Research Proposals: Question About Academic Honesty

Is it considered cheating for a student to get help coming up with an idea for a research project? Obviously getting help writing the proposal would probably be cheating, but what about just coming up with an idea? If a student’s original research idea was actually given to him by someone else, is that cheating?

This can’t be answered without context. Are we talking about high school, a freshman undergraduate, a doctoral student? What rules were laid down by the instructor? At all these levels, it’s common for the instructor to suggest a research topic or point to resources to find interesting topics; it’s usually what the student does with the idea that’s most important.

Unless it was specifically stated that the original idea was to come from the student, I’d say definitely not. I think the vast majority of research topic idea come at least indirectly or directly from a faculty sponsor. The second paper I ever wrote in graduate school came directly from my advisor. “Why don’t you look at this and see how it’s related to …” And I’ve certainly suggested many ideas to students.

In fact one of the biggest problems, I’ve found with PhD students is “teaching” them how to come up with interesting ideas. I put teaching in quotes, because I’m not sure if we (or at least I) actually do teach them how to do this.

This may vary a lot from field to field. In labs in the hard sciences, the ideas from an advisor may be very very specific.

What do the rules say?
And from whom? A professor? A Google search? A friend? A woman on the street?

Ideas in research - like in fiction - are a dime a hundred. Probably more than half the PhDs in the world come from ideas the professor has, not the student.
The trick is in selecting an idea that is interesting and which can be investigated in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of money, and doing the investigation competently.
I’m not a professor but I do have interns, and I’ve given most of them the ideas for the work they did, and think no less of them.

Every good article should expressly identify its research gaps and avenues for future research. It is entirely legitimate, and indeed expected, that a researcher would take advantage of this. After all, the entire point of identifying a research gap is the hope that a future researcher will build on one’s work and answer the question.

I would expect that any question worth asking has already occurred to other experts in the field. I’m not even sure it is possible to come up with a research question in a total intellectual vacuum. If anyone claimed their research idea was entirely original, my first reaction would be that they hadn’t done their literature review.

But in short: I just did my grad thesis and nobody ever told me that I was expected to come up with a question all by myself. In the event, I arrived at my question after discussing events with a senior expert in my field and then surveying the literature to find that my topic was, in fact, a point of unresolved contention.

The only context I can think of where this would be considered “cheating” is in the case of a high school or undergraduate class in which part of the assignment was to come up with your own research idea.

At the graduate level, thesis topic ideas are usually developed in collaboration with the major professor or other advisers. In fact, if the adviser has a grant to do the work the general topic may be already specified. (The student would have to figure out the details, however.)

There could be an issue if someone “poached” someone else’s idea without giving them proper credit, but I don’t think that is the situation the OP is asking about.

Agree with Chihuahua totally, and so when I stumbled on something ‘entirely original’ in doing a PhD thesis, I was duly skeptical as was my supervisor. Before I was able to change my thesis topic, I had to work with an academic librarian to do a thorough review of the literature and have her verify that the idea was entirely original and worth pursuing. My assumption was that it had been considered before and shown wanting. Even when she reported back to my supervisor who then gave the go-ahead after 6 months, I took another year to be absolutely sure and drop my planned thesis topic to tackle the radical one. That year involved travelling to the UK and US (I’m in Australia) to confirm the originality and value with experts in the various fields my interdisciplinary thesis was addressing.

Topics are usually arrived at with the guidance of supervisors or teachers. I couldn’t have proposed my topic at the outset; it was sheer luck that I stumbled on it when already in the academic research system.

And I couldn’t have taken the huge risk if I had been an early career academic. As a mature age student who returned to university because I just wanted to do research, I could afford to try a radical approach and risk messing up badly. The advantages of being old!

As a slight aside, if you are a new PhD student I’d advise you to run your idea past the oldest professor in the department. I’ve noticed that students think that if it isn’t in a journal that has been put on-line it doesn’t exist, and more than once I’ve pointed out the the presenter of a paper that their idea was tried out 30 years before.
One of the advantages of being old.

I wonder how many people in former times thought that if a journal wasn’t in the libraries it didn’t exist.

Is revisiting an idea that’s lain fallow for a generation really a bad thing?

It depends. If science has advanced to the point where you can take a novel approach to the question and you have something new to say about it, then there is no problem. OTOH, if you just reproduced a known dead end, then all you did was waste everyone’s time. Voyager is referring specifically to students who reinvented the wheel because they couldn’t/didn’t do enough research beforehand.

My late colleague once defined–with slight exaggeration–a PhD thesis as a paper by the advisor done under adverse circumstances. It was just not done to ask a student to attack a problem unless you were almost certain that it could be answered. Which meant that you had more or less answered it yourself.

I still recall an MSc student to whom I gave the project of taking a paper of mine and carefully verifying all the details. Every few days, she came to me with some detail she couldn’t verify and asked me how to do it. So I would tell her and she would write that up and come back a few days later with another question. And so it went till she finished and, thankfully, left. Had she wanted to stay for a PhD, I would have refused.

