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I think I may be overthinking things, as I’m known to having a huge guilt complex.

As an undergraduate last year, we were given a coding assignment to complete that was worth 15% of our overall mark for the course. We often worked on it at computing practicals where students worked together in computer labs along with postgraduates who could assist you if needed.

Towards the end of it, I had managed to complete the first two parts of it, but struggled with the final portion, and there were no more opportunities to ask for help at the practicals.

Eventually, a friend of mine’s close friend (who I was still becoming closer with) figured out how to do it, and showed us a screenshot of his code. I initially copied it down so I can see what he did, and then spent some time reading it to understand how I was meant to go about answering it properly, and then tried to write up my answer knowing the right way to go about it, but it couldn’t be done in a way that didn’t look very similar to what my friend did. So I fear I copied.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and submitted it, and it was marked and that was it. I think there may had been a plagiarism checker but I can’t remember.

Recently, I’ve since been worried that I’ve breached good academic practice. I don’t know why I’ve never thought about it much until now.

As well, in a module I took last semester, I had worked together with friends on homework sheets that we handed in but people often completed in groups, which I think was perfectly permitted. I only worked in groups if I couldn’t solve anything, so there was a time last semester where I went to a friend who went over with me how to do the homework assignment (helping me through almost all of it) which allowed me to get a decent mark on it as I now knew how to do it with his help and instruction (they also were intentionally meant to help our understanding more than assess us apparently). I’ve also had trouble saying no to people who want to look at my homework for help, as I’m not very assertive.

I’ve figured out that this could be poor academic practice as I’ve aided and gotten aid for assigned work recently.

I just don’t want to think I’m an unworthy academic. What should I do? Should I contact someone? Should I just let it go? I’ve told myself for now on when asking for help from colleagues that I will never ask for answers but merely understanding, and to my knowledge I’ve not done anything else that’s improper other than this.

Should I be ashamed of myself?

Is this situation a common thing, even among academics? I’m going to be at an internship over the summer with very esteemed academics. Am I likely different from them in my academic scruples given this described past behavior? Should I look down upon others who’ve done minor things like this who don’t feel guilty about it?

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    You’ve already gotten some great responses. I’d like to add: Everyone has a different “line” in terms of what’s ok for them in life. Finding it is often uncomfortable. It sounds like you’ve bumped up against your line and learned a bit about your sense of right and wrong. From your post and comments, it sounds like you have a really good sense of integrity, and you should be proud of that. But like the other posters have said, this is nothing to lose sleep over about. Chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. – Alex May 26 at 19:56
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    If you are moving into industry, then collaboration and mutual learning is a useful skill. Even if you stay in academia, you will still be learning from others. It is when you actively claim ownership of the work of others that a line has definitely been crossed. Even then you may be acting as an integrator of ideas. Beware of misguided beliefs regarding 'guilt'. – Philip Oakley May 27 at 20:40
  • I'd like to comment on one point which I think is important to learn from. You said " ... and then tried to write up my answer knowing the right way to go about it, but it couldn’t be done in a way that didn’t look very similar to what my friend did. So I fear I copied. ... " . You could have done better. What's done is done, BUT even if there were some key points where you had to use the same instruction or algorithm or .... - there is ALWAYS another way perform a task which puts your stamp on it. ... – Russell McMahon May 28 at 14:45
  • ... It may be less pretty, use more code etc, while still having the same core, but if you apply your brain and if you understand what is being done then you can make it more your own and less their than by just copying. – Russell McMahon May 28 at 14:45
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    "I’ve figured out that this could be poor academic practice as I’ve aided and gotten aid for assigned work recently." It's an undergraduate course, the point is to learn the material and understand how to apply it. Many people learn best by example, and as long as that's going on there's no problem with aiding or seeking aid, in my opinion. The problem comes when someone copies without bothering to understand, causing their marks to not properly reflect their knowledge. – DarthFennec May 28 at 21:59
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The past is the past and cannot be undone. Whether you are ashamed or not, you need to move on. But you don't need to invite external punishment for past misdeeds that haven't harmed others.

It is best if you do your own work, of course, since that maximizes your learning. It is worst if you copy since you haven't really learned anything. In between is getting hints about things, with various graduations of that. The best hints come from your instructor, since s/he can give you a minimal hint to get you past a block so that you can advance. Getting hints from others is worse since those others may not be taking your educational development in to account.

