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Yesterday, before my exam, I went through as many practice questions as possible, and incorporated anything I missed into my notes - this included cases not taught in the textbook or lectures. I am a law student, and all our in-person exams are unrestricted open book - we can bring in anything use anything save for electronics.

Lo and behold, I go into the exam, and about 60-70% of it exam is verbatim questions I did last night. I had with me a textbook with those questions and answers in it (this textbook wasn't assigned for the course) because I was planning to use the answer structures from it.

I tried to keep my answers distinct by using some different cases, I retained the same structure and discussed the same issues and got most of it 'right'. I looked at the textbook a few times if I had forgotten something, and also to make sure my answers weren't too similar. It was a difficult exam.

Did I do anything wrong? Will the lecturer likely catch me if it is wrong (they might not want to get themselves into trouble)? Surely it isn't a case of academic misconduct.

I should report it - but but I don’t want to do a supplementary exam in a few weeks as I’m going overseas in a few days. I'm worried sick - surely I wasn't wrong?

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    In law school, one thing you are supposed to be learning is how to prepare to deal with legal issues that arise. This includes doing legal research and writing memos to yourself ("memo to the file"). Your preparation for the exam is probably exactly what a model student would do, and what the professor hoped to see.
    – Wastrel
    Jun 10 at 15:28
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    You prepared for the exam well and you got rewarded for it. The way you describe it, you never had any intention to cheat. Therefore you did nothing wrong and should not worry about it. I would simply forget about this. If one day you get to host an exam, recall this experience and consider preparing better questions.
    – Blazej
    Jun 10 at 18:00
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    I remember once for a class Q&A session a day before an exam I brought in a textbook question and asked the instructor what an answer may look like (notes were inconsistent on the matter). He was really cagey and the inconsistency wasn't clarified, so I whittled it down its essence to a true and false question. Finally we got clarification, and as it turned out he had used that exact question in the exam. The 20 or so people that attended that session got full marks 😎 Jun 10 at 23:32
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    I took a class with an extremely conscientious friend who explicitly asked the professor if we were allowed to study for an open-book exam by looking old tests and bring these in as part of our materials; he said yes. We studied together and discovered on the day of the exam that 5 out of 6 questions were verbatim from the same test the previous year. To this day I have no idea why on earth he approved that if he was going to re-use the test...
    – KRyan
    Jun 11 at 19:08
  • @KRyan exam authoring is complex. The professor may not realize that was done, or maybe he knew, objected to it, but was shot down by no fault of his own. He didn't give you guys the test, so simply rewarded his students for happening upon the answers.
    – Nelson
    Jun 13 at 3:26

9 Answers 9

33

As long as looking back at previous material was allowed, you did nothing wrong. You studied for an exam, and took the exam following the same rules as all the other students. The professor is at fault here for blatantly lifting exam questions.

If your professor had any sort of integrity, they would have cited where the question came from, but that is more-so for HW/practice questions. The exam should be made up of their own questions so students can't just search online for the answer (or luck into owning the book like you did).

I think the only scenario where taking an exam question from a textbook verbatim would be ok is if the class was assigned said textbook, and the professor previously assigned the question as practice (either mandatory or optional). This at least gives everyone a level-ish playing ground.

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    I agree that the professor has basically plagiarized here by failing to cite the book the questions were taken from. But by the same token, the OP may have also committed plagiarism by failing to cite where the answers came from, although it's hard to say from the OP's description if the book answers were used as a starting point or as a final check after the question was answered independently. Jun 10 at 16:46
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    Should that last paragraph begin "I think the only scenario where taking an exam question from a textbook verbatim [would be ok] would be if ..." ?
    – Teepeemm
    Jun 10 at 17:06
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    @NuclearHoagie Is it now the case that those taking open-book examinations are expected to give references for all the assistance they get from said books? For that matter, is someone taking a closed-book exam expected to give references for everything they remember? On the other hand, I don't follow the claim that the professor was plagiarizing, either: neither setting nor taking an examination is a venue for presenting one's original work. This is just unprofessional laziness, which is bad enough.
    – sdenham
    Jun 11 at 0:28
  • I agree with @sdenham . This is an examination venue and as a student in an exam setting it's a bit rich to ask to provide references for one's answers. If you're cheeky you can drive the point home by saying "In accordance with [source]". I had exactly 1 open-book exam in my life in physics. One of the questions was taken from a reference book, but that one had no solutions and I lucked out by having prepared with that book.
    – Nox
    Jun 13 at 8:48
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Did I do anything wrong?

