Is one teacher's verbatim use of test questions found on another teacher's website plagiarism?

The title pretty well sums up the question. This is not a hypothetical, though. One professor I know freely admitted that he did this once in order to come up with problems for an exam. The problems in question were pretty standard math stats stuff (maximum likelihood estimation, finding sufficient statistics and UMVUEs, variable transformation, etc)., and that seemed to be his justification for just copying the problems he found on a website verbatim into his own exam without attribution. I can’t imagine this person would put his career in jeopardy over a midterm, so either no one would seriously consider it plagiarism, or he is supremely confident that no one cares. What say you?

Meh. It’s a total non issue. As you note, it’s all standard material, not original research or artistic creativity. The intellectual value is approximately nil. It is technically plagiarism, but since the person in question didn’t profit from it (beyond saving 20 minutes writing questions), and since the person it was plagiarised from lost nothing at all (it was already freely, publicly available) it’s a “no harm, no foul” case.

You can see how little harm was done by asking yourself what the reaction would be if the Prof had simply made laptops mandatory for the exam, then said “Go to ‘’ and give me the answers at the end of the hour”. Exactly the same questions would have been answered, the Prof would have done even less work and there would be absolutely no question that it was unethical.

Plagiarism is prohibited for two reasons. Firstly because it makes it impossible to judge how capable a person, especially a student, is in a field. Secondly because it removes the intellectual property of another. Unless you are arguing that this professor was incapable of writing standard exam questions then it’s hard to see how either applies here in any meaningful way.

If I were on the ethics panel and this was brought up , the worst penalty I’d recommend would be unpaid, mandatory attendance at an appropriate ethics course/lecture about attribution, time equal to the amount of time it might have taken him to write the question himself. Possibly an email to the original author apologising (though legal probably wouldn’t allow that).

The fact is that we all plagiarise all the time. That’s how communication conventions arise. The only reason that you know what a standard test question looks like is because you have plagiarised the structure from previous exams. The only difference here is the verbatim plagiarism, which is such an insignificant distinction given the points made above that it become a non-issue.

IMO it is borderline. IMO it is also pretty damn stupid, if for no other reason somebody like the OP could be pointing this out in the local or school paper. Thats something I sure wouldnt want to have to bother to publically defend. You wouldnt “win” that discussion/debate. At best IMO you wouldnt lose.

It is also IMO damn lazy and rude. He couldn’t actually give attribution or send off an email to the original author asking for permission ?

Again, at best in this scenario he comes out neutral. But there are plenty of ways for this to be spun or result in things that are bad.

There is a philsophy in many professions that even the mere APPEARANCE of impropriety must be avoided (no matter how good the excuse). I certainly think it fails that test.

I think it’s pretty easy to win by making the points I raised above: the material is already available for free use and the material has zero intellectual value.

The only people who wouldn’t be convinced by that are people who don’t actually know why the objection to plagiarism exists, and they would have condemned you for something else if not this.

The rest of your post I agree with entirely.

What’s the problem? If a teacher puts questions and lesson plans on her web site, it’s because she wants to share them for other teachers to use. I am a teacher, and I borrow test questions, writing prompts, and lesson plans from the web sites of other teachers all the time. It’s the same as using stuff from the teaching materials provided with many textbooks; my students don’t have any expectations that everything I do in class is my own original research. Of course, I teach junior high, not college, but why should every teacher have to make up new and original math questions when existing ones do the job just as well and leave the teacher with more time to do something else?

Doesn’t his freely admitting it make it the equivalent of a long quotation rather than plagiarism?

In a way, I suppose. But I imagine if one of his students turned in a report that had a statement on the front cover saying “This report is copied verbatim from a website,” that student would still be on the hook for plagiarism.

I thought this thread was dead and buried, but since there’s renewed interest, I’ll comment on what’s been said so far. The test questions he found were not advertised as lesson plans, but were posted on the instructor’s website as a courtesy to students. I suppose one could argue that once one posts something to an unsecured website all bets are off, but having other instructors copy and paste the problems for their own use was not the first thought in the mind of the instructor who posted the original content, I’ll wager.

And no, I don’t believe instructors should be forced to reinvent the wheel when making up tests. But there are plenty of ways to adapt content (change the numbers slightly, ask additional questions, ask for graphs when the original doesn’t, etc.). Blindly copying and pasting someone else’s test question just “feels” wrong to me; I don’t suppose I have a much better explanation for my feelings than this.