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Is it unethical to refer to solutions to assignment questions that have been asked at other universities before? The questions are the same word for word.

EDIT:

A lot many answers are very helpful. Most of them revolve around introspection and the classical definition of plagiarism. I agree with that. I know I am digressing from the original topic and may seem to justify copying but at the end of the day I have to pass the course. I spend hours trying to learn all the background concepts and then try to apply them to the assignment questions. Thats what I have done till now. Not all the times I get them correct. Many of my classmates get the solutions online, rephrase the wordings and then submit it. Its a no brainer, they end up getting more marks than me. Sometimes(many a times) it feels really bad. Am I just being stupid in that case? should i follow their approach when I am not able to get some questions or to verify just to be sure?

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    If you do that you're probably cheating yourself. Homework isn't set because people enjoy marking. – Jessica B Nov 14 '14 at 7:26
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    The question you should ask yourself is: are you enrolled to learn or to get a diploma? The answer follows. – Raphael Nov 14 '14 at 9:20
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    The department may likely have a license for the material — What the... Since when do departments need licenses for questions? – JeffE Nov 14 '14 at 11:54
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    But the teacher isnt writing those questions off the top of her head. doesnt that amount to plagiarism too?NO. The point of homework is for students to demonstrate their mastery of the material. Any question that reads "Solve X" is really asking "Demonstrate that you can solve X." When you submit solutions, you are claiming to demonstrate your understanding. On the other hand, the point of teaching is not for the instructor to demonstrate their mastery of the material. There is absolutely no implicit claim or expectation that instructors pose original questions. – JeffE Nov 14 '14 at 12:01
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    "Many of my classmates get the solutions online, rephrase the wordings and then submit it. Its a no brainer, they end up getting more marks than me" - No one in the real world cares about marks (as long as you didn't outright flunk). The world does care very very much about what you know and if you can learn things you don't know. Your cheating classmates will struggle later in life despite their marks. – Jay Nov 14 '14 at 19:44
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I do not view it as generally unethical to refer to these solutions. This situation is more complex than I think some other answers have admitted. Here is a list of claims:

  1. In an ideal world, the point of homework is for the student to learn the material.

  2. In a perfectly ideal world, we would not need to grade homework, because students would do it on their own to master the material. They might refer to other people's solutions to see if theirs are correct, and that would be fine.

  3. Experience shows this world is not perfect. Students will often skip ungraded homework, and their learning and exam grades will suffer.

  4. So instructors assign homework for a grade. But this isn't because the grade is really important: it's because we want the students to do the homework and learn the material!

  5. Some students then get the idea that the grade is the real goal of the homework, and simply copy their assignment from others. Professors often find this unacceptable.

One important point that others have answered is that, if you are going to turn in the homework, what you turn in should reflect your own understanding of the assignment. But, equally importantly, it is important to let yourself struggle with problems for a while before looking up the answer. That is the only way to really learn how to solve problems.

Most professors accept that the internet exists - we know you can look up other people's answers. It used to be that fraternities had giant files of old homework and exam answers for this purpose (maybe they still do). And students study in groups all the time - research shows study groups can dramatically increase learning. So getting help is not a bad thing.

But you don't want to get help too quickly. Make a genuine effort to answer the problems yourself first. If you find that you are looking up the answers to all the problems (even the easiest ones), then something is off - try going for more tutoring, or studying more before doing the homework.

If you find that you occasionally need to look up one of the most difficult problems, that's perfectly normal (but it still wouldn't excuse directly copying the solution into your homework, of course).

Of course, the usual caveats apply: some professors may specifically tell you not to collaborate with anyone or use any other resources. But most professors know that students usually collaborate with each other on homework (e.g. study groups) and know that students can look up answers using other resources. We have no problem with that, as long as each student's submission reflects their own understanding in the end.

  • thanks for the reply. This seems to be the most realistic option to me. – Works On Mine Nov 14 '14 at 15:09
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    For example, in my classes I allow students to consult each other and online materials, but I insist that the final write-up must be their own and they must understand what they turn in. – Jim Conant Nov 14 '14 at 18:59
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Yes, it is unethical. Copying the answer from a solutions manual is considered plagiarism, even if it's from another university's website. The question bank and solutions are likely part of a question bank belonging to either an educational group or the textbook.

Additionally, there is also no guarantee the answer key is right. For example, one answerer to another plagiarism related question said this.

Then I went to Yahoo Answers, made a bunch of fake accounts, and posted tantalizingly wrong answers to all of my own HW questions. I have told all subsequent students not to google the HW answers because there are wrong solutions out there.

