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How Much Help Is Too Much?

Added04/24/2006

Updated10/28/2015

Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 2002
Publisher provided Keywords Mentoring Supervisor/Trainee
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 12 years and 8 months ago

    P. Aarne Vesilind 

    Bucknell University


    There is no argument here that Professor Brown is guilty of moral misconduct. Society, which indirectly pays his salary and supports his cushy life-style, must hold him accountable for doing the right thing. Part of his job is to certify that graduate students have certain expected skills, and in this regard he is clearly violating the public trust. The rest of the faculty, by knuckling under to Professor Brown, are equally guilty accomplices.


    But should the focus of this unfortunate situation exclude James, the student who was unfairly helped through the program? Did he not, by accepting unfair assistance in passing the cumulative exams, essentially steal his degree? Is this behavior any different from that of students who cheat on exams or plagiarizes papers in order to graduate from college? In such cases, while the students receive the degrees, they must, at some stage in their lives, reflect on what underhanded means they had to use, and that reflection must be personally painful.


    Just recently the local newspaper carried a story about how term papers can be purchased; the author of the news article estimated that at least 10 percent of college students use one of these paper mills during their time in college. The author had interviewed a writer of such term papers, who understood the sleazy nature of her craft, but then rationalized it by saying; "It's a natural thing [to purchase term papers and use them as your own]. If someone tells you a joke, you tell it as your own."


    Her statement is wrong on two accounts. First, it is not a natural thing to steal, or to use deception in obtaining a college degree. Most students who cheat in college do so with full knowledge that it is wrong and often agonize about it. Second, telling a joke does not imply that the joke has been created by the person telling it. Everyone knows that jokes are shared without attribution. Only when the jokes are claimed to be original when they are not is the re-telling immoral. But the purchase and use of term papers without proper attribution is an immoral act, and the writer of such papers is guilty of immoral behavior by openly and notoriously acting as a source of such papers.


    It is interesting, however, that while some 20 states have made the sale of such papers illegal (punishable by a civil penalty), not one state has outlawed the purchase of the papers, although the entire industry would collapse if there were no buyers. The students who purchase the papers are also guilty parties in this sorry business.


    Similarly, James is the truly guilty person in this case. It is his responsibility to conduct himself in an honorable way, and if he perceives that he is being unfairly helped (by having Professor Brown tell him what is on the comprehensive exams, e.g.), then he should stand up and refuse such help. This requirement differs little from that of a student who is offered a term paper for sale. We all recognize that the moral thing to do is to refuse to purchase the paper. Similarly, James should refuse to accept Brown's assistance. By cheating his way through graduate school, not only does James paint himself as a scientifically incompetent person, but also as an immoral one. It might be, that, as in the scenario, James could not hold a job; the problem with the job was not that he could not perform in the laboratory, but that his co-workers soon discovered that James could not be trusted. That second conclusion is far more damning than the first. If James were simply incompetent, he could always find a job cooking French fries. If he was a cheat and liar, then no one would hire him.


    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 6, 2002 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 12 years and 8 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 6, 2002 

    edited by Brian Schrag


    While this case presents many ethical questions, the problems stem from two fundamental issues: responsibility and trust. I make this assertion because an underlying assumption in the academic community is that each professor and student will be responsible in his/her respective position. Similarly trust has been established between the faculty and the outside community, both scientific and lay.


    If we focus first on the responsibility issue, we need to be careful in how we approach the problem. At first glance many would say that the responsibility lies with Dr. Brown. It is apparent that Brown has committed a number of gross violations. He has given an unfair advantage to his student on exams in addition to falsifying authorship to a peer-reviewed journal.


    There can be no doubt that both of these acts are egregious, but to place blame solely on his shoulders is to miss the more pervasive, and more troubling problems. As culpable as Brown is, James and the other faculty members are also responsible for the situation. James is responsible for letting his professor know when his studies aren't going well. Rather than be proactive, or even reactive, James exhibits an apathetic attitude. This attitude creates a situation in which Brown must either allow James to fail or take extraordinary steps to ensure his success. And while these circumstances do not mitigate Brown's actions, they certainly provide a backdrop for them.


    More importantly, the faculty's failure to provide honest criticism to Brown and James is the worst violation of responsibility. By failing to address Brown's actions with respect to the exams, and then by passing James, the faculty is creating an atmosphere in which merit and work no longer predominate in student evaluation. The faculty's failure of responsibility is dangerous because it creates a situation in which students can be awarded a degree they did not earn. The obvious result is that unskilled, and perhaps incompetent, students are released into the general community.


    Coupled with the issue of responsibility is the issue of trust. All students who matriculate assume that they will be treated equally and that the requirements for graduation will be uniform. When Brown creates a differential, he is not only being irresponsible to the university, but he is violating other students' trust in him and the faculty. In addition, industrial employers trust that the university will teach students a certain skill set that they can utilize. When Brown violates this trust, he endangers other students by creating a situation where they may not be hired given James's performance.


    Many more issues are at work in the case. The discussion questions should facilitate the exploration of some of these questions. However, I would argue that the case at its heart is an investigation into the expectations of the graduate experience. Also very important are questions about what actions are appropriate to ensure that those receiving degrees have mastered a skill set and are responsible and trustworthy enough to be employed.

Cite this page: "How Much Help Is Too Much?" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/24/2006 OEC Accessed: Wednesday, January 16, 2019 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/gradres/gradresv6/help.aspx>