Nope, you're ok :-)

Will the lecturer likely [rephrased: notice what I did]?

Unlikely - unless you were exceptionally poor in homework assignments/midterms/etc - which would make a high exam score suspicious to the course staff. But it sounds like that's not the case.

I should report it - but but I don’t want to do a supplementary exam in a few weeks as I’m going overseas in a few days.

You have nothing to report: The instructor knew, when using questions from a textbook with official-textbook-answers, that there's a chance some students will just have those answers.

But if this bothers you, then you could go see the lecturer, or even one of the TAs. You would mention the fact that the questions seemed very reminiscent of material you saw in one of the textbooks. Don't "report having copied a textbook answer". You will probably be told something like: "Oh, yeah, sorry about that, we didn't have the time to write original problems for the exam because [EXCUSE HERE]". That should at least make you feel better, I guess.

11

It was an open-book exam. You found the answers in a book. What could possibly be wrong with reading a book to learn the answers?

Whether it's OK to copy the answers verbatim will depend on additional conditions in the exam instructions, as well as whether the questions admit to multiple wordings of the answer. If a math question asks for a numeric answer without asking you to show your work, there's no way to distinguish copying the answer from working it out yourself. If you happen to stumble on the exact same question somewhere, it's hard to unsee it and I don't think you can be faulted for copying the answer; it was a poor choice for the professor to copy the questions exactly in the first place.

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    "Plagiarism" of the answers by the OP?
    – Lou Knee
    Jun 10 at 16:30
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    @LouKnee Not unless the exam included instructions stating that all answers must be in the student's own words. If it's open everything without restriction, that's also an open invitation to copying and pasting. Jun 10 at 18:24
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    We don't know the actual rules the professor gave when for this exam. For all we know the instructions say that it's open book but you must answer in your own words. As I said, plagiarism is an orthogonal issue.
    – Barmar
    Jun 10 at 19:30
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    I don't think plagiarism is relevant here. You aren't publishing your exam answers as your own work, and in an open book exam there is no requirement that they are your own work. I know people popularly use "plagiarized" to mean "copied" but they don't actually mean the same thing. Jun 10 at 19:35
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    @NuclearHoagie Nope. If you're not passing the work off as your own then it's not plagiarism. Jun 10 at 20:44
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The professor is certainly guilty of plagiarism by verbatim copying text from a source and failing to cite where it came from. Depending on how your answers were generated, you may have also committed plagiarism by failing to cite where your answers came from. If you used the book answers as a starting point and just rearranged some things to make it less obvious, you likely plagiarized by presenting the book answers as your own, without giving any credit to the book. If you answered the questions independently on your own and used the book as a reference after the fact to check that you didn't miss any important points, it is less likely plagiarism.

You certainly didn't cheat on the exam, but you may have plagiarized if you presented the book's answers as your own. To avoid any possibility of academic misconduct, it would have been better to be entirely up-front, clearly citing the book that your answers were based on - proper citation is an absolute defense in cases of plagiarism, since plagiarism requires misrepresenting another's work as your own.

All this said, I don't really expect anything to come of it. One could argue that plagiarism may be more "forgivable" in an exam setting with tight time pressure, as time could expire after writing an answer but before listing the proper citation. It would likely be viewed more harshly in another setting like a term paper, since the absence of citation there is far more likely due to deliberate misrepresentation, rather than other factors like time or stress. But be aware that if you want to report the professor for having plagiarized the questions, it's quite possible that you're guilty of the exact same offense by plagiarizing the answers.