So, for the past, let it go. For the future think about the goals of the exercise, not just the end point. Seek appropriate assistance that won't hinder your learning rather than inappropriate assistance that might.

Probably you transgressed norms since you describe it yourself as copying. But treat it as a learning experience and move on.

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    I think that is an unproductive question. Resolve to do your best and let it go. – Buffy May 25 at 15:06
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    I don't know about the "average" but you are not alone. Learning from our mistakes is called growth. – Buffy May 25 at 15:19
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    No. And don't let guilt paralyze you. Deep breath. Smile. Do your best work. – Buffy May 25 at 15:52
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    You are responsible only for your own actions and for guidance given to your kids. You might encourage others to be their best, of course. We should end this as the mods are getting itchy about the length of the conversation. Good luck. – Buffy May 25 at 19:29
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    @KonradRudolph, actually, I agree with you, but that wasn't the intent. Copying or being shown a solution isn't "working in groups". "Do your own work" can be interpreted as a directive to the group as well as to the individual. I didn't say "work alone". – Buffy May 27 at 11:16
19

Eventually, a friend of mine’s close friend (who I was still becoming closer with) figured out how to do it, and showed us a screenshot of his code.

Here was your mistake: you looked at another student's answer. From this point it was impossible for you to be 100% sure that any answer you come up with is really yours.

it couldn’t be done in a way that didn’t look very similar to what my friend did. So I fear I copied.

Here you go: maybe there was only one way to do it and your brain actually found it, but there's no way to know how much of your brain process was influenced by the answer you saw before. It might be 1%, it might 99%, nobody can tell. The border which separates plagiarism and genuine work lies somewhere between the two.

Should I be ashamed of myself?

Shame doesn't really help with anything, ask any psychologist :)

A more constructive approach is to reflect on our choices afterwards, identify potential mistakes and try to do better next time.

We often worked on it at computing practicals where students worked together in computer labs along with postgraduates who could assist you if needed.

Here was the better choice: when you were stuck with this question, you could have asked the postgrads who were here to assist for a clue. This way you could have been sure that whatever guidance you received was within the boundaries of what is permitted (whether you could have found the answer from it or not).

I’ve figured out that this could be poor academic practice as I’ve aided and gotten aid for assigned work recently.

Yes, this is unethical. Not the worst kind of unethical though, since your intention was not cheat but to solve the problem.

I just don’t want to think I’m an unworthy academic. What should I do? Should I contact someone? Should I just let it go?

Obviously you're not unworthy because of this, it's ok to make mistakes. Ethics is not a binary question of right and wrong, it's much more subtle than that. In this case you stepped in the light gray area once, and apparently you are your own very harsh judge so please show yourself a bit of forgiveness and move on.

I think I may be overthinking things, as I’m known to having a huge guilt complex.

As you rightly suspect, the answer is yes you are overthinking it :)


Is this situation a common thing, even among academics?

Plagiarism by students is unethical but it usually has a very limited impact (especially in a case like yours). Plagiarism by professional academics is a more serious issue, because it undermines the whole research process and introduces biases at every level: an academic publication record is used for evaluating candidates for hiring or promotions, allocating grants from funding bodies, etc.

While most academics have strong professional ethics, unfortunately there are plenty of cases of unethical behaviour (including plagiarism) in academia (you can find a good few examples here on AcademiaSE).

I’m going to be at an internship over the summer with very esteemed academics. Am I likely different from them in my academic scruples given this described past behavior?

Your scruples are actually an indication that you take ethical considerations very seriously. If you stay in academia for a while you will probably see that some academics are not that strict. Even if you witness unethical behaviour, don't assume that it's a standard and keep doing the right thing yourself.

