Skip to Main Content

SEAS Thesis Portfolio Guide

A complete overview to the thesis portfolio from the history to submission.

Thesis Manual

The History of the SEAS Undergraduate Thesis

This module provides a brief history of the SEAS undergraduate thesis and places that history in the larger context of engineering education in America. It explains the rationale behind the requirement; how the thesis has evolved; and why SEAS is, in some respects, unlike any other engineering school.

When you receive your engineering degree, you will follow in footsteps of young men and women who, for more than a century, have done exactly what you will do:  Present a “graduating thesis” to the faculty of the School.  This well-blazed trail has deep and meaningful roots in the past, but it leads to the future — a future you will be uniquely empowered to build.

Engineering Instruction Before the Civil War
Leopold J. Boeck and the rebirth of Virginia engineering (1867-1875)
William M. Thornton and the rise of the School of Engineering (1875-1930)
The “Graduating Thesis” assignment (1904)
Why did other engineering schools end their use of the undergraduate thesis?
An engineering curriculum modeled on schools of law 
Bringing liberal arts Instruction within the fold of the School, 1918-1927
Origin of the Science, Technology, and Society Program

Engineering instruction before the Civil War

During the antebellum years, most American colleges and universities focused on teaching the classics, including the Greek and Latin languages and literatures. The notion that higher education ought to address more practical matters was slow to gain acceptance at most of them. An exception was the University of Virginia, whose founder, Thomas Jefferson, included engineering in his vision for the new institution.

Soon after the University opened its doors in 1825, instruction in civil engineering was included in science courses. In 1833, Professor Charles Bonnycastle offered one of the first civil engineering courses to be taught as part of the regular curriculum in any American university. Beginning in 1836, Virginia was among the first universities to offer “partial” curricula in engineering. These were one- or two-year courses of studies designed for students who were not interested in earning a bachelor of arts degree (Reynolds, 1992).

To provide the “partial” engineering programs, a School of Civil Engineering was founded in 1836. But there was little need for civil engineers in Virginia’s predominantly agrarian economy. Worse, the following year saw the beginning of a crippling depression that would last well into the 1840s. Few students attended, and even fewer received certificates — a total of 19. Although the School of Engineering remained in existence until 1861, by the 1850s the university’s catalog failed to mention this fact and the program appears to have been suspended (Bruce, 1921).

Among those observing the general disinterest in engineering was a professor of natural philosophy named William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), the famed founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Rogers joined the Virginia faculty in 1835. All the evidence indicates that it was during his Virginia years that Rogers developed the ideas that later defined MIT’s pioneering curriculum (Reynolds, 1992).

Rogers’ years at the University of Virginia were not among his happiest. He missed his family in Boston. Among the students were more than a few roughnecks, one of whom brandished a loaded pistol in front of his face. Worse, he knew that Virginia could not then support his ideas for a new, polytechnical university. From Rogers’ perspective, slavery was responsible for a long series of ills, including holding back the development of industry and creating an environment hostile to science (Angulo, 2005). In 1853, with no job awaiting him elsewhere, Rogers resigned his professorship and moved to Boston, where his brothers had long hoped to lure him. His students and colleagues observed his departure with deep regret.

Leopold J. Boeck and the Rebirth of Virginia Engineering (1867-1875)

The catalyst for establishing a permanent engineering curriculum at the University was the Civil War, which left the South’s infrastructure  in ruins. The University led the way to renewal by developing one of the nation’s first engineering programs. In the decades to follow, Virginia’s engineering program would lead the state of Virginia, as President Alderman put it in 1916, from a “medieval agriculturalism” to “modern, democratic industrialism” (Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, 1916, p. 16).

In the 1860s and 1870s, German universities led the way in science and engineering. To jump-start the engineering curriculum, the University recruited a “singular genius” (Barringer, 1949, p. 204): a Polish immigrant named Leopold J. Boeck (1822-1896), who held a doctoral degree from a German university. Boeck had taught applied mathematics at the Sorbonne. Prior to the Civil War, he founded a pioneering technical institute in New York City (“Professor Leopold J. Boeck,” 1896). A veteran of revolutions in eastern Europe and the salons of Paris, Boeck spoke “at least six to eight languages” fluently (Culbreth, 1908, p. 443). Under Boeck’s leadership, the School of Applied Mathematics, Engineering, and Architecture first offered instruction in 1867.

Boeck’s abstract and highly theoretical approach to engineering did not sit well with some of his students, however. Although they respected him as a “man of great learning,” they nevertheless felt that he  “fell short of being the useful and practical teacher” they needed (Culbreth, 1908, p. 443). By 1874, various complaints regarding Boeck — including his failure to return library books on time — had reached the Board of Visitors, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. In the following year, the committee reported that Boeck’s continued presence on the faculty was “not in the University’s best interests,” although no specific allegation was made. Boeck resigned in a huff. He moved to Philadelphia, where he taught engineering courses at the University of Pennsylvania until his death in 1896.

William M. Thornton and the Rise of the School of Engineering (1875-1930)

To fill Boeck’s position, the University recruited a recent graduate and distinguished pupil of the University’s most highly regarded professor, Charles S. Venable:  William M. Thornton (1851-1935), then a professor of Greek at Davidson College.

Thus began a brilliant career that saw the rapid expansion of Virginia’s engineering program. Indeed, from the time of his return to Virginia in 1875, Thornton was “in a large sense the School of Engineering” (Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, 1916, p. 344).  Under Thornton’s leadership, the School acquired a national reputation and strongly influenced engineering instruction throughout the nation.

