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Original Post:

I recently attended a lecture with highly technical content. One of the middle slides in the deck had a particular phrase that reminded me of something that I had read several years before.

It took me a few minutes, but I found the original source (another slide deck) and am shocked to find that the professor lifted 35 slides verbatim from the original source. The University holds students accountable for plagiarism and strictly defines plagiarism such that this clearly fits. The slides were used verbatim and no credit or reference was provided. Further, logos were added and color schemes were changed to make make them look slightly more like original content.

What should I do? This professor has a professional full time job and I can imagine this getting swept under the rug, but this is clearly plagiarism and is spelled out very clearly in the student conduct code.

Is this an overreaction or should I pursue this? This is confounded by the fact that I am very disappointed by the rigor of the course and feel like the professor lacks adequate technical background to teach the course (I guess my suspicions came true). I'm really busy at work so don't want to deal with a big todo, but believe this really discredits the academic integrity of the course.

Additional content in response to comments:

The University defines plagiarism as "Using another writer's words without proper citation." There is no proper citation given here, and these are not educational materials. This is 35 slides from someone else's tutorial presentation.

I do not believe that the professor and the author of the original content have a relationship. I have emailed the author to enquire about any permissions or relationship. Still, even with permission, this is still plagiarism as defined be most people and as defined by the University.

All original works in the US are implicitly copyright protected, so there is also a copyright issue, but this is not currently my concern, though it could be of interest to the original author. I have emailed him, so this is up to him.

This is a US institution and is a top tier highly respected school. I am also not a lay student, but a Ph.D. with a degree from a top tier university who has served as a faculty member at two top tier universities (including this one). I have also taught undergraduate courses in the past. I have never engaged in this type of plagiarism, have never known colleagues to do so, and am shocked that so many people suggest this is par for the course in teaching. My doctorate is from a school that prides itself on its honor code and takes honor code violations very seriously and I have served on the honor council and deliberated on a case of plagiarism in the past. I really am shocked by this incident.

Response from Original Author of the Slides:

I have received a response from the author of the slides and he states that the work is his original work, that there are no additional authors of the work, that no one has been given permission to present the work, and that he believes his copyright on the work has been infringed upon. He has requested additional information to assert his claim on the copyright.

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    This is sadly very common, I'm afraid. – user38309 Oct 20 '15 at 8:01
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    I don't see why the source of the material makes a difference. Plagiarism is about presenting non-original content in a situation where the content is assumed to be original. It has nothing to do with intent of the content creator. (If I give my friend permission to hand in an essay I wrote as his own, he's still plagiarizing.) – ff524 Oct 20 '15 at 8:21
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    @ff524: An important premise of virtually all student academic writing assignments and all academic publications is originality: i.e., that the writer come up with something new is the most important part of the assignment. This premise usually does not apply to teaching: you can say exactly the same thing that you or someone else did before, and some amount of repetition has positive pedagogical effects. So I think the presumption of original content is not completely clear. Note that I am not saying that what happened is okay or not plagiarism, just that there are some nuances... – Pete L. Clark Oct 20 '15 at 9:38
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    @user3654387 Can you please clarify whether this was a class (which is not expected to be original) or a presentation of the professor's own work (which is)? If the latter, does the professor have a relationship with the original source? It is not clear from your question, and it matters deeply; people answering you appear to be under the impression that it is a class (which is the subject of the possible duplicate). – jakebeal Oct 20 '15 at 12:44

10 Answers 10

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If the author of the copied slides gave his/her permission for your professor to use the slides, we could reasonably have a debate about whether this is plagiarism. I would be on the side of those arguing that it is at least a mild form of plagiarism if not worse, and in particular is setting a very bad example for the students attending the lectures, who are exactly the population that professors spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to educate about the wrongs of plagiarism and related forms of academic dishonesty. But as I said, I can understand if some people may disagree and argue that the culture of teaching in some places might look with some forgiveness on such practices.

