How Computer Code Plagiarism Can Affect Engineering Students

Academic integrity is one of the core foundations of any college or university. Institutions are directed to establish codes of conduct to address when misconduct arises, whether it be cheating, unauthorized use of materials, or plagiarism, among others. Many schools have zero-tolerance policies surrounding unwarranted academic gains. Therefore, first-time offenders risk suspension or expulsion from programs needed to land their dream careers.

Plagiarism is frequently applied to pursuits of the written word. Yet, there are plenty of degree-awarding programs where writing essays and reports aren't the primary modes of academic evaluation. The burgeoning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields may not utilize written assignments or book reports, but they are not immune from plagiarism-related worries. Students enrolled in STEM-based programs risk accusations of a new, slightly different type of plagiarism that has its own unique concerns, such as computer programming plagiarism.

Yet, it's essential to know from where computer programming plagiarism originates. Although characteristic of software-based classwork, it's inherently similar to penned prose.

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is one of the most serious allegations to endure as a student. While many believe plagiarism is simply passing the work of someone else off as your own, there are three distinct types based on the intent of the author:

  • Accidental plagiarism: Sometimes known as inadvertent misconduct, this type of plagiarism involves the illicit reinterpretation or misquotation of the original source material.
  • Mosaic plagiarism: Also defined as patchwork plagiarism, such instances are represented by rearranging another's work or loosely restating the same material without attribution.
  • Paraphrasing: Rewording another person's original phraseology, metaphor, or other literary devices without acknowledgment.
  • Self-plagiarism: While this form of plagiarism doesn't rely on outside sources, students who turn in previously submitted work without receiving permission can still be punished for inauthenticity.

Colleges and universities may address plagiarism in general in their codes of conduct. For example, Princeton University states plagiarism is "The use of any outside source without proper acknowledgment," wherein "'Outside source' means any work, published or unpublished, by any person other than the student."

Most instances of plagiarism occur within the confines of the written word. However, over the years, computer programming has gained popularity and is ubiquitous in all institutions of higher education and the workforce. Therefore, students risk disciplinary action in coding classes and in other areas of academia where back-end programming is used as a means of academic evaluation.

What Is Computer Programming Plagiarism?

While the notion may be self-explanatory, computer programming plagiarism is the use of improperly attributed or sourced computer programming code. Yet, plagiarism can also involve what some schools and programs call unauthorized collaboration. This involves two or more students working on a class project together. Even if their work is individually different, they may still garner misconduct charges if permission was not given to work together beforehand. Many times, colleges and universities will have a code of conduct prohibiting unauthorized collaboration. However, guidelines may be vague, and instructors will have a syllabus with their own rules managing how students conduct themselves academically and with whom they may work, if at all.

One of the guiding principles in computer programming is to reuse code, as re-developing pages of script is time-consuming and often unnecessary. While students can use pre-written code, they must understand that even though the project may be theirs, the code isn't. Nevertheless, computer programming plagiarism isn't merely failing to provide the necessary citations for the code you didn't create. For example, the following may be considered academic misconduct for students using code:

  • Allowing someone else to write code for you
  • Making changes to your own previously created code
  • Re-typing someone else's algorithmic application

To be concise, any code that is submitted for a grade or used in academic endeavors disingenuously devoid of the creator's identification is plagiarism. Schools take computer programming plagiarism very seriously, especially with engineering students. Allegations can not only tarnish a student's academic reputation but also hinder their abilities to gain employment with renowned engineering firms upon graduation.

How To Provide Proper Attributions

Like traditional written text, computer code should be cited. Although that may seem matter of fact, schools will have their own policies governing the border between proper attributions and plagiarism. Commonly, students must cite any code or piece of code that is not original to the student, but schools may differ slightly in their thresholds.

The University of Cincinnati states only "facts that are commonly known" need not be cited, but other written, visual, and recorded material does. MIT requires students to attribute code whenever they copy code from an external source, whether it's a "snippet" or an "entire module." Typically, the date and URL are sufficient as a citation, but students must be aware of any "terms of agreement" found on an open-source website that require a source license to be listed whenever the code is used.

How Do You Determine If You're Using Common Knowledge?

Many have heard the phrase "common knowledge" regarding citations. Yet, what does that actually mean? How do you know what an average member of the public knows?

For all intents and purposes, common knowledge refers to information—in this case, computer code—that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to conduct their own research. To determine this, you may ask yourself:

  • Who is my audience, or who will be checking my work?
  • What can I correctly assume they know about the particular programming language?
  • Will I be questioned about where I obtained the programming information?

When you're in doubt, citing your sources is always a good measure. Regardless, you can be sure that you must cite knowledge that isn't common, like:

  • Datasets generated by others
  • References to algorithms created by others
  • Specific numbers, codes, or facts the reader wouldn't know unless they conducted the research
  • Statistics acquired from official sources like the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Why Should You Cite Computer Code?

