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In the thesis literature review, an engineering graduate student is expected to place original research in the context of previous work by other researchers. However, for some students, particularly those for whom English is a second language, the literature review may be a mixture of original writing and verbatim source text appropriated without quotations. Such problematic use of source material leaves students vulnerable to an accusation of plagiarism, which carries severe consequences. Is such textual appropriation common in engineering master’s writing? Furthermore, what, if anything, can be concluded when two texts have been found to have textual material in common? Do existing definitions of plagiarism provide a sufficient framework for determining if an instance of copying is transgressive or not? In a preliminary attempt to answer these questions, text strings from a random sample of 100 engineering master's theses from the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database were searched for appropriated verbatim source text using the Google search engine. The results suggest that textual borrowing may indeed be a common feature of the master’s engineering literature review, raising questions about the ability of graduate students to synthesize the literature. The study also illustrates the difficulties of making a determination of plagiarism based on simple textual similarity. A context-specific approach is recommended when dealing with any instance of apparent copying.


First published online in June 2010, in print Sept 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s11948-010-9214-6

Published Citation

Eckel, Edward J. "Textual Appropriation in Engineering Master’s Theses: A Preliminary Study." Science and Engineering Ethics 17.3 (September 2011): 469-483.