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Here is a situation that I have been in several times, but have only recently begun to give careful thought to. Suppose you are asked to teach a course that you have not taught before. A fairly common practice (at least where I teach) is to approach the colleague(s) who taught the course most recently and ask if you can adapt their syllabus (on the grounds that reinventing the wheel is in nobody's interest). In every case in my experience, the colleagues have freely given me not only their syllabi, but also their assignments, exam questions, and any other instructional materials that they used, and have given me permission to make use of them however I wish.

Of course being something of a control freak, I never use those materials without re-engineering them somewhat; like many (most?) academics, I feel the need to take ownership of the course by putting my own stamp on it. But I do usually take large chunks of those older course materials and incorporate them into my own. I suspect this is not uncommon (although maybe I am just wrong on this point).

It has only recently occurred to me that if one of my students did something comparable to what I do -- copy large blocks of text from somebody else's work and insert it into their own without attribution -- it would be a clear case of academic misconduct. And I would never dream of doing something like this in a work that was intended for publication. But somehow until now, doing this in a purely instructional context has always seemed innocuous.

So my questions:

  1. How common is this practice?
  2. Is it generally viewed as a form of plagiarism (and have I just been oblivious to something that should have been obvious to me all along)?
  3. If one does make use (with permission) of a colleague's course materials, is there an appropriate way to acknowledge that? For example, by putting an "Acknowledgement" note at the bottom of the first page of the syllabus? At the very least, doing something like that would model good behavior for one's students.
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    What is a syllabus for you? For me it's usually just a vague list topics I plan to cover in each week. Also, how much originality is the course design? I could imagine this being more appropriate for interdisicplinary courses or courses covering state of the art research than a run-of-the-mill calculus course, say. – Kimball Feb 13 '15 at 9:59
  • It depends a lot on the course. The one I am thinking about right now is a Masters-level math education course; the syllabus is 10 pages long, and includes a 600-word section on "Course Purpose and Goals", plus detailed descriptions of the assignments to be completed in each of the four major units of the semester. Those are the sections where I have made the most liberal use of my colleagues' text. – mweiss Feb 13 '15 at 16:17
  • On the other hand when I teach a Math content course, the Syllabus is usually only about 2 pages long, and more closely matches your description. I suspect that there may be a disciplinary distinction here; Education courses (in my experience) tend to have long syllabi that resemble white papers. – mweiss Feb 13 '15 at 16:18
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    I tend to take the point of view that a syllabus is a sort of "corporate work" whose "author" is the department as a whole, and as such it's not necessary to credit the contributions of specific people. Should you want to take individual credit for it (e.g. when applying for promotion or a new job) then the onus is on you to show which parts are your original work. I don't know whether everyone feels this way, though. – Nate Eldredge Feb 15 '15 at 2:45
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+50

This sort of practice is quite common, and documents of this type are often treated as the "community property" of a department. This is a lot like authorship on a community wiki, where there is no expectation that the document is the original work of any author and there is the expectation that further authors may freely modify and contribute more text. It is therefore not plagiarism to use your colleagues notes as a base, any more than it is plagiarism to contribute to a Wikipedia article.

Often, these documents have no copyright or authorship markings, and are simply handled by custom and tradition. If you want to make the collective agreement more explicit and remove any doubt for those that come after you, then you should probably select a creative commons license (like CC0 or CC-BY) and put a small marking to that effect in the header or footer of the document. If you choose to formalize it in this way, however, you should explicitly get your colleague's consent as well, because you are moving the document beyond the informal method of relationship-based exchange in which it was given to you.

  • This answer (and that of @user1258240) essentially confirms that my long-standing attitude to this was correct and I shouldn't be worried about it. But I still wonder: Do you think students view these documents as having "departmental authorship"? Or do they think the person whose name is on the syllabus is its author? If the latter, I worry that we may be unintentionally modeling very bad academic behavior. – mweiss Feb 15 '15 at 17:12
  • @mweiss That's a very good question... and might be a good new question to ask to specifically get the student perspective. I know that as a student I never even thought of the question, but that doesn't mean others don't... – jakebeal Feb 15 '15 at 19:38
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It is an extremely common and very accepted practice to copy other people's courses in their entirety or partially, with or even without asking for permission. At least in my field (computer science) people often put course material online with the intention of letting others use them freely. Unless explicitly written otherwise on a course website, I usually assume that it is ok to use any freely available material from there. Of course if someone actually gives you the material then there's no problem at all.

There is a big difference between journal papers, the sole purpose of which is to present new knowledge, and courses, where the goal is to teach known material to students. In the first case there is always a claim of originality, and if you are copying other work you are therefore commiting plagiarism. In the latter case, as long as there is no implicit claim of originality there is no problem.

People still like to be credited for their work, though. So for the sake of honesty and also giving credit, I usually tell my students where I got any significant part of the course material. If my course has a Web page, I state my sources there as well, and provide links to relevant notes or course Web pages when it's possible.

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