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Sometimes when doing course work for university, I'd like to write about it on my website, or publish it in its entirety, because I think that other people might be interested in it.

My goal is not to reach other students, but depending on the work, I think it's likely that they would easily find it when searching for it, and most courses reuse homework questions and paper topics over multiple years.

So my question is if it would be ethical for me to do so, and under which circumstances.

  • Does it depend on the task? Eg I would assume that it's not ok if it's a very specific task that only other students would be interested in, but ok if it's a general problem?
  • Does it depend on length? What about simple homework questions vs page-long papers vs presentation slides vs thesis paper vs code?
  • Should I do something to conceal it? Eg change the paper title, remove any mention of the course and university name, not publish the homework question itself?

I'm mainly asking about the ethics of it, but if you know if it is generally legal or forbidden by universities, I would be interested in that as well.

In case it affects your answer: I'm studying computer science in Germany.

  • 3
    I can understand why you might want to publish papers/notes/nontrivial code you write (and many people do), but why would you consider this for simple homework questions? – Kimball Jun 8 '15 at 1:56
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    Do "homework" works exist that cannot be directly derived from numerous public code repositories? Or from multiple vendor FAQs/technical manuals? Wikipedia? – user2338816 Jun 8 '15 at 6:48
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    If you decide to publish it, I would at least wait until the course is over. – Mangara Jun 8 '15 at 6:51
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    Certainly I agree that many homework problems are interesting (and generally the good exercises are). I personally wouldn't mind my students posting their own exposition of more interesting problems, as long as it's after the assignment's due (and ideally, after they get it back graded, to make sure their work is correct)--in fact I would probably be happy to know they also found these questions quite interesting. BTW, at least for homework problems, I can see a blog format being more suitable than a bunch of pdfs with exercises and solutions. – Kimball Jun 8 '15 at 7:47
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    A practical approach: ask the instructors in the courses where you want to do this. If I had a student routinely posting about interesting problems from the class, I'd want to let the other students know about this resource. (I'd want the student to wait until the assignment was due before posting though.) – Jim Conant Jun 9 '15 at 1:30

11 Answers 11

17

In brief, I claim that this should not be a question a student has to comtemplate... So, operationally, the answer is "no, it is not unethical, but it may be against the (unreasonable, indefensible) rules to an extent that will create fatal trouble for you..." So, no, it's not unethical, but probably often "seriously illegal", dangerously to you, though it should not be.

The points the other answers have made are "not unreasonable", but, I claim, essentially untenable. That is, if there are indeed very few tasks whose performance could be "tested", example executions will certainly exist "in the wild", whether or not a student in a specific class puts their own solution on-line. Although I'm thinking primarily about a mathematics environment, I'm well-enough acquainted with CS issues to not feel too out-of-it in thinking about such issues, as well. Indeed, the number of "stock" issues in both cases seems similar ... and small. That is, there is a greater underlying issue, that the number of reasonable, answerable questions (apart from trivial variations) is very small, and a conscientious person can merely collect "solutions", rather than think them through themself.

To my mind that is the "real issue", if it is an issue at all. That is, we might take the poverty-of-variation as a signal that pretending to keep some trivial idea secret so as to "test" on it is perverse!?!

There are two fundamentally conflicting issues: promoting understanding and scholarship, versus arranging convenient "testing" for various purposes. "Convenient testing" prefers as many secrets as possible, obviously. Promoting understanding would exactly want to explain to interested parties how to resolve issues raised... among other places ... in the "tests".

Some events that finally "got through to me" about this, some years ago, involved my colleagues firm admonishments that "approved solutions" for (graduate) Qualifying Exams should never be published, because otherwise the students would learn how to do those problems... uh... whah? :) Ok, even if we "buy" that for a moment, one can observe that then bad "solutions" are the only ones available, so people study from bad material... ?!?!

The meta-comment is that many "educational" institutions have not-at-all figured out how to cope with the fluidity and availability of information, and, instead, try to prohibit all the obvious "new" avenues, simply to avoid change. While it is arguably true that the motivations of some students may not be the most honorable, I am absolutely not in favor of sting operations that declare them guilty of serious malfeasance by "using the internet" or "telling people what they know", and so on. That'd be perverse. Instead, things need to be reconstituted so that "keeping secrets" is not an essential part of appraising competence.

Summary: it's not at all unethical, but it may be so illegal that you must ask your local authorities. (Yet, again, while it's good to ask, it is terrible that there is an issue here...)