Thornton fully understood the limitations of Boeck’s abstract, impractical curriculum. As soon as he could persuade the Board of Visitors to appropriate the necessary funds, Thornton supplemented the “older discipline of books, lectures, computation, and drawings” with “knowledge of a practical and positive sort.” The engineering student, Thornton believed,

must, in the chemical laboratory, learn to determine the qualities of his building materials, fuels, ores, and water supplies, and in the mechanical laboratory, their strength, heaviness, toughness, and so on; and also learn to test the qualities of steam, the performance of engines, boilers, furnaces, pumps, and dynamos. In the geological laboratory, he must find out the gross and microscopical  structure of minerals and rocks; and in the physical laboratory, learn to measure the amounts, etc., of electrical, magnetic action, and the transmission of light, heat, and sound (cited in Bruce, 1922, p. 18).

The “Graduating Thesis” Assignment (1904)

Recognizing Thornton’s extraordinary dedication and his many accomplishments, the University named him Dean of Engineering in 1904. One of Dean Thornton’s first actions was to require a “graduating thesis.” The University Catalogue of 1904-1905 described the new thesis requirement:

Every candidate for a degree in Engineering will be required at the beginning of his graduating year to submit to the Dean some subject for independent study suited to the student’s especial course and aims. After such subject has been approved by the Dean and the Professor in charge, the student will be expected to carry out for himself the necessary literary and laboratory researches and to present his results in the form of a Graduating Thesis. Such thesis must be typewritten on standard sheets, 8 by 10 ½ inches, bound in a proper cover, and handed in for final approval not later than May 25. All necessary computations and drawings must accompany the thesis. Serious weight will be given to this work in estimating the student’s fitness for graduation (pp. 226-227).

The idea of a graduating thesis was hardly new. Indeed, in the 1890s, nearly every engineering school in the nation required one. What is remarkable about Thornton’s thesis requirement is that it almost audaciously bucked a national trend:  Everywhere, it seemed, engineering faculty were dissatisfied with the graduating thesis, and many schools had already dropped the requirement. The reason, as a faculty committee at the University of Wisconsin was later to learn, lay in a widespread misconception of the role an undergraduate thesis ought to play. What should have been an opportunity for mentoring was understood as an examination, in which the student was forced to work alone and with very little guidance.

Why Did Other Engineering Schools End Their Use of the Undergraduate Thesis?

Most engineering schools saw the graduating thesis as a test of the student’s mastery of the material: therefore, the student was to be “thrown on his own resources” to see whether he could produce “definite results,” in spite of the absence of supervision. The thesis was viewed, in short, as a “trial of strength and a measure of character” (Esty, 1902, pp. 1163-4).

Considering that students received little or no supervision, but were simply turned loose in the library, it is hardly surprising that students frequently failed to produce “definite results.” In consequence, the typical graduating thesis was, as the author of an article on the subject politely put it, “a most variable piece of work” (Norris, 1904).

For their part, students looked on the graduating thesis with “distaste and dissatisfaction,” in part because they so often failed to produce results  “commensurate with the effort expended” (Karapetoff,  1917, p. 1525). Not inclined to mince words, the dean of the engineering school at Syracuse University described the typical senior thesis as “farcical” (Shepard, 1911, p. 188). Syracuse soon abandoned the requirement. By 1915, about half of the engineering schools in the nation had followed suit.

Still, support for the thesis requirement remained strong where it was properly conceptualized: specifically, as a beneficial educational experience rather than as a test of the student’s mastery. In these schools, the thesis supervisor maintained close contact with the work, ensuring that the student did not waste his time or acquire “false impressions” as the result of his work. To be sure, care was taken to avoid supervising the student too closely, to avoid the danger of making the thesis a “mere echo of the instructor’s ideas” (Van Hagan, L. F., 1915, pp. 118-9). From this point of view, what mattered was not whether the student came up with “definite results,” let alone original findings, but rather whether the educational experience had been beneficial.

Thornton’s graduating thesis falls into the latter category. It was a mentored, supervised, and designed to provide a beneficial educational experience. But in many respects it was unlike comparable projects at other schools, to an extent that can best be grasped by understanding Thornton’s vision of the undergraduate engineering curriculum.

An Engineering Curriculum Modeled on Schools of Law 

Thornton saw the thesis as one component in a broader series of activities and experiences that was designed to build students’ communication skills and, at the same time, impart an awareness and appreciation for culture. These exercises were expressly modeled on the law curriculum:

I look... to our law school, in which the students are trained in oral discussion of legal problems, in preparation of written briefs, and in the technique of public speaking; whose graduates easily and swiftly press forward to the front ranks of the legal profession and to the high seats of political life....

To emulate the law curriculum within engineering successfully, Thornton believed, the engineering faculty had to become actively engaged in mentoring the students’ writing and speaking skills. This could best be done, he believed, by engaging undergraduate engineering students in debate, discussion, and writing involving engineering materials.

Attesting to Thornton’s interest in emulating the law curriculum was the Conference Club, which was introduced at the same time as the thesis project and comprised an integral part of the thesis experience. All  juniors, seniors, and faculty automatically belonged to this “club,” which met once per week. Seniors kicked off the meetings by discussing the progress they had made on their thesis projects and the problems they had encountered; other students and faculty provided commentary, suggestions, and criticism. The juniors in attendance undoubtedly learned a great deal by observing the give-and-take. Some of the student presentations would have involved teams, for Thornton expressly encouraged students to collaborate on their thesis projects if they shared a common interest.

