Owning the Intangible: Possession, Theft, and (Mis)Appropriation of Ideas

Academic Honesty

The academic endeavor caries with it a notion that academics (students, faculty, researchers, staff) must follow high standards of honesty in their academic work. One component of academic honesty is that academics must clearly indicate which work (ideas, writing, etc.) is theirs and which belongs to others.

To many people, the focus of academic honesty is plagiarism and the purpose of academic honesty is integrity. For example, Grinnell's student handbook once included the following statement:

The college expects Grinnell students to demonstrate a high code of personal honor in all their relationships. Further, the college seeks to protect the integrity of the operations in which grades are involved: the granting of degrees, the conferring of honors and privileges, and the certification and transfer of credits to other institutions. Accordingly, students who are dishonest in the preparation of assignments or in examinations may incur the penalty of probation, immediate failure in the course, suspension, or dismissal from the college.

Dishonesty in academic work often involves plagiarism. A student is expect to acknowledge explicitly any expressions, ideas, or observations that are not his or her own. In submitting a report, paper, examination, homework assignment, or computer program, he or she is stating that the form and content of the paper, report, examination, homework assignment, or computer program represents his or her own work, except where clear and specific reference is made to other sources. Even when there may be no conscious effort to deceive, failure to make appropriate acknowledgment may constitute plagiarism. Therefore, students should comply with [appropriate requirements for acknowledging sources]. (Grinnell College 2000-2001 Student Handbook, p. 51)

However, plagiarism is not the only kind of academic dishonesty that can happen; there is much more to academic honesty than just making sure to cite work you've used. In particular, you are expected to provide a true and accurate representation of your work in experimental endeavors (e.g., it is academically dishonest to invent or modify experimental results). It is also academically dishonest to aid another in an academically dishonest act (e.g., to provide aid on a no-aid exam, to write a paper for another student).

There are also more reasons to care about academic honesty than simply the integrity of operations. First, academic advancement requires that a trail of ideas be available so that successes and failures can be traced backward. Second, your own personal integrity requires that you be academically honest.

Note that most of the faculty (and, we hope, the students) at Grinnell feel the same way. You will note that the new College document, Academic Honesty: The Ethical Use of Sources, Collaboration, and Scholarly Integrity at Grinnell College, provides this much broader view, particularly as compared to the 2000-2001 handbook.

About This Document

I wrote this document in response to a number of factors. First, I had already been required to write such a document in my previous teaching position. Second, I was unhappy about the focus of Grinnell's academic honesty statement. Third, I had my own experience with academic dishonesty at Grinnell (although it took a few years to get to that stage.)

The new Academic Honesty pamphlet makes this statement slightly less necessary. However, I continue to distribute it because I want to emphasize my concern for these matters, because the pamphlet suggests that faculty members make their policies clear, and because, well, I hate to throw anything away.


I expect you to follow the highest principles of academic honesty. Among other things, this means that any work you turn in should be your own or should have the work of others clearly documented. However, when you explicitly work as part of a group or team, you need not identify the work of each individual (unless I specify otherwise).

You should never give away answers to homework assignments or examinations. You may, however, work together in developing answers to most homework assignments. Except as specified on individual assignments, each student should develop his or her own final version of the assignment. On written assignments, each student should write up an individual version of the assignment and cite the discussion. On non-group programming assignments, each student should do his or her own programming, although students may help each other with design and debugging.

If you have a question as to whether a particular action may violate academic standards, please discuss it with me (preferably before you undertake that action).

Collaborative Work

Most of my teaching involves collaborative work. I believe (and have found) that students learn better when they can consult with each other. For example, there are few better ways to learn something than to explain that thing to someone else.

In each assignment I give, I do my best to make it clear whether the assignment is intended to be primarily collaborative or primarily individual.

What About Discussions?

As you have no doubt noted in your own writing, the ideas you write about come from a variety of sources. Certainly, some are your own. Others clearly derive from the works you read. Some are part of common intellectual currency. However, as you begin to participate in communities of scholars, such as the community that is your Tutorial, you will find that you garner many ideas from the formal and informal conversations in those communities.

What responsibility do you have to cite discussions, presentations, and other forms of oral communication? Unfortunately, there seems to be no standard practice. Some suggest that you should always err on the side of care, and do your best to cite every idea you get from elsewhere, even if it comes in a discussion. Others suggest that the ideas that come from a discussion are effectively part of a common or implicit intellectual repository and therefore need no citation. Still others take a middle ground and suggest that a less formal citation, such as an acknowledgements section, such as a note that Many of the ideas in this paper were developed in discussions with the members of some class. And, admittedly, others don't even think about this issue.

As a student, you have a responsibility for determining your instructor's perspective on this issue (and on other issues of citation). You should make such a determination early, particularly since in classes in which you must cite discussion, you will need precise notes so that you know when and by whom particular ideas were raised.

I consider the ideas raised in class and informal discussions to be common resources for the class, and do not requite formal citation. However, I do recommend that you include an acknowledgements section and that you highlight particular support in that section.

Citing Web Pages

The advances of the Internet and the World Wide Web have led to challenges in citation. Some seem to believe that it is acceptable for a citation to consist of a URL. However, a citation should provide much more information. Consider what a typical citation to the printed literature contains: Author, Date, Title of Article, Publisher, etc. Your Web citations should contain at least as much detail. That is, you must include not just the URL, but also the author of the page (using Anonymous or an institutional author, if necessary), the title of the page, the publisher (the site), and the date.

The date is particularly important. Unlike printed sources, which have new editions when they change, electronic resources often change unexpectedly. By including the date the page was accessed and modified, you at least provide some indication of when the ideas you were using were available at the specified location.

Here is a sample citation for this page, using a slight variant of the APA form.

Rebelsky, Samuel (2010). Academic Honesty. Grinnell College Department of Computer Science. Available at http://www.cs.grinnell.edu/~rebelsky/Courses/Tutorial/2010F/Handouts/academic-honesty.html (Last modified 26 March 2010; Visited 26 March 2010).

Note that since Web pages change, you may find it useful to keep a copy of any Web page that you plan to cite. I've found Zotero to be a particularly useful tool for these purposes. Zotero can also be helpful in making bibliographies.



Pre-Grinnell [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Later, Presumably Pre-Grinnell [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 21 August 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Monday, 17 January 2000 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Thursday, 24 August 2000 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Friday, 12 January 2001 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Friday, 19 January 2001 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Tuesday, 7 January 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 23 August 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 21 August 2005 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 28 March 2010 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]


Disclaimer: I usually create these pages on the fly, which means that I rarely proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details. It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.

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Copyright © 2005-2010 Samuel A. Rebelsky. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

Samuel A. Rebelsky, rebelsky@grinnell.edu