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Request From a Former Student



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 7 months ago


    Various forms of questions reflect various assumptions. That
    this case asks whether Nelson should send the report to Jason
    implies that the report has not been published in any way and
    that the question of whether to send the report is Nelson's to
    answer. If the research had been funded by an outside source,
    then that source might have to give its permission for the
    report to be circulated, and if the report had been published,
    Jason can track it down himself and need not be dependent on
    Nelson for anything other than, perhaps, the information that
    the report has been published. So the way the question is posed
    suggests that the report is Nelson's to do with what he sees
    fit. If he prefers that others not read it, that is for him to

    He certainly has no obligation to send it to Jason even
    though Jason worked on the project. Jason's leaving the project
    before the work was completed removes any obligation Nelson
    might have had.

    But it is not obvious that any harm could come from Nelson's
    sending Jason a copy, and, after all, Nelson is a professor,
    Jason was his student, both are presumably in the same area,
    engineering, with Jason going on to graduate school; and so
    Nelson may properly feel that it would help a former student to
    give him a copy of the report. One may argue that one never
    loses a student. They can always ask a professor to write a
    letter of recommendation, though it may become more and more
    awkward the older and more removed from college they get, and
    so it is appropriate for Nelson to continue what part of that
    relationship he can by encouraging Jason. After all, it is a
    compliment to have a former student request a copy of something
    one has worked on, and since, we assume, Jason was one of
    Nelson's better students (for why else are we to assume he was
    chosen as student assistant), Nelson may properly feel that
    Jason would be an asset to the profession and so want to
    encourage him.


    If Nelson later discovers that Jason has used the report for
    his Master's Thesis, he has an obligation to report that--to
    the advisor listed on the Thesis, to the chair of the
    Department of the university in which the thesis was given, and
    to the University itself. He may also have an obligation to
    report it to whatever legal body is responsible for ethical
    issues in the profession. Jason is effectively stealing someone
    else's work, and he has no right to do that--even if, as Nelson
    indicated, Nelson has no further interest in the report and so
    does not intend to publish it. In addition to taking Nelson's
    work, Jason is also misrepresenting that work as his own. He is
    thus effectively lying to the Department and the University and
    his advisor there. And, in addition, he is misrepresenting
    himself as someone capable of doing that sort of work--to the
    University and to any future employers who see that he got a
    Masters from that university. He may well be capable of such
    work, but it is not fair to those who have done the proper work
    for a masters to represent oneself as having done it and
    compete with them on an apparently equal footing for honors and

    It is not clear what Nelson could have done to prevent this
    from happening. He might have put on the Report "Commonlaw
    copyright" and "Not for publication," but such stamps, even if
    duplicated at p. 100, as libraries do when they print their
    names on the books they purchase, would not prevent anyone from
    typing up the entire report again.

    He could also refuse to circulate unpublished papers and
    reports, citing concerns about having his ideas taken without
    credit to justify this closed-door policy. What he has to weigh
    here is whether such a policy properly furthers knowledge. If
    he indeed did not intend to pursue the subject of the report,
    then it would have languished in his filing cabinet until he
    died, then, probably, to be tossed. He worked on the project
    and may have uncovered something he did not realize he had.
    Circulating one's unpublished papers has the advantage of
    helping to ensure that whatever goodies are buried in fact make
    the light of day. He also has to weigh that consideration,
    which is a matter of general policy about the point of doing
    research, against he judgment that Jason might well profit from
    reading the report. After all, if Jason is now having second
    thoughts about how he handled himself in that project, then
    giving him the report to read so that he can see how things
    turned and thus what he missed out on by not doing a better job
    in the project may be just what Jason needs to mature further.
    Cutting him off may be taken as an affront and may be unhelpful
    in furthering his growth as an engineer and as a person.

    It is not obvious what answer one ought to arrive at when
    going through such a calculation. It is one thing to keep to
    oneself what papers one has that one is working on and intends
    to publish. Premature circulation of an idea can work against
    the dramatic impact of its sudden publication and risks its
    loss as well. But if one has decided not to pursue a project,
    it is not obvious that keeping a report on the project to
    oneself is justifiable. It would be if one knew ahead of time
    what Jason planned to do, but one does not.

  • Posted 12 years and 7 months ago


    Prof. Nice, in deciding how to respond to Jason Smart's
    request, should have the following questions:

    • Why is he requesting a copy of the final research report
      after losing interest in and leaving the project?

    • Does his contribution to the research project merit his
      receiving a complete copy of the research report?

    • How was my research project associated to the related
      area he is now working in?

    • How will seeing the report and how things worked out help

    Without further information about Jason's graduate work,
    these considerations and the fact that the research was
    essentially done by Nelson Nice suggest the professor write
    Jason and express an interest in his current graduate work,
    inquire who his graduate research advisor is, and how the
    results of his research project will help. He should include an
    abstract of the report and summary of the results. If Jason is
    serious about his work, he will respond.