Students may think that since they don't have to pay to use computer code, even open-source codes, using it without regard to whom created it, isn't the same as stealing. However, whenever engineering students use code to solve problems, they build their reputation among the school community and broadscale once they become employed in one of the country's many top engineering firms.

Engineers must be trusted to understand how the code they use works in various applications. If students begin to "copy and paste" their way into success, they risk reputational ruination before long. Even if the school doesn't catch them in the act, their persona will be regarded as untrustworthy to potential employers. Still, other reasons students should cite computer include, but are not limited to:

  • Allow readers to fact-check the author
  • Direct readers to pertinent sources
  • Give recognition to others for the work they created
  • Show readers you have done your due diligence in research

Moreover, citing sources paves the way for future scholars. Colleges and universities rely on their students' work to shine as a beacon to the engineering world, and citations are the bedrock of that process.

How Engineering Students Use Computer Code

Engineering students attend school to learn and hone their skills to create solutions to physical and virtual problems. During their studies, they will use a myriad of different coding languages such as:

  • C Language
  • C++
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • MATLAB (Matrix Laboratory)
  • PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor)
  • Python
  • SQL (Structured Query Language)
  • VBA (Visual Basic for Applications)

Whether students are problem-solving for data, electrical, mechanical, chemical, or civil applications, there is a corresponding language to assist them. Although engineering students have the capabilities to construct programs and use them to resolve computational inconsistencies, sometimes misconduct is alleged by the school.

How Is Computer Programming Plagiarism Detected?

With the ubiquity of the Internet comes the endless abundance of access to computer code. Although students retrieve code from every nook and cranny of the online world, numerous programs assist instructors in checking if a student's code is their own.

Plagiarism detection software isn't just for teachers trying to catch students submitting dishonest work. They are useful programs students may use, especially so they may check their work to see if they are inadvertently copying someone's original work. Some of these programs are:

  • AntiCutandPaste (ACNP)
  • Codequiry
  • Copyleaks
  • MOSS
  • SafeAssign
  • Turnitin
  • Unicheck

These online tools analyze various programming languages like C++, Python, Java, VBA, and more. Plagiarism checkers compare documents or code and identify similarities in language, structure, or ideas from publicly available sources and internal resources.

It's always a good idea to consult these resources if you're an engineering student working on coding projects to ensure they don't contain unintentional plagiarism. While the chances of you writing code identical to previously created code are minimal, they aren't zero. Luckily, many of the aforementioned plagiarism checkers are readily available through free downloads.

Problems With Plagiarism Detection Programs

While Copyleaks and other plagiarism detectors are intended to maintain academic integrity and help students provide original work, they aren't perfect. Unfortunately, they risk student privacy and may present false positives.

Most, but not all, plagiarism detectors for computer code automatically preserve a copy of all submitted material in their respective databases. While this means the program will continue to be refreshed with ongoing projects, so plagiarism doesn't happen in the future, program appraisers say the additions come without the author's permission, thus compromising copyright integrity and student privacy.

Moreover, some algorithms may be much more sensitive than others. Programs may flag seemingly common knowledge. This may make a student's work more challenging to create and even make it easier for schools to allege academic misconduct.

How Do Schools Address Computer Code Plagiarism?

If you turn in an assignment and it's flagged on one of the many plagiarism checking programs, you will be remanded for a significant violation of academic integrity. This goes for engineering students in any school. While accidental or unintentional plagiarism may only warrant a minor penalty like a lower grade on the assignment, flagrant infractions will make the school disciplinary board step in to address the situation.

Although every school has its own policies for plagiarism and other issues involving academic integrity, most are resolved similarly. For example, the grievance process at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering proceeds as follows.

Students suspected of engaging in plagiarism will be contacted by the course instructor of the program chairperson or director to review the facts with the student prompt. After meeting with the student and any applicable witnesses, if the faculty member believes academic misconduct has occurred, they must immediately contact their department's Academic Integrity Officer (AIO).

Depending on the severity of the plagiarism, if the instance is not the first offense and if the student is self-reported, an informal resolution or a formal hearing will address the situation.

Informal resolutions will settle first offenses and are loosely guided means by which the AIO directs the student and the faculty member to come to mutual terms. Imposed sanctions may be no more than a failure of the course. Regardless, neither party is obligated to resolve the situation informally.

Formal hearings will be pursued if the student and faculty member disagree on an informal resolution, plagiarism is a second offense, or the student denies the allegations. Initially, the faculty member will forward all evidence, pertinent details, and witness testimony to the AIO, who may also gather further information in their investigation. The case will be sent to the Hearing Panel if the AIO has substantiated enough of the alleged facts.

