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I sit on my department's academic misconduct committee. Today we had one of those cases where it wasn't clear what the right answer was. The assignment was for the students to design an experiment based on a previous experiment of their choosing and to write it up like a research proposal. The student took large blocks of text from the article describing the original experiment and tweaked each sentence to fit with the new experiment. After every sentence the student fastidiously added a reference to the original article. Has the student committed an academic offence?


The committee decided that it was not an academic offence and that the work should not be penalized for plagiarism, but that it would likely receive a very low grade due to a complete lack of originality and a failure to show any understanding of the key concepts.

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    I feel like this is more a case of extreme laziness than actively trying to deceive. If he wanted to plagiarize, he certainly didn't have to write and cite anything. A poor grade is punishment enough, IMO. – Compass Feb 3 '15 at 17:25
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    I don't think this is plagiarism as the student claimed none of the paraphrased content as their own. Instead, it should simply get a low grade for lacking originality. – bwDraco Feb 3 '15 at 23:19
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    Why on earth should an experiment description have to be re-written, assuming the original was clear and the experiment isn't changed? This is not laziness, it is common sense avoidance of redundant work, and has the benefit of making it obvious that you are checking or extending the previous work. If it's properly cited and still considered plagiarism, then there's something badly wrong with the academic definition. (Though I do think citing every sentence verges on sarcasm :-)) – jamesqf Feb 4 '15 at 7:32
  • @jamesqf would you elaborate that in an answer? Seems quite interesting… – o0'. Feb 4 '15 at 11:36
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It is often remarkable to me just how much work a person will put in just to avoid doing a different piece of work. In this case, it sounds to me like the committee made exactly the right call: it sounds like rubbish work deserving a terrible grade, but certainly not plagiarism.

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    The inverse: Once I submitted a paper I wrote for class A to class B's grader by accident (even wrote class A in the header and didn't notice till I got it back). Got a B+ on the assignment for class B. Now that was a dilemma. – Compass Feb 3 '15 at 21:42
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This happened to me with one of my students, who wrote a research paper that was just basically, the exact same as an article I had published (and had been included in the list of recommended readings for that research topic).

While they had cited everything it was not considered plagiarism, it was still an issue. I spoke with the program convener who reviewed the essay, agreed that it was just a copy of the article I had published, and we marked the paper down accordingly. They were a good student, and I don't think it was a case of malicious intent or laziness. Rather, I think the student just used too much material from the one article as opposed to formulating their own original insight.

The committee is correct in that yes, it is not a case of plagiarism because the student has cited everything. But they are also correct in marking down the student for lack of originality/direct copying of someone else's work. It is not really an academic offense under most university faculty policies and procedures because they cited the work, but it is perhaps a rising practice that might need addressing, especially if students are not entirely aware that what they are doing is considered bad form.

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While I agree that this is not the right thing to do, this is clearly not a case of misconduct. I also feel that the reason behind copying large parts could be attributed to lack of confidence rather than laziness. Sometimes, young researchers are unsure of what they write and resort to copying or closely paraphrasing parts from trusted sources as they are afraid of making mistakes. Possibly, the student in this case does not have a clear understanding of the concept or has a difficulty with expression. This is especially true of non-native speakers of English for whom expressing themselves in English is a problem. I agree with the committee's decision that this is not a case of plagiarism as the student has cited everything. Of course the student deserves low grades, but could possibly be encouraged to be more confident and not be afraid of making mistakes.

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