Asee peer logo

Textual Appropriation and Attribution in Engineering Theses and Dissertations: An Exploratory Study

Download Paper |


2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Ethical Behavior in Academia and Beyond

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1184.1 - 24.1184.16



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Edward J. Eckel Western Michigan University

visit author page

Edward Eckel received a B.S. degree in biology from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, Philadelphia. Currently he is an engineering and applied sciences librarian at Western Michigan University Libraries. His work has appeared in Science and Engineering Ethics, College & Undergraduate Libraries, Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, Internet Reference Services Quarterly, and Reference & User Services Quarterly. His research interests include plagiarism and research skills training in engineering graduates and undergraduates.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Textual Appropriation and Attribution in Engineering Theses and Dissertations: An Exploratory StudyA number of published studies appear to indicate that graduate students may have a propensity tocopy source text in their academic writing, behavior which could lead to accusations ofplagiarism and the consequences that follow. Furthermore, there is tenuous evidence thatattributed and unattributed copying of sources may be tacitly accepted in science and technologywriting when it involves mainly words rather than ideas or research results. This exploratorystudy seeks to build a clearer picture of the extent to which engineering graduate students useand attribute unquoted verbatim source text in the literature review sections of their theses anddissertations. In addition, it explores whether or not there are differences between master’s anddoctoral engineering students in these patterns of copying and attribution and what this mightindicate about their potential skill levels in source use.The study asks the following research questions: (1) Do the literature review sections ofengineering master's theses contain longer average verbatim text matches than the correspondingsections of engineering doctoral dissertations? (2) Do the literature review sections ofengineering master's theses contain more verbatim text matches than the corresponding sectionsof doctoral dissertations?, and (3) Do master’s engineering students attribute more or less of theverbatim source material they use than doctoral engineering students?To investigate these questions, the researcher used the Google search engine to search forverbatim sources of text strings from the literature reviews of a random sample of 150engineering theses and 150 doctoral dissertations, all in English and completed in 2009. 30randomly selected seven word strings were searched per thesis and dissertation. The length (inwords-in-a-row) of the verbatim matches found, the number of verbatim matches found perthesis/dissertation, and whether or not attribution was provided for those verbatim copied stringswas recorded. To answer the research questions, the following measures from the data wereexamined: the longest verbatim copied text string per thesis and dissertation, and the percentageof searches that retrieved verbatim sources out of the 30 total per thesis and dissertation. Since anessential part of most institutional definitions of plagiarism is the lack of attribution for copiedmaterial, the researcher also looked at what proportion of the copied strings were attributed bythe students in this study. The t-test for difference of means was used to compare the master’sthesis and doctoral dissertation data for significant differences.Master’s engineering students were found to copy significantly longer and more verbatim stringsfrom their sources than the doctoral students. However, the master’s and doctoral students were,on average, equally likely (or unlikely) to attribute the verbatim source material they copied.These results raise important questions about how well graduate engineering students are trainedin and practice ethical scholarly writing practices. Graduate engineering programs may need toconsider integrating more plagiarism awareness and writing instruction into the curriculum.Otherwise these programs risk sending their freshly minted graduates out into academia and theprofessional world where they may perpetuate this kind of copying.

Eckel, E. J. (2014, June), Textual Appropriation and Attribution in Engineering Theses and Dissertations: An Exploratory Study Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23117

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2014 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015