A tenured professor at my university has hand-copied an out of print textbook in his field. His lectures consist of reading his hand-written notes from the text to his students. He does not deviate from his notes. He does not reveal the source of his notes. He often refers in class to "my notes" and "my lectures." His lectures are the same, year after year. Students do not have to go to class if they get good notes from others who took the course in previous years. Is this plagiarism?

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    Even if he did, what do you expect to achieve by knowing or reporting this?
    – Louic
    Nov 20, 2020 at 18:46
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    What exactly should be the plagiarism here? I take it he says it is from the book?
    – user111388
    Nov 20, 2020 at 18:56
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    If he lets you know which book then it isn't plagiarism. If it is a text book, then it was written so that people could lecture from it. There is no violation here. If he teaches the same course in the same way year after year it is not a violation of anything, especially if the material is settled knowledge. This would be true of most undergraduate courses. He might be a more effective teacher with different practices, but he isn't violating any rules, provided he tells you the source; a form of citation. Of course his other teaching practices might make him a great teacher. Can't say.
    – Buffy
    Nov 20, 2020 at 19:41
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    Do you know which textbook it is? Is the concern that he's hiding it, or merely that he doesn't declare it outright and up front?
    – Ben Barden
    Nov 20, 2020 at 19:53
  • If he is reading his hand written notes, doesn't that indicate it's his own work ? I doubt he has copied out an old text book in long hand. Nov 26, 2020 at 19:32

4 Answers 4


While there are a number of issues with this teaching style, there is no plagiarism because there is no expectation of originality in teaching. He could teach better, probably, but it's not like you can report him for plagiarizing his lecture notes.

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    "there is no expectation of originality in teaching." This is not a valid reason not to cite sources. There is no expectation of originality in a review article or a textbook, but those documents must cite all sources used. Nov 20, 2020 at 19:05
  • @AnonymousPhysicist It is hard to evaluate this without more details. We do not even know the field. Nov 20, 2020 at 19:09
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    @user It's obviously not secret or else OP wouldn't know Nov 21, 2020 at 16:16
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    @user111388 Again, it doesn't really matter. It might be generally good pedagogy to share if you do something like that, but since lecture notes are not "works" with any sort of standards, the prof doesn't have to share anything. This sounds like an intro class (if an out-of-print textbook is still relevant) so citations aren't as relevant as in an advanced class. Nov 22, 2020 at 16:36
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    It doesn't seem like the OP is trying to track down references and failing - it sounds like they're trying to "catch" their professor, like a lot of plagiarism questions here that treat plagiarizing as a game between student and professor. Nov 22, 2020 at 16:36

In Germany this is very common in the undergraduate lectures. Usually we were able to go to the library after the first few lectures, look up all the popular books on the subject and find the one that the lecturer was following. You could then sit with it in the lecture and always predict what was said next. Some lecturers told us which books they were following, others had it directly on their desk, some tried to hide it, and some changed mid-term because the next topic was covered better in a different book.

Ultimately this practice helps everyone. A professor is supposed to do research and not spend days preparing an original lecture, and the popular literature on the topic will be much better structured and presented then your professor could probably do. Please be also aware that even when not published as a book, lecturers usually have material collections that they pass on when somebody else is giving their lecture in the next term.

So I am strongly suggesting that you report nothing as you will be probably laughed of by the department while leaving a bad impression.

Edit: There is also a general philosophy of "a lecture is not public", and therefore the usual rules for citations (and also copyright) do not apply.

  • "It helps everyone": I have a really hard time figuring out why "copying everything and hiding the book's name" helps everyone when the prof could instead "copy everything and not hiding the name" (and why in the former case, profs have more rime for research). Mentioning the book's name sets a goos example and the students know where they can look something up in case they couldn't read a symbol on the blackboard.
    – user111388
    Nov 24, 2020 at 7:50
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    The students are not forced to attend the lectures, lecturers are explicitly forbidden to write down the attendance of students and can only base their grade for each student on the final exam at the end of the semester, not on participation or no-showing of students during the term. With these rules, many professors feel that openly communicating the book they are using will result in an empty lecture hall and ultimately to worse performance of the students as the majority does not read a book at home with the same attention that they follow a lecture.
    – terri
    Nov 24, 2020 at 14:56
  • Well, yes, they may fear this (and it probably is correct) - but this is the student's responsibility and no reason to hide the name. (And I know students who stopped coming to useless lectures, learning the stuff from books and know the contents better than those in the lecture). It definitely helps not everyone to hide the name.
    – user111388
    Nov 24, 2020 at 15:33
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    "A professor is supposed to do research and not spend days preparing an original lecture" Teaching ought to be prioritized over research, but it often is not. Nov 26, 2020 at 7:41
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    "There is also a general philosophy of "a lecture is not public", and therefore the usual rules for citations (and also copyright) do not apply." Wrong. Academic honest applies to private academic activities. Grant applications are an obvious example. Nov 26, 2020 at 7:42