I'm not too sure about whether or not checking your answers once you've done the work yourself is unethical, however. That's a gray area for me that someone with more experience in academic misconduct might be able to help cover.

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    @BobBrown just for comparing the results? – Davidmh Nov 14 '14 at 14:29
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    @Davidmh: For copying from the solutions manual, Internet page, or whatever. (It is often easy to prove because many solutions manuals have a few errors obvious to professors but subtle to students.) – Bob Brown Nov 14 '14 at 14:32
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    Is it ethical to post fake answers? What if someone (not a student in the course) comes across this fake solution and is misled into believing it? – Jim Conant Nov 14 '14 at 19:02
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    @JimConant It's not ethical to post fake answers. See my comment in the linked answer. That doesn't mean that people don't do it, as the answer indicates. I definitely don't advocate going out and posting fake answers, but if someone has, there is a possibility that someone is your professor. – Compass Nov 14 '14 at 19:17
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    Well that would explain why Yahoo Answers is full of people asking questions with obviously wrong answers (which the asker then accepts and thanks the answerer for!) – Michael Nov 16 '14 at 2:47
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If you get a solution from another school (or a previous year, as questions are often reused on problem sets), it's no different than getting a solution from another student in the same section who happened to finish the problem first. In other words, it is unequivocally cheating, unless there is an explicit policy to the contrary.

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    I am not sure that it is unequivocally cheating - I can think of several situations where it would not be cheating at all to refer to solutions to homework problems. The easiest example is when the homework is ungraded. – Oswald Veblen Nov 14 '14 at 12:34
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Ask yourself: would you be comfortable telling to your Professor that you got the answers from a website? Do you think she or he would think you did a good job with your homework if you copied it from a website?

The problem is much less about whether there are rules (and there are, no doubt) than about what is the intended purpose of homework, that is to help students learn. If you don't learn from your homework, you're not doing it right.

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If you copied it from another classmate, is it cheating?

Of course it is.

Some other student wrote the code and you're copying it, so you are also cheating.

If you are unable to solve it yourself, you need to seek help from the professor.

A personal case in point:

My CompSci teacher gave me an F once, for allowing someone else to copy MY code.

He simply wrote on my printout: "Did copying from X help you learn anything?"

I explained to my teacher the circumstances. She had missed classes due to a death in the family. I tried to explain the assignment to her, but it didn't sink in. So, I shared a hard copy of my code, as I had expected her to read my code, and try to understand how it worked. Instead she typed it back in verbatim. So, she learned nothing beyond how to also get an F on a coding lab assignment.

My F did not get changed, and I agreed with him on his decision.

It certainly taught me a worthwhile lesson. Hopefully it will help you too, without an F.

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Ideally, your professor should have a policy about this. For example, here is mine. (It get's adapted a bit for each course, based on things like whether or not there is a textbook, or whether the course has TA's.)

Homework Policy: You are welcome to consult each other provided (1) you list all people and sources who aided you, or whom you aided and (2) you write-up the solutions independently, in your own language. If you seek help from mathematicians/math students outside the course, you should be seeking general advice, not specific solutions, and must disclose this help. I am, of course, glad to provide help!

I don't intend for you to need to consult sources (books, papers, websites) outside your notes and textbook. If you do consult such, you should be looking for better/other understanding of the definitions and concepts, not solutions to the problems.

You MAY NOT post homework problems to internet fora seeking solutions. Although I participate in some such fora, I feel that they have a major tendency to be too explicit in their help; you can read further thoughts of mine here. You may post questions asking for clarifications and alternate perspectives on concepts and results we have covered.

If your professor does not have a policy, your university probably has a default one.

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The value of university is the learning. So the point of homework is not to solve the task but to learn how to solve the task. If you take a shortcut not only is it unethical but you cheated yourself out of your actual goal!

What your classmates do is irrelevant, they won't be there with you in your career when you need to call upon these skills.

So the question becomes more obvious. Did this additional material help my understanding where there was some lacking or did it make the question substantially easier where I will lose the benefit of working out how to solve the problem myself? You know the honest answer to that.

0

Either the policy is, "Do your homework however you like, and the teacher will grade it to let you know if you got the right answer," or the policy is "Homework is a graded assessment that is used as part of your overall course grade. Your homework is subject to the honor code / academic integrity rules / ... just as if it were an exam."

If the former, it's up to you to decide what helps you learn. If it's the later, you're cheating.

protected by ff524 Nov 16 '14 at 5:16

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