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Inappropriate collaboration: Where’s the line?

October 23, 2017 — 

The following article is published as part of the Academic Integrity Initiative, featuring the writing of University of Manitoba faculty, staff and students.

October is Academic Integrity Month! Visit our website for more information on events, and follow us on Twitter

What do we mean by inappropriate collaboration? Simply put: inappropriate collaboration is unauthorized collaboration, and it’s a form of misconduct at the University. Unfortunately, you can unknowingly engage in inappropriate collaboration if you aren’t aware of how to avoid it.

The U of M considers inappropriate collaboration to be “when a student and any other person work together on assignments, projects, tests, labs or other work unless authorized by the course instructor”.

Seem straightforward?

The reality is that inappropriate collaboration can take various forms, and the nature of collaboration is changing in an increasingly digital world. It’s easier than ever to share or find information on the Internet through online groups where work can be discussed. On the one hand, this might seem fine as the U of M is a place for open dialogue and learning. On the other hand, this kind of discourse can easily cross the line from appropriate to inappropriate collaboration.

In my work as a Student Advocate, I find that most students are unsure of where that line is.

Here are some practical tips that I give my students. These tips may seem obvious to some of you but in the rush of life and being a student, they could be forgotten or sidelined. Often, this is where students encounter problems.

  1. Read the course outline at the beginning of the term and continue referring to it throughout the course.  Think of it like a contract between you and the instructor.
  2. Ask questions if you’re unsure. Expectations and practices can vary across classes. Some instructors may encourage collaboration as an integral part of the course, while others will require that you don’t discuss your work with anyone. Email or meet with your instructor or TA during office hours to clarify expectations.
  3. Make use of appropriate tutors. The University has a tutor service run through the Academic Learning Centre. The tutors that work for the tutor program are trained in appropriate collaboration and know where to draw the line, but private tutors may not. I have seen an increasing number of cases where a third party assists students on an assignment and it ends up flagged for inappropriate collaboration. (By the way, I would encourage those interested in helping others to apply to become a tutor. It looks great on a resumé!)
  4. Guard your work, or as Gandalf said to Frodo: “Keep it secret, keep it safe” (Jackson, 2001). Seriously! Protect your academic work. Students often want to help a friend and find that the easiest way is by giving them a copy of their work for reference. The problem with this is that you don’t actually know what the other person is going to do with your work. They may only use it for reference, but your thoughts and style may appear in their own writing, creating problems for the both of you.

So how do you know if something crosses the line from appropriate to inappropriate collaboration?  To be honest, you should probably ask your instructor. Your fellow classmates might be awesome but sometimes they are not the best resource. Beyond your instructors, you have easy access to academic tutors, the Academic Learning Centre, Student AdvocacyLibraries, and more. You can also view the Appropriate Collaboration Guidelines for more detailed information.

Susie Ally is a student advocate at the Student Advocacy office. 



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