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I am currently a master’s student and I cautiously and properly cite in my essays and works as per Harvard’s guidelines. However, I only learned how to properly cite just this year which made me go back and look at my BBAs graduation projects (I have two licenses) and, frankly, they are horrible when it comes to referencing!

To make a long story short, these projects are made up of ‘copy-and-paste’ chunks from online websites, Wikipedia pages and some books, all without putting quotation marks, however still referenced at the end with (some of them) a poor style. Back then, I never thought about it and was like, yeah I am just referencing the ideas. I was not aware of direct quoting, quotation marks (save for small definitions), proper paraphrasing and a proper style of citation. It is important to note that it was totally unintentional to plagiarize, just out of ignorance.

What to do now? Frankly, I feel so guilty about it since I am an ethical person. Although both projects were positively accepted (one of them is a technical one; a website, so the report was only to define some concepts), I, first and foremost, do blame myself for my ignorance and carelessness, however I also blame my instructors for not throwing the projects at my face and telling me to go home and correct everything! What can I do now? No instructor told me anything about it and this was four to five years ago. However and ethically, I am suffering because of this, I feel like I don’t deserve to be a graduate student (unlike what my current instructors think as I am seen as an excellent student at this part of my life and my current master’s grades are excellent and I even cite during exams!) and should just drop out and not use my bachelor degrees in life, yes I feel that way. Why to bother pursuing an MBA and even a PhD if my BBAs projects were built on academic dishonesty (even if unintentional)?

I am so glad that I learned how to properly cite this year just before my master’s thesis so that I can produce a well-written one, but again, I am not motivated due to the aforementioned reasons.

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    You plagiarised? That's bad. Your instructors didn't tell you? That's bad, too. However, they are only human, and may have overlooked the plagiarism. Now, you have realised your mistake, and you were lucky to not have been caught. You feel bad about this stroke of good luck. It honours you. However, understand, it will do nobody good to destroy your career retroactively - rather, take this chance to change the future. Take this opportunity to be an extra conscientious, honest, ethical researcher in the future, and you will have turned your experience into a force for good, the best you can do. – Captain Emacs Mar 20 '16 at 12:46
  • Yeah well, even if it was unintentional and out of ignorance, I wish I was stopped back then... but does I make sense or am I delusional when I say that I don't deserve my degree? (Even if the project itself is credited as any other course and is NOT the entire degree requirement) – R. AS. Mar 20 '16 at 20:56
  • Welcome to Academia.SE! Looks like you may have accidentally created two accounts (this one and this one). If those are both you and you'd like to have them merged, you can follow these instructions to do so. – eykanal Mar 23 '16 at 13:40
  • Yes please, what instructions? – R. AS. Mar 23 '16 at 13:42
  • @eykanal: Maybe you linked the wrong place? Did you mean academia.stackexchange.com/help/merging-accounts? – user21820 Mar 23 '16 at 14:07
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First, it is unreasonable to blame your instructors. For what reason? If they had done something years ago, you wouldn't feel bad now? Probably it was not obvious to them that you had plagiarized. (Plagiarism can be more obvious or less obvious, depending on many factors.)

Second, people make mistakes in life, and not all mistakes are fixable. You just have to do your best to be honest and correct now and in the future. You might consider contacting your old professors to let them know what you did, and that you now realize it's plagiarism and that you are sorry. If you need to do this to feel you are "deserving" of your situation, you could also redo your projects and send them to your old professors, but this is not ethically necessary. Who among us deserves the fortunes granted us? Not I. I can only appreciate them.

  • But they could have just informed me that I am plagiarizing... and a correction is required before the 'defense' of the project! As I said, I, fire and foremost, blame myself for my ignorance. I cannot remain silent, it's killing me. I am really ready to resubmit all the work required to possibly correct the situation. However, I am afraid of the reactions of all the parties involved. I certainly don't feel ashamed of my ignorance as there's no shame in education. Should I approach a close instructor and explain to her about the whole situation? – R. AS. Mar 23 '16 at 12:16
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This is not really an academia question, unless you're only looking for what the academic community considers right. My answer is going to be based on what I consider right, so take it or leave it but think about it.

