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I am an high school senior who has recently started getting into research in Electrical Engineering and CS. One thing that I have trouble in understanding sometimes is determining the difference between using an already-publish research paper as guidance vs going so far as to copy a lot of the ideas and methodology. Let me explain what I mean.

Let's assume there is a paper on building an autonomous drone which explains the drone hardware design, software design, autonomous flight algorithms, etc. If I read the paper, understand the methodology, and implement the methodology using my own code and effort, perhaps making a few small improvements, is that ethical?

If I don't copy any of the actual code or any verbatim phrases from the research paper, does it ever count as plagiarism? What happens if parts of the research/presentations/papers are very similar by accident?

I know that with high school science and engineering fairs this is sort of looked down upon by students but that might just be because it is high school.

Thanks ~ An aspiring EECS engineer

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  • TLDR: Is it ethical to read a research paper, replicate the results (without copying code) and then present/write a report for a competition (without direct plagiarism)? – Jim Bob Apr 27 at 20:26
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There's nothing wrong with replicating a paper as long as you cite and credit it. If you pass it off as your original contribution, that's never okay, but science works by advancing on previous work and it's not expected for any work to be completely novel from top to bottom (nor is it desirable).

If all you do is make some minor improvements on something already published, though, that may not be research per se, even if it is still a good exercise for a beginner. Whether that's sufficient for some competition you might submit to is up to the standards of that competition. As long as you are up front about what you have borrowed and where you've borrowed it from, you are in the clear ethically, but it's possible your project won't be judged as highly - it all depends on what those criteria are.

When you make improvements and advancements, it's also important to be honest and thoughtful about where those ideas came from, too. They can still be your contributions, but if you got the motivation from some other source then you need to cite the source. It's good to keep some documentation of the things you've read because it can become difficult to remember where exactly you got an idea from and you may even inadvertently fool yourself into believing you came up with something that you actually read days or weeks ago.

Also, be wary when actually writing up a paper that it isn't enough to make something "your own words" just by restructuring sentences and replacing words with a thesaurus. Your "own words" should come from your own head, without making close reference to another document except to refer to where specifically your ideas and knowledge are coming from.

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