Although other engineering schools were quick to imitate many of Thornton’s innovations, the “great mass” of engineering schools did not emulate Thornton’s method of teaching speaking and writing skills, as Thornton conceded in a 1916 speech to the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, which held its annual conference that year in Charlottesville (Thornton, 1916). “We are in a small minority.”

The same could be said today. Few engineering schools support an entire department of scholars who have made career commitments to the study of science, technology, and society from the viewpoints of the humanities and social sciences, as does Virginia Engineering. Devoted to teaching small classes and engaging them in debate and discussion, the STS program’s faculty are carrying out precisely the vision formulated by Thornton more than a century ago:  To bring the benefits of a law school’s communication-intensive curriculum to engineering education. That these benefits have paid off for generations of Virginia Engineering students is affirmed by the School’s long-standing reputation for graduating students with outstanding communication skills.

Bringing Liberal Arts Instruction within the Fold of the School (1918-1927)

Most engineering schools of the early 20th century sent their students off to the humanities in order to learn speaking and writing skills — and they still do today. But the results, Thornton believed, were disastrous. Thornton’s views on the role of the humanities in engineering education led him to support positions within the School of faculty specializing in the history, literature, and sociology of engineering and technology. The Science, Technology, and Society program is the living embodiment of Thornton’s vision.

In the early 20th century, the inability of engineering graduates to “write with clarity” and “speak with force,” Thornton observed, was approaching the dimensions of a scandal, resulting in “caustic comments” and “admonitions addressed to our colleges” to do something about the problem. Yet when engineering students enrolled in humanities courses, their instructors required them to emulate “those weak broths of English literature, those tenuous emulsions of political history, [and] those dry-as-dust post toasties of economics.” Until Thornton could be shown good results from these works, which were “dished out... as if they were the fruits of life,” he would continue “to doubt the nutritive value of these breakfast foods of the technological banquet” (1916, p. 20). Let the engineering faculty mentor the students in their writing and speaking skills, Thornton urged, and draw materials for debate, discussion, and emulation from the engineering literature.

Thornton knew that most humanities professors would scoff at the idea that the engineering literature could provide suitable materials for discussion, let alone emulation. Yet Thornton strongly disagreed:

There is, I am persuaded, as much cultural value in a carefully studied and conscientiously prepared report on an engineering project as in any legal brief or medical essay. The very history of engineering is full of romance, full of interest, full of inspiration.

In 1918, the University Catalogue announced a new, required course in English for engineering students, which included a unit on literature. But the literature in question was not to be the “weak broths” and “tenuous emulsions” offered in the College, but rather “prose literature about science.”

At first, Thornton had trouble finding faculty capable of teaching the new course. Faculty trained in English simply were not interested in works about the history of technology, biographies of engineers, and studies of the role of technology in society. Moreover, Thornton had been hiring instructors on a part-time, temporary basis, which gave them little incentive to develop a career interest in the engineering literature. By the mid-1930s, Thornton had decided that the problem could not be solved unless the School hired permanent, full-time faculty from the humanities and social sciences, providing them with the incentive to focus their work on engineering and its literature.

Origin of the Science, Technology, and Society Program

In 1936, Joseph L. Vaughan (1905-1999), a graduate of Virginia’s English department, accepted a position within the School in order to implement Thornton’s vision for an engineering-oriented liberal arts curriculum within the School. Vaughan was hired as a full voting member of the School’s faculty and became the head of a humanities and social science faculty within engineering.

Beloved by his students, Vaughan touched the lives of whole generations of Virginia engineering students. Among the many students of Joe’s who went on to great distinction was Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014), who received a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1946. Hughes’ story may surprise you, because it shows that the fields in which most STS Department faculty specialize — science & technology studies and the history of technology — are themselves partly the product of Thornton’s vision.

Hughes took Thornton’s views concerning the romance, interest, and inspiration of literature on the lives of the great engineers quite seriously — so much so, in fact, that he decided to enroll in the University of Virginia’s history program, from which he received a Ph.D. in 1953.

Appointed to a faculty position in the University of Pennsylvania’s history and sociology of science and technology program, Hughes won an international reputation for his work on inventors such as Edison and Sperry. He was among the co-founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) in 1959. But he also played a very important role in the formation of a new research area called science & technology studies (S&TS). In 1986, he co-edited a book that is today regarded as perhaps the single most important foundational work in the early years of S&TS, The Social Construction of Technological Systems (MIT, 1986).

Hughes’ acclaimed works should put to rest any remaining doubts concerning Thornton’s views concerning the literature on engineering. In 1990, his retelling of 20th century American history from the perspective of a technology studies scholar,  American Genesis  (MIT, 1989), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reviewers called the work “masterful” and “stimulating.” Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Adam Wishart called Hughes’ latest book, The Human-Built World (Chicago, 2004), an “incisively rendered and engaging history of humanity’s relationship to technology.... A timely and urgent book.”

Tom has retired from active teaching, but his intellectual legacy lives on within the STS Department, thanks to the interest he took in our program and the presence among us of one of his Ph.D. students, Professor W. Bernard Carlson, who currently serves as chair of the Department of Engineering and Society.

