Guidelines for Avoiding Plagiarism

This webpage concentrates on "plagiarism", which is one possible form of academic offence. Please read it carefully, even if it seems a bit long.

Prof. Jim Clarke has a more general website on Academic Offences: please read it to learn about other possible offences and how to avoid them.

Prof. Michelle Craig wrote a similar document specifically for CSC 108H that contains lots of advice useful for any course: How to Avoid Cheating.

The Office of Student Academic Integrity (OSAI) contains lots of great tips and reminders, in addition to many official documents related to academic integrity.

Contents


What is plagiarism?

The Faculty of Arts and Science defines plagiarism as follows:

to represent as one's own any idea or expression of an idea or work of another in any academic examination or term test or in connection with any other form of academic work...

(Read the complete details in the Faculty's Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters.)

In other words, any time that you hand in something (assignment, quiz, test, exam, anything else) that contains someone else's work or ideas, without giving proper credit, you are committing plagiarism. Note that if you correctly acknowledge the part(s) of your submission that is (are) not your own work, you are NOT committing plagiarism.

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Why is plagiarism bad?

Assignments are given to help you learn, by making you practice course material—if you commit plagiarism you are hurting yourself by not practicing and learning skills that you will need in your future studies and/or work.

Assignments are also given to help us evaluate how well you understand course material—if you commit plagiarism you are hurting other students in the class who did the work themselves, by being dishonest about your own work to get a mark you do not deserve.

When the University of Toronto grants you a degree, they are making a statement that you have certain skills and knowledge. The more cheating there is, the less this is true: as companies find out about this (when they hire incompetent students that have a UofT degree), this lowers the value of the degree for everyone.

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How can you avoid plagiarism?

[Note: everything in this section that mentions discussions with other students also applies to discussions with private tutors, or with anyone else not directly associated with the course (instructors and TAs).]

Never look at any part of another student's solution, on paper or on the computer screen, even if it is just a rough draft and not a complete solution. Of course, the same goes the other way around: never show another student any part of your solution, on paper or on the computer screen, even if it is just a rough draft. This holds even after the submission deadline (some students could hand in their work late).

Also, remember that by "solution", we mean not only code but also any report, testing, analysis of results, written answers, etc. Basically, anything that you must hand in for your assignment is part of the solution and must be done entirely on your own, unless clearly specified as part of the assignment or course.

"General discussions" may be acceptable as long as you take no written notes, but it is difficult to know exactly what is "general" and what is "particular", so you could easily end up going too far in your discussions without realizing it. Also, once you start discussing assignment solutions with other students, it is often impossible to stop even if you realize that you are going too far.

As a general precaution, if you do have general discussions about an assignment with other students, and are careful to take no written notes, we recommend that you wait at least 1-2 hours and do something else (watch TV, listen to music, play games, etc.) before you write up you own solution. This ensures that your written solution will be truly your own and will accurately reflect your understanding (and not simply be a copy of someone else's ideas).

You may think that if you do this, you won't be able to write up correct solutions because you won't remember some critical detail that you discussed with your friends. But that is just the point: what you hand in must be your own understanding, even if it is incomplete. And as you will see when you read on, submitting your own incomplete work is always better than submitting someone else's work.

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How can you protect yourself?

Note that providing unauthorized assistance to another student is considered just as serious as obtaining such assistance. This means that if you forget a USB key, a printout, or any part of your solution in the lab (or somewhere else where another student can easily get at it), you are considered responsible if someone copies your work (because we cannot tell the difference between someone who really forgot and someone who left it there on purpose for his friend to "find by accident").

To protect yourself, do not lend any part of your solution to any student until after the assignment has been marked and returned (even waiting after the deadline for submission is not safe: someone could hand it in late). Also, keep all of your old notes and drafts until after the end of the course (so that if something does happen, you have proof of the work that you did yourself).

If you think that someone stole part of your solution (e.g., a printout), inform your instructor immediately.

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What is the most common cheating situation?

The most common situation when plagiarism happens looks something like this: it's 1 hour before the submission deadline and you're still working on your code because you're stuck with this annoying bug that you can't figure out (or this one step in a proof that you're not sure how to carry out); you ask your friend (or maybe just some other student at the lab or on your floor at the residence) to show you what they've done on this part of the assignment, just to help you get unstuck; when your friend hesitates, you promise that you won't copy their solution, that you just need them to explain or show to you how to get over this one bug. After all, it's not plagiarism if you don't copy their solution, you just need to understand this one small part, but there just isn't enough time for a lengthy explanation...

If you get into a situation like this because you underestimated the amount of work required for the assignment, or because of bad time management, be an adult and accept the consequences of your mistake: hand in whatever work you've done yourself, even if it's incomplete. Don't make another mistake on top of it by cheating and worse, drag a friend (or any other student) into it!

Sometimes, even when you don't wait until the last minute to work on your assignment, you still get stuck and it takes you a very long time. In those cases, the problem is usually not with the assignment but because there is some important concept in the course material that you have not understood correctly or completely. If you try to get around this by cheating, not only are you doing something wrong but when the time comes to write the midterm test or the final exam, or to do anything that requires this concept in your future courses or job, you'll be just as stuck as you were on that assignment! You will be much better off to concentrate on figuring out what topic you have trouble understanding and getting help from your TA or instructor on that topic.

Moral: If you start working on your assignment early, you'll discover the bugs in your code or the topics you have trouble with in time to get help from your TA or instructor.

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How do we find out about suspicious cases?

In courses that involve programming assignments, we take everyone's electronic submission (from all sections of the course on all three campuses) and run it through special software that detects similarities. This software cannot be fooled by changing format, comments, variables names, and more (so it's always easier to just write the code yourself than to try to "fool" this software).

In courses without programming, we get a single TA to mark everyone's assignments and look for unusual similarities.

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What happens to cheaters?

The standard penalty for commiting plagiarism the first time is a mark of zero (0) on the assignment (because you didn't do the work yourself), a further reduction of your final mark in the course (usually -5% to -10%, because you were dishonest about the work you submitted), and an annotation on your mark transcript saying "cautioned/censured for academic misconduct". It is always worse than handing in your own incomplete work!

If we detect similarities between your work and that of other students, we will hold on to your assignment and ask you to meet with us to explain yourself. Our task is to get an explanation of the similarities that we detected.

Moral: If you do something wrong, when you get caught just take responsibility for your mistake and be honest. This will make the entire process much shorter and easier for everyone.

Don't panic if you didn't do anything wrong! In order to ensure that the course is fair for everyone, we pursue all suspicious cases. It may happen that there is a perfectly innocent explanation for a case that we thought was suspicious: if this ever happens to you, just be honest and the case will be resolved quickly—you will not be penalized if you committed no offence.

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How can you help each other?

You should not discuss assignment solutions with other students, but there are many other ways that you can work together:

Remember that if you understand the course material correctly, you should have no trouble doing the assignments. Working together to understand course material always pays off.

Also remember that we (the instructors and TA's) are here to help: our job is to make sure that you learn the material, so make use of all of the resources that we put at your disposal. (Of course, you have to do your share of the work too!)

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