  • 8
    Whereby illegal here you mean "against the university/departmental rules which could lead to your expulsion due to academic dishonesty charges of some sort" and not "against the laws of your country such that you could go to jail/get fined," right? – Bill Barth Jun 7 '15 at 23:12
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    @BillBarth, in the US, probably just "against the Uni rules", yes, but it is my impression that more severe repercussions may exist elsewhere, so I don't pretend to know. For that matter, if one's Univ claims copyright on all material generated by students in their coursework (which is apparently often asserted!), copyright laws, DMCA, blah-blah-blah could be brought into play by whoever can better afford lawyers, or just threaten that they could afford the lawyers... (Idiots...) If it weren't clear: I think students should "own" their own work, even if stimulated by insights of teachers... – paul garrett Jun 7 '15 at 23:15
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    @Servy: Agreed. Whether it is the property of the university or the individual professors or some textbook author, the question then becomes whether it falls under "fair use". – Ben Voigt Jun 8 '15 at 19:53
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    @BenVoigt -- Would publishing on a web site for infinite dissemination meets fair use? It barely meets fair use even if I take a paragraph out of a book and put it up on an internal web site, according to our librarians. – Scott Seidman Jun 9 '15 at 15:34
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    @ScottSeidman: Fair use is not the same as de minimis. Presumably the "commentary", "criticism", and "scholarship" permissions would be invoked here. I refer you to law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/107 – Ben Voigt Jun 9 '15 at 15:42
22

Sometimes when doing course work for university, I'd like to write about it on my website, or publish it in its entirety, because I think that other people might be interested in it.

This re-enforces your learning BUT will current students have access to it.

Once, a student from my University did this, and someone else copied from her. There was a big mess about this. Fortunately the student got a passing grade for the class.

and most courses reuse homework questions and paper topics over multiple years.

and

So my question is if it would be ethical for me to do so, and under which circumstances.

Instead of using exact question answer, can you create similar question and give solution. This way you are tutoring other people and making them think (and making yourself think), rather than giving the answers to students who just want to pass the class and forget what they "learned".

  • 2
    This is a very good point for homework questions, and I think redoing problems slightly different will also often help me to deepen my understanding of the material. I think it wouldn't work so well with larger work - like papers, larger programs, etc - though. – tim Jun 8 '15 at 7:20
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    @tim I would have thought that in those cases, not only is plagiarism detection possible (i.e. solutions aren't just either "right" or "wrong") but probably done? – OJFord Jun 8 '15 at 10:45
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    A year ago I took Compiler Design and Construction, which had heavy theory on automata and LR-grammars. I was kind of stuck in the class, so I Googled around and eventually found a student's website where he guided the reader through various problem sets, and it helped me to understand what I was missing before. I don't know if they were homework problems from his university or of his own creation, but I find that putting your knowledge online for the public domain is always a good thing, as someone who needs it is bound to stumble upon it at some point! – Chris Cirefice Jun 8 '15 at 15:06
  • @OllieFord In the college which I attend, they only run plaigarism checks through particularly wordy assignments. Their upload system is very basic and as far as I am aware, most other departments have the students hand in hard copies of work, it is only the IT-based subjects using upload points. – Pharap Jun 9 '15 at 16:03
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In my opinion there is nothing wrong with publishing solutions to (interesting) questions/exercises on one's own page, given that there is no explicit policy against doing so at your university.

I never heard of a policy forbidding publication of answers at my university and the general approach in our group is that students may very well learn something even from reproducing solutions of others. Specifically for physics (my subject) there is a set of problems which come up in certain variations over the years and by looking hard enough you'll find an answer (or at least an outline of a solution) for almost any problem.

My personal position is that the students are old enough to get a grip on reality and understand, that if they just copy solutions they are doing themselves a disservice in the long run. At some point in time the missing methodology will come to bite them in the a**.

TL;DR students should be mature enough to understand that 1:1 copying is more harmful than usefl. We (as TA's) are not their nannies.

9

In the final year of my undergraduate computer science programme, we were all emailed by the department reminding us that publishing homework solutions is forbidden, due to the increasing number of people either deliberately or inadvertently making theirs available through public Github repositories.

There is the argument that lecturers shouldn't be reusing homework, but a strong counter argument is that in some courses there are only a few obvious tasks to set (eg, in a database internals course implementing a merge or sorting algorithm, or in a text retrieval course implementing Pagerank). So in many cases it will be forbidden by university or departmental rules to publish solutions. Furthermore, facilitating someone else's plagiarism, by allowing them to copy your solution, is often an academic offence itself.

Publishing solutions to specific questions clearly facilitates cheating (especially in the case of easily Googleable source code), and as such I think it is unethical.

