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I’m studying for my bachelor’s in computer science in Germany.

Last semester one of my assignments was flagged for plagiarism. I had given my code to a friend for reference purposes, but he ended up copying and submitting it. I didn’t contest the plagiarism because I didn’t need the points for the submission as it was just extra work; so I didn’t think much of it. We both got a zero in the assignment, but there was no follow-up from the university, no contact from the professor nor the examination office. I passed the course as well.

Now at my university, the policy is that, if you get caught plagiarising twice, you get expelled; so I’m wondering if my plagiarism from back then counts towards this? Because I didn’t receive any official decision from the exam board, it would be weird for them to take notice of the plagiarism and flag it as such without doing anything (like a warning or kicking me out of the course) or at least informing me of their decision.

Would something like this be contestable in court if it comes to that?

Further clarification:

  1. The assignment was a homework assignment that basically offered bonus points which you needed to gain entrance to the main exam. The points in the assignment don’t count towards your final grade. With each assignment there is a feedback you receive as a downloadable file on the university’s portal for assignments and I downloaded the feedback and it said that the submission was flagged for plagiarism.

  2. The rules for plagiarism are the same at my university as Wrzlprmft pointed out, namely it says that the student must be notified of any decision in cases of plagiarism (this decision can be to kick the student out of the course and such or whatever penalty the board wants to enforce) and that repeated or severe plagiarism can result in expulsion. The rules are about both plagiarism and deception so it kinda covers everything.

  3. In the assignment we could help each other out; that was not forbidden; but yeah he took it too far. I should have contested it at the time but again I didn’t need any further bonus points for qualification as I had already qualified.

  4. I didn’t receive anything else like some scary warning or hearing; so I didn’t think much of it at the time. There was no contact from the professor either as to whether I admit or deny; he just gave me and my friend a 0, and neither of us contested it.

I talked to some other people and it does seem unlikely that the exam board took notice of the case, didn’t inform me about any decision, and just handled it internally somehow. That is why I asked: if they did notice it and raise this issue in the future, is it contestable? On the grounds of me not actually plagiarizing and them not following policy of not hearing me out before coming to a decision and then subsequently not informing me of their decision.

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    "if you get caught plagiarising twice, you get expelled" Were you planning to plagiarize (or assist others in doing so) a second time?
    – Ray
    Commented Jun 24 at 17:13
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    @Ray Irrelevant since he wasn't planning to plagiarise (or assist others in doing so) the first time either. Commented Jun 24 at 20:18

4 Answers 4

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You definitely want to check your examination rules on this, but usually these do not differ much on such matters (across Germany). For example, the examination rules from my university (in Germany) clearly state that:

  • Sanctions for cheating (in exams) can only be issued by the exam board.
  • The student must be heard before any decision on cheating (by the exam board).
  • The student must be informed on any decision on cheating (by the exam board).
  • Repeated (or grievous) cheating (in exams) can be sanctioned with expulsion.
  • Sanctions can be issued retroactively, including when an admission to an exam was acquired through cheating (as opposed to cheating on the exam itself).

Note that except for the last point, the rules do not mention cheating in coursework (i.e., anything leading to the admission to the exam). It is left to whoever runs the course. (Note that the common attitude in Germany on cheating in coursework is that it is impossible to prevent it and a cheating student mostly harms themself.)

If your university’s rule are any similar, your cheating incident is not on record – since you were neither heard nor informed on this. Moreover, you did not use the assignment in question to obtain admission to an exam (as you got zero points); so there is no issue even if this is dug up for whatever reason. Should you receive any official sanctions that count this incident as a first strike, I see extremely good chances for you contesting this.

However, please be aware that there are more consequences to cheating than receiving zero points and official sanctions. Instructors tend to remember such incidents and talk to each other. In particular when you are applying for a thesis, the responsible professor may enquire about your amongst their staff and close colleagues. If they learn about this incident, they may reject your application without telling you the reason or giving you a chance to explain yourself. On the other hand, there is a decent chance that whoever graded the assignment also remembers that the incident happened on a bonus assignment you did not need and thus had no motivation to cheat for your own benefit.

