The Question of Collaboration

In many courses, particularly in the sciences or engineering where you may work with a laboratory team or on a group project, some of the work may be done in collaboration with fellow students. In such courses, a portion of your grade may be based on joint efforts with other students, and a portion may be based on independent work on papers and examinations.

To avoid confusion and possible violations of academic regulations, you must clearly understand what work must be done independently and what work may be done collaboratively. The standard for permissible collaboration varies from course to course. Some professors permit students to do problem sets together and even to turn in an assignment together; other professors allow students to discuss the problems but require them to write up their own answers; still others prohibit any collaboration at all on homework. In many computer science courses, such as COS 126, students are encouraged to think through programming strategies together but are prohibited from sharing actual code with each other. The penalty for copying weekly problem set solutions or programming assignments can be just as severe as it is for plagiarism on a major term paper.

In the ideal case, your professor will make explicit on the syllabus the expectations for your academic work. If the course policy is clear, follow it scrupulously. If the expectations and rules are unstated or unclear, ask your professor. If a deadline is imminent and you’re not sure of the course policy, do your work independently. Never assume that you have permission to do a problem set or lab report collaboratively. Given the variability from professor to professor, it’s also very dangerous to rely on the “rules” from another course, even within the same department. Too many times, students have turned in identical or similar problem sets, lab reports, or papers, only to discover that they were operating under a false set of assumptions. The wise thing to do is to ask.

It’s also a good idea to ask your professor to establish guidelines for informal modes of electronic communication in the course. For example, the course may have an e-mail discussion group to which students are expected to contribute. How relaxed, if at all, are the rules for citation in these less-than-formal communications between classmates and instructors?