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I was given an assignment for a graduate course a few days ago, and I had to do some background reading in order to understand what one question was asking. In the process of doing this reading, I discovered a paper that contained the exact question I was working on, but phrased as a statement. A proof of this statement was also included, meaning the solution was now laid out in front of me.

I'm not sure how to approach this situation. I can't simply reference this paper, since telling the instructor "the solution may be found here" misses the point of the exercise. On the other hand, I can't write my solution without providing a citation, since that would be academic dishonesty. What should I do in this situation?

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    @CaptainEmacs, or you could try to find a different solution, or clean up this one (but still referencing the solution you found)
    – vonbrand
    Jan 16, 2016 at 2:04
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    In my opinion, if your instructor marks you down for correctly paraphrasing the solution and citing the original text, rather than doing it all from scratch (or pretending to do it all from scratch), I would say that's a poor lesson in how to conduct research. I know that's not really the purpose of the assignment. But still.
    – Cliff AB
    Jan 16, 2016 at 8:34
  • @jakebeal It's an answer now. I deleted the comment to avoid duplication. Jan 16, 2016 at 11:21
  • @jakebeal hm, instead of being voted up, it was voted down. It would be nice if whoever does this, gives a reason why. Not above criticism, but would be useful to know. Jan 16, 2016 at 13:00
  • Did you already read and understand that solution? And is there a reason you don't just double check with the instructor?
    – Kimball
    Jan 16, 2016 at 17:40

3 Answers 3

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Literature research is a legitimate process in science, they can't blame you for that. Clearly, however, you did not "rediscover" the result. One option would be to tell the tutor that you found a solution in the literature and if s/he could give you an alternative assignment instead.

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I discovered a paper that contained the exact question I was working on

Common research practice, before working on a problem that you think is relevant for your work of publication quality, it is advisable to do a background search on the same to see if someone had worked out the problem already. It saves a good deal of time and energy when you find your brilliant idea already published else where before actually investing time on it.

Now, from the spirit of what you described, the aim is not to discover a publishable result rather than understanding how to reach the solution. If you understood the solution and submit it in writing, there is absolutely no problem if you cite the source even though you will miss the joy of independent work. It is also possible that you may find a related problem solved elsewhere, which may or may not be a publication in the usual sense, but the same logic applies there too. In my opinion,

it is appropriate to cite the source unless you reach the solution by independent work.

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I suggest a variation of Captain Emacs's suggestion, namely to write the solution (in your own words) and hand it in, including an explanation of where and how you found the reference that contained the solution, and including a note stating that because you hadn't arrived at the solution by yourself, you would be happy to accept an alternative assignment. However, I doubt that that would be necessary. The instructor likely cares to know mainly that you reached a good level of understanding of the material covered by the question, and would not care as much how you arrived at that understanding.

I should also note that it's not clear to me that not including a citation would represent academic dishonesty. It certainly would if you were specifically instructed not to use the internet as an aid to solving the homework, or if you copied the solution verbatim rather than read it, understand it and write it in your own words, but otherwise, whether this was seen or dishonest or not would depend on whether there was an (implicit or explicit) assumption that students are allowed to use any sources they wish to in order to arrive at a solution, as long as the solution they hand in is written by them, in their own words, and represents genuine understanding that they have attained. With that said, it's best to be as honest as possible, not least because you haven't done anything wrong by stumbling on the solution accidentally, so I would greatly favor the honest approach advocated above or the similar one suggested by Captain Emacs.

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    Whenever a solution is used which is not common knowledge (i.e. where the "scientific collective" is the author, or which is so well known that everybody knows it, e.g. Linear Algebra etc.), an attribution is in place. Everything else is plagiarism. Own words are fine, but the attribution still has to be there, and an assessment most certainly is not exempt. Jan 16, 2016 at 11:25
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    @Captain I'm very big on honesty myself, but I think the strict approach you are advocating is going too far. What if the OP knew the solution from reading it last year, before the assignment was given? Would he/she have to cite the source then? What if he/she forgot where he/she read it? In any case, this is context-dependent. The course/graduate program/university should have a code of conduct/ethics policy describing what constitutes academic dishonesty and what doesn't, and it either agrees with your position or not. Some professors would be fine with not citing the source in this case.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 16, 2016 at 18:56
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    I've run into this issue several times in various classes, and I've never had an issue with the method described here. No formal citation, just a link (or even the name of the website) has usually been enough. Of course, if your instructor has specifically said that you're not allowed to use any outside resources for the homework, you've now opened a completely different can of worms...
    – chipbuster
    Jan 16, 2016 at 19:23
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    @chipbuster A link in lieu of a citation, for homework, would be perfectly fine, of course. The whole point is making clear where your ideas come from. Jan 16, 2016 at 21:19
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    @DanRomik Assuming it is really from memory, and assuming the student has forgotten that there was an external source, it is likely that the solution will look different from literature, and the solution may be acceptable. I'd just like to mention that some scientists, more often than one would like, also start using certain techniques after they have been made acquainted with them and forget where they got them from. Even assuming a mistake, it results in people not receiving credit they deserve. Learning to associate knowledge with its source is core part of the academic education. Jan 16, 2016 at 21:32

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