So, before I tell my story, I'll qualify by saying I have a bit of a guilt complex and its possible I'm overthinking all of this.

I was looking through my university's honor code and I came upon "collusion," in which students are forbidden to work together on assignments unless explicitly authorized. This caused me to realize that I had probably broken this rule last semester on a paper in one of my classes. The class is over, I got an A on the paper and an A- in the class.

To be clear, I didn't see what I was doing as bad at the time. We deliberately avoided sharing outlines with one another, and neither of us saw each other's paper. What we did do, however, was work together for a few hours and compile a single google drive file of "paper ideas" in which we assembled references in the two texts (the paper was a comparison of two philosophers). Neither of us had completely read both authors, so list of references and ideas was helpful. Again, this wasn't an outline, just a long page of notes related to the authors, from which we separated and drew our own outlines and wrote our own papers.

I know ignorance is no excuse, and I feel pretty bad about this situation. I'm wanting to go to my professor and explain the mistake, but I'm concerned about it because it was an honest mistake and I'm not sure I want to drag this other person into it. She is graduating in two weeks while I have another year to go.

I'm just trying to get some feedback as to what I should ethically do as well as potential outcomes of this scenario. I certainly recognize that I shouldn't do what I did again.

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    Don't worry about it... Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 2:40
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    Had there been any serious "collusion", the professor would have picked up on similarities between the papers and bought it up. If you got through their scrutiny, then you're probably good.
    – user21268
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:26
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    There is little distinction between what you did and reading someone elses' unpublished work. Or coming in with prior knowledge for that matter. Neither of these would be a punishable offense.
    – mkingsbu
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:57
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    Me and basically my whole batch (or school to be honest) do it occasionally. My point is that this is pretty commonplace. You're just overthinking it. Move on. Learn a new hobby.
    – Aloha
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 14:30
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    "students are forbidden to work together on assignments unless explicitly authorized" This is where academia fails to prepare students for the business world. I understand the reason for wanting students to do their own work for practice and repetition, but when it comes to getting work done in a job, it's better if you work with a team to work more efficiently.
    – zzzzBov
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 19:29

7 Answers 7


You are overthinking this. I don't want to make light of academic integrity, but given the cheating that does happen all the time, this is a very minor offense. We all make mistakes, and what you need to do now is learn from your mistake (one of the things you need to learn is to not freak out about making a mistake). The appropriate punishment is what you're experiencing right now. Going to the professor now would be a selfish move that is intended to give you peace of mind at the expense of drama and stress for your fellow student and the professor, so don't do it.

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    I agree that the OP is probably overthinking it, but somehow I arrived at the opposite conclusion from "don't do it". I don't see why contacting the professor is "selfish": given that the OP thinks there might be a problem, isn't it the honorable thing to do? (Especially, I don't get the "drama and stress for...the professor." It's our job to deal with stuff like this, right? If a student came to me with something like this, I would talk them down. No problem.) Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 4:13
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    -1 why the assumption that there was any mistake or offense here?
    – user24098
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 6:35
  • Rather than don't do it go ask and find out if it was even wrong. You don't have to admit anything to ask what the rules mean. You may find you're allowed to do more than you think. We can't really tell you since we're not your instructor. Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 4:22

Nothing that you describe sounds to me like academic dishonesty. The point of having other students around is to gain something from interacting with them, and your interactions with your study partner sound like helpful studying together rather than "collusion". If I understand it correctly, you did all the writing independently, but you had each done some reading that the other hadn't, and you used that to suggest to each other what you should go back and read and then write about. For me, the only thing that could be problematic is if you used your friend's references to the text without yourself going back to the text. This would be a failure of due diligence and a (rather mild, I think) instance of academic dishonesty, as you are creating the impression that you read something that you didn't read. Again I want to emphasize that for me this is quite mild: even professionals sometimes quote things secondhand.

On the other hand, internet strangers can only give you so much absolution. If you are concerned that you might have done something wrong -- and it sounds like you are -- talk to your instructor about it. Be honest, explain that your worry that your actions might possibly be problematic came only upon reading the honor code later, and see what the instructor says. The most likely outcome is that the instructor will largely or completely allay your worries, and you will probably also gain a better understanding of what sort of collaboration is helpful and what is forbidden. There is a chance that the instructor will regard your behavior as actionably problematic, but if so the honorable thing would still be to bring it up.

Good luck.