From a legal perspective, if you give the question you may be infringing on the author's copyright, but I don't know of any countries where helping other people plagiarise your work is illegal.

A thesis is generally expected to be published, and so there is likely no problem here in putting it on the internet.

  • 2
    Of course, once you've graduated, there's not much the university can do to stop you. Honor and conduct codes can't really extend beyond your time at the university. – aeismail Jun 8 '15 at 20:59
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    @aeismail They could try revoke your degree, but I wouldn't have thought they'd go that far unless there was an aggravating factor, and the grounds would be pretty shaky. Or they might take the copyright infringement route. – MJeffryes Jun 9 '15 at 14:58
  • I would have thought for tasks like the example ones would be easy to find via google or on github. As for plaigarism, it does go on. Students in the course I am doing at my college copy and paste Java and Html into their submitted programs and websites. The teachers do not care because the students aren't actually graded on what they can create, they are graded by how much they can write about it afterwards. – Pharap Jun 9 '15 at 16:08
5

I got my undergrad in Computer Science and no matter what the professor asked, it's a sure bet there's a solution already posted out there somewhere. So the way I see it is that it's a bit difficult to NOT expect your solution to be posted out there.

As far as posting answers, I can't see why it would be wrong especially if it is a trick question or a unique question that made you think. I remember in school we had to make a algorithm that figures out simply xor encryption and figuring out a key based on a known word. I felt my answer was unique and I asked the professor if I could post it online. He agreed and had no issue with me doing it.

If you want to discuss something perhaps ask the teacher of that course if you can post/discuss it on a personal blog.

  • "it's a sure bet there's a solution already posted out there somewhere" If this wasn't the case you'd get a lot more students failing IT-based courses. – Pharap Jun 9 '15 at 16:10
3

Check your school's definition of plagiarism. My university defines the following as an act of plagiarism subject to sanctions:

Remettre ou rendre disponible un travail, une partie de celui-ci, tel que décrit à l’alinéa précédent, à un autre étudiant qui l’utilise en tout ou en partie sous sa signature;

Translated it means more or less

Submitting or making available any work, or part of such work, to another student who uses it or part of it as his own work.

If you commit an act of plagiarism at your university, I'd say it's unethical.

  • 5
    Clearly your university has decided to opt-out of the entire peer-reviewed publication system, since other students definitely have access to journals and conference proceedings. Or else they are guilty of selective enforcement. – Ben Voigt Jun 8 '15 at 20:02
  • Of course proper citing is explained above in the rules. I didn't want to copy the whole thing. Also, if a student cites a solution to a homework published on the web, that is probably going to be worth 0. – Fuhrmanator Jun 8 '15 at 20:06
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    But since you can't control whether the other student exercises due diligence in citations, it seems that you should assume the worst, that any work you "make available" will eventually be used improperly without citation? – Ben Voigt Jun 8 '15 at 20:07
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    There are statements like this in the U.S., too, and, as @BenVoigt suggests, there is de-facto selective enforcement, only on one side of some imagined clear "line", on one side of which is genuine scholarly work, and on the other side (supposedly) coursework. These sorts of rules are far too simple-minded for the current state-of-affairs of "information". – paul garrett Jun 8 '15 at 20:26
  • It's why we give clear scenarios of what is accepted and unacceptable behavior in seminars to prevent plagiarism at the start of a student's program. They're on YouTube at my school. – Fuhrmanator Jun 8 '15 at 21:25
2

I would like to think that you are telling the truth when you say you want to blog your homework because you find it interesting and you're happy with your solution. Let's say you were assigned something in a programming course and told to use recursion to solve it. And further that as a result of this assignment you "get" recursion and think it's amazing.

In that case, blogging "I finally see what all the fuss is about for recursion" is entirely appropriate. You can include some code snippets from your recursive solution, perhaps contrasting them with some iterative version as well. You might include a diagram or other illustrative aid that helped you understand what was happening, or a screen shot from the debugger showing the call stack. All of this is a good blog post about recursion that happens to have 10-20 lines of code in it, code that at some point was included in something you handed in for marks.

In contrast, blogging "CS 123 Assignment 4 (XYZ University Prof ABC)" which consists of one or two sentences of your own, if that, followed by the text of the question, with a complete zipped solution attached to the blog post - well that's an entirely different thing. It's not interesting, it's not something anyone wants to read or will learn from. It's just a way to hand out solutions to future students for the least effort possible from them and from you. It is not ethical, professional, fair, or decent.