  • Unfortunately by the time I was working on the final part there were no more computer practical days. I didn’t know of postgraduates to contact because I never learned their names. Is it wrong to not be punished for this? It’s against the rules to conduct poor academic practice in my university. – anon May 25 at 15:05
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    No it's not wrong not to be punished. You have already punished yourself enough with your own guilt, that's enough. Now move on. – Erwan May 25 at 16:21
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    "From this point it was impossible for you to be 100% sure that any answer you come up with is really yours." This doesn't seem to me to be a good justification for it being unethical. A good student might look at programs online about X, knowing that X will be taught next week. If they are later given an assignment that is answered by a program they saw, then did they act unethically? I think no. Can they be certain that their answer is 100% theirs? I think no to this too. So then what's the difference between this and OP's situation? – Laurel May 25 at 17:05
  • @Laurel Sure, but in this case OP was looking at another student's answer so I meant it's not 100% theirs in the sense it's partly the other student's – Erwan May 25 at 18:37
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    @sangstar real cheaters and dishonest persons don't show regret like you do, so I'm fairly sure you are a perfectly decent person. you seem quite obsessed with moral judgement, it strikes me as a bit excessive. Independently from this particular problem, do you feel ok with yourself? If not maybe you could try to seek psychological advice. Of course this is up to you, but you seem to be so harsh with yourself that this could become a handicap in your future education or career. Obviously I don't know you so I might read this the wrong way, but I'd suggest that you consider it. – Erwan May 25 at 23:33
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No one cares about this

Your assignment was through, no one will ever look at it again. You're an undergrad student, learn to not do that. And I see you realized that now. It's important to improve in the future and learn now to be aware of it, an undergrad exercise is "plagiarism" and okayish, plagiarism later on is a career breaker. Like stealing money from you company. Don't ever do that!

That's what studying is about: learning the way things work together. And the basics of the field.

Next time better ask an assistant, that's what they are there for.

Definitely don't feel ashamed. Most people would lie if they say that they never looked at an other students exercise in their study time. Sometimes life and deadlines hit, sometimes two deadlines, sometimes frustration. Keep it at an absolute minimum, but again:

Don't be ashamed.

Be glad that it happened now and you learn from it.

10

What you did was only very borderline unethical. You were allowed to work in groups to solve the problem. People working in groups will generally all solve the problem the same way. And when people work in groups, often one person will have the key insight to solve the problem. So the main difference here is that you weren't working with the group and failing to solve the problem when your friend solved it. (You were working on your own and failing to solve it.)

Further, one reason copying is discouraged is that if you copy somebody's solution, you very often will not understand the material. This isn't the case for you — you first went through the solution and understood it, and then you tried to code it in a way that was different. Unfortunately, there was essentially only one way you saw to code your friend's solution, and you used that.

While this may have been a violation of academic integrity, it was an extremely minor one. Think of it as a learning experience for you, and not as a major crime that you got away with.

7

I may be missing something here since nobody else mentioned it but I fundamentally fail to see the supposed integrity breach. Two points:

  1. You are talking about a programming assignment, not a sit-down exam. Collaboration between students is expected. Usually it’s encouraged (and should be!). Of course you shouldn’t just copy others’ solutions verbatim, the purpose is to work through the problem yourself. But you seem to have done this, even if your starting point was somebody else’s solution. So, from a didactic perspective, you probably learned a lot, and that’s the primary purpose of the assignment.

  2. Professional programmers as well as academics look at each others’ code/solutions all the time, and collaboration is a fundamental tool for getting anything done — it’s the whole reason why we have Universities in the first place. Of course professionals are not being (directly) graded on their work but I mention this to establish how normal and expected it is in professional settings to learn from other people’s code and ideas. It’s the rule, not the exception.

Don’t get me wrong: Plagiarism is a serious breach of academic integrity. But collaboration isn’t plagiarism. Nor is getting help with your homework (otherwise private tutoring couldn’t exist). What would be a problem is if you just copied the work of other people and handed that in, without working on it. But from what you’ve said this isn’t even remotely what happened.

I think you misunderstand what you’re being graded on: You’re not graded on your knowledge before taking the course, and University isn’t an Olympics-style competition of who’s the fittest. Instead, you are graded on what you’ve learned during the course. If you learned by working in groups then that’s not a violation of academic integrity; it’s an academic success!

Should I be ashamed of myself?

If you are feeling ashamed for what you’ve described then the University system has let you down. 😔

1

Was it explicitly told you, that you should solve the problem individually?

If not, I would say it is not unethical at all. After all, all we have to get later in business, is to get a best solution for a customer. You should learn that, too, and what you do is - you engaged a consultant. In the real world, when, say, programming, you research online and in documentation, you ask colleagues or in forums, and you hire consultants. In my times at the university (was 20 years ago however), any out of class task to do was common for us to discuss, and search for optimal solution. Learning teamwork. The only guy whom you could have harmed, was you - you might have learned a bit more doing it yourself. Shame and other feelings should have nothing to search here - learn from any incident, do cold-blooded analysis, and then move on. Get that guy who helped you a beer/ice cream or so as a payment - then it will make it easier for you to look on his role as a consultant in that incident.