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    It could also be that assisting another person with cheating has the same consequences as plagiarizing.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 22 at 15:06
  • @Buffy: Generally yes, but for supplying your solutions to be considered an assistance in this sense, this would need to be specified beforehand. Either way, my entire answer barely depends on whether the asker actually cheated or not.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 22 at 15:15
  • Should it be “can’t” in the last bullet point about retroactive sanctions? Commented Jun 22 at 15:55
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    @DanielR.Collins: How is plagiarizing even possible on anything other than an out-of-class coursework? – First of all some overdue clarification of terms: You have exams (“Prüfungen”), which include written exams, oral exams, theses, presentations, project work, essays, etc. Those come with a grade and decide about whether you fail or pass a course. Then you have everything that is required to be admitted to an exam, which is often counted in points. This is what I referred to as coursework so far. The distinction is almost always strong and rather clear.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 22 at 19:40
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    @DanielR.Collins: Had the asker’s assignment been an exam (in the above sense), they would have failed the course on account of receiving zero points, but then they would have talked about a grade instead. If the assignment had been part of a multi-component exam, they would also likely have failed the course and at least received a lower grade, in which case they would not have stated that contesting the plagiarism was “just extra work”. Even if all of this is incorrect and the assignment was part of an exam, what I wrote about being officially heard and informed applies.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 22 at 20:10
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Frame challenge: The university's decision was correct, so there's no merit to contesting it.

At every university I've worked at, there are policies connected to plagiarism that can apply to the person who supplied the material that was plagiarized from. In a stereotypical case, if person A gives their completed assignment to person B and allows person B to copy it and submit it as their own, then person A is guilty of academic misconduct (not literal plagiarism themselves, but assisting another student in their plagiarism). Moreover, those policies are public information that students are made aware of and responsible for knowing.

I'm very willing to believe the OP that they did not intend for their friend to plagiarize. At the universities I've worked at, this is irrelevant to the judgment. The OP provided their friend with the means to plagiarize, so when the friend did so, the OP became an accomplice to that academic misconduct.

Does that make the OP a horrible person?—of course not. One could argue that the OP wasn't even morally wrong, just irresponsible or naive. But from a matter of university policy, I'm confident that the OP's actions did indeed violate their university's academic misconduct policies.

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    This assumes a different academic system in which coursework is more valuable and there are very detailed policies against cheating. I have never witnessed or heard of such a system in Germany. In particular, I can dispel the confidence expressed in your last sentence as there is at least one German university (mine) at which there is no such policy (on coursework). Also, the asker states in the question: “In the assignment we could help each other out; that was not forbidden”. Finally, see this comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 23 at 8:40
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    @Wrzlprmft Regardless of the academic system I'd take the message of this answer as either the case has not been filed anyway or if it was, the unversity was right. In each situation there's no point in contesting the case - either there is no case, or the case is valid. What you say seems to imply that there is no case, which may well be, but in my view it is not in contradiction with this answer. Commented Jun 23 at 10:41
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    @ChristianHennig: either the case has not been filed anyway or if it was, the unversity was right – I disagree with that. If the case has been filed (which is very unlikely either way), the university was not right about this, not only on account of not following proper procedure, but because the asker did not break any rules – contrary to the main point of this answer. For example, if I wanted to prevent my students from sharing their solutions (to coursework), I would have to proclaim an explicit rule for my course and could not rely on any general university policy.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 23 at 13:43
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    This essay in morale has nothing to do with the question asked.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Jun 24 at 7:51
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    @GregMartin While it’s true that there are permissible and impermissible forms of help, letting a fellow student see some code you wrote in order to give them an idea of how you structured your solution would generally fall into the former category, at least in Northern Europe (and I’m guessing Germany too, based on Wrzlprmft’s comments). From experience, it is ubiquitous, a complete non-issue and even encouraged to do this; students do it on pretty much every assignment they have, and it’s understood that the code is made available for reference, not for plagiarism. Commented Jun 24 at 14:01
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I think it's quite likely this counts as one of the OP's two strikes. As an example, I'll share the standard process flow where I am (U.S., community college that's part of a large R1 urban university and shares a common academic integrity system).