     The “Conference Club” today

Law students are quite garrulous in discussion classes, and for good reason:  Unless they can express themselves clearly, their chances for success and contribution are very limited. The same could be said of U.S. engineering graduates.

So take full advantage of the living descendent of Thornton’s Conference Club:  your STS 4500 and 4600 sections. These classes are kept as small as possible to promote lively discussion. Make the most of the year.


Angulo, A. J. (2005). William Barton Rogers and the Southern Sieve: Revisiting Science, Slavery, and Higher Learning in the Old South. History of Education Quarterly, 45(1), 18-37.

Barringer, P. B. (1949). The Natural Bent: The Memoirs of Dr. Paul B. Barringer. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Bruce, P. A. (1921). History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919. The Lengthened Shadow of One Man. New York: MacMillan.

Culbreth, D. (1908). The University of Virginia: Memories of Her Student Life and Professors. New York: Neale Publishing Co.

Esty, W. (1902). Electrical engineering courses at college and the education of the electrical engineer. Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 19, 1155-1164.

Karapetoff , V. (1917). Suggestions for electrical research in engineering colleges. Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 35, 895-903.

Norris, H. H. (1904). The engineering thesis. Sibley Journal of Engineering, 18, 199-201.

Reynolds, T. S. (1992). The education of engineers in American before the Morrill Act of 1862. History of Education Quarterly, 32(4), 459-482.

Shepard, G. (1911).  Notes on the German technical Unversities. In Talbot, A.N., Munroe, H. S., & Norris, H. H. (Eds.), Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting (Madison, WI, June 23-25, 1910), 167-201.

Thornton, W. (1916). Address of welcome.  Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, June 19-22, 1916(Vol. 24). Pittsburgh, PA: Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

University of Virginia. (1896). “Professor Leopold J. Boeck.” Alumni Bulletin, 3(1), 17-18

  Professional, Ethical, & Legal Responsibilities

Outside the Scope of the University of Virginia Honor System

The material in this module covers professional, ethical, and legal issues that arise in some but not all undergraduate thesis projects: specific topics such as patents, copyright, and use of human subjects in research. It also discusses issues that can arise in collaborative authorship for publication and in the conduct of research. It alerts you to issues that may arise but should not be considered a source of expert advice. If you think the work you are doing for your thesis project raises any of these issues, consult your technical advisor and, as needed, an attorney.

The information in this module may be relevant if you plan to do any of the following:

  • Work with a team that plans to seek patent protection
  • Co-author a conference paper or journal article with your technical research advisor, STS research advisor, or teammates
  • Use human subjects in your research
  • Incorporate a copyrighted graphic into your thesis portfolio.

Non-Disclosure Agreements
Ethical issues in preparing manuscripts for publication


As universities increasingly look to the private sector for research funding formerly provided by Federal agencies, a conflict arises between the university’s values and those of private enterprise.

Traditionally, university scientists and scholars, like Benjamin Franklin, have been willing to openly share the results of their work with the public, even though they might have made money. (Franklin refused to patent his famous stove design, believing the American people needed a good, cheap stove.) Their publications give them prestige, and lead to tenure and promotion.

Today, much University research is funded by private sector firms, which are not likely to share the faculty’s disinterested views. There is, therefore, a potential conflict between a University researcher’s wish to share research results openly and a private firm’s desire to keep them under wraps (Behrens & Gray, 2001; Calderini, Franzoni, & Vezzulli, 2007; Kesselheim & Avorn, 2005; Maurer, 2006; Meyer, 2006; Murray & Stern, 2007). 

 The conflict between these two views comes to the fore when university researchers are asked to create designs that the sponsor plans to patent. The problem arises because publishing the results of the research may destroy the sponsor’s opportunity to obtain patent protection.

A patent is an official notification authorized by the U.S. Federal government that the patent holder possesses the exclusive right to make, use, or sell the invention described in the patent application for a period of 20 years from the date of the application.  Note that the patent holder is not necessarily the inventor; the rights to a patent, just like the rights to an acre of land, can be transferred to another party by means of an assignment. In order to qualify for a patent, the inventor must describe an invention that is useful (no perpetual motion machines, please), novel, and non-obvious. A professional examiner in the U.S. Trademark Office determines whether a given application meets these criteria.

At issue in the university-industry interface is the novelty (newness) criterion. According to Chapter 35, § 102(b) of the U.S. Code, an invention ceases to be new, and is therefore precluded from patentability, if it is described in a printed publication anywhere in the world, publicly used in the U.S., or on sale in the U.S., more than one year before the data of application.

The courts have given the phrase “printed publication” an almost ridiculously broad interpretation: Any description stored on paper, electronic media, or microfilm that is theoretically accessible to the public, even if no one has read it. Theses placed in libraries are considered to be “printed publications.”  The same goes for “marketing materials distributed at trade shows, printed presentations given to potential investors, or technical descriptions posted on Web sites” (Sineway, 2008, n. p.). Don’t forget the restrictions on use! A use by any person other than the inventor can bar patentability, even if it was hidden from public view. A “beta test” of a new system with a strategic partner is public use, too. However, experimental use is not regarded as public use — that is, as long as you can prove that the use was experimental.

Find out whether a patent is contemplated in relation to your technical project. If so, make sure you fully understand how to avoid any action that might deprive the would-be patentees of their patent right. For assistance, do not hesitate to contact the University of Virginia Patent Foundation. Their counselors will be happy to assist you.

