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I am sharing a course with a colleague, the share is 50-50. I do my part, she does her part.

However, I noticed that for her part, the entire structure of the course, from the slides to notes and exercises, has been taken from some particular open tutorials that can be found on the internet. My colleague has simply copy-pasted the material, and no changes have been made to it.

That is not necessarily a huge issue, but my colleague is using her name on the materials distributed (implying she wrote everything). At no point does she have a reference to the original source of the material.

Now, this makes me very uncomfortable. We teach our students that using someone else's work as your own is plagiarism which is academic fraud. The examinations committee at my department is punishing students for failing to cite a Wikipedia article in their submitted answer. Clearly what my colleague does is sending the wrong signal to the students, to say the least.

My question is: how to handle it? Remember that I am responsible for half of the course, and personally I do not want to be associated with a "cheating" colleague.

  1. Ignore it. Everyone does it and no one is expected to develop their own materials. This option is the least comfortable for me as I have put a lot of thought and effort on my part of the course, only for my colleague to come and do a very low effort job, without giving credit where credit is due (i.g., the entire set of materials that she has uploaded).
  2. Talk to the colleague. I do not like confrontations, and they may very well reply with "mind my own business". I may also to be labeled as "that guy".
  3. Talk to the program director/coordinator. This might result in the same issues as the previous point. Also, in that case the situation might escalate, which I also do not want.
  4. Any other suggestions?

You may also argue that I am unreasonable to be bothered, fair enough, but I know how I feel, and when I saw the material my reaction was that I couldn't believe what I was looking at. After some days have passed, my uneasiness hasn't decreased (on the contrary). At the end of the day I feel very uncomfortable and I do not know what the appropriate course of action is.

I am talking about the Netherlands, for what it's worth.

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    My sympathies... something extremely gentle... ? Commented May 6 at 23:00
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    @JonCuster I am not talking about a textbook, I thought that's obvious
    – PsySp
    Commented May 7 at 0:23
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    The point of open tutorials is to provide material to teach. Many teachers borrow widely to find good stuff. Sure, they should say where it comes from. So tell them that.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 7 at 0:49
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    In another comment you say the colleague is a nasty one (how else to describe the behavior?). The colleague did not yet fully blossom their manipulative behavior, but from personal experience I can guarantee they will. Please remember that in general for progrma directors/coordinators you TAs are just expendible workforce, as soon as your contracts expire the problem will automatically solve, so it is likely they will do nothing. Although I would be happy to be proven contrary, you are doomed, I see no solution apart from "listen to yourself, vent publicly about the colleague".
    – EarlGrey
    Commented May 7 at 8:30
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    Not worthy to be posted as an answer: Just notify your university ethics department or your department head. Your university undoubtedly has "whistleblower protection" so, as far as your colleague knows the whistleblower is a student, faculty member, etc. If someone engages in blatantly unethical behavior then they do not deserve boot licking; notify a university official and allow that person to make the determination as to whether a line was crossed.
    – tnknepp
    Commented May 7 at 16:28

5 Answers 5

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A good strategy to address your concerns without risking offense might be to take the collaborative angle, since you are both working together on the same course. Instead of directly expressing your concerns about improperly referncing or copy-pasting materials, you could exploit the leverage you have as a collaborator. For referencing, for instance, you could propose something like

"I think it would be useful if we provided the students with a reference list next year, so that interested students can follow up on material not covered in the course. I have already prepared a small list. Any other references I should add?" - Then you present a list of your references that includes the source from which your colleague drew her material.

Alternatively, if you would like her to adjust her content, too:

"I think the course went well this year! Looking ahead to next year, I had some ideas on how to better align our materials. For instance, I would like to anticipate the material you cover in lecture X during my lecture on Y, and you could call back to that with a small slide to really emphasize that connection." - That way, you encourage your colleague to adapt the material without directly calling her out.

