In creating a final exam for my course, I would like to use problems from a textbook that I did not assign to the course. Do I need to reference the source on the final exam paper or is it not necessary?

  • You should check that you are not violating copyright laws if you copy questions. This can be an issue whether you cite the source or not. It's the same thing as if you reproduced a song or movie and distributed it without permission.
    – Kat
    Nov 27, 2016 at 4:21
  • It's the same thing as if you reproduced a song or movie and distributed it without permission. – Unless you put your final exam online, you are not distributing the content. Also, copyright laws usually give you more leeway if your purposes are educational. I am not saying that you should ignore copyright, but it’s not the same thing.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Nov 27, 2016 at 7:56

3 Answers 3


I have never seen a university exam in which problems are cited to sources. The vast majority of exams I've seen are intellectually derivative on other sources: for many courses, an exam which is not intellectually derivative would be difficult to write and very painful for students to take.

In my opinion, in current academic culture course exams are not viewed as academic works which are subject to the standards of plagiarism: there is no pretense of originality. However, copying exams from standard sources has issues other than intellectual priority: as already mentioned, it may give an advantage to students who are consulting those sources. In my opinion, it is a good practice when writing an exam to never copy a problem wholly and directly from a standard source. A question can always be reworded. For a large array of problems in STEM fields, parameters can be adjusted or other incidental features changed, creating a problem that to a sufficiently expert eye looks isomorphic to the textbook problem, but is different enough so that someone who would feel that way has mastered the material.

When I write undergraduate exams, I usually do so with my own study materials and exams given in past iterations of the course in view (and I also give these to the students, in most cases). With this in view, I try to create an exam which has the right amount of similarity to past exams and review materials: neither too much nor too little. For intermediate undergraduate level math courses, I have found that having one problem or part of a problem be basically identical (though somewhat reworded) to something in the study materials has a positive effect on the course: as the students run through several midterms and the final exam, they learn that the study materials are actually to be carefully studied and mastered, which increases their learning. In general I find that changes that I regard as relatively modest -- e.g. swapping out one problem for a "cognate problem" -- are often regarded as "completely different" by students.

In short: you can and probably should use other sources for inspiration and calibration purposes when writing an exam, and I have never seen anyone document their sources as if an exam were an academic paper. (In most cases one would not be documenting the "true author" of the work but simply identifying the previous person in the borrowing chain.) However, you should not blindly copy problems from other sources, and you should watch carefully to ensure that your students regard your exams as having a sufficient amount of novelty. To do otherwise is to shirk one of the most basic duties of the course instructor.

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    If "course exams are not viewed as academic works which are subject to the standards of plagiarism", why do we check students' works' against plagiarism? The question is rhetorical, but I think that many questions that we receive here about plagiarism show perplexity at what is required to the students and what is accepted from the professors. Nov 26, 2016 at 20:59
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    @Massimo: Do we check all students' works against plagiarism? I certainly don't check exam solutions for plagiarism: that would mean that if someone evaluates an integral in a certain way, they would have to document it. I hope we can agree that this is not just counterfactual but also silly. I do take your point: there seems to have been a "crackdown against plagiarism" in recent years without a corresponding increase in the clarity of understanding of the intellectual principles behind this. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:14
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    In particular there is a worrisome conflation between plagiarism, academic dishonesty and cheating. These are really not the same thing. When a student looks at his neighbor's exam sheet, he's cheating. When a student gets his friend to tell him how to solve his homework problems and passes it off on his own work, he's committing academic dishonesty. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:18
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    Consider a student who finds a solution to a problem set on a webpage and copies it without attribution. What's the crime? If the student was told not to consult outside sources, it's cheating. If he was told that he can consult but must document, I think it's academic dishonesty: he's lying about where his work came from. A solution to a problem on the internet is probably not an academic work -- it is not itself original or creative -- so the crime is in my view probably not plagiarism. Calling it such is confusing. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:21
  • I agree with your distinction, and I think you understood my comment in the right way. What I want to stress is that we should avoid behaviours that can generate confusion, especially in subsequent years when those who will continue at the graduate level will be asked to write academic works. And in this case it costs little to put the reference. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:30

I generally agree with Dmitry Savostyanov's answer, but I would like to put it in another perspective:

Can you propose any (really) good reason for not citing the reference?

  • To not be able to find it? (assuming there would be an online opportunity - legally - during the exam, e.g. in open-book ones) Nov 26, 2016 at 20:54
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    @CaptainEmacs If you give an open book exam, you really shouldn't base your exam on a textbook exercise. Covering a bad practice with another one is not a good idea ;-) Nov 26, 2016 at 20:56
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    Indeed. I think the whole point of an exam is to keep it offline. Otherwise, I rather prefer homework. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:08
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    It's nice to keep an exam as straightforward as possible, so citing each question (if unnecessary) takes space on the page, time of the student reading it, and time of the instructor citing each problem.
    – Nate 8
    Nov 27, 2016 at 4:02
  • @Nate8 A way to keep the exam paper neat is to put the citation only in the sheets stored in the exam repository. Nov 27, 2016 at 9:06

tl;dr: it's not OK

Long answer: I see two aspects here.

  1. To use someone else's work without referencing it.

Ask yourself, would you like your students to do the same? Academics generally agree that plagiarism is not acceptable and constitutes a significant academic misconduct. As a professor, you are seen as a model example by your students. Show them a good example by always referencing your sources (in lectures, exercises, and of course your research papers).

  1. To use previously published problems in the final exam.

Policies may vary from School to School, but in many places it is expected that the final exam (and any assessment in fact) consists of problems, which are new to students. If problems are copied from a textbook, how do you know that students did not have access to these problems, and to their solutions before the exam? There is no control over it, which puts some (lucky) students in more favourite position, not because they learned the material better, but because they ran across the same textbook you are using.

For both reasons, it is not OK to use textbook problems in the exam, and it is not OK to use textbook problems without the reference.

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    Many textbooks provide question banks and sample tests and I have never gotten the impression from book publishers or their representatives that if we use those resources to create a test that we should cite the textbook. As to having lucky students get a benefit, it is entirely possible (even probable, depending on the course) that a question one writes will be present in some textbook, so unless a professor verifies that their question has never been asked in any format available to the student, there will be students who can get lucky. Nov 26, 2016 at 20:35
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    While I think that there is a kernel of truth to this -- certainly professors can be overly lazy in reusing old exam problems, and I disapprove of this -- I think that overall it is based on a misunderstanding of the scope of work to which plagiarism applies. An exam in a course is not an academic work in the sense plagiarism is intended to cover, just like course syllabi, course webpages, memos written to department members and so forth are not academic works... Nov 26, 2016 at 20:40
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    @guifa If you write a question, it is possible that it is the same as a question elsewhere in a textbook. If you copy a question, it is definite. Nov 26, 2016 at 20:43
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    @PeteL.Clark Are you sure your students understand the difference between an academic work and not academic work, as you define it? If not, what kind of example this shows them? Nov 26, 2016 at 20:45
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    However, if you are suggesting that by "plagiarizing on exams" we are somehow encouraging students to plagiarize: no, I don't have much worry about that. I think that students understand very well the artifices of "exam culture" and are aware that the rest of the world functions very differently. I disagree that not imposing the standards of academic publications on exams is somehow hypocritical: on the contrary, we offer the same courses again and again, and repetition and standardization is an important part of the goal. Nov 26, 2016 at 21:10

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