University of Virginia Patent Foundation
250 W. Main Street, Suite 300
Charlottesville, VA 22902
434.924.2175 (telephone)
434.982.1583 (FAX)

If a patent is in the works, you may vitiate foreign patentability by discussing it in an oral presentation; you will almost certainly do so for all countries, including the U.S., if you place your thesis in the library. Doing so constitutes publication.

Non-Disclosure Agreement

An established procedure to prove experimental use, as defined in the previous section, is to ask all who participate in the experimentation to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). If you participate in a project that might result in a patent application, you may be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. At the worst, the NDA may be written so broadly that you cannot talk or write about any of the work that you are doing. You would be most unwise to sign such an agreement, since you would almost certainly violate it by talking or writing about your project in thesis-related assignments.

Find out before you submit your prospectus whether the project involves patenting and/or a non-disclosure agreement, and be sure to negotiate an agreement that enables you to be able to discuss the project in your thesis documents and presentations. You may agree to keep part of the project secret as long as you are permitted to disclose enough of it to write a credible technical report. Remember that you cannot receive University credit for work you do not disclose.

Be cautious about signing a non-disclosure agreement that seems overly broad or asks you to keep the material in confidence for an unreasonably long period of time. A good non-disclosure is quite specific about what cannot be disclosed and rarely asks for more than three years of confidence.

Once you have signed a non-disclosure agreement, remember that you could be liable to a civil lawsuit if you violate its terms, even if you did so inadvertently. Intention is irrelevant. If you agreed to keep your mouth  shut for five years, keep it shut.

Upon request from a thesis student’s technical advisor, your STS 4600 instructor will retain your thesis portfolio in a locked STS office for a period of five years from the date of submission rather than sending it to the library.

Ethical issues in preparing manuscripts for publication

The undergraduate thesis project allows students to collaborate with faculty in order to publish their work in conference proceedings or journals, provided that students produce a more or less complete rough draft before the faculty advisor goes to work on it. In any form of collaborative writing for publication, all authors need to be aware of potential ethical issues of scientific publishing.

As any scientific or engineering journal editor will tell you, the incidence of ethical issues with submitted manuscripts is on the rise. Indeed, abuse of the ethical principles of publication, summarized here, has become so common that, in some fields, journal editors have agreed to share the names of offenders, with the understanding that editors may refuse to accept any future submissions from them.

Attribution of authorship

In a publication authored by more than one person, all those named should (1) be aware that their names will be listed as co-authors and (2) be substantive contributors who have made an independent material contribution

Conflict of interest

In publishing, a conflict of interest exists when your interpretation of the data could materially affect the fortunes of a third party with whom you are financially involved — and therefore materially affect your fortunes, even if it is as seemingly insignificant as a vague promise of additional consulting in the future. Many journals require you to disclose any such relationship, on the theory that readers can then decide whether your interpretation is biased. However, the evidence strongly suggests that disclosure does nothing to prevent bias, which is usually injected by manipulating the underlying data. Even if a conflict of interest is disclosed, the reader cannot determine whether the author’s objectivity has been compromised.

To avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest, you should not publish anything that presents results favorable to a third party with whom you have a financial relationship, even if there has been no threat that your failure to do so would terminate the relationship.

Duplicate submission

A work submitted to a journal should be original and not under consideration for publication by any other journal.


The latest development in the ever-worsening conflict of interest problem in the biomedical literature is the use of ghostwriters to prepare “scientific” articles with a strong pro-industry bias; a compromised university researcher is then paid to submit the article to a peer-reviewed journal under his own name (even though he may have given the article only a cursory glance). This problem is so serious that some scientists believe the integrity of the biomedical literature has been fundamentally compromised (Annette Flanagin et al., 1998; Langdon-Neuner, 2008; Mathews, 2005; Mowatt et al., 2002; Ross, Hill, Egilman, & Krumholz, 2008; Scheife, 2009; Sismondo, 2007).


Since most scientific and engineering papers are co-authored, the problem frequently lies with just one of the authors. Editors increasingly hold the lead author (generally, the first-named author) responsible.

Redundant submission (also called “self-plagiarism”)

A work submitted to a journal may not substantially repeat the data and findings from a previous publication by the same author. This rule applies to publications in journals of different disciplines and different languages.

Proper citation of previous work

Previously published work should not be presented as if it were new and unpublished.

Preservation of supporting data

All data pertinent to the study must be preserved for a minimum of five to seven years after submission.

Photographs and illustrations

It is considered a serious ethical breach to digitally “enhance” pictures to emphasize a claimed result.

Order of Authors’ Names in Collaboratively Authored Works

If you are planning to write your technical report collaboratively, with or without a faculty author, be aware that in most fields the first name is equated with the lead author, while the names that follow indicate junior authors or those who made smaller contributions. However, if the authors’ names are indicated in alphabetical order, the assumption is made that each author made an equal contribution.

Teams who write a technical report collaboratively should list all members’ names in alphabetical order by their last names. If the coauthors include the technical advisor, the technical advisor’s name should be first, followed by the team member’s names in alphabetical order.

Be sure to have a frank and honest discussion with all coauthors about the sequence of names. If the alphabetization is not obvious, you may wish to call attention to the equality of all contributions in a footnote.

