The Right Thing to Do: Master Safe Practices for Writing Papers

During the month of October designated as National Information Literacy Awareness Month UC Libraries invites students to think about scenarios that have to do with the ethics of using information. A couple of weeks ago we posted the following prompt:

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(These are just a few responses we received).

We have asked Dr. Cynthia Nitz Ris, Associate Professor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, to comment on your responses. Here are her thoughts:

Jordan, trying to help her friend Daniel, agrees to let him see her paper when he is having trouble writing his own.  In some ways, this seems like something many of us might be willing to do, and yet what happens here—Jordan thinks Daniel’s paper seems a lot like hers—now seems like it might be problematic.  If Daniel copied Jordan’s paper and passed it off as his, most of us might recognize this as plagiarism.  But what if only some ideas are borrowed, or the structure is the same, or the arguments sound strangely similar to Jordan’s?  At what point does learning how to do the paper become borrowing from the paper and thus plagiarism?

One commentor notes “Meh, no one will notice,” and “besides Jordan didn’t use reference citations.”  Whether or not the student “borrowed” citations, ideas, similar sentences, or similar arguments, it’s all plagiarism, and it is whether or not someone notices. Also, chances are that teachers will notice similarities between papers. Students sometimes worry that they don’t have a unique voice, yet most teachers who read student papers can identify the way each student writes and will see when that changes or when two styles are uncannily similar.

Another response asks us to assume that Jordan has told the teacher.  Some students would feel uncomfortable doing this.  Depending on Jordan and Daniel’s friendship, Jordan could ask Daniel to rewrite the paper to eliminate the similarities.  She could tell Daniel that she is concerned they can both get into trouble—Daniel for plagiarism, and both of them for unauthorized collaboration.  After all, the UC Office of Judicial Affairs explains in the section on “Unauthorized Collaboration” in their Academic Misconduct page that students are not permitted to collaborate unless they have been given specific authorization by their instructor to do so, noting that “[t]his violation also includes allowing another person to view your work drafted or completed without the necessary authorization.”

What is collaboration and what is helping a friend understand an assignment?  Another comment gives rise to the idea that one student can show another “how to do” the paper.  Jordan could have reviewed the assignment with Daniel, pointing out what should be included, and providing some examples that might help him better understand the project.  Helping him see how he could improve his own argument and his own ideas might also be possible, though even here it might be useful to check in with the professor—just in case.

Ultimately, it’s Daniel’s responsibility to complete his paper so that it represents his own ideas and work.  To do so, it’s always helpful to re-read the assignment carefully, checking with the teacher if some specific points are unclear.  After drafting a response with enough time to revise, a student can stop by the teacher’s office hours to see if a review of the draft is possible, or make an appointment with the Academic Writing Center for a one-on-one tutoring session.

All students have the responsibility of knowing what is appropriate behavior—those trying to do their work, and those trying to help others.  When in doubt, ask your professor, a UC librarian, or for confidential questions and answers, ask at your friendly UC Ombuds.

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