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Would professors keep an undergrad student's essay to contribute to knowledge in a certain field? I mean keep for the purpose of citing and using it as a reference when conducting further research on the topic.

Or are they designed to just reiterate information already known just to prove that the student understands the material to qualify to pass a class?

Consider a scenario where the prof is covering course topics throughout the semester and then tells the students to write an essay (the typical introductory paragraph/thesis, body, conclusion, etc.). For example, a student writes about a certain topic in the field and the arguments used to defend that topic over an opposing claim against the original thesis. The student may present arguments that can can be a breakthrough in the field as to why a certain position on a topic is the best choice.

This could happen where the student has a background outside the classroom that contributed to the "original" discovery.

  • I'm a bit unclear on what you are asking - advance who's knowledge? It's certainly true that an essay can advance a student's knowledge through writing, and that a professor can learn new things through reading student essays (I'm sure it is the best part of the otherwise terrible task of reading student essays), but they are generally not published to the public so they don't really "advance knowledge" in the general sense of research. If you clarify what aspect you would like to know about we could be more helpful. – BrianH Dec 29 '16 at 22:41
  • @BrianDHall I mean toward public knowledge in the academic field, such as a Phd would. I know it's a stretch to compare, but in the sense of creating a thesis in just an undergrad essay for say like a first or second year class that is a breakthrough in the research that hasn't been known yet. – J Phills Dec 29 '16 at 22:47
  • Undergraduates do write and publish research papers. It's rare, but it does happen. But it doesn't usually happen from a homework assignment, which is what "essay" usually connotes, at least to me. Can you clarify what you mean by "essay"? – JeffE Dec 29 '16 at 23:35
  • I don't understand what you mean by "keep". – David Richerby Dec 30 '16 at 0:09
  • @JeffE I mean in the general sense where the prof is covering course topics throughout the semester and then tells the students to write an essay (the typical introductory paragraph/thesis, body, conclusion, etc.). For example, a student writes about a certain topic in the field and the arguments used to defend that topic over an opposing claim against the original thesis. The student may present arguments that can can be a breakthrough in the field as to why a certain position on a topic is the best choice. – J Phills Dec 30 '16 at 0:19
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I imagine that undergraduate essays rarely contribute to the knowledge in a field, but there is nothing stopping them.

There is no rule that you have to hold a PhD to contribute. You can be a graduate student, an undergraduate, or completely unaffiliated with a university and contribute.

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    @JPhills That is a tricky issue. Of course, it would be considered a part of the student's intellectual property. If it really advances the field, then the prof should encourage the student to publish it in a suitable medium. Once published, the prof should cite it as appropriate. If the student declines, then the prof can still cite but due to FERPA the cite might look like [unpublished essay from unnamed student]. – emory Dec 29 '16 at 23:12
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    The point of citing anything is to tell other people that the idea you're conveying is not your own. – astronat Dec 30 '16 at 10:15
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    @JPhills the prof would have no proof that he did not just make the student essay up, but s/he should not be claiming credit for ideas that are not his/her own. – emory Dec 30 '16 at 13:40
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    @JPhills if the student did not want to share his/her ground breaking essay with the world, then it is his/her right not to. The student's expression of ideas are protected, the student's ideas are not. If the student does not want to share his/her ground breaking ideas with the world there are 2 options: (1) do not submit the essay to the prof, (2) have the prof sign a NDA before submitting the essay. – emory Dec 30 '16 at 14:21
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    @JPhills I have taught classes and I have never read anything that was even close to worth stealing. This is an extremely rare problem. – emory Dec 30 '16 at 14:23
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My impression is that your only protection from an unethical professor, whether you are an undergrad, grad student, or professional, is:

Write a paper and submit it.

The ethical thing for the professor to do would be to say:

The ideas you proposed in your term paper are very exciting and I believe have the potential to form the basis of a publishable article. I would suggest that you apply to do a summer project with Prof. XX to develop your ideas further. Also, Course YY, which will be offered in the spring by Prof. ZZ, would be quite helpful in terms of background knowledge / research techniques / writing mechanics (or whatever). I hope you can fit it into your schedule. Let me know how it goes!

And then s/he would return the term paper to you.

My answer is based on a comment I once heard, urging a grad student to submit a paper quickly, that was in draft form, because a particular professor in the department had been observed going through someone's trash can.

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That would be the "honorable" thing for the professor to do.

This is most likely to happen when the student has a helpful background outside the classroom. For instance, the student has a farm background, and designed a new farm implement for a mechanical engineering class.

It is "easy" for a professor to claim credit for teaching the student something "in class" that the student used, because of the professor's superior knowledge. The above example is one where the student is in the best position to defeat a professor's claim; that is, the student can challenge the professor to match his knowledge of farming.

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