University of Toronto -- Department of Computer Science

Academic offences in Computer Science

Academic offences are of varying kinds. In many university courses, the most common type of offence is copying an essay from a printed or on-line source without giving proper attribution or following appropriate quoting procedures. Such copying is a kind of plagiarism, and you can read about that in a separate web site: How Not to Plagiarize.

In Computer Science, although we do occasionally see plagiarism from outside sources, especially the Internet, that is less common than these other kinds of offences:

We do see other types of offences, of course, but these are the ones we will cover here.

Copying another student's work

"Copying another student's work" may have happened even if nobody has actully copied a computer file containing a program, or photocopied someone's printed submission.

The Code of Behaviour refers to "represent[ing] as one's own any idea or expression of an idea or work of another". When you submit a computer program for marking, the "idea" is something like the design of the program, and the "expression of the idea" is the particular form of the program in code. Both must be yours and not someone else's. Otherwise you have committed the offence of plagiarism.

Thus, if you discuss in great detail over the telephone how to solve a programming problem, taking careful notes on how to proceed, the resulting program is unlikely to be an expression of your own ideas. If it's not, then you have committed an academic offence. If you discuss only the general idea of a programming problem, you're not committing an offence, but be careful not to get into the details. We'll discuss how to find the boundary between "general ideas" and "details" in How to avoid committing an offence.

It's not just the code.

Your program probably produces output, and you may have had to write a report about it as well. And your output is probably produced when the program reads input data. The output, the input data, and the report are expressions of ideas, too, and copying them is an offence.

It's not just the student who copies.

If you copy a friend's work and hand it in, then both you and the friend have committed an academic offence. The Code of Behaviour speaks of "aiding or assisting" you to commit the offence, and of one who "abets, counsels, procures or conspires ... to commit to be a party to an offence".

The words are very formal, but the essence is clear: everyone involved has committed an offence, not just those who directly benefit.

Falsifying program output

If you submit your own program with your own program output and your own program input data, and perhaps your own report on the program, then you may still have committed an offence if you faked the output.

That is, if you're supposed to write a program that does some particular task, and it doesn't, but you modify the output to make it seem as if the program works, then you have committed an offence. Essentially, you lied to your instructor in order to get marks.

It's not just the university that cares.

You might think we're being really picky here, and that out there in the real world, nobody much minds. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the real world of computing, companies and other organizations design and sell software that consists of programs their employees write. The companies' resources lie in the text their employees write. If you work for such a company, and you complete a job assignment by copying code from someone else or -- worse! -- from something you wrote for a previous employer, you endanger the basic resource of your company.

And if you fake the output from your program, you're also faking the value of something the company pays you to produce. You're expecting to get value without giving value.

So, out there in the real world, a well-run company would fire you immediately if you commit what we call an academic offence. By comparison, the university is very gentle with you.