On the other hand, if the author of the copied slides did not give permission to use the slides, then this is as clear-cut an example of plagiarism as I can imagine. To see this, try to imagine yourself as the author of the slides, who put in a large amount of time and creative energy creating something of value and will now be getting an email from the OP informing them that someone else has casually taken their creative output and put it to work for their personal gain, for free and without permission or attribution. How do you think you would feel? I do not need to imagine it; it so happens that a week ago I discovered that someone has plagiarized a work of mine. The details do not matter, and that incident involves plagiarism that cannot hurt me in any tangible way (though it is harmful to others), but I can assure you that it doesn't feel good. So to @ff524 and others advocating a tolerant attitude on this question, I hope you never find out how this feels from personal experience, and perhaps without this knowledge you cannot appreciate my argument. Nonetheless, I urge you to at least try the thought experiment I proposed above and reconsider your position.

EDIT: The premise of those arguing that this isn't plagiarism is that originality isn't expected in a teaching context. I'm afraid this argument doesn't stand up in the face of scrutiny. Let's say I were to show up to my class and instead of giving a lecture that I myself prepared, I were to recite word for word a lecture from a popular MIT OpenCourseWare class that I found on the web and transcribed, but without acknowledging the source or letting on that I was delivering someone else's lecture. If criticized, using the logic of @ff524's comments I will simply point out that teachers are in the habit of reusing each other's material, so it's no big deal. I will also claim that I am doing my students a favor since the author of the lecture is an extremely eloquent and charismatic lecturer whose lectures have been viewed millions of times by people from all over the world, so their lecture is obviously more compelling and useful than anything I can prepare myself.

Now, is there anyone here who seriously suggests that this can be acceptable behavior for a lecturer? Regardless of what you want to call it, there is serious dishonesty being committed. If I really believed reciting someone else's lecture serves the best interests of the students, why not acknowledge the source? My behavior shows a clear intent to deceive the students, to claim credit for the intellectual fruits of another person's labor, and to avoid criticism for not putting in the hard work involved in teaching a class, something for which I am paid. The situation described by the OP is 100% analogous to this, except my example is slightly more extreme. So again, before we discuss whether this is plagiarism I would like us all to agree that the OP's professor's behavior is 1. wrong, and 2. dishonest.

Now that we've agreed, the question is why anyone would be resistant to calling this behavior plagiarism. Okay, so maybe in a teaching context there is a bit less of an expectation of originality, but come on - copying 35 slides verbatim? Moreover, the dishonesty and intent to deceive that I described above are exactly the characteristic features of why people commit the more usual kind of plagiarism: they are lazy, don't want to work hard or aren't smart enough to do good work, and they want to get credit for doing something, so they choose the easy solution of taking someone else's work and passing it off as their own. Why the reluctance to call a spade a spade? I just don't get it.

Finally, let me elaborate on something I mentioned at the beginning. We in academia spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to inculcate in our students the moral ethos of doing original work and never acting dishonestly, especially in connection with claiming credit for someone else's work, and we agonize endlessly over why some students don't seem to be getting the message. I witnessed this on many occasions when I was serving recently on my university's Campus Judicial Board and sat on disciplinary hearing panels for students accused of many kinds of academic misconduct, including plagiarism. You cannot imagine the silly excuses and rationalizations people come up with for why they copied someone else's work or happened to be glancing directly towards the exam notebook of another student for extended periods of time during an exam, and you cannot imagine the frustration of the instructors who caught them. So, my point here is that if we refuse to label this professor's behavior as plagiarism, this makes us look like total hypocrites. If we are to have any hope of getting the message across to students that one must do original work and attribute any usage of someone else's, we have to be firm and consistent in our standards. I chose to focus on the scenario when permission for using the slides was not given by the author since there it is a bit clearer that a strict moral boundary had been crossed, but as I said my opinion applies also to the scenario where the author did give permission, although in that case it would be a milder offense since the author at least would not have been harmed.