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    I like this sleight of hand method. Entirely dodging the confrontation part without offending anyone. Commented May 7 at 14:36
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    This approach would be appropriate if the offense was one of omission. For example, copying 10 slides from the middle of a 90 slide deck, which did not have attribution, and failing to add it/copy the intro slide (which was not contiguous) that bore the original authorship. However, OP's comments indicate that the offender has been removing attribution that already did exist. That's deliberate.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented May 7 at 21:18
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    I don't at all agree with this answer. Expecting someone to understand what we want to communicate while refusing to actually communicate it is passive-aggressive. Trying to avoid someone taking offense is a laudable goal, but it doesn't outweigh the more serious concerns you've described. Commented May 7 at 22:19
  • @Greg Martin. I agree that direct communication is the simplest way to resolve (or escalate) the situation. However, OP has indicated that they are uncomfortable with this, so unless they came for emotional support, I wanted to suggest an alternative. A more indirect approach gives the colleague the chance to recognize their mistakes without cornering them, which would be a certain recipe for the situation to turn sour. The goal here isn't aggression but peace. It subtlety didn't work, no bridges have been burned. Then you can still be direct, knowing you tried extending an olive branch first.
    – J.Galt
    Commented May 8 at 6:28
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Talk to your colleague. Not doing anything is ethically dubious, while talking to a superior escalates the issue. Besides, broadly speaking, when there's a dispute it's preferable to first talk to the other party and see if you can resolve it before calling in the big guns (see e.g. how courts prefer parties settle out of court before escalating to a lawsuit).

Of course, when talking to your colleague, don't start with accusations or assertive statements like "you shouldn't do this". Instead, mention the issue and say you are concerned, and see how she responds. For example, begin with "does it trouble you that ..." and see what she says.

Who knows, you might discover that she is the originator of the materials, and the person who uploaded them to those websites.

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    _Who knows, you might discover that she is the originator of the materials, and the person who uploaded them to those websites." Yeah, no. These notes are from another researcher's Github. She copy pasted because she wanted to remove his name from each slide/note. I think that in principle your (and similar) advice is the soundest. However, my concern lies on the character of the colleague, she is defensive, and aloof, and she will 100% take things the ``wrong'' way.
    – PsySp
    Commented May 7 at 9:27
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    @PsySp - It could well be that this other researcher gave her permission to do this. Seems unlikely, but remember the principle of charity. Commented May 8 at 11:24
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    @ScottishTapWater Good point. Highly unlikely, but good point nevertheless.
    – PsySp
    Commented May 8 at 11:55
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    I am not sure so sure, @ScottishTapWater: Permission would address the copyright issues, but not the plagiarism. Commented May 8 at 14:42
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    I think I'd be more direct - not "does it trouble you.." rather "have you got permission to use this material... I understand the source in licensed and you're not attributing .. as required by the original license...". You're in a profession situation, I would expect colleagues to be called out for stuff like this. Commented May 9 at 2:38
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Disclaimer: I was a graduate teaching assistant and now work in government, so my thoughts may not reflect your reality. I studied Organizational Economics and business and psychology before that; I'm currently a Presidential Management Fellow and receiving coaching and training on these sorts of issues. Additionally, I worked in a Dean of Students Office at an SEC school for several years where I collaborated closely with academic leadership on student services and experience issues.


This sounds like a really good opportunity to approach either a curriculum consultant / instruction coach (many university libraries, undergraduate studies offices, or graduate schools have them) to review the course and offer recommendations on ways it could be improved. You could quietly share your concerns, perhaps from the angle that it may be less than fair to assess students on questions with answers readily available online (those who cheat will get prefect scores, but those who try to work through it won't).

If your institution doesn't offer that sort of support and you happen to be in the early stage of your career, it sounds like something a trusted mentor or senior member of the department may be able to assist with. It might be especially helpful if that individual serves on a curriculum committee or something similar.

If you're more senior than your colleague, it sounds like it's your responsibility to make clear what the norms are in your department. If their behavior is not acceptable and they refuse to redress it once it's brought to their attention, it's something to escalate and consider during their tenure / performance evaluations.

Finally, if the colleague is a peer in terms of seniority / rank and / or more senior, you either have to quietly wait for it to blow up or bring it to a senior leader's attention.