If it was explicitly forbidden to communicate the task - you just took some risks. The risk to get caught, and be fired from the university. Risk did not happen - problem solved. Same result as above, only harmed person is you here, and you took unnecessary (or necessary, if the incomplete task would have caused you some negative consequences, comparable to the consequences when caught, like not enough bachelor ECTS points collected in must time - fired from university) risks.

I would also stand to the answer of Konrad Rudolph - he met the point exactly while I was typing mine ;)

  • Personally I think the default assumption should be that you're expected to solve problems individually unless told otherwise. – Michael Mior May 27 at 14:36
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    @MichaelMior Frankly that’s a bad assumption because it ignores the wealth of evidence showing that learning is more effective in groups. – Konrad Rudolph May 27 at 17:10
  • I'm not talking about pedagogy here. If you're not sure whether something is permissible, you should assume it isn't unless told otherwise. – Michael Mior May 28 at 17:31
  • I rather would tend (and interpreted in my studies and now in my work) that everything is permissible until forbidden. – Petr Osipov May 31 at 9:11
0

A good litmus test for whether something is unethical or not is: If someone asked you about what you did, would you have any reservations about telling them everything?

The correct course of action would have been to tell the professor before turning in the assignment exactly what you've told us here. Having acknowledged the work you built on, there would have been no ethical issues. (I suspect there would have been no practical issues, either. If you understood how the solution worked well enough that you could reproduce it, the goal of the assignment was accomplished.)

Failing to do so was mildly unethical. The fact that you're feeling shame and guilt over it (perhaps even a disproportionate amount) is good. It's a sign that your sense of ethics is functioning properly. It is far better to feel more guilty than is necessary under the circumstances than it is to try to justify unethical actions.

The way to eliminate the feelings of guilt isn't to focus on how minor the ethical violation was; it's to correct the violation. While it would have been preferable to inform the professor at the time, there's nothing stopping you from doing so now. Tell them what you've told us, and ask what you should have done. In all likelihood, they'll just repeat what I already said: you should have acknowledged the assistance at the time it happened, and make sure you do so next time. In the unlikely chance that there are some consequences, accept them. Once you have told the truth without holding anything back, the error in judgement will have been corrected, and you will no longer have anything to feel guilty about. Rather, you'll have something to be proud of: you will have done what was right even when you know for a fact that you would have gotten away with not doing so.

p.s. I really doubt there will be any significant consequences. I say this not to suggest that you should only tell the professor because nothing bad will happen as a result (you should tell them no matter the consequences), but so you don't feel apprehensive in the meantime.

0

Short answer: You didn't; but if you don't like working in this way, then don't work in this way in the future.

Long answer: Watch at least one whole season of "The Good Place", there are chances you can learn from Chidi's character and the way he views himself vs. the way he is really revealed to be : )

0

Since your friend showed you a "screenshot of his code", then his intention was probably to help you. Your problem should not have a moral/ethic dimension; you would have had so if you took your colleague's work without merits, and from what you say this is not the case. So from this perspective, you are clear.

I think your concern comes from the inside - that you are not academically worthy and that there are other students who have nicer solutions to problems than you. The only one who can provide the answer to this question is you. How should you reflect upon this question? Well, first of all don't be a pessimist, be a realist. Think of all the problems (not only in coding) that you resolved by yourself. Did they have the same difficulty? If not, what should be my strategy to increase the level of difficulty of the problems I solve? Should I try the divide et impera method, thus combining easier problems in order to solve a more difficult one? Also, about the final part of the code you were not able to solve entirely by yourself, you should be thinking something like - did I think enough about it? Did I try all the possible methods I know to solve the problem?

As for individual or collective solution. It is absolutely necessary sometimes to take solutions from others. That is the only way you can learn anything. Nobody was born knowing the solution to each and every problem that is. Think also about your friend. Are you so sure that he didn't read a solution for a similar problem from a book? Do you think your friend was born already knowing the solution to the assigned coding problem?

Whether you like it or not, you can't have solutions to every problem by yourself. Sometimes, and it should be no shame, you have to learn from others. And I honestly have doubts that you have never read a solution to a problem from a book. Why do you think it should be any difference between reading a solution from a book (written by a human) and looking at a solution directly given by another human?

protected by StrongBad May 28 at 16:11

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