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    "this is as bad an example of plagiarism as plagiarism can get" What? Come on, that's not true. For instance I know a case where a professor at a distinguished university took their student's research and published it under their own name, preventing the student from getting any credit for the work and from finishing their degree. That's clearly much worse. With regard to what you mention above: I'm sorry your work was plagiarized, but if that incident had hurt your career in a tangible way, can we not agree that would be much worse? – Pete L. Clark Oct 20 '15 at 9:31
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    @PeteL.Clark while I agree that there are arguably worse ways in which one can commit plagiarism, I think the main point of the answer is valid, namely that copying slides like this is no more excusable than passing off someone else's research as your own. – David Z Oct 20 '15 at 12:20
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    Isn't there confusion here between plagiarism and copyright infringement? I thought that the usual definitions of plagiarism do not distinguish whether or not permission was obtained from the creator of the work. – Ari Brodsky Oct 20 '15 at 13:26
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    Permission of the content creator has nothing to do with plagiarism. If I give a friend permission to hand in an essay I wrote as his homework, he's still plagiarizing. Your argument seems to be "this is hurtful to the content creator, so it's plagiarism" - it certainly may be something bad (possibly a copyright violation) but that does not automatically make it plagiarism. – ff524 Oct 20 '15 at 14:38
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    My main objection to this answer is that it conflates three separate offenses: (1) presenting non-original work in a manner that implies it is original, (2) theft of someone else's content, and (3) failing to fulfill professional responsibilities as a teacher/educator. These are different offenses, the determination of whether something improper has taken place is different for each offense, and a different response is appropriate for each. Conflating them confuses the issue. – ff524 Oct 20 '15 at 20:11
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Was the original source of the slides an adjunct, and did this incident take place in the United States? If so, many institutions own copyright to any teaching materials (such as slides) created by adjuncts under the work-for-hire doctrine. (Policy usually leaves copyright with tenured or tenure-track faculty and possibly academic staff who teach, but almost never adjuncts.)

Your current instructor may have been handed the materials -- quite likely without attribution -- and told to teach with them. Still arguably plagiarism, but not exactly the fault of the instructor.

One more possibility: are the slides supplementary materials supplied with the textbook adopted in class?

  • This occurred at a top tier university in the US. These were not teaching materials but a tutorial presentation prepared by another person at a publicly traded and very well known company. – user3654387 Oct 20 '15 at 17:00
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    @user3654387 How is a tutorial presentation not teaching materials?!?! – Peter K. Oct 22 '15 at 0:56
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It is important to distinguish between plagiarism and copyright. For example:

  • If I copy sentences verbatim from Jane Austen, and present them as my own, that is plagiarism, but not copyright infringement, because Jane Austen's work is not covered by copyright, at least in my country of residence.

  • If someone tells me a new mathematical result they have proved, but they have not written down, and I rush to write it up first without giving them any credit, that is plagiarism. But it is not copyright infringement, because there is no tangible work for me to copy.

In this case, the real question about plagiarism is whether there is an expectation of originality in lecture slides. That question is not entirely clear to me - I am not sure that there is an expectation that lecture slides are original. Now, if they were part of an assignment for a class on how to teach, that would be different. But if they are just being used to actually teach a class, I am not convinced that it is "plagiarism" to use someone else's slides without attribution.

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Although it would be nicer if the professor acknowledged that he took the slide from somewhere, this is neither cheating nor plagiarism.

Moreover, if the slides looked exactly the same as the original one, there is a good chance the author(s) of the original slides had shared the latex source code etc for others to copy. I have seen many authors of books, tools doing that to advertise their books/tools.

UPDATE

IMHO, plagiarism is when one claims work, ideas as his own, when they are actually not. Although you didn't mention the content of the presentation, I do not believe the professor mentioned the work in these 35 copied slides are his own.

If I'm presenting the work of prof. A, and he is already has excellent slides with examples, etc why do I need to waste my effort on trying to make other slides? (If I claim the work in the slides are my idea, my work, this is another story)

As I've mentioned in my original answer, the author of this tool http://www.cprover.org/cbmc/ provides a source of his slides:

A set of slides on CBMC: PDF, 2x3 handouts.
The sources are available here.

What does he expect people to do when sharing the source of the slides, if not re-use them in presentations, lectures etc?

If this is plagiarism, would it be unethical for the author of this tool to encourage people to plagiarize his slides?

I give this as an example, because I'm using this tool at the moment, similar examples are not rare at all.