Judgement of any action cannot be based on things that you could not reasonably be expected to be aware of at the time of the action. This is the same reason we distinguish in the court of law between premeditated murder (intent to kill) and involuntary manslaughter (no killing intent but possibly due to negligence) and accidental killing (neither killing intent nor negligence). Similarly, you have to judge your past unintentional plagiarism according to what you personally feel you should reasonably have known.

If you had honestly thought at that time that what other people write can be freely copied without using quotation marks as long as you duly record your sources (which is not an unreasonable opinion, since anyone who checks the sources can determine which parts you have copied), then you cannot blame yourself for not knowing that the academic convention is to put explicit quotation marks even if you cite the source in the bibliography.

If this is true, there is no reason for you to feel guilty. However, note that other people may not share this opinion, so it would make no sense to go and tell the people previously involved (such as your school), since consequences may not be fair to you. At the same time, if you can discreetly correct any part of your prior work, such as if it is on a website, just do so.

The issue is a bit more troublesome if your previous work was in a publication of some sort, for which there is a related question and some answers at What to do (years later) with otherwise good student who has accidentally plagiarised part of PhD thesis?, and I think you'll agree that what Anonymous Mathematician prescribes in that case ought to be done. As for his opinion that one should turn oneself in to the university, it is a fine approach to take but you have to use your discretion. Say you recall that you wrote an essay about some topic during an English exam as a 12-year-old where you made the same mistake, copying some sentence you remembered somewhere about the topic, and of course you did not cite it (it's an English essay after all!), and the results of this exam let you later go to a good school, and eventually it leads to you being where you are now. Should you trace your whole path and tell everyone that you don't deserve to have what you have now? Certainly not!

There is a limit to how much you should condemn yourself to other people, when you did not do any intentional wrong.

  • They taught us about the research methodology a year before my work, however and due to carelessness and ignorance (I wasn't an A student back then), I did wat I did despite, at the time, really believing that the way described above is the way to go to write essays and senior projects! I cannot remain silent, it's destroying me and I am currently depressed. Should I just go inform a close instructor and describe the situation to her? No, nothing was published, it's just a BBA senior project. To worsen the whole situation, I never cited during exams (until now) and usually answer word-by-word. – R. AS. Mar 23 '16 at 12:23
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    @R.AS.: If you are close to an instructor (whether current or the one you had at that time), indeed you can talk to her about it, and it would certainly help to get it off your chest. I should also add that it is often ethical people who are more concerned about what they did wrong than they need to be, whereas unethical people are always trying to find new ways of doing wrong! So the very fact that you say you're feeling guilty shows that you've nothing to worry about, since every righteous person will not blame you. Righteousness is of the heart more than actions. – user21820 Mar 23 '16 at 12:30
  • Thanks for the words. But, if asked to re-correct everything and re-submit all works, why do I feel like I don't have the right to do so or I should not be doing this since what I did, at that time, captures a specific time of my life with then-knowledge and then-education level and I'd be opportunistic if I do it now with my current level of education and culture? Also, I am mostly sure that the close instructor will tell me to ignore it and focus on my master thesis, I won't be satisfied with that answer, I need to find a way to correct what I did. – R. AS. Mar 23 '16 at 12:38
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    @R.AS.: The reason you feel that way is a natural response, but it is because you are retro-actively judging yourself using an inappropriate standard in my opinion. You now know that not quoting properly is not academically acceptable, but at that time there would have been no way to reason that out since you did not hide anything (you stated the sources). So you should not blame yourself for the mistake that you had no way of being aware of. However, what you are responsible for now is to fix any consequences of those mistakes that you can fix. – user21820 Mar 23 '16 at 12:46
  • @R.AS.: If as you say it's not published and it was just a senior project, you can do whatever you're asked to do, and it's up to you if you want to even offer to redo it, but it's not necessary since the consequences of your mistakes did no harm to others since they were committed innocently and (in a sense) did not affect the present. Just imagine, if at that time you quoted correctly, would it have changed the present? Almost surely no, because it was not published. – user21820 Mar 23 '16 at 12:51

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