Two students decided to consult each other about term paper formatting, because the teacher didn't provide guidance on the format. They used the same format, but different topics and totally different content on the subject matter. Is deciding to use the same format plagiarism?
This is absolutely not plagiarism, unless the topic of the class was design related. The template used to format a paper is irrelevant to the evaluation of the paper's actual content. Students share format templates and download such templates from the internet all the time. Microsoft Word itself comes with numerous templates for various kinds of documents. None of these are problematic.
I don't see how the formatting could be subject to plagiarism if formatting/design itself is not a topic of a paper.
Note 1: However, I can see how similar/same formatting can be used as an additional consideration when deciding on an actual academic misconduct case.
Note 2: Consider explicit instructions of the teacher:
This is an individual project. Do not consult each other on any subject regarding this paper.
And two students use a very distinct template and [for easiness of this post] admit discussion the choice of the template with each other. Even in this case, it is not plagiarism; however, the students slightly violated the "letter of the law" (whether the "law" is lawful and reasonable is outside of the scope) regarding the project. But I believe the "spirit of the law" is to not penalize the students for this at all.
Are they being graded on their report template?
If constructing a template forms part of the coursework, and the template structure (have you nested styles? used appropriate "keep with next" on headers? and so on) is submitted and forms part of the marking scheme, then yes this would be plagiarism.
If they're being graded on the content of their report, and the most that happens with the template is that they might be docked some marks if it prevents the report being understood, then of course it isn't plagiarism. Plagiarism involves copying graded/evaluated content. Unless this is a course on how to use Word, the template isn't part of that.
Short answer, no. Longer answer, I took a class last semester in which I had to write several papers or several paragraph essay style answers. I don’t think the professor ever required a specific format, but he always insisted that the papers have things such as indented paragraphs and a reference page so, formatting was the student’s choice. I always wrote my papers in Google Docs and used the MLA template provided and I know that others in my class did as well. The vast majority of the papers we did write were run through Turnitin - which checks for plagiarism - never set off any alarm bells for plagiarism either using the MLA or APA formatted templates.
Now, I am also certified in my state here in the US to teach Emergency Medical Technician courses and, as such, could end up encountering situations where plagiarism could be an issue. I would not consider using an identical format any type of plagiarism, particularly if it were one of the “big” paper writing formats like APA or MLA. Perhaps if I had specified to each and every student that they must, independently create their own format, then I’d raise an eyebrow at students with identical formats.
Ask yourself why plagiarism is forbidden. It is usually for a few main reasons:
- falsely amplifying a supposed "fact" without having done any work yourself is evil on epistemological grounds, because it leads others to think there is more evidence in favour of something than actually exists;
- pretending to have more intellectual ability than in fact you have is epistemologically evil again, because it leads people to believe that your other output is better-grounded than it really is;
- humans are social animals who do not take kindly to being deprived of the credit for their work (and indeed the incentives of our societal systems may become even more misaligned than they already are, when work is routinely uncredited).
Merely copying someone's formatting only violates one of those reasons if the formatting itself is a key subject of the work.
Could they have worked together on a previous project? It is very rare to create new templates, and if they worked together last academic year, they might just both have kept the same template?
Even if they haven't: it is a very strict interpretation of plagarism for "sharing Word template" without any actual content to be plagarism.