This isn't restricted to programming, of course. If you wrote an essay about something and learned some very interesting things as you did, then a blog post that includes some excerpts from the essay and links to resources is not the same as a blog post that pastes in the question and includes the essay as either the rest of the post or an attachment. If you designed a lovely room, building, wedding announcement, dinner, playground, or album cover, sharing that design along with the thoughts that went into it, the parts you like the most, and the reactions you have collected from others is not the same as "Here's the question, here's what I did for my solution." Right?

You know which you want to do, I'm sure.

1

I wait at least a week after the due date before posting my work online, so to ensure that the students handing in late do not access my work in a last minute rush to complete the work. In the event that somebody does copy your work, a long period between the due date and the online post will help to prevent confusion about who created the work. If there is a query by the university, you need to be able to prove that your work was handed in before the other person. Additionally, you may be able to prove that the work you posted online was your work, and that the other person copied it from your website.

1

Just a quick observation: a good copyright lawyer might be able to argue that homework answers are a Derivative Work, which would put you at risk of being sued if you publish without permission from whoever owns the copyright on the assignment material. I doubt most schools would exercise that right under normal conditions, but that's up to them, not you, and they've already got lawyers on staff.

  • 3
    This has actually been tested at my university. The university lawyers concluded that (1) the copyright for any code written by students for a programming assignment is owned by the students, and (2) the copyright for any code written by the instructors for a programming assignment is owned by the instructors. So in principle, a student publishing a homework submission that builds on a skeleton provided by the instructors would be a derivative work, but it's up to the instructor, not the university, to enforce their copyright. – JeffE Jun 9 '15 at 2:33
  • That's one set of lawyers. The next set and the judge may decide differently. Pick you battles, and consider getting permission even if you don't think you need it. – keshlam Jun 9 '15 at 2:46
1

From our recently updated Academic Honesty policy (or perhaps to be implemented int the near future:

6) Unauthorized Distribution or Publication of Course-­‐-­‐‐Related Materials The sharing of course materials on an individual level for educational purposes (e.g., working with groups or with a tutor) is permitted, provided that it has not been prohibited by the professor. Students may not publish, distribute, or sell-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐ electronically or otherwise-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐any course materials that the instructor has developed in any course of instruction in the University (e.g., presentation slides, lecture aids, video or audio recordings of lectures, and exams) without the explicit permission of the instructor. The sharing or distribution of course materials for purposes of giving or gaining unfair advantage in a course is prohibited. Students must further respect the requirements of copyright protection for materials that are made available for instructional purposes.

Thus, such action would be an academic honestly violation at our institution, and can result in punishments from a warning all the way to separation.

Violation or not, at best you are publishing derivative work that you are not entitled to be publishing. It is unethical behavior.

  • I don't think that any course material as described would actually cover the answers to homework questions (which is what I mostly meant in my question; questions can be paraphrased or just left out completely in some cases). I also don't think that answers to a question are derivative work of the question, but I'm not a lawyer, so if you can expand on that, I could be convinced that I'm wrong. – tim Jun 9 '15 at 14:59
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    At our university, you would be required to sign an agreement on day 1 that says that you understand that we consider such an act to be a violation of academic honesty. After that day, if you do it, and get caught, it would not be treated as a copyright violation -- it would be treated as an academic honesty violation. Your signed statement would be produced at your hearing, and a disciplinary action would be determined. No legal questions, no lawyers, just the signed statement showing that you knew this was a violation. – Scott Seidman Jun 9 '15 at 15:06
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This is more of a political issue than an ethical one and is also related to Intellectual Property management. If your work is code related to open source software (such as GNU/LINUX) or to open source hardware, you should definitely post it. On the other hand, if you institution is a private corporation, it is generally not advisable to do so, even if it does not strictly infringe the organization's policy on IP. It is also a good idea to check against your teacher, advisor or managers whether they might have an issue with it or not. For instance: some teachers might object if their course's syllabi does not change often and they put a lot of effort in building it and keeping it private (f. i: for evaluation purposes), while other might encourage you to do so for the greater good of the classroom. I'd say that it depends mostly on the discipline and environment rather than on the length of your work. While the trend towards Open Access is more prevalent everyday at the dawn of the Internet Era, it is still not prevalent in some areas and institutions, and is definitily less encouraged in the private sector. One must also bear in mind that your work will be subject to public scrutiny and that it at times might be plagiarized by unscrupuled individuals. If you choose to do so, please always adequately mention and refer properly other people's work whose shoulders you are climbing onto. Not only because it is ethical and more useful to do so, but because showing adequate respect to others' work will make yours' less prone to eventual abuse.

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