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I have a professor at my university who uses content from an un-cited textbook that he has never referenced anywhere, including his green sheet (syllabus), as an additional resource. At least some slides he has used include parts of content that have been re-worded and others that are 100% the same. I noticed this by Googling for textbooks on the material we're studying in class and found that examples given in one that I found were exactly the same as what he has provided.

Would this technically be plagiarism? Should he be given the benefit of the doubt in this situation?

  • Are you talking about his teaching materials or papers he published? – scaaahu Nov 24 '14 at 7:24
  • @scaaahu these would be teaching materials. Can't comment on anything he's published. – Null Nov 24 '14 at 7:50
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    Somewhat related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/1744/64 – Joel Reyes Noche Nov 24 '14 at 8:27
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    When I was in grad school, Professor X took many of his homework questions and exam questions from a similar textbook, which turned out to be the one I had for the undergraduate version of the same class. U-grad grade, B-minus. Grad grade, A. Needless to say, he didn't credit the second book, but I recognized the problems. – Andrew Lazarus Nov 24 '14 at 16:14
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    Regardless of whether it amounts to plagiarism, this paints a picture to me of someone who is not doing a conscientious job teaching the course. – Ben Crowell Nov 24 '14 at 16:34
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Plagiarism involves dishonesty: taking someone else's work and leading others to believe it is your own.

In the case of unpublished teaching materials, I don't think it's assumed that all the examples, etc., a professor uses are original unless an outside source is cited. So I wouldn't strictly consider this plagiarism (though citing outside sources is definitely preferable to not citing them).

It's possible that in your academic culture it is assumed that all of a professor's materials are original, in which case, the above would not apply.

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    Teaching has some resistance to being called plagiarism. For instance, you cannot criticize a professor for not mentioning Newton while he talks about gravity. – user41235 Nov 24 '14 at 12:14
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    @RenaeLider I'd certainly criticize a professor for not mentioning Newton while talking about gravity! But my criticism wouldn't be that they were plagiarizing. :-) – David Richerby Nov 24 '14 at 12:19
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    @Null See this answer. It has nothing to do with integrity; it's about what the default assumption is with respect to teaching materials. I don't know of any place where professors are assumed by default to have created all their materials unless otherwise stated, but I can't rule out the possibility that there may be such a place. – ff524 Nov 24 '14 at 17:35
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    It should be added that in many countries, (re)using textbook (or any) material for teaching purposes is perfectly legal (with some caveats). – Raphael Nov 24 '14 at 19:15
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    I don't see why we need an insight into the person's state of mind when we diagnose plagiarism (it's different regarding whether we want to excuse it etc): instead of requiring a sense of whether this was done dishonestly or not I would say that we simply ask whether this was a case of using the work of someone else as if it's the professor's own, without appropriate citation? On the face of it it looks like the answer to the question is 'yes'. – ctokelly Apr 25 '15 at 18:40
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Note that I'm not in the US, but in my experience generally it's never implied that all the teaching material is original. There often is a hereditary element too, or the department has common material they share.

Also consider that the only sensitive material in most courses could be copyrighted images. There's no copyright on Newton's law. Plagiarism would be saying that you discovered Newton's law, not copying another teachers' material.

I've noticed that some people put a password on all their PDFs and say it's because of the material they put in it which they don't want to show up in google images. Often, I've noticed that it's a mix of stuff they wrote with images from those PPTs you can get from the textbook minisites, given free of charge by the publishers so that teachers can use the same pictures that are also in the books. I haven't read the terms and conditions the publishers put on those slide shows but maybe they don't want the images to be republished without a full citation of the source, hence the practice to keep access restricted to the participants.

5

The simple answer is no.

Usually, courses are being taught with the same material every semester which is "inherited" from one lecturer to the next one and usually begins with some textbook so that's not unusual - no one assumes that it is an original material.

More than that, if a lecturer is using exercises from some textbook in class he might also use them for homework sheets and then he would prefer not to disclose their origin in case there are also answers in the textbook.

