A college history professor who assigned a 2006 term paper now at the heart of a civil court case explained Wednesday how he decided to accuse one student of cheating when faced with two strikingly similar papers.
Ronald Moss, who teaches a Western civilization course at Central Connecticut State University, testified that he never inquired whether it was possible to accuse both Matthew Coster and Cristina Duquette of plagiarizing each other’s work. Based on his analysis of their papers on the Holocaust, Moss testified on the second day of the trial, he determined that Coster was more likely to have done the copying.
“I was familiar with student papers and how they tend to go,” he said in response to a question from Coster’s attorney, Brennen Maki, in Superior Court in Waterbury.
Moss’ testimony provided the first glimpse into the reasoning behind CCSU officials’ decision to expel Coster in August 2006 — a ruling Coster appealed unsuccessfully to university officials in October of that year. The now 21-year-old New Milford man insists he is innocent and contends that CCSU officials decided he was guilty before giving him a hearing and without considering all the evidence. University officials have told Coster that they would consider rehearing his case, but to date no hearing has been scheduled. It is unclear how the outcome of the civil case would affect university officials’ decision on whether to hold a hearing.
The civil suit filed by Coster and his family seeks monetary damages for the costs of pursuing the case, but the main goal, Coster and his family have said, is to clear his stained reputation. The suit alleges that it was Duquette who snatched Coster’s term paper out of Moss’ unsecured university mailbox. Duquette, 22, of Watertown, denies that. She graduated from CCSU in May and is now a substitute teacher in Waterbury. Coster has been attending community college.
Duquette and Coster were in separate sections of Moss’ course on Western civilization. Moss portrayed Duquette as the better of the two students. He said he was shocked when Duquette was among 10 students in the two sections who failed to turn in the term paper assigned as their final exam by a 5 p.m. deadline on May 15th.
“Cristina Duquette had been a really good student, and I would not have had a reason to believe she would throw her grade away,” Moss said. “She occasionally spoke up in class. She invariably had a good question or intelligent remark.”
Asked by one of Duquette’s attorneys, Dov Bronstein, if he recalled any intelligent remarks from Coster, Moss replied, “I think Mr. Coster was a quieter person who tended to keep to himself.”
Moss said he sent e-mails to the 10 students — including Coster and Duquette — who had not submitted final papers by the deadline, warning them that they would receive a failing grade if they did not turn in their papers.
He testified, however, that he e-mailed Duquette on May 22nd — a day earlier than the other students — in response to an e-mail she sent him, asking what he thought of her term paper. Duquette testified Tuesday that she had left a printed copy of her term paper in Moss’ mailbox on May 15th, but Moss said he never received it.
In his May 22 e-mail to Duquette, which he sent about noon, Moss gave her until the next morningto submit her paper. His e-mail to Coster and the other eight students — saying that he had not received their papers, but that they could still turn them in — was sent May 23 at 5:15 p.m. Coster e-mailed his paper to Moss at 7:20 p.m. that day.
Duquette did not e-mail her paper to Moss by the morning of May 23, as he had requested. She sent it, instead, at 3:19 p.m. that day.
“I was willing to be a bit flexible,” Moss said.
Moss testified that he reviewed Duquette’s paper first and immediately noticed what he called a “dumb mistake” — he apologized to Duquette from the witness stand for using the term. In the second sentence of the paper, Duquette had referred to “communist Germany,” a gross error given the distinctions the class had covered between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. After noticing the same term used in Coster’s paper, Moss said he began to suspect something was amiss.
“I thought, ‘Two people making the same mistake in different classes?’ I started looking and noticing more very similar [elements], and I decided I had to sit down with both exams.”
The differences in the papers included what Moss called “errors in diction.” Coster, he said, repeatedly confused similar sounding words such as “there” for “their.”
Duquette’s paper was well organized and structured and of “one voice,” Moss said. Coster’s paper, by contrast, had sections that appeared to be written in a different voice — sections that didn’t add to the logical flow of the paper or seem necessary, Moss said.
Moss met with both students, but testified that he never asked either one directly whether they had copied the other’s paper. Also, Moss said he did not compare the two papers with any of the two students’ previous work in his class. He also testified that he did not analyze electronic date stamps or other properties on the computers the students used to create their papers.
“I’m not a private investigator,” he told Maki. “I’m not a lawyer. I teach history. My concern was the two papers I had in front of me.”
In the end, Moss decided that Coster had copied Duquette’s work. He referred the matter to university officials overseeing academic misconduct, who held a hearing and expelled Coster.
In an effort to clear their son’s name, Coster’s parents hired a computer expert who testified Tuesday that the document containing Coster’s term paper was created on May 14, 2006, while Duquette’s was created on May 23rd.