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I have a group research proposal assessment at my university, and my friend had previously completed the subject, so he gave me his assessment as guidance for how the proposal should look. His group and my group's research proposals are completely different, but the layout design of how the assessment is presented is quite similar. I'm concerned that it will be considered plagiarism for having a similar structure/layout design and spoke to my group about it but they didn't seem to be bothered as much as I am.

The topic is completely different and every word is completely our own, however the figures/tables look quite similar. We made our own figures and tables based on our topic but the design ideas of the figures/tables as well as the assessment layouts are pretty much the same.

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    It is especially not plagiarism if you thank your friend in an acknowledgements section for their assistance with typesetting and figure preparation (assuming this is all you mean by "structure"). Commented Aug 21, 2021 at 7:17

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I think you are in the clear. As an example, most research papers in my area look the 'same'. This is because everyone uses the same template and tools.

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Note that what is plagiarism in the wider world might be different from what a professor considers plagiarism for purposes of assignments. Often the latter are far stricter than the former. So, we can't say here, since it is your professor that will make the determination.

However, in the wider context, you can't plagiarize common knowledge and it isn't plagiarism to reuse (read copy) things that can be done in essentially only one way. In particular, if the outline doesn't contain any creative elements, then copying it is not technically plagiarism, though it is your professor who has the only important vote. The arguments here may be effective with them or not in the case that you are charged.

But note that plagiarism has to do with creative elements, ideas, and those require citation. But some forms of copying, while not, technically, plagiarism, are also improper.


As an example from another domain, I currently read a lot of mystery novels for relaxation. I've noticed a pattern used by several authors. The first chapter introduces the villains and their horrific crimes. The second chapter introduces the detective/hero of the story. Different chapters are given from the viewpoints of various characters, not always the hero. It is just a common (though not universal) pattern. No one thinks much of it, though a more creative "outline" might be refreshing.

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This is completely fine.

Moreover, it is common in academia for this kind of conduct to be encouraged. And there is an important distinction.

If you take someone's book and copy the chapter list from there with minor alterations, it is a creative work dealing directly with the subject you both are working on. No bueno.

If it is a proposal (or quarterly report, or any other writing dealing with formalities rather than the subject itself), however, it should provide whoever is in charge of assessing it a clean and familiar structure. There is a reason the layout of the dissertation is highly standardized - the content, obviously, is not.

In some cases, it is even okay to copy certain cliché phrases, but this is more of a gray area. After all, you're supposed to pick those up while learning in order to not have to seek them elsewhere when writing a "real" proposal all by yourself.

Focus on research first and what do you want to say; "how?" is the second step and successful communication requires to understand the listening side perspective.

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