The solution here is all about power dynamics, and it can often be helpful to bring in a neutral third party whose role includes reviewing curriculum. Barring that, it's about what influence you have or can muster to address it. Ultimately, it's important to keep the students in mind. They're paying for a service, and they're not getting their money's worth from a course you're an instructor of. With declining enrollments pushing a lot of universities towards financial exigency, your career and the viability of your program will very likely depend on the experience your students have. You need to do what you can to make it a positive one.

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I do not like confrontations, and they may very well reply with "mind my own business". I may also to be labeled as "that guy".

Your university may have (and probably has) an ethics contact where people can submit ethical concerns. You can submit anonymously and, provided that there is tangible evidence, it will be assessed.

This manages the "I do not like confrontations" part but opens two problems. The first one is

Also, in that case the situation might escalate, which I also do not want

It will.

The second problem is that you are both the authors of the course, so your part will be scrutinized as well. You will need to have good evidence of primary work.


I always suggest to people who have a problem with an ethical case (now in industry, but the core problem is the same) to either give it to me and I will put it on the table (for those who trust me to do it anonymously), or open a case anonymously without telling anybody else.

I can completely understand that someone is not ready for confrontation (not everyone is) but at the same time ethics are more or less bent (to the point of breaking sometimes).

This is to say - do not think of you as a coward for not waving the flag and taking the hits.

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  • Agreed. Another problem is that I do not trust our ethics committee. Also, due to some shenanigans that I will not go into, my colleague is seen very favorably by our head of the department. If I open a case against her, there is a good chance that it will backfire against me. The only trustworthy person in my case might be the program director, a modest, sincere person. I may try talk in an unofficial way, without escalating. At any rate, I do not want to "leave it alone" but its complex to find the right course of action (it shouldn't be)
    – PsySp
    Commented May 7 at 16:30
  • If I open a case against her, there is a good chance that it will backfire against me. Yes, that's why I mentioned the anonymous approach.
    – WoJ
    Commented May 7 at 17:18
  • I'm sorry, but I started chuckling when I read about the trustworthiness of the ethics committee! Sorry you are in that situation. Commented May 9 at 1:34
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First, I think you are rightfully bothered at academic material not being referenced, as it is not proper practice, but you should also give your colleague the benefit of the doubt; maybe she ignores the relevance of properly referencing sources.

Second, why would talking to your colleague necessarily mean a confrontation? You can talk to your colleague without being confrontative; saying that you noticed her material is based on an online source and that it could be a good idea to share that reference with the students, both for their self-study and to adequately recognize the sources used for the course. Just letting it pass can be irresponsible asyou mentioned, and escalating it directly to a supervisor can negatively affect your relationship with your colleague and make you "that guy".

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    Thank you. 1) I cannot comprehend how any academic fails to see the relevance of proper citing. 2) she took some slides from the original source and handwritten them down as her own details supplementing the already plagiarized slides. Why would anyone do that without the clear intention of passing these details as their own? 3) she has a history of delegating tastes to other people. And knowing her she will get very defensive on the slightest criticism. Frankly I do not want to be involved with this colleague anymore
    – PsySp
    Commented May 6 at 23:10
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    Finally, and probably I am petty, I do not want her to get away with it by simply adding a reference. Then, she will keep the low effort jobs without any consequences
    – PsySp
    Commented May 6 at 23:15
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    It should certainly be properly referenced and acknowledged, but if it is good teaching material and the students are learning from it, is there any harm in your colleague taking a low effort approach? Is this really so different from using a published text book if a good one is available rather than writing your own text for the course? [Perhaps it is if the students are paying for original content?] Commented May 6 at 23:43
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    @Significance yes it is different: it is a specialized course. Of the myriads relevant topics, she has chosen the one that has full online videos, supplemented by slides, notes and excercises. She clearly chosen that because it's easier to her not because is better for the students.
    – PsySp
    Commented May 6 at 23:50
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    "1) I cannot comprehend how any academic fails to see the relevance of proper citing. " Please split your expectations about reality from reality itself, otherwise you are bound to large suffering. Additionally, I sense an underlying bit of elitarianism "academics should be superior entities that knows well good and bad". Sorry to disappoint you, academics are humans, they may have an ego to satisfy (progress must be furthered, I will further the progress through my research) instead of the greed that drive many people, but ...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented May 7 at 8:23

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