to write the paper for him, and other students also offered to help; no one pointed out that this would be unethical. After some hesitation, George was persuaded to accept Ellen's offer, and he turned in the paper as his own. The course director deduced the deception, and when the students were confronted, they immediately admitted what they had done, blamed only themselves, and said they had been "foolish." Subsequent events showed that the faculty saw the incident as a clear-cut case of cheating, whereas many students felt that George and Ellen's transgression was trivial when compared with plagiarizing a research paper or falsifying lab results on a patient's chart. Also, the faculty chose a more severe and long-lasting punishment, one that many students did not agree with. The author believes that the faculty's refusal to give George and Ellen a clean slate after a reasonable time reflected a lack of forgiveness that is antithetical to the compassionate, forgiving role of physician-healer that medical education promotes. She concludes by explaining how this incident illustrates complex generational and cultural differences in moral reasoning and the selection of punishment, and the great emphasis that medical education places on knowing the facts rather than working creatively with ideas.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate*
  • Ethics*
  • Faculty, Medical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Plagiarism*
  • Punishment*
  • Students, Medical / psychology