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    The University defines plagarism as "Using another writer's words without proper citation." This certainly is plagarism, and it is not at all clear why you would claim it isn't. I don't believe permission was given but will email the original source. These are not academic teaching materials, it is from a professional presentation. – user3654387 Oct 20 '15 at 8:10
  • "there is a good chance the author(s) of the original slides had shared the latex source code etc for others to copy" -- not necessarily. There's always pdfpages. – Raphael Oct 20 '15 at 11:49
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    @AN6U5 You are getting the OP wrong. He didn't say the prof presented other work/ideas as his own. He merely says the prof. copied the slides without reference. They are two different stories. I would image the 35 copied slides were in "background" or "preliminaries" etc, rather than "our approach". And the prof would say something that this had been done by others. – qsp Oct 20 '15 at 22:12
  • finially some answer with sense – SSimon Sep 22 '17 at 11:01
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As an adjunct professor myself, I've done this: used the slide deck of another academic. However, I always seek and obtain the permission of the originator. Even more, I use this as an opportunity to let the students know that I've done this and that there are ways to ethically use the material of others.

From the sound of things, the presenter in your case did not let you know any of the details and, in my opinion, probably used the slides without permission.

While this is not what I would consider plagiarism (did the presenter try to claim ownership of the slide deck?), it does sound unethical in that it makes use of the other's intellectual property --- a copyright violation.

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I think your reaction is that the university policy for student work defines plagiarism as:

Using another writer's words without proper citation.

Wikipedia provides a more general definition of plagiarism:

Plagiarism is the "wrongful appropriation" and "stealing and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions" and the representation of them as one's own original work

for student work, the definitions are in essence the same as by turning in the work, the assumption is that the work is yours unless otherwise noted. No such assumption exists for teaching material. While the professor should have cited the source and given credit, one should not assume that the material was created by the professor.

If, however, the professor submitted the teaching materials as part of his tenure and promotion package, then it would be critical to provide attribution as to where the teaching materials came from.

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1) This probably falls under the "fair use" section of copyright law. Or at least it would easily enough with some additional modifications to the slide stack.

2) Unless he was attempting to publish the material as his own, this probably isn't plagiarism either.

3) If he never claimed the material was his own original work, then most likely this isn't even a violation of his institution's ethical code of conduct.

He would be entirely within the law to simply navigate to the public website that shows the slide stack and present it live from that web location. Posting a link on the course page is also legal.

If the instructor is actually lazy and incompetent, that is a legitimate complaint. If that was just background or introductory material, I would not qualify that as lazy or incompetent behavior. On the other hand, if that was the core material for the course, then he is probably lazy and incompetent.

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Maybe the whole discussion got sidetracked, IMO this is a clear violation of copyrights of the original author, and it should be treated as such. Auhor of original slides most probably could take legal actions (regional rights may vary). This is unless original author didn't give consent for copying (either by giving proper license, or by allowing your proffessor to use his slides).

Disclaimer: I'am not a lawyer. My examples are based on legal system in my country (Poland), I have done very limited check of actual laws in Poland. This might vary.

Consider a situation where the same user photocopies handbook for the whole class (it still will have very positive impact for class education).

It's one thing to take a passage from the book, or to write a presentation based on a handbook (as this can be done under "Fair Use" rights, or some profisions for educational materials), incorporating a large part of someone's work into your work is entirely different matter. I have checked some materials and it seems that (in Poland):

  • You can indeed present works of other people in educational context.
  • You have no exemptions for quoting on education, so general laws apply: quotation must both be properly attributed and "small amount".
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    There are usually exceptions in the copyright law for classroom use of copyright materials. Proper citation of the used excerpts is often sufficient. The whole handbook photocopy would be dubious, but one time movie play is probably still legal. At least that's how it is in Czechia. Poland may follow some similar route. – Vladimir F Oct 20 '15 at 15:01
  • @VladimirF You are right, I have check what is the current law status in Poland and movie example was wrong. I have changed my answer. – jb. Oct 20 '15 at 15:15
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In my opinion,

You are overreacting, and this is (probably) not plagiarism. Also, you're misreading the university's definition.