Added: The above advice is under the assumption that you have no reason to think your instructor or institution will wildly overreact to what should be, at worst, a minor infraction. I don't really agree with the comments which imply that one can never know whether this will happen: in fact, a student attending a particular institution and a particular course should be able to get some sense of this.

If the OP feels that there is a chance that something bad will happen or feels somehow unqualified to think rationally about it (there are a few hints of that here, honestly) he could take a more intermediate step to figure out which way the wind is blowing. For instance he could talk to an ombudsperson or university official and ask about the legitimacy of such a practice in general terms. In another situation he could bring this up hypothetically to the instructor, but in this case that seems like a poor safeguard: since the course is over, I can't think of any reason a student would bring this up to the instructor unless he has performed the practice he's asking about.

Anyway, given that the OP is worried about something that I think but am not completely sure he does not need to worry about, I think he should seek reassurance in some way. Maybe others regard this behavior of the OP as being primarily pathological / OCD. I don't see it that way: concern about whether you've violated the honor code is not pathological. The OP is behaving in a way which is atypical of most students I've known, but not atypically worse. Moreover, talking to someone will give him a clear idea of the line between collaboration and collusion, which should be helpful to him in his last year of study. Lingering guilty feelings seem much less healthy and productive.

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    Also - try to present the information mildly. When explaining this sort of thing in person, it can be remarkably easy to improperly lead the conclusion ("I think I may have cheated on my paper" is a lot different than "Is it okay if two students share research ideas when writing a paper?", for example).
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 12:53
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    @Pete: I'm the downvote, sorry. I think you are downplaying the possible complications of talking to the prof. Many are reasonable and would likely dismiss the issue, but between weird personalities and righteousness in academia, the chances of things escalating are real. And even if it is technically "the right thing to do", it is enabling the OP's issues. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:29
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    @Martin: "The chances of things escalating are real." Yes, but they are connected to the possibility that the OP has actually done something wrong. As I tried to make clear, it sounds to me like he has done little to nothing wrong, but that really depends on the expectations that the course instructor set up. I also don't like the idea of suggesting not to do "the right thing" because of the possibility that someone else might behave badly...absent any evidence of that. The OP knows his instructor; we don't. What's the point of an honor code if we assume that people will behave badly? Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 15:11
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    Let me also add that although the "honor code" at my university is not something that I ever hear the students talk about, I have faculty friends at other American institutions (think SLACs, especially) in which the culture there is for students to take the honor code very seriously. I have heard stories of self-reported "infractions" which are ridiculously minor. There are probably also big universities where academic honesty hearings are triggered more-or-less automatically. So for the OP to have some sensitivity to the culture of his institution is probably advisable. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 15:18
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    @quid Small Liberal Arts College Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 17:46

As a personal tutor, I actually have to look at students' papers without giving them original ideas or inadvertently intruding on the authorship of papers by commenting too much. Here are some guidelines I'd recommend:

  • Sharing citable resources is generally okay. After all, each student has to assess each resource and figure out how it can be used to support their ideas.
  • Sharing excerpts from your paper, original methods/algorithms, solutions, original data, results, and conclusions is not okay, and you should never copy any of this if someone shares it with you.
  • Sharing potential ideas and approaches can be okay, as long as students do not get to the point at which they are sharing original, grounded ideas or conclusions that can then be used by other students. For example, if one student says that they read some long article and felt that it provided sufficient support for a particular conclusion that they have drawn, another student could then state the same conclusion and support it using the article, perhaps without even reading and assessing it themselves, all without citing the student who shared it originally. However, in certain situations, you might even be able to cite a student's ideas, just as you can cite a professor's ideas if you ask them a question by email, for instance.

Based on what you wrote, I would think that as long as you took the shared notes with a grain of salt, did not copy them directly, and looked at any shared references yourself to verify any points made, what you did was likely fine. Did you include any ideas in your paper that were someone else's, but you claim as your own? Or did someone else use your ideas without citing you? These are the questions you want to be asking.

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    I don't understand the part "without giving them original ideas". Could you explain this more ? Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 16:41
  • By "original idea," I just mean that I personally don't go telling my students my own researched conclusions about a topic. It's their job to do the research and make the conclusions, and frankly, if someone did use my ideas in a paper, I'd deserve to be an author, because the outcome of the paper would not have been possible without me. Hope that makes it clearer. Commented Apr 24, 2016 at 6:24

I'm not actually convinced what you describe qualifies as "collusion."