Use of human subjects in research

If your thesis project involves humans as subjects of research in any way, you must submit your research plans to the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Even if you believe that your subjects would be at “minimal risk,” this must be verified by an objective third party — the IRB — before you can proceed. There are several types of research done for theses that fall under the category of exempt protocols, including studies of the effects of curriculum innovation; still, it is the IRB, not you, who judges whether a given study is exempt or not. Before you can apply for clearance, you must take an online training course (see

The University’s commitment to protect the rights of human research subjects complies with Federal regulations. It also complies with  internationally recognized ethical principles, which arose from the discovery of crimes committed by Nazi doctors who performed involuntary experimentation during World War II. U.S. policy is strongly influenced by the Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research (1979). The Belmont report identified the following ethical principles pertinent to research involving human subjects:

Respect for persons requires recognition that people are capable of determining their goals for themselves. Therefore, human subjects must be given the right of informed consent, so that they can intelligently choose whether they wish to be involved in a study based on knowledge of the risks and benefits.

Beneficence requires an active commitment to the well-being of research subjects. The study should not harm the subjects and should attempt to maximize the benefits.

Justice requires that people should not be selected as research subjects because they are cheap to hire or easy to manipulate.


In the U.S., copyright is defined by Federal statutes in accordance with a Constitutional provision (Article 1, Section 8) that expressly permits Congress to “promote the progress of science” by giving authors “exclusive rights” to their writings for a limited time.

Since the ratification of the Constitution, Congress has expanded “writings” to include nearly all forms of creative work and “limited time” to near perpetuity (the life of the author plus 75 years). Copyright is best understood as a bundle of rights, including copying, distribution, public display, or sale of the copyrighted material

Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. For example, anyone may write a novel about a hard-boiled detective. But you may not write a novel about a hard-boiled detective named Philip Marlowe set in Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s — at least, not without risking litigation over copyright infringement.

According to current U.S. law, copyright comes into existence when a new and original work is “fixed in a tangible mode of expression,” which includes creating a document on a computer. This means that nearly all expressive works are protected by copyright. The work’s author is not necessarily the owner of the copyright. Works produced as part of an employee’s regular duties are considered works for hire. The copyright is owned by the employer, not the employee. Copyrights may be formally registered with the Library of Congress, but this is optional.

Do not assume that a work is in the public domain simply because it lacks a copyright symbol (©).

Copyright is a form of intangible property that may be transferred by means of a legal contract to a person other than the original author. Outside the U.S., authors are considered to have certain rights, called moral rights, even after they sell their copyright to someone else. These include the right to be recognized as the work’s original author. However, U.S. law has not conformed to international practice in this respect. The current owner of a copyright is called the copyright holder.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is not the same thing as plagiarism. You infringe someone’s copyright when you copy, distribute, publicly display, or sell a copyright work without first seeking permission from the copyright holder. You cannot escape from the liabilities of copyright infringement by acknowledging and thanking the author. Moreover, copyright protects only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. You may freely borrow general ideas from copyrighted works. However, borrowing ideas without giving credit to their originators is a form of academic fraud.

No copyright infringement occurs unless you violate the rights of the copyright holder — specifically, by copying, distributing, publicly displaying, or selling copyrighted expression that does not belong to you. Be aware that your thesis will be placed in the library — which constitutes publication from a legal point of view. Including copyrighted work in your thesis without first obtaining permission could make you liable for infringement.

Copyright law provides a safe harbor, called fair use, to enable the use of small portions of a copyright work for the purpose of criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. That is why you will often see short, quoted excerpts from copyrighted works in scholarly articles and books. These excerpts are covered under the fair use exemption. Of course, to avoid an accusation of plagiarism, you must indicate the source of any such excerpts that you use.

Be aware that fair use applies only to text. There is no safe harbor for the fair use of “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” including works of fine art, photographs, prints, reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, technical drawings, and plans. If you wish to include a copyrighted picture in your thesis documents, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder.

Bear in mind that copyright only protects expression, not ideas. This means that you can make a literal copy of most aspects of a copyrighted diagram, chart, or drawing, so long as you manually redraw it from scratch yourself, so that it is your expression and your expression alone.  There is no way to do this with a picture, unfortunately.

Research Integrity and its Opposite, Scientific Misconduct

Scientific misconduct refers to the intentional and fraudulent use of plagiarism, data fabrication (reporting results of experiments that were never performed) or data misrepresentation in applying for research funding, carrying out research projects, and publishing the results, as well as fraud or deception in related professional activities, such as performing peer reviews.

The discovery of outright fabrication or misrepresentation of research data makes headlines periodically. The deliberate and intentional fabrication or misrepresentation of data or research results is an extremely serious matter and can result in job loss, civil and criminal penalties, and even jail sentences.

In 2005, a former University of Vermont researcher confessed to fabricating data involved in more than a dozen Federal grant applications and several dozen scientific publications. He lost his job and settled a $180,000 suit, but now faces penalties of up to $250,000 and five years in prison. The social costs of scientific misconduct can be devastating, too. In 2006, a Norwegian oncologist admitted to fabricating data in three widely-cited papers that led to a multi-million dollar pilot project financed by the National Cancer Institute; the project had to be abandoned after the misconduct was made public (Couzin and Schirber, 2006).

Although the following infractions are not generally defined as research misconduct per se, they can occur in the process of research and may result in significant civil liability and criminal penalties:

Discrimination and harassment

Acts of discrimination or harassment against persons included in “protected categories,” or acts of retaliation against persons in those categories who complain of discrimination and harassment, can result in significant civil liabilities and criminal penalties. According to University of Virginia policy, the protected categories are age, color, disability, marital status, national or ethnic origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and/or veteran status.

