Collaboration and plagiarism

Faculty and TA policy for plagiarism and academic misconduct

As Faculty and Teaching Assistants in the Department of Computer Science, our primary instructional responsibility is the creation of an environment which enables our students to learn. Any such environment must be free from impediments to the exchange of thoughts and ideas among students. At the same time, we want to encourage students to explore their own abilities through critical thinking and by experimenting individually.

A secondary, though still important responsibility is the accurate evaluation of each student in relation to their peers. This requires that we have a clear view of each student's ability, ingenuity and originality. Such a view is only available if all the students are working according to the same set of known guidelines regarding academic conduct. While we cannot prevent academic misconduct, we must make students aware of what constitutes proper academic behavior. This, in the absence of misconduct, will ensure a fair basis for evaluation.

These responsibilities require that we make a clear, public statement as to what constitutes acceptable (and encouraged) collaboration, and what constitutes academic misconduct in the form of plagiarism. The line between these two is hard to define and perhaps somewhat arbitrary, but perhaps its clarity is more important than its exact position. In the interest of deterrence and fair treatment, we must also establish a public set of procedures to be followed when academic misconduct is suspected. This policy defines this line and these procedures. It does not address other forms of academic misconduct.

Collaboration and Plagiarism

The University Calendar makes a statement defining substantial and complete plagiarism. These definitions are not sufficiently explicit for Computer Science. In the Department of Computer Science where some forms of collaboration are encouraged, plagiarism is often difficult to detect, and a large component of a student's evaluation may be derived from assignment work. Thus a precise statement of what constitutes acceptable collaboration is required.

Who Decides What is Appropriate?

In all cases it is up to the instructor to define what constitutes acceptable collaboration for his or her course. What is required collaboration for one course may be considered serious misconduct for another. These guidelines form a "default" suitable for the majority of courses which are based on individual evaluation (as opposed to team evaluation).

In any event, it is imperative that every instructor be vocal and clear about the guidelines for his or her course, whether they be these guidelines, or those formulated specifically for that course. If the guidelines are not made clear, it may be difficult to distinguish between honest mistakes and intentional misconduct.


A clear case of plagiarism exists if a student passes off someone else's work as their own. Examples of such behavior include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • A group of students each performing a separate part of an assignment. Each student in the group then hands in the cumulative effort as their own work.
  • A student making cosmetic alterations to another's work and then handing it in as their own.
  • A student having another person complete an assignment and then handing it in as their own.
  • A student handing in (as their own) a solution to an assignment performed by someone else from a previous offering of the course.

These are all cases of indisputable plagiarism and are characterized by the submission of work, performed by another, under one's own name.

Permitted Collaboration

Collaboration and research, where they do not constitute plagiarism, should be generally encouraged. These efforts constitute honest attempts at obtaining a deeper understanding of the problem at hand. They can also serve as a validation of a student's approach to a problem. Some examples are as follows:

  • A student researching existing, public approaches to a problem presented as an assignment.
  • A group of students discussing existing, public approaches to a problem presented as an assignment.
  • A group of students discussing the requirements of an assignment.
  • A student discussing the merits of their proposed solution to an assignment with the instructor or teaching assistant.

Provided that no plagiarism is committed, these are all valid (and encouraged) activities.

The Grey Area

The differences between the examples of plagiarism and encouraged collaboration above are those of originality and acknowledgment. In general, any work submitted without acknowledgment which is not the original work of the indicated author constitutes plagiarism. Some examples which illustrate this point follow. It should be noted that while some of the examples do not constitute academic misconduct, they may be of questionable academic value. It should also be noted that anyone (knowingly or through negligence) contributing to someone else's academic misconduct is also guilty of the same.

  • It is acceptable to use solution proposals presented by the instructor or teaching assistant. The acknowledgment is implicit. Explicit acknowledgment is not usually required.
  • It is not acceptable to use publicly available work without acknowledgment.
  • It is not acceptable to use a full or partial solution obtained from or by another through any means (verbal, written, electronic, etc.), without that person's permission.
  • It is not acceptable to collaborate on a single solution without acknowledgment.
  • It is not acceptable to discuss solutions or partial solutions to a problem and then incorporate them without acknowledgment.
  • It is acceptable to implement a standard solution to a problem without acknowledgment, but it is not acceptable to incorporate someone else's implementation without acknowledgment. Here standard solution means a commonly used data structure or algorithm.
  • It is not acceptable to re-submit an assignment from another course or a previous offering of the same course without acknowledgment, regardless of authorship.
  • It is not acceptable to make a solution available as an aid to others.

This set of examples helps define the bounds between encouraged behavior and misconduct, but does not constitute an exhaustive set.

Procedures in the Case of Suspected Academic Misconduct

The procedures in cases of suspected academic misconduct have, until recently, been ad hoc. This section suggests a guideline to formalize these procedures and ensure that each student suspected obtains fair and uniform treatment. The procedure to be followed and penalty to be applied are determined by the seriousness of the proven offense.


No suspected case of misconduct is to be handled by the Teaching Assistant. Even cases deemed to be minor must be passed on to the instructor.

Cases deemed minor by the instructor are to be handled by the instructor and related to the Chair of the Undergraduate Student Services Committee. It is important that each case be related to the Chair of the Undergraduate Student Services Committee in case the student is committing (or has committed) similar misconduct in other Computer Science courses.

Cases where the student and instructor cannot reach agreement about the situation must be passed on to the Chair of the Undergraduate Student Services Committee.

Cases deemed to be serious, and cases where the student would like to appeal their treatment must be passed on to the Chair of the Undergraduate Student Services Committee for resolution. Depending on the severity of the case and the agreement (or lack of) between the parties involved, the case may be further forwarded to the Dean of Science, or the President's Advisory Committee on Student Discipline.


Penalties include (but are not limited to) the following (from the University Calendar):

  • A failing grade or mark of zero in the course, examination, or assignment in which the academic misconduct occurred.
  • Suspension from the University for a specified period of time, or indefinitely.
  • Reprimand, with letter placed in a student's file.
  • A notation on the student's permanent record of the penalty imposed.

Again, the choice of penalty applied follows from the seriousness of the academic misconduct.