I have a couple of observations from personal experience. As a grad student, I audited a course in functional analysis. We had a required text for the course. Each day, the professor came into class, opened the book to the appropriate place and started lecturing. In another course, which I actually took, the text was a well-known text on complex projective varieties. After a few days, I realized that what the professor was writing on the board looked awfully familiar, and checked the text (in class) and discovered that he was writing his lecture, verbatim, from the book. In neither case did I have a problem with what was happening. In fact, it made my job easier. As @Terri mentioned in another answer, this allowed me to concentrate on the material, instead of trying to copy it down. I read ahead and knew what was coming. Any useful asides that the prof mentioned were duly noted. Perhaps we were more indulgent of our professors back in the day.

In any event, I have been around the block a few times. There are things that are worth getting upset about. I don't think this is one of them.

  • What I don't understand is why it helped you more than if the prof said the name of the book and "I will copy-paste from the book."
    – user111388
    Nov 24, 2020 at 18:10
  • @user111388 - At that time, we didn't have copy-paste capability in the current sense. We already had the text. The main benefit was not having to write detailed notes. Nov 24, 2020 at 19:12
  • No sorry, I mean you seem to say it helped you more that the professor lectured from the book without mentioning the book's name instead of lecturing from the book and mentioning the name. I also had both types of profs (who copied their notes from a boom and read them out loud and we copied them). One said where the notes come from, one didn't. I still can't see what was "better" for the hiding one. In both cases, you could concentrate on the material, no?
    – user111388
    Nov 24, 2020 at 20:08
  • @user111388 - We're on the same page here. Concentrating on the material was the principal advantage. Had I not been reading ahead in the book, I never would have known what the prof was doing. I don't know if he "hid" the book per se. Maybe he just assumed we would see what was happening. As I recall, some of my classmates supported my conclusion when I made it, the others were oblivious. I guess this is kind of the nature of things, even at the graduate level. Nov 25, 2020 at 0:41

Plagiarism refers to passing off others' ideas as one's own. If you are writing a research paper (researcher) or an assignment (student), there is an expectation that you are articulating your own ideas, unless you specify otherwise. If you are conversing with friends over coffee, less so. Class lectures are somewhere in between.

There may be many good reasons to hew extremely closely to the presentation in a book in lectures, especially in certain fields like math. It takes a lot of work to write a compelling set of notes on one's own, and there may be little to gain versus using something already canonical in the field. Of course, parrotting a random book from years ago may also indicate just laziness.

I have definitely at various parts of my academic career lectured "from the [assigned] book", as well as on occasion presented my own material or lectured on part of the material from a different book. I definitely openly mentioned the source, as a natural habit of giving credit where credit is due, and of guiding students where to look (which in the case you mention may be more difficult if the book is out of print, of course). So it does seem weird the professor makes no mention of it, whether it is by design or by accident.

On its own, the use of the words "my notes" or "my lectures" could be using the word "my" as demonstrative, not possessive, i.e. merely which notes he is referring to (the ones he is transmitting to you) rather than taking intellectual credit for them.

All in all, the most likely interpretation seems to be of a pedagogically lazy dinosaur, rather than a nefarious plagiarist, or conversely a brilliant pedagogue bringing you a carefully selected optimal, but unfortunately out of print, presentation of the material.

Finally, putting words in your mouth to be sure, I'm sensing a feeling of injured inequality and hypocrisy here - "how come when we [students] do It it's plagiarism but when a tenured prof does It no-one calls it that". If that's the case, hopefully the distinction regarding assumed level of originality of ideas depending on the context will be helpful to explain it. It's worth also noting that the current level of vigilance about plagiarism on University campuses comes as a direct result of the ease of copying (without attribution) from the internet, with minimal reflection or internalization of the material. Being a bit of an old dinosaur myself, it is just not a theme we thought about as much years ago, when copying something meant manually transcribing it, and so was essentially as much work as rewording it. Still highly relevant for actual research, of course, but less top of mind for lectures, assignments, and the like. So if you pointed out to the professor that you were aware he was presenting "from X", he might well smile warmly at you and say "Oh yes, great that you're aware of X. Such a shame it's no longer in print. In my day, we all learnt [...] by copying out its presentation to understand it" and continue along serenely, with no thought of plagiarism in his mind.

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