Failure to observe subject protocols

All projects involving human subjects or vertebrate animals must be cleared by the University’s review boards, as described in “Use of Human Subjects” above.

Misuse of funds or property

If funds are at your disposal in your project, be aware that there are harsh criminal penalties for their misuse and that the University audits all transactions. Misappropriation of as little as $100 has resulted in the dismissal of tenured professors.

Safety violations

All projects involving biological agents (microorganisms, recombinant DNA materials derived from humans or non-human primates, or biological toxins) must be registered and cleared by the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC). Your technical research advisor has probably done this, but be aware of the numerous safety-related regulations. For example, eating and drinking in laboratories where biological agents are present is a violation of Federal regulations.

Violation of confidentiality

Some projects work with confidential data, such as patient records. Disclosure of the information they contain may result in civil and criminal penalties.

The following were not traditionally regarded as misconduct, but they are increasingly viewed as misconduct today. Some experts believe that some of these behaviors, such as failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest, pose as great a danger to the scientific enterprise as data fraud (Bekelman, Li, & Gross, 2003; DeVita, 2008; P. B. Fontanarosa, A. Flanagin, & DeAngelis, 2005; Friedman, 2002; Neale, Schwartz, & Bowman, 2005; R. H. Perlis et al., 2005; Studdert, Mello, & Brennan, 2004).

Failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest

Although there is evidence that private sector funding leads to the suppression of negative evidence in clinical trials, many journals do not require scientists to disclose potential conflicts of interest, including potentially compromising relationships that involve cash payments, consulting opportunities, and travel.

Failure to keep required records

The University of Virginia requires researchers to record all research procedures, observations made, and all results, and to maintain them for at least five years.

Failure to present known research or data that conflicts with one’s own research

Overlooking others’ use of flawed data or flawed interpretations of data

Personal relationships with funding sources or clients that could be regarded as questionable

“Salami slicing” of research findings to produce the maximum number of publications.  Some graduate students state that they have been expressly taught to determine the “least publishable unit” (LPU) in their research findings in order to maximize their publications.

Withholding details of methodology due to known errors or deficiencies that might lead others to reject the results.


  Honor Guidelines for STS Papers

The University Honor Code has important intellectual as well as practical significance for the undergraduate thesis and STS 4500-4600 because ethical concerns and the maintenance of trust are central to both academic communities and the profession of engineering. This module discusses the ethical foundations of academic integrity in addition to specifying how the Honor Code applies to the various assignments and writing contexts that students encounter in the thesis project. It provides detail beyond what is offered in the STS 4500 and 4600 general syllabi.

Why Academic Integrity Matters: Five Fundamental Values
Academic Fraud: Four Different Kinds of Cheating as Defined by the UVa Honor System
Avoiding Academic Fraud
Definitions of Terms Used in the Honor Guidelines for STS Papers
The Honor Pledge for STS Papers
Authorized Aid for STS Papers
Authorized Aid for Technical Report
Guidelines for Collaborative Writing in Team Projects
Faculty Collaboration

Why Academic Integrity Matters: Five Fundamental Values

The Fundamental Values Project of the International Center for Academic Integrity, a consortium of 200 colleges and universities, traces academic integrity to five fundamental values, which university people adhere to even in the face of adversity. The definitions that follow paraphrase and supplement those provided on the Center’s website

  • Honesty is essential to scholarship and science, and it begins with being honest with yourself, such as admitting that you were wrong. Because of their commitment to skepticism, university people are honest with others, too, in ways that can come across to outsiders as aggressive and unfriendly. But if scientists and scholars were reluctant to express their judgment out of concern for the feelings of others, science could not advance.  Honesty is particularly important in collaborative activities. Failure to express your views out of desire to be considerate promotes “groupthink.” Learn how to express your opinion diplomatically by expressing appreciation for a person’s positive contribution, followed by a statement of areas where you disagree.
  • Trust is fundamental to university communities because scientists and scholars must rely on the integrity of others. Knowledge could not possibly advance if university people took advantage of all the chances available to them to fabricate data, steal others’ ideas, or abuse their responsibility to provide truthful feedback.
  • Fairness emerges from a community built on honesty and trust. Honesty requires us to praise or criticize the work and actions of others based solely on clearly defined expectations to which all have agreed. Honest feedback built on shared evaluation criteria builds trust, even if it is negative, so long as the recipients can be honest with themselves.
  • Respect requires that we regard others not as a means to our ends, but rather as individuals whose voices deserve to be heard. Respect begins with admitting that you do not know everything. Listening carefully to other points of view expresses your commitment to fairness and builds trust.
  • Responsibility is the final ingredient. A community of scholars and scientists cannot achieve excellence if dishonesty, unfairness, and disrespect are passed over without comment. Everyone shares the responsibility to take action in the face of wrongdoing, even when one fears the consequences.


Academic Fraud: Four Different Kinds of Cheating as Defined by the UVa Honor System

Cheating takes many forms, but all are aimed at gaining an unfair or undue advantage through deception. The Honor Code uses the term “academic fraud” to describe four different kinds of intentional deception to create the appearance of competence or substantial academic achievement. All four forms of academic fraud are honor offenses.

