Dive 13: How taking credit for work I did nearly got me kicked out of school
Hey, it’s Alvin!
On a sweltering summer day, I got an email to meet with two course instructors. The topic?
I felt a pit in my stomach.
As someone who strove for A’s, I couldn’t risk plagiarism. So, how could it be?
I remember walking into that meeting with the course instructors. Their hands felt warm. Actually… it’s more accurate to say my hands were freezing. I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was going on and I had never faced disciplinary action in academia before.
The meeting was about a report my team put together for a year-long project. We sat down at a small round table, enough for four people. To my left was a fellow team member, Ron, who also contributed to the report. We sat closer together on one side of the table, while the two course instructors sat opposite to us.
One instructor started speaking. And right away, he clarified he knew neither of us plagiarized. Our report had an “attribution table,” which listed the sections each team member worked on. It was a course requirement. And the instructors already spoke to a third team member who admitted to the plagiarism on his part.
That team member was scheduled to meet the vice-dean of our faculty. His student record would have a permanent remark about his plagiarism. That’s like a yellow card in soccer. Further academic misconduct would mean expulsion.
Not that the news eased my anxiety… Why were Ron and I called in?
Because our names were listed as the “editors” of our team report. The instructors needed to know our side of the story. They assured us they’re confident we didn’t do anything wrong, but all four of us needed to be clear about what Ron and I did, so they could defend us in case the vice-dean summoned us to a hearing.
I don’t remember Ron’s story because my brain was still in “what the heck is happening” mode. But I explained to the instructors that I didn’t know we were supposed to look for plagiarism. I was only looking for syntactical errors.
The “main” instructor agreed that, in my defense, they never told us that was something we had to do.
BUT… he also gently commented that going forward, we should understand that by putting our names down as “editors,” it’s assumed that we’re doing EVERYTHING editors do. That goes well beyond checking for typos and grammar.
There were two lessons that stayed with me from that meeting:
Don’t sign anything unless you read and understand it thoroughly.
This was especially important for me because I was studying engineering. And a professional engineer in Ontario, Canada (where I work) is legally obligated to review documentation thoroughly before signing off on it. For example, if an engineer signs off on blueprints for a bridge and the bridge collapses, the engineer could be legally charged with criminal negligence. That means jail time.
Most of us might not have such massive legal obligations, but I’m still a big believer in thorough reviews before putting my name down as a sign of approval. I’m generally wary of signing things. I won’t if I don’t have to. Every time I’m asked to sign something, I’m reminded of that meeting with the course instructors.
Taking credit also means taking responsibility.
I didn’t have to put my name down as an editor in the attribution table.
I did it because I wanted credit for the work I did.
I did it because I saw the upside and no downside.
That was my mistake.
Ultimately, it didn’t cost me anything… but it could have.
What I didn’t understand then is that when you take credit for something, you also take responsibility if anything goes wrong with that thing.
You’re free to take responsibility for building a bridge, but you’ll also bear the consequences if that bridge collapses and kills people.
Just like signing paperwork, I’m wary of taking credit for anything.
Now, when someone credits me for a job well done, there’s a voice at the back of my mind asking, “great, what responsibilities did I just take on?”
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface on taking credit. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. Let me know if you ever took credit for something that burned you. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.