Exactly. The reason this method was no longer used is that there are better ones, and the advantages did not outweigh the problems. If the paper showed that they were aware of the previous work and had reasons why their work was better, that would be fine.
Sometimes academics have tunnel vision. I saw one NSF proposal that claimed that a certain method was impossible without the proposed work. Unfortunately, that method was being sold by several companies as a viable product. Even more ironic, the proposer of the work went to conferences where the method was being sold on the exhibit floor. So the previous work doesn’t have to be decades old.

Not in my field, but in my daughter’s field there is a definite pecking order of journals. One that was not considered to be important enough to be in the library might as well not exist for tenure purposes. And what else counts?

My experience was different. My dissertation involved finding genotypes that could explain phenotypes using, what was at the time, the new technology of DNA microarrays. It was basically a fishing expedition for genetic markers and we didn’t know what we would find.

The basic experimental design was my advisor’s idea, but I had to do the work and to decide what to follow up on (with his approval).

I actually found some markers that my university wanted to patent.

I teach university-level history.

In my field, there’s no way that would be considered cheating, for an undergraduate or a grad student. In fact, one of the duties of an instructor in my field is to help students come up with research topics, because that is, in itself, a difficult task, and is something that comes with experience. Many of my friends who are faculty members often seek advice and input from colleagues in formulating research topics and strategies.

History students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, often have a rather distorted view of what constitutes a good topic for historical study. They often, for example, want to include far too much material, and encompass an excessively large time period. I remember some years back, one of my students in a History majors research seminar wanted to write a term paper on the history of the idea of race, from ancient times to the present. It took quite a lot of discussion to convince him that this was an unrealistic goal for a 20-page paper, and that he would be better off focusing on a narrower time period and doing a more in-depth analysis.

Students also sometimes come at the problem backwards, seeking to “prove” a particular point rather than asking a question. That is, they will read one or two documents, or a book, and then they’ll come to a conclusion and decide that they want to write a paper that supports their conclusion. So, for example, “I’m going to write a paper that proves the New Deal was bad for tenant farmers in the South.” But that’s not how historical research works; if you approach a topic with a determination to prove a particular conclusion, you will be tempted to focus only on evidence that supports your conclusion, and to ignore contradictory evidence. You need to start with something like, “I’ve seen some evidence that the New Deal was bad for tenant farmers in the South, so i’m going to do research to find out if that was actually the case. My question is: How did the policies of the New Deal affect the lives of tenant farmers in the South?”

These examples are obviously rather simplistic, but you get the idea.

History is also a little bit different from the sciences, in that there’s aren’t really many “known dead ends,” as described by Chihuahua. It’s possible to write on a topic that has been done by many people before, but still produce something new in the way of analysis, or interpretation, or incorporating your argument into a broader historical context. Some avenues of inquiry are certainly more promising than others, and some topics have been covered so thoroughly that you’d better have something pretty startling and new to say if you want to do them, but nothing is really off limits.

In fact, one of the keys to asking a good research is question is knowing the field of study, and knowing what sort of questions have and have not been answered. That’s why a good historical study, whether a relatively short article or a major book, spends time dealing with the prior scholarship and explaining where this new study is going to fit in. One of the most difficult things a research supervisor has to do, especially at the undergraduate level, is convince the students that they have to spend time reading and understanding what other historians have already written about their chosen area of study. They often want to dive into their particular niche without understanding the historiography.

It’s so much easier in law. Legislature passes a new Act, or the Supreme Court overturns a lower court, and voilà! Whole new area of research!

Well many other sciences get a new possibility every time a rat dies :smiley:

A great post, mhendo. I moved from the sciences into the humanities and ended up writing in prehistory - which was not even in my sights when I started. And it was all about the question and the unexpected paths it sent me down. You are so very right about the difference between the sciences and the humanities.

I was given a scholarship as a science writer in the English Program of my university. I have written some natural history books and I was looking at the way the stories of non-literate cultures encode accurate scientific information about specific animal species. Once I realised that a single indigenous individual was memorising classifications and behavioural details of animals and plants numbering in the thousands, the question became (in more academic terms): how the hell do they remember so much stuff?

Then I realised that they were also memorising navigation, genealogies, laws … the list went on and on. How?

That derailed my topic, and then it got even more derailed when I realised the answer to that research also threw new light on the purpose for non-literate cultures building monuments such as Stonehenge, Poverty Point in Louisiana, Easter Island and the incredible building at one of the most awesome places on the planet, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

By this stage, I was into anthropology and archaeology, but my research was really an information technology theory (that is part of my background) and relied heavily on the sociology of orality (as opposed to literacy). My poor supervisor had no background in any of these fields. She stuck with me for the journey. A PhD and an academic book later have verified the research. Soon it comes out as a book for the mainstream. All from taking a question and just running with it wherever it took me. How lucky am I?