4

Teaching is tricky:

  • My university has a one-year post-doc that has a one-course teaching obligation. One of the applicants submitted the required syllabus for the course -- but except for the title, it was a 100% copy/paste of another person's syllabus (including the course description and assignments) without attribution. This might have been forgivable if the source was the applicant's mentor, but it wasn't. Needless to say, we didn't give the person the post-doc although this wasn't the primary reason.
  • That all being said -- when planning classes, I think it's common to look for syllabuses to draw on. That's why many professional societies have syllabus databases. You should attempt to make the course your own, but if someone has a great cluster of readings for teaching Dunning-Kruger, I think it's well within fair use to use those sections.
  • When teaching 100 level classes, I think it's fairly common for professors to look at intro textbooks other than the course textbook. Often these texts have course plans, etc. I don't think it's uncommon for faculty to integrate these into their lectures, but I do think if you're copy/pasting that you should at least attribute.
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    You have applicants for temporary faculty positions submit syllabi for the course they would teach if they were hired? Wow. – Pete L. Clark Nov 24 '14 at 20:37
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    I'm impressed. (Not to make a big deal about it, but...I do know your university. Even so I learned something from this answer.) – Pete L. Clark Nov 24 '14 at 23:01
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    @PeteL.Clark: Not that this is necessarily the case in RoboKaren's situation, but my understanding is that this is much more common in the humanities than in e.g. math. (In the humanities the creation of the syllabus is a much larger project, and much more personal, so copying someone else's would certainly ensure you wouldn't get the job.) – Tom Church Nov 25 '14 at 15:23
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    For me, the issue is more intellectual laziness than plagiarism. Each of the readings in my (humanistic) social sciences course is designed to work with the other readings and lectures in a particular synergistic way. I post my syllabi online but would find it strange if someone copied them wholesale -- I would wonder if they would be able to teach the class adequately given that they don't know the motivations behind the readings, or what the lecture/discussion plan is for that day. – RoboKaren Nov 25 '14 at 18:45
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    I routinely give faculty taking over "my" courses my syllabus material, assignment problems, lecture slides, exam material, etc. and tell them no citation is necessary. (I've tried to be very careful to credit the work of others, so a problem from a textbook would include a citation.) If it matters, I teach information technology, computer science, and uh ethics. – Bob Brown Apr 25 '15 at 19:07
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As far as I understand the word, what you describe is factually plagiarism, which includes both (1) passing others words and ideas as one's own, and (2) using another's production without giving credit. In most classes, the ideas are not assumed in any way to be the lecturer's ones, so (1) does not apply; but if text from an non-cited book is copied verbatim, then (2) applies.

Now, most academics I know do use from time to time other's material without proper referencing, and this seems in practice to be accepted (as shown by several other answers). I strongly oppose this habit, especially when the same lecturer blame student for copy-pasting Wikipedia in their homework: even if the situation is somewhat different, the message gets a bit confusing.

That does not mean that lecturers can't use other's production; they just have either to get inspiration from them instead of copy-pasting, or to give credit. This applies notably, but not exclusively, to the use of images.

  • Right as far as e.g. lecture notes go (those should be held to similar standards than formal publications). For scribbling on the blackboard, homework, or exam questions, this would be ludicrous. – vonbrand Dec 31 '15 at 0:25
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    If you use other's exercises, why not cite them? I sometimes do use exam questions that I found (e.g. in national competitions to enter French Engineering schools), but then I give a citation in footnote. What does it cost? – Benoît Kloeckner Jan 3 '16 at 21:50
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    @Benoit: What does it cost? If you cite the exercises you're using, and the solutions are online, you are giving the students an opportunity to cheat. (For the same reason, if you take somebody else's exercises, you should reword them slightly — not to avoid plagiarism, but so they can't be found by Googling.) – Peter Shor Mar 6 '18 at 13:04

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