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I have received an email saying that my essay is under consideration for the ethics committee for suspected plagiarism. My lecturer had told us that we could work on our essays together as we were all using the same data. My friend handed in her essay in semester 1 and I handed in mine in semester 2. We used her essay as a guideline because she received such a good grade in hers. I have a meeting with the ethics committee and I want to be prepared. What should I say and what should I avoid saying?

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    I'm having a really hard time with your usage of 'unknowingly' in the title. You used an essay with a good grade because you wanted the same good grade and thought you would not be caught. – Jon Custer May 24 at 15:07
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    @JonCuster, when the lecturer says (is this written somewhere?) that cooperation is OK since the data is the same, and if the previous year did use the same data, the misunderstanding becomes more understandable. Students are supposed to learn what is and what is not academic misconduct and the lecturer may have blurred the line. "I misunderstood that" may be mitigation for a freshman, but not for a grad student ... – o.m. May 25 at 6:14
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    What precisely do you mean that “we used her essay as a guideline”? Who is ‘we’? Did you collaborate with her, or with someone else? And if it was with her, why was she working on this, considering she’d already submitted her essay the previous term? If you weren’t working with the friend whose essay you were basing this essay on, then you weren’t “workin on your essays together”. And if you were, you’ll have to explain how that tallies with her having already submitted her essay. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 25 at 8:33
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    @.o.m - well, I suspect the learning will be coming soon. – Jon Custer May 25 at 15:50
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    I would add that at least in my department, people are extremely hesitant about bringing cases to the ethics committee and prefer to settle these things “in house”. If your case was brought up to the ethics committee, it means that it’s pretty solid, or your lecturer is looking to make an example out of you. Either case bad news... – Spark May 26 at 7:23
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When the instructor said you could work "together", they meant together with a student that hadn't previously completed the assignment. They expect both students (when working together) to contribute equally towards writing an essay from scratch.

Basing your essay on another student's essay (that you did not work together on) is plagiarism.

The best you can say for yourself is that you didn't realize that what you did constituted plagiarism. The ethics committee might be lenient, however, they might also consider that you should have known what the rules were. To be frank, anybody should understand that you can't work based off material previously prepared by somebody else and pretend it's your own work -- that is the very definition of plagiarism.

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    "anybody should understand that you can't work based off material previously prepared by somebody else and pretend it's your own work -- that is the very definition of plagiarism." - depending on how you interpret the phrase "work based off" it's also the basis of the entirety of academia... – Nico Burns May 25 at 22:16
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    @NicoBurns No, the basis of academia involves acknowledging the work of others through citations. I'm sure that in this case, the original essay was not cited. – Tom van der Zanden May 26 at 7:50
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    Right, it's unlikely the second essay said "This essay is essentially taken from [1] without change." and "Acknowledgements. We would like to thank A. Beecie for sharing her essay." – Earthliŋ May 26 at 9:14
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    And at the same time, the entire class (and the previous semesters too) had the same topic and the same data. Just how many genius new interpretations and conclusions do you expect to get here? – Vilx- May 26 at 19:50
  • @Vilx- quite a few if this is a freshman course. (On a more serious note, there should be enough variation in writing style among even the correct answers to not get flagged as plagiarism or for the case to be sent to the ethics committee) – HAEM May 27 at 11:13
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I agree with everything Tom said, but I'd add that the in the meeting with the committee, they've likely already made up their minds. What you did was plagiarism and there is nothing you can tell them that will convince them otherwise. Do not be confrontational. Do not tell them that there's an interpretation of the rules that makes this ok. Do not try and justify what you did with anything other than "I misunderstood the rules." Don't blame anyone else.

These kinds of committees are generally looking to turn you into a good student afterwards, rather than trying to destroy your academic career. Help them help you.

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    Yup. Decisions aren't made in the room. This event is likely to be to give the illusion of interaction before their decision is handed down, unless OP can present some entirely new evidence for the committee to consider. – Valorum May 25 at 19:47
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    I would like to think your final paragraph is true. But is it? Or are those committees looking to protect the reputation of the school as a plagiarism-free environment, not caring much about the future of an individual student who has made a bad decision? – gerrit May 27 at 7:58
  • depends how the minds have been made up before. It's possible that their priority is protecting the school's registration, and this is just formality to properly expel OP. – Magisch May 27 at 10:52
  • @Valorum How is a conversation in a room illusory? I think it's usually very real. – Scott Seidman yesterday
  • @ScottSeidman - What's said in the room is merely for the formality of the occasion. The real decisions in disciplinary meetings are taken prior to the decision-makers walking in, as a result of them communicating via email and in person. The entire event runs like a train on a track unless you come up with something that derails proceedings (like exciting new evidence of innocence or a confession). – Valorum yesterday
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It sounds like you know what you did and have a pretty good idea as to why you are being called in. Whether you broke a rule, or pushed the boundary, regarding working together by choosing to work with someone from the past semester depends on the instructions given, the instructor, and departmental policy. You should be prepared to tell the committee what you did and why you thought it was reasonable. You should also be prepared to explain how you can see it might have been pushing the boundaries, but I wouldn't volunteer this until asked. Finally, you should be prepared to demonstrate how what you wrote was your own work and that you only worked with the other student's essay as a guidelines.

Most importantly, you should prepare to tell the truth and not mislead the committee: Is it ethical/acceptable to give a lighter penalty to students who admit to cheating?

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If you use your friend's essay "as a guide", that means she'd already done the work on her essay by herself (and perhaps others), and consequently you were not "working on your essays together".

The semester of separation just makes it more damning, but you could've done this in the same semester and it'd still have been basically the same problem.

So just realize you were not following instructions and be honest with them.

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    The question needs more clarification. It does say “we used her essay as a guideline”, phrased in a way that makes it sound like ‘we’ is the asker and the friend who’d already handed in the essay. If this is indeed the case, then the asker was working on his essay together with the author of the original essay, though it would be strange for someone to work on the same material two terms in a row when the essay has already been handed in. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 25 at 8:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I don't see anything unclear. They weren't working on their essays together. First because when the instructor says you can work on your essays together, it's clear he's referring to his current set of students and not the the entire human population. And second because they were at best working just on his essay together... not their essays. – Mehrdad May 25 at 9:43
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I want to be prepared.

I suggest you do the following:

  1. Talk to your friend. Have her attend the hearing as well, to testify or to speak on your behalf. Failing that, get her to write a letter in your support. What she could contribute is to:

    • Corroborate your version of the events and what the teacher had told you;
    • Claim that you had her consent for using the work the way you did, or even that you agreed on this in advance;
    • Claim that she, like yourself, did not understand that what you did constitutes plagiarism;
    • Claim that you did not have any intention to break the rules or shirk any duties.
      If your friend can't attend, have her write a signed letter to this effect. But it would be really useful if she attended.
  2. Try to get the teacher (lecturer) to attend. This is less likely to happen, but s/he could contribute would be to:

    • Corroborate your version of the events and what he had told you;
    • Explain that he did not clarify what kind of use of other people's work would constitute plagiarism, and argue that you may have misunderstood;
    • Claim that you did not have any intention to break the rules or shirk any duties.


    at least the first one is likely and does not require that much good will. The other two are less so. Also, in the teacher's case it is more likely you would get a signed letter (if anything) rather than him/her attending.

  3. Clarify (to yourself and others) whether the problem was not citing your friend's work, or that it was using it to begin with. It's not entirely clear from your question.

  4. In your situation it seems you should prepare for humility and penitence, followed by non-confrontational explanations, rather than for trying to argue why you did nothing wrong.

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