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  • The examiner cannot be guilty of plagiarism in this context, as long as the citation is made in future, i.e., when the exam is released afterwards as a past paper. In an open-book exam, giving a citation would be equivalent to giving the answer in the exam. Whether it's a good idea to use questions from a book with answers in it is a different question. Jun 13 at 9:22
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You did nothing wrong. If your prof is lazy enough to pull answers from a book students can access, then all I've got to say is good for you for preparing well.

The only potential flag here is that you may have copied the material from the textbook -- for open book exams it's tricky if there's an expectation to cite anything.

Otherwise, you're fine. The prof plagiarized, not you (lol).

-1

As the other answers explain, considering the circumstances, there is nothing wrong with what you did. It's only about the philosophical question about how you view yourself considering you looked at the answers in an examination, traditionally meant to test your knowledge and skills. My take: if in your view examinations are a poor measure of this, and there is undue importance given to marks, then I think you should be okay with your actions. If you don't, I still wouldn't go asking for the supplementary exam; you could just choose not to do this in the future.

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In my opinion, the right approach is to think through what you owe the other people in the situation.

One goal of the exam is to give each student roughly the same challenge. Through no fault of your own, you happened to be significantly better prepared than your classmates. The challenge was far easier for you than for them - and not just because you studied hard, but because you happened to study the right book (this was just a stroke of good fortune). So you ended up gaining an unfair advantage. I think it would display integrity to explain what happened. And if I were the lecturer or a classmate of yours, I would be deeply impressed by that integrity.

Insisting that you, strictly speaking, played by the rules is not the approach I would admire the most. The rules are usually not written to accommodate all situations, and you have a responsibility to think further, beyond what the rules say, to find out what you ought to do.

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  • Also, in my view, certain kinds of luck are totally fine to benefit from, for example happening to dream up the right set of questions the day before the exam, or the normal unequally distributed resources (if you've had a great education and great mentors, it's fine to benefit from these even if you got them through luck), but your luck was an abnormal kind of luck, and would rightly raise many eyebrows.
    – Raffi
    Jun 10 at 15:51
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    Why would it raise eyebrows? If OP consulted a resource that was explicitly prohibited, then yes. But they didn't. For all they know others similarly benefited. Not saying it wouldn't be a bad thing to let the prof know, but there's risk: the prof may take an inappropriate hard line and accuse OP of cheating when they didn't, or they may unfairly give OP a harder test.
    – bob
    Jun 10 at 18:37
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    And besides an open book test isn't testing your recall--it's testing your ability to find sources containing the information, ideally before the test, and to bring them with you and find the info quickly. So IMHO OP did absolutely nothing wrong here and should probably keep their mouth shut unless they didn't describe the full situation in the question. It can only unfairly hurt them.
    – bob
    Jun 10 at 18:38
-1

If you are going to get your questions from a book on the shelf, then what is wrong with getting your answers from that same book on the shelf?

They should prepare more original questions if they have a problem with people doing that.

-2

Some details are needed before giving an accurate answer.

  1. Did the professor cite the textbook, at least somewhere in the course?

  2. Did you cite the textbook?

  3. What is your program (LLB, LLM, JD, PhD), country, and year?

  4. Is it a research-level course, practice-level course, or an introductory course?

You can use the country tags when updating your question. The answer really depends on the background.

For example, if you are taking a first year introductory level LLB course, it will be usual (yet unrigorous) that the professor failed to cite some sources, for two reasons: 1) the professor believes that the materials are too fundamental or 2) some previous students used the citation to get original answer and directly copied it.

Of course, not citing the material you use is a wrongdoing of some degree, for both your professor and you. To what degree? That depends on the rigidity of the course and your program.

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    It is a fourth year LLB unit in Australia. The lecturer didn't ever cite the textbook - I did not cite the textbook as (a) I've not ever heard of anyone citing a textbook in an exam and (b) I don't believe a source should ever have a monopoly on something which someone with the correct knowledge could reasonably be expected to materially reproduce (without having seen it) such that it should be cited (reliance on a source is another matter - but reliance on extrinsic materials is expected in an open-book exam). That is just my opinion, however. Jun 11 at 7:40
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    @MarcusSnead If no one cites sources in your exam then you should be fine.
    – High GPA
    Jun 11 at 8:30

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