When working on an assignment (e.g. essay, report), is it allowable or ethical to reference (as in both "read" and "cite") previous students' submissions for that assignment? For example, the student may have a friend or relative that sat the subject previously and is happy to share their assignments.

From my understanding, unless the teaching institution has an explicit policy, this should be allowable assuming the referencing is done correctly. So saying, it may not be the best educational experience, as the student may not undertake the critical thinking and research the assignment expects.

To be clear, I am not talking about referencing assignments of students currently studying that subject. That is clearly collusion.

I also assume the student attained previous submissions with consent from all the authors. However, I do not assume that all students currently working on the assignment have access to all past submissions.

  • 1
    Are you asking from the student's perspective ("Am I allowed to do this?") or the instructor's ("Should I allow my students to do this?")
    – ff524
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 6:01
  • @ff524 The instructor's perspective is probably more important (since they can disallow it) but either perspective is fine.
    – akton
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 6:03
  • 4
    Theoretically, wouldn't they be the same? Not really. If a student asks about doing this, I would say "Ask your instructor, and do it only with his explicit approval." If an instructor asks, I would say "Whether to permit this or not depends on the educational goal of the assignment. If you don't want students to use past assignments, you should explicitly tell them so."
    – ff524
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 6:06
  • By "reference" do you mean "cite", "read", or "copy"? Reference really means cite, but I think you mean something else, since assignments don't usually involve citations. Commented May 25, 2014 at 7:18
  • 2
    I allow students in my classes to use any resource at their disposal, provided they write in their own words and give proper credit. As my syllabus says, "If you use an idea from your mom, cite your mom." So obviously I think the practice is perfectly ethical. But within any particular course, only the individual instructor can tell you if it's allowable.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 0:50

2 Answers 2


I think it is both ethical and within the rules (or at least it is within the rules at my university) as long as the reference is clearly cited.

Furthermore, it should also be fine with current students as long as the work is cited too.

For example for undergraduate experimental lab course I took during my 3rd year, I worked on an experiment with 2 other students working on the same experiment independently. We each had to write a project report on the results we obtained during the experiment.

Only one of us managed to get a particular dataset for a part of the experiment that was sensitive to conditions and difficult to get results on. In that situation we were able to used that student's data so we could discuss their result in our report (as long as we cited the person who actually obtained the dataset, of course).

In a seperate experiment I let someone use a java code I wrote for the analysis. This was also fine, because the person cited me when they used my code in their report.

I think if the handin were supposed to be completely independently written (e.g. a math problem sheet) it would be collusion to reference older (or current) work but that is generally acceptable to cite anything (past student work or otherwise) in work which you would normally expect to see citation (e.g. essay or report).

If you have assessment regulations, there is probably a clear indication of what your university expect in there. That would not be able to tell you the answer to ethics part of this question but otherwise might be able to tell you the rule at your College or University.

  • Some people I discussed this with seemed to think it copying from previous assignments was collusion. If cited corrected, I could not think of a problem but wanted to open this up to people more versed in these matters.
    – akton
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 11:06
  • @akton I updated my answe in response to your comment.
    – Magpie
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 11:51

I agree with Magpie's answer as far as it goes; I don't think it's unethical to reference work done by past students in your own work.

However, my worry would be that, except perhaps in certain specific environments, "work done by past students" is hardly authoritative. Courses for my degree, at least, only accept certain types of sources, mostly published books, certifiably authoritative websites, and of course journal articles.

In other words, I don't see a problem with reading past work, and of course mentioning that you have read it, but I personally wouldn't be comfortable with citing that work as a source.

Of course, this becomes less applicable the further up the education system you go; if you're writing a dissertation, you'll almost certainly be referencing past dissertations.

That said, the important question here, on a practical level, is whether or not your instructor thinks that reading or citing past students' work is ethical, not whether it actually is.

I'd advise caution; an email to whoever assigned the work, or a trip to their office, is more than worth the effort, considering the possible consequences if they eventually do decide that this is collusion.


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