Originality and Ownership in Research

Plagiarism is a fuzzy concept, which leads to two dangers for novice researchers. On the one hand, insufficient caution can lead to sanctionable ethics violations. On the other hand, excessive caution can lead researchers to shy away from teamwork and miss opportunities for productive collaboration.

The six scenarios below can be used to help align perceptions of what counts as plagiarism. For example, a helpful 20-minute exercise is to break a large group into subgroups of 3, have each subgroup consider whether each scenario counts as plagiarism or something else, and then examine each scenario by having subgroups explain their conclusions to the whole group.

These scenarios were developed in 2003 by Nigel Ward for use at the UTEP Computer Science Graduate Student Orientation.

  1. In Rashid's M.S. thesis defense he referred to "preliminary work we did". Upon questioning it turns out that this work was done by his advisor and other members of the research group before Rashid even came to UTEP. Is he wrong to use the word "we"?

  2. Carletta and Fred are working on two aspects of the same problem. For a laboratory meeting Carletta prepares a small literature survey, and emails it to Fred to ask his opinion. Later Fred copies three paragraphs verbatim into his thesis. When confronted, Fred points out that the acknowledgements section includes the statement "I especially thank Carletta for her many valuable contributions to this work". Is his behavior wrong?

  3. Andrea's class project is an experiment on the performance of a Java compiler, which replicates almost exactly a previously published study. Is this wrong?

  4. Lim's Masters project is Release 3 of a large freeware project. In addition to Lim, there were five other main contributors, some of who contributed more code than he did. Is he wrong to claim this as his own work?

  5. Bill's strategy for surveying related research was to type in relevant phrases and sentences he finds in journal articles and conference proceedings. He then organizes these quotes and re-writes them to provide a description of the state of the art in the introduction chapter of his thesis. One of his thesis committee members uses Google and discovers that several long phrases are almost unchanged from those in a published paper. When confronted, Bill says that, since his English is rather poor, he thought it was silly to rewrite those phrases and make them less clear. Is Bill wrong?

  6. For Kota's thesis defense announcement his advisor rewrote the abstract entirely: every phrase came out different, although the ideas are of course unchanged. Is it appropriate for Kota to take this rewritten abstract and submit it as part of his thesis?

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