When we catch students violating rules, the instructor is required to investigate and contact the student. We're highly incentivized to get the student to admit to the infraction. If so, the process is simple; we can assess an academic penalty at our discretion (like zero on the assignment), file a form with the academic integrity officer (checked "resolved informally" and "advocate no further action"), and the process ends.

If there was a rule about two infractions, then the first report on file would certainly count as number one of two. (Where I am it's not immediate expulsion, but probably escalating penalties, and contact by the integrity officer becomes more likely.)

Now, there's no reason to think that the OP's institution shares any particular part of our academic integrity protocols. It's a bit unclear how OP was informed of the plagiarism violation, or exactly what they mean by "didn’t contest the plagiarism". But I'm certainly working in a context where if I ask a student "It seems like you plagiarized", and they say "Ok", then I can assess a zero and have a formal report on their permanent university file without any further contact.

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    Germany doesn’t work like this at all, as there is a strong difference between coursework and exams. Coursework is mostly seen as a way for students to learn and usually is only required to be admitted to the exam (but does not influence the grade). While blatant cheating in coursework will be penalised within the course, the common attitude is that it’s impossible to prevent it and a cheating student mostly harms themself. I have never heard of a system for tracking cheating with coursework. Cheating in exams (or theses and similar) on the other hand in taken very seriously.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 22 at 15:51
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    My answer (like yours) accounts for differences in rules and doesn’t claim certainty (“If your university’s rule are any similar“). However, while I deduce what is likely from my familiarity with academic systems in the same country, you deduce it from a considerably different one. I can therefore claim with some confidence that your initial “quite likely” is not accurate: The vast majority of German systems don’t work this way.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 22 at 16:47
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    I've taught at three universities in Germany (though math rather than computer science) and agree with @Wrzlprmft. If a TA notices that a student copied their homework from someone else, the common reaction is "give them 0 points". I'm certainly not going to file a report or something in such a case, and I know no one who does. I would also consider this counterproductive because I actually tell my students that they should collaborate on their homework as long as they don't blatantly copy from each other. So the line between what is allowed and what is not automatically becomes blurry. Commented Jun 22 at 18:21
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    However, since we don't know the details of OP's situation and since OP probably wants to be sure, an easy solution would probably be to ask the "exam office" ("Prüfungsamt" or "Prüfungssekretariat" or whatever it is called at their university) where such a "first strike" would be recorded and how they can look up their record. Commented Jun 22 at 18:30
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    @JochenGlueck: Does your institution have a rule like the OP's that, "if you get caught plagiarising twice, you get expelled", and in what kind of circumstance would you foresee that being enforced? I don't see how that's even an issue in a (proctored) exam. Commented Jun 22 at 19:46
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Since you have of course learned your lesson so won't be tempted to violate plagiarism/cheating rules again, it does not matter whether this will count toward the two incident limit.

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    Well, let’s assume the asker is in a system where their actions did violate cheating rules and count towards a two-strike limit. Then it is also possible that they get another strike in a similar manner without any fault of their own, e.g., by somebody maliciously obtaining their material and then plagiarising it. The leniency of two-strike limits doesn’t only allow for students to learn from their mistakes but also reduces the impact of wrong assertions of guilt. Moreover, there are consequences beyond official sanctions, see the last paragraph of my answer.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 23 at 8:59
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    @Wrzlprmft That is exactly what I am worried about. University is very hard and I often discuss solutions with friends because it helps me to learn. And in some cases the solutions to questions are very straightforward, so you can very easily come up with the same code (eg. in a recent assignment we had to make JUnit tests and for one of them it was only a few lines of code and me and my friend came up with the same code without even discussing with each other). Anyways, it seems likely that this case was not reported from Wrzlprmft's experience. I'll try and inquire further and report here.
    – Yuri
    Commented Jun 23 at 18:18

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