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For an assignment, I was supposed to do some tedious calculations and essentially compute a certain number of things and then just list them as answers, one after another, without the calculations. There were about 15 of these things that I had to list.

I did this, and then misplaced the paper on which I had written them. I was sitting in class getting ready to hand in my paper when I realized this. It was the last paper in the stack and I guess it just got lost somewhere.

So what I did was that I found the solution online, and then just listed those things down again and turned it in. The problem is made worse by the fact that I listed the 15 things down in the same order as the solution found online. There wasn't a "natural" order to the things, apart from maybe the first and last thing, and therefore, there were 13! = 6227020800 different ways of listing them, and so of course it will look very suspicious if somebody noticed that I just happened to have the same order as this other solution.

Is this plagiarism? What should I do if this is caught? I am considering writing a mail to my instructor right now, but I could also leave it be and hope it is not caught.


EDIT:

One of the answers below raised another question. What if my original solution was wrong? In this case, I definitely cheated by copying from the correct solution, but, since I did not know whether my original solution was wrong, I did not cheat intentionally, so .... ?


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    1) Whether or not something is "plagiarism" does not depend on how likely you can be caught (hence, the number of possible orderings really should not matter). 2) If there is not a "natural" order of the items, and the order is more or less arbitrary, a plagiarism claim should rather not hinge on the ordering, but on the fact that the items are exactly the same. 3) Your title is rather misleading. It sounds as if you are asking about copying your own answer that you had "misplaced" (written in the wrong spot) before, not copying someone else's answer because you "misplaced" (lost) yours. – O. R. Mapper Dec 20 '16 at 13:22
  • How would I copy my own answer if I had misplaced it? By the very fact that I have misplaced it, I am not in any position to copy it. But I edited the title. – Imean Dec 20 '16 at 13:31
  • I had interpreted "misplaced" as "mispositioned", "put into the wrong location" (on an answer sheet). – O. R. Mapper Dec 20 '16 at 13:32
  • Do you still have the scratch papers that you used to calculate the answers? – scaaahu Dec 20 '16 at 13:41
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    Wow. What an awful assignment. – JeffE Dec 20 '16 at 14:03
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Is it plagiarism if I copy somebody else's answer...

Yes. Without even reading anything else you wrote. This is exactly what the word "plagiarism" means.

  • Well, what if the rest of the sentence was "...and then cited the reference appropriately." – Kyle Hayden Dec 21 '16 at 20:22
  • @squirrel What if? Copying somebody else's answer is completely different to quoting a source. A sourse is generally somebody attempting to explain the subject in general: one might quote several sources to build up an answer to a specific question, and this would show one's ability to conduct research and to synthesize a position. In contrast, copying somebody else's answer is not research and requires no synthesis. It's just copying somebody else's work. Copying somebody else's work is plagiarism. – David Richerby Dec 21 '16 at 20:45
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By definition, turning in work you did not complete yourself is considered plagiarism. You can explain what happened after the fact if the professor does happen to discover the act, in which case it might be harder to convince him of the innocence of your actions. Or, you can email him and explain what happened and offer to show him your scratch notes. For the record, I think the assignment itself was designed poorly and invited students to find ways to answer the questions without actually doing the work. My opinion, of course.

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Is this plagiarism? What should I do if this is caught? I am considering writing a mail to my instructor right now, but I could also leave it be and hope it is not caught.

Yes, this is obviously plagiarism, and moreover, plagiarism that by your account would be very easy to detect.

At the same time, your story makes it fairly clear (assuming everything you wrote is true of course) that you committed the plagiarism not because you are a dishonest or conniving person, but out of panic, and, I'm sorry to say it, a certain lack of maturity.

As for what to do, here is how to address the situation like a grown-up, in the way that I think will be best for your peace of mind, your conscience, your present and future relationship with your instructor, and the personal growth you can derive from this incident.

What you need to do is:

  1. Write an email to the instructor where you explain, in an honest and accurate way, precisely what happened, in as many details as necessary (and possibly including even additional details that may sound irrelevant, like mentioning other things that happened to you that day and may have contributed to your misplacing the papers, since such details will add credibility to your story).

  2. In the email, acknowledge clearly and unambiguously that you committed plagiarism, say that you are sorry for this and promise that you will never even think of doing anything like that again. Avoid using weasel words like "but" or "unintentionally." Naturally, you need to mean all of that, otherwise you are just committing another act of dishonesty.

  3. In the email, provide the instructor with scanned copies of the work you actually did but did not submit, including both the scratch work and the final answers that you were planning on submitting. Say that you recognize that the instructor cannot know for sure that you did the work before the submission deadline and that it might seem like you are trying to dishonestly claim you did the work only after the fact, but offer your word of honor that your story is in fact true. In view of the awkward situation you are putting the instructor in, it might be a good idea to offer to do an extra assignment that they will assign you, which you can say you would be happy to do for the extra learning you will derive from it and as a sign of your honesty and good faith.

  4. Finally -- and I think this is a really important part of my advice -- you should also mention in your email that you sought advice about what to do on Academia Stack Exchange, and provide a link to this question. I know it sounds tempting not to do it, since it may seem like if the instructor knows that you are following my (and/or other people's) advice they will think that your confession is insincere. But once again, I think your situation is all about honesty and confronting tricky situations like a grown-up. By exposing yourself to a maximal level of disclosure and accountability, you will be sending an important signal both to the instructor and to yourself that you take honesty seriously and are willing to be honest even when doing so might not be to your benefit. Conversely, by not owning up to this part of the story you will again be committing a small act of dishonesty (admittedly a more minor one that does not count as academic misconduct), which would undermine many of the goals that I think you can hope to achieve by following the advice in the first place -- the personal growth, peace of mind etc. (not to mention that there is a chance that your instructor is a regular reader of this site...). So, regardless of what the instructor might choose to do with that information, I think doing as I am proposing will provide you with a valuable learning experience that will be very helpful to you in the future when invariably, like the rest of us, you will be faced with similarly tricky situations that everyone encounters over the course of their lives.

Hope this helps, and good luck.

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