My senior thesis student this year came to my office today to ask a question as he’s starting to work on writing his thesis. I’ve given him copies of the theses of the last couple of students to work in my lab, and asked him to start on a draft of the background sections. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the background sections sufficiently distinct from the corresponding sections in the earlier theses.

This is a sort of tricky point when it comes to issues of academic honesty in science. Scientific questions always have definite right and wrong answers, and that limits the range of possible responses. It can be difficult to catch cheaters in science classes, because the right answers will necessarily look pretty much the same. The only unambiguous way to catch people copying off one another is to spot two papers making the same improbable mistakes. (Which happens fairly often, actually. I don’t have a problem with students working together on homework– in fact, I encourage it– but I do ask that they report who they worked with. Inevitably, though, at least one group won’t, and they’re always surprised when I write “You worked with X, Y, and Z on this. In the future, please state that clearly on the paper.)

The same problem happens, to a lesser degree, in scientific writing. Two papers, or two theses, written on work from the same lab will often have opening sections that are more or less identical. Not word-for-word identical, mind, but the same ideas, in the same order, in very similar notation. There are only so many ways to report the exact same facts, and all of the papers from a given lab will tend to require the same set of background information.

The key, of course, is to avoid word-for-word copying. This can occasionally be a problem, particularly if some previous student has come up with a particularly elegant way of describing some situation, but in most cases, it’s not that hard to avoid. You just start with a blank page, and fill it up in your own words, and you’ll end up with something that’s different enough to pass muster.

But it is something to guard against, and I’m not surprised that my student was worried about it.

Comments

  1. #1 dean
    January 8, 2009

    “they’re always surprised when I write “You worked with X, Y, and Z on this. In the future, please state that clearly on the paper.)”

    This happens in my math and statistics courses too – more so in statistics, where a small percentage of students will work together on a computer project, then print out the raw output numerous times, with each person submitting the same thing: same account information, same time of analysis, etc.

    I always tell them “This was easy to detect when I was a graduate student ******* years ago” – it doesn’t matter.

  2. #2 The Young Linguist
    January 8, 2009

    This can create issues at universities where programs that measure ‘similarity’ between different documents are used. (Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with this.)

    However, my dad recently did a Masters, and had this very problem. He’d write a paper, look at it in this program, and it would say that his analysis was “30% plagiarized” and he’d have to go through and redo it over and over until it was under “5% plagiarized”. It would also list who he’d “stolen” from (using that term in program) and quite often, it was some obscure article from somewhere he’d never heard of, usually about different subjects even, but because he described a concept by comparing it to X, and someone else had described something else by comparing it to X, he had to change his paper.

    Ridiculous, in my opinion.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    January 8, 2009

    However, my dad recently did a Masters, and had this very problem. He’d write a paper, look at it in this program, and it would say that his analysis was “30% plagiarized” and he’d have to go through and redo it over and over until it was under “5% plagiarized”. It would also list who he’d “stolen” from (using that term in program) and quite often, it was some obscure article from somewhere he’d never heard of, usually about different subjects even, but because he described a concept by comparing it to X, and someone else had described something else by comparing it to X, he had to change his paper.

    That sort of foolishness absolutely demands passive resistance through flippant and absurd analogies. “The history of science is rather like kumquat chutney…” or some such.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 9, 2009

    “The history of science is rather like kumquat chutney… chunky, funky and full of flavors.”

    “The history of science is rather like kumquat chutney… Just as Science is the new Natural Philosophy, chutney is the new pesto.”

    “The history of science is rather like kumquat chutney… you have to put all ingredients in a heavy pot over low heat until the phlogiston has evaporated and the liquid has thickened.”

    I’m not sure, Chad. Maybe if you could give us the key equation? Maybe the Schrodinger-Curry wave kernel?

    The above is 11% plagiarized from Google.

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