A slide-set used in class is not, in my view, a publication (unless someone puts it up on his website and insinuates he/she has created them). As an attendant of a lecture, I would not automatically assume the presenter prepared the slides him/herself.

Here's a likely scenario:

  • Original author created the slides without any on-slide mention of himself or their authorship.
  • Original author posted slides somewhere web-accessible.
  • Presenter was looking for slide material for his/her lecture.
  • Presenter found the slides on a search engine.
  • Presenter downloaded the slides, not even looking where they were from.
  • Not finding any authorship notice, nor any copyright notice, presenter decided s/he can just use the slides. And please don't comment about whether or not this is justifiable, or legal, whether he's violating copyrights... even if he is, that doesn't matter w.r.t. plagiarism

I think the presenter should have added an indication of where s/he got the slides from, if it's not material developed by course staff, by his department or by himself (and maybe then as well); but he's still not claiming he did this. So, no plagiarism by a "common sense" definition.

Now, your university defines plagiarism as "Using another writer's words without proper citation." - but obviously this must be interpreted in context. For example, suppose someone makes a joke on Facebook and you tell it in class. Are you plagiarizing? Come on, the university doesn't think you are. What they mean is "Using another writer's words without proper citation, in a publication of your own." so, lecture slides are not that kind of publication (at least, most people would not think so, and the presenter doesn't think so), and telling a joke is not publishing a book of jokes etc.

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    Actually copyright defaults to all rights reserved. If there is no license stating what is allowed, you must assume that the author din't allow further dissemination. So in your scenario Presenter is at fault. – jb. Oct 20 '15 at 15:17
  • @jb: I don't think so. First, if you put it up on the Internet, you've given permission to make copies. Also, legally and regardless, in practically every country there are fare use clauses, and this might qualify. At any rate, s/he is certainly not plagiarizing anything. – einpoklum Oct 20 '15 at 15:19
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    fair use is very restricted notion, I doubt if taking 30 or so slides verbatim, without attribution qualifies under Fair Use, anywhere in the world. Putting something on the Internet doesn't give everybody automatical rights to copy, it does not release work to Public Domaint and so forth, this is simply not true. Here is (somewhat older article on the topic): publicdomainsherpa.com/… . – jb. Oct 20 '15 at 15:26
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    @phk: The fact that you think it should be assumed to be his own work does not mean that others make that assumption. My answer explains that people don't generally make that assumption - specifically, the presenter isn't. – einpoklum Oct 20 '15 at 17:51
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    "First, if you put it up on the Internet, you've given permission to make copies" - as a blanket statement of fact, this is false. Some limited permissions to make copies are implied by posting it on the Internet (e.g. right to download, print, etc.) but not all (for example, posting on the Internet does not imply permission to make copies for commercial use.) – ff524 Oct 20 '15 at 19:37
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In my opinion it should be worse than anything a student does. For one, what is a student assignment? It is a piece of work that is graded by one or a few markers. It is not likely to be read by many people. Most theses do not even get that much readership! Only the best theses do! So when a student plagiarizes, one can argue that he or she has cheated his way to credits or has discredited the reputation of the university indirectly, by devaluing the worth of their degrees. But if we think about it, the direct relationship between a student's plagiarism and implications in the wider world is rather small.

This on the other hand has all of the same implications that I mentioned above, PLUS direct implications. Not only is the lecturer held to a contract that he is being paid for, but he is teaching unoriginal content to lets say a dozen students or hundreds of students, possibly thousands, if it is an ongoing course over many years. Those students then further disseminate that unoriginal content!

I think if we do not believe this to be plagiarism, then students should be given lighter punishments as well! This is worse! The effects of unoriginal content are not 'activated', because of a peer review stamp or the red ink of a marker. Unoriginal content has repercussions simply by virtue of what it communicates. We cannot say because this is a teaching environment that it is not plagiarism. Obviously there is fair-use as well, but you would allow for lets say quotes, pictures, maybe some formulae here and there. Not verbatim slides! And if verbatim slides are used, then that must be disclosed. In a teaching context, a lecturer is communicating in much the same way as a researcher with a publication. Actually, many lecturers as I have alluded, will be communicating more effectively in this way than many writers and students will ever hope to communicate.

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