First off, there's some question about what "work together on assignments" means in this context. It's a bit off a nitpick, but if the assignment was "compare the two philosophers" you're off the hook. If it was "read these two books and then compare these two philosophers," then you might need to consider one of the following courses of action (if you feel you must):

(a) you could contact the professor in question and tell him that you hadn't read the entirety of both texts and that you and another student split the reading to find passages relevant to the papers. Presumably, you each read (at a minimum) the quotes you used.

(b) you could contact an ombudsman or student advocate and explain the same and ask their advice about whether you must report it.

(c) you could absolutely nothing.

If you choose (a), then at most universities a claim that an event of academic dishonesty has happened depends on the professor filing it. (b) Depending on the university, there may be a common policy that must be followed -- which could include (i) failing the course, (ii) grade reduction in the course, (iii) a mark on your permanent academic record, (iv) a temporary mark on your academic record, (v) meetings with deans, (vi) remedial academic integrity tutorial, (vii) suspension, (viii) expulsion, (ix) effects on your grades in other courses.

My guess as someone with a philosophy PhD who has taught several courses is that your professor will just laugh this off and appreciate your honesty. If not, I can't imagine anyone thinking what you've described merits anything more than a minor grade deduction -- but again some schools have policies that don't leave much room for discretion.


Technically, if you walk down the street shedding skin cells, as humans often do, you're guilty of littering.

Telling you not to worry about this is irresponsible. Not because what you did was even close to wrong. But because you're right. The problem is you need to understand the expectations of the culture you're in. While reading the rules is good, reading the rules won't guarantee that you understand.

Read the rules. Form questions. Ask questions. You don't have to admit to anything. Just talk to an advisor or professor about any questions you have about what the rules mean. Following their guidance is likely safer than second guessing the rules. They may give you permission to do things you never imagined you could do.

I've had students nearly fail because they were trying to be so 'honest', they didn't accept any help.

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    +1 for nearly fail because they were trying to be so 'honest' they didn't accept any help.
    – Nobody
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 5:23

I don't believe you have done anything wrong. I agree with your insight that you are overthinking this. I don't recommend you report anything that could indict you or your classmate.

I do recommend that you read about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and notice if you see yourself matching that illness. My understanding is that many people who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder experience hyper-moral dilemmas and conundrums like the one you face. From what I have read, the guilt complex you mention is a common symptom. You may also wish to read about scrupulosity and see if that sounds familiar to you.

I'm not a medical doctor or psychologist, so if you think you may be suffering from one of those illnesses (actually, I think the professionals categorize them as a single illness), or something similar, perhaps a visit to an appropriate professional may help you in your life.

I wish you the best of life.

  • Good advice. A side thought about some mental disorders & "health care professionals", if you see enough and take enough tests, you'll probably "qualify" for at least one disorder. I read on time.com that "[A CDC survey] estimates that one in 11 children had been diagnosed with ADHD by a health care professional, an increase of 42% between 2003 and 2014. “[That number] is preposterous,” says Connors, who studied and treated ADHD for 50 years before retiring. “That would make it an epidemic.”" - (Connors is C. Keith Connors, creator of Connors Rating Scales for ADHD)
    – Xen2050
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 22:27
  • Maybe true, but at least there's so much info online that patients have a good chance of knowing the latest research (sometimes better than doctors), and most places (N.America, Europe, Aus.?) you can see different doctors (or "professionals") until you find one you like (i.e. agrees with you)
    – Xen2050
    Commented Apr 24, 2016 at 3:04

I would characterize your actions as "borderline." In your shoes, I wouldn't worry about them, but neither would I be in any hurry to repeat them.

You and your friend worked together to create and share a common database. On the other hand, you scrupulously avoided looking at or comparing each other's work. There wasn't any actual copying, but your common efforts lightened the intellectual burden on both of you. I would say that you "collaborated" without "colluding."

If you reported it to the professor, my guess is that the likely response would be similar to mine: "I'll let you off this time, but don't do it again." The actual response could be lighter. I would not rule out that it would be heavier (although I consider this unlikely).

Given the circumstances, just "let sleeping dogs lie." It's not a clear violation, although it is close enough to make some people uncomfortable. Warren Buffett, a financier, warned his people against "just staying inbounds." He said, "You can do very well hitting the ball down the middle of the court.

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