The three-member Hearing Panel selected by the Cognizant Dean will contact the student no later than three university business days before the formal hearing, with one university business day to notify the Cognizant Dean of any extenuating circumstances or concerns of conflict of interest from any Hearing Panel members. The accused student should inform the AIO of applicable witnesses, their names, and probable testimony at least three university business days before any meeting or hearing.

In a closed proceeding, the AIO will charge the Hearing Panel to conduct their duty as follows:

  1. The faculty member will make an opening statement
  2. The accused student will provide an opening statement
  3. The faculty member will answer questions from the Hearing Panel
  4. Hearing Panel members will pose questions to the accused student
  5. If any witnesses are present, the Hearing Panel will hear testimony and ask questions
  6. Both parties will make a closing statement

Based on a preponderance of the evidence, the Hearing Panel is charged with determining whether a student's actions constitute a violation of the school's academic integrity policy and, if so, determining appropriate sanctions. Most schools use this evidentiary standard. Unfortunately, unlike a court of law, wherein responsibility is determined using the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, the school only has to prove that there was a 50 percent chance or greater that you committed the act of misconduct. This effectively places the burden of proof on the accused student rather than the school administration.

Sanctions For Computer Code Plagiarism

If students self-report an instance of plagiarism, it may save them from being unenrolled from the program. If so, the student will likely be required to take an academic integrity class, remain on academic probation, or re-take the course the following year. However, in most other cases, students are suspended or expelled.

Expulsion usually means the student is permanently removed from school. They must also endure the forfeiture of all course credits, degrees, honors, and tuition. Furthermore, expelled students are not allowed to re-enroll at a later date at many schools. Students will also be removed from campus and school-sponsored events.

How Computer Code Plagiarism Can Put Your Future at Risk

Like any other form of academic misconduct, an allegation and subsequent charge of plagiarism can immediately put you at a critical disadvantage as a student. Disciplinary investigations are often complex, and while schools detail their disciplinary procedures in their codes of conduct, most students are unfamiliar with the process. Meanwhile, the school has a mission to protect its reputation and will staff disciplinary boards at their will.

Students are only given a few days to build their own defense. In many schools, like Johns Hopkins, students are prohibited from hiring outside legal counsel to assist them. Likewise, if the school finds you responsible for computer code plagiarism, you have only a few days to formulate an appeal before the punishment becomes final.

Any misconduct, even unfounded allegations, can adversely affect your academic and professional career. Most, if not all, disciplinary actions are noted on your permanent record, which will undoubtedly make it more challenging to enroll in doctoral programs or to get hired by influential engineering firms. Some engineering jobs require security clearances, and depending on the severity of the sanctions levied on a student found responsible for computer code plagiarism, they may be unable to obtain approval.

Guidelines for Engineering Students to Avoid Computer Code Plagiarism

Pressures to succeed, heavy academic course loads, and the trials of campus life may lead honest students of good character to act or submit work inauthentically. Nonetheless, there are a few easy ways to ensure you don't engage in plagiarism.

  • Avoid moving to "copy and paste" material obtained online or elsewhere and claim it as your own
  • Ensure open-source programming outlets are allowed by your specific school or instructor
  • Run your programming work through a plagiarism detector
  • Always give proper attribution

How Can Student Defense Advisor Joseph D. Lento Help You?

Plagiarism is much easier to commit today with access to near-countless outlets providing computer code with just a few clicks. Although it may be done inadvertently, engineering schools take a hardline stance on the matter, even if it can quickly cause a student's reputational ruination.

An experienced student defense advisor can help you navigate the complex disciplinary process. They can help you review your school's code of conduct to ensure the disciplinary board affords you the rights they have written down. Additionally, they can assist you in gathering evidence and witnesses in your defense and keep you abreast of how a hearing panel may proceed to ensure you have the best chance at relief.

Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm have years of experience upholding the rights of students in engineering schools across the country. Time and time again, they have provided relief for students caught in bad situations against an institution looking out for its own interests. Retaining professional assistance may seem like jumping the gun when confronted by a faculty member about alleged academic misconduct. Still, acting first is frequently advantageous as disciplinary matters are often won or lost in the investigative stage.

The value proposition Joseph D. Lento provides his student clients is teaming empathy for embattled students with the knowledge of how school grievance procedures work. Furthermore, he and his team have formed valuable relationships with members of engineering schools' Office of General Counsel (OGC). This means he can broker beneficial resolutions on students' behalf before the issues are remanded to officials hearing procedures, keeping you intact with your studies and on your way to graduating with an invaluable engineering degree.

Don't let a simple mistake or poor judgment jeopardize your future career. Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm are nationwide experts in academic misconduct defense. If you face allegations of computer code plagiarism or other forms of misconduct, call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 today, or visit the confidential online consultation form. Your future as an engineering professional depends on it.

Contact Us Today!

If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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