The following definitions are quoted verbatim from “Fraud and the Honor System

  • Plagiarism: Plagiarism is representing someone else’s ideas or work as your own original ideas or work.  Plagiarism encompasses many things and is by far the most common manifestation of academic fraud. For example, copying a passage straight from a book, a website, or any other source into a paper without using quotation marks and explicitly citing the source is plagiarism. Additionally, paraphrasing without citing your original source is considered plagiarism. It is very important that students properly acknowledge all ideas, work, and even distinctive words or phrases that are not their own.  Students unsure of how to properly acknowledge a source are encouraged to consult an RA, TA, professor or manual of style.
  • Multiple Submission: Multiple submission is the use of work previously submitted at this or any other institution to fulfill academic requirements in another class. For example, using a paper from a 12th grade English class for an ENWR 101 assignment is academic fraud. Slightly altered work that has been resubmitted is also considered to be fraudulent. With prior permission, some professors may allow students to complete one assignment for two classes. In this case prior permission from both instructors is absolutely necessary.
  • False Citation: False citation is falsely citing a source or attributing work to a source from which the referenced material was not obtained. A simple example of this would be footnoting a paragraph and citing a work that was never utilized.
  • False Data: False data is the fabrication or alteration of data to deliberately mislead. For example, changing data to get better experiment results is academic fraud. Professors and TAs in lab classes will often have strict guidelines for completion of labs and assignments. Whenever in doubt about what may be considered academic fraud immediately consult with the professor.
  • Internet Resources: : Internet Resources are quickly becoming popular materials used in academic research. As more and more people gain access to computer technology, the number of web sites devoted to academic pursuits is increasing dramatically. Many of these web sites provide reliable information; however, others may not include well-documented research. If you rely on Internet resources for your research, please be sure to use the proper citation. You may consult the style guides mentioned above or follow the links below for information regarding proper citation of on-line sources.
    MLA Style published by the Modern Language Association
    Chicago Manual Style from the Chicago Manual of Style Online
    APA Style by the American Psychological Association

Avoiding Academic Fraud


  • Keep careful notes as you conduct research, extract key information from sources, and record bibliographic information. Develop a system for distinguishing direct quotes from paraphrases and your own responses.
  • Cite sources of images as well as words and ideas.
  • Realize that your instructor will respect you for giving credit to others, even if it seems like you had few ideas of your own. Many outstanding papers add only one or two original ideas to those of others.


  • Write your paper by assembling phrases and sentences drawn from your sources. Even if you provide references, you are trying to present others’ work as if it were your own.
  • Take sentences from your sources and rewrite them to make it look like you wrote them yourself. You may paraphrase, but you should tell the reader you are doing so.
  • Include a copyrighted picture in your work unless you obtain permission from the copyright holder. (This is not an Honor offense, but it can lead to legal problems. See the module on “Professional and Ethical Responsibilities Outside the Scope of the Honor System” for details on how copyright laws apply to images.)


Definitions of Terms Used in the Honor Guidelines for STS Papers

  • Critique means to read and evaluate someone else’s work without suggesting or making specific changes in the work.
  • Edit means to make specific changes to a work, either in mechanics, such as spelling, punctuation, syntax, or word choice, or in organization or content of an assignment.
  • Proofread means to correct errors in mechanics such as spelling or punctuation or to rectify omissions or unintentionally included materials that can occur when a manuscript is transcribed by typing or word processing. The honor pledge for sts PAPERS

The Honor Pledge for STS Papers

Because some forms of aid are allowed for all assignments in STS 4500 and 4600—and because instructors may on occasion authorize additional forms of aid—the pledge for STS papers should read as follows:

On my honor as a University student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment as defined by the Honor Guidelines for STS Papers.


The sections that follow specify aid that is always authorized, aid that may be authorized on occasion, and guidelines for collaborative writing when it is authorized.

Authorized Aid for STS Papers

  • Assistance from a University-sponsored writing center or tutor
  • Writing aids such as spelling and grammar checkers
  • Reference works such as handbooks, thesauruses, and dictionaries
  • Re-using text you produced for earlier thesis-related documents
  • Collaborating with members of an officially recognized team to gather sources and write descriptions of your technical topic

No other aid is authorized unless your instructor explicitly authorizes it. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

Authorized Aid for Your Technical Report

  • Your technical advisor or an appointed delegate, such as a graduate student, may critique and edit the text of your technical assignments (such as the technical component of the Prospectus or your Technical Report).
  • You may incorporate tables, specifications, data, and other technical information provided by your technical advisor, provided that you cite this material properly and, in so doing, give your technical advisor credit.

Guidelines for Collaborative Writing in Team Projects

If your technical project involves two or more team members, you may write collaboratively, which means that you may

  • Critique, edit, and proofread each other’s work
  • Incorporate material other members of your team have written. No citation or acknowledgement is required in the text. You acknowledge the collaboration by listing the members of your technical team on the title page of the document in question. You need not get the other members of the team to sign the pledge on the paper you submit.

No one other than your team members, technical advisor, or appointed delegate of your technical advisor may critique, edit, or proofread your work.

Faculty Collaboration

To facilitate collaboration and mentoring, you and your technical advisor may agree to collaborate on the final draft of your Technical Report. The final version placed in your Thesis Portfolio should indicate your advisor’s authorship. You must, however, prepare a substantially finished draft prior to your advisor’s involvement.

If you and your advisor have agreed to collaborate, your advisor may, after assigning a grade to your substantially complete draft, incorporate material your advisor has authored, edit your work, and proofread the paper.