    Even though Prof. Nice was not anxious to share the report
    with Jason Smart, was disappointed with the results of the
    research, and unhappy with Jason's performance on the project,
    he responded as many of us probably would. He sent Jason a
    letter pointing out that although the research was now
    complete, it did not turn out as he had hoped, that he had no
    plans to do further work in the area, enclosed a copy of the
    report, and wished him well. Several years later Prof. Nice
    finds out that Jason used the report as his Master's Thesis --
    adding some a couple of introductory paragraphs, a concluding
    section, and an updated bibliography, but not acknowledging or
    citing his work.

    Were I Nelson Nice, my first reaction would be to assume
    academic misconduct -- plagiarism. However, before acting, it's
    important to check things out. Since Jason's project was in a
    related area it might have been based on my research and used
    what he did as my undergraduate assistant as the starting
    point. I would contact Jason, cite my report, the fact that it
    appeared without any reference in his thesis, and ask him how
    this happened. Perhaps he duplicated my laboratory work with
    different results, especially since he added new introductory
    paragraphs, a conclusion and an updated bibliography. It would
    be interesting to hear what he would say. A call and a "little
    shop talk" with his graduate faculty advisor is also
    appropriate to confirm Jason's explanation. I may find his
    impropriety in not citing my research to be an oversight on his
    part, perhaps due to my reluctance to share my research report
    because of the "disappointing results." On the other hand, I
    might find that his research was legitimate and might provide a
    new perspective to my research causing me to reconsider my
    decision not to de further work in this area. Under either of
    these conditions, my resolution would be to request that he
    amend his thesis to cite my prior work, even if that work led
    to a different conclusion.

    Or, I might find that he is still immature and impatient
    with laboratory work and write-ups and used my report as a
    short-cut. At worst, academic misconduct -- plagiarism -- could
    be the case. If this is what happened, my action would be to
    discuss this with the faculty at the institution that granted
    Jason his master's degree, citing as the reason to investigate
    his alleged academic misconduct the fact that his master's
    thesis contained my research report of work done at the
    institution where the student was an undergraduate laboratory
    assistant. I would have to present the documents,
    correspondence, events, and circumstances through which the
    student received a copy of the report. The institution granting
    Jason his graduate degree would be responsible for the
    investigation under their student code of conduct, and I would
    have to abide by their finding.

    To decrease the chances this situation occurring, whenever
    someone requests a copy of your research, only send copies of
    published papers, or refer them to the appropriate journal. In
    other instances, to protect work you haven't published, send an
    abstract and a summary of the results.

  • Posted 12 years and 7 months ago


    Prof. Nice is asked by a former student, Jason, to send a
    copy of a report they had worked on together. Should Nice
    comply? Why not? No reason is given for not sending the report:
    a mere question of courtesy, one would think.


    We are now told that Nice doesn't like the report and
    doesn't much care for Jason either. But he sends the report
    anyway, only to discover years later that Jason has plagiarized
    it for his MA thesis. There is no problem here either:
    plagiarism should be investigated and punished. Nice must
    initiate an investigation through the appropriate authorities
    at Jason's university. As to what he could have done to prevent
    this from happening, there are several things. He might have
    earlier protected himself a bit by indicating on the report
    that it had copyright protection: "Not for publication. Do not
    quote without permission." He might assure himself that his
    students understand what plagiarism is and why it's wrong. He
    might ascertain that his university has appropriate policies in
    place. These are more management problems than ethical ones;
    the ethical point is to try to create conditions such that
    ethical violations such as Jason's are less likely to occur. It
    means not trusting people to the extent Nice would like to; but
    when the protections are in place, you can then be free to
    trust them more.

  • Posted 12 years and 7 months ago

    Should Nelson Nice send a report on a project to Jason
    Smart, who assisted on the project at one stage? Unless Nelson
    has some specific reason to doubt Jason's motives, or some
    general reasons for restricting access to his own work,
    professional courtesy and the ideal of free, unregulated
    exchange of information would be served by sending it.

    Note that it makes no difference whether the report has been
    published by Nelson Nice or not, because Nice as the head of
    the research project holds copyright to the report. Hence any
    other use or publication of the material without Nice's
    permission, such as that by Jason in his plagiarized thesis, is
    illegal (and immoral).

    What should Nelson Nice do when he discovers the plagiarism?
    First, he would have every right to get extremely angry. Jason
    as a former student of his has betrayed Nelson's trust in him,
    and has stolen his work and passed it off as his own. Jason has
    also betrayed and subverted the academic standards of the
    institution examining him for a Master's degree.

    After cooling down somewhat, Nelson might reflect as
    follows. As well as personally being a victim of Jason's crime,
    he has a duty to ensure that justice is done, and that adequate
    steps are taken to ensure that the circumstances which made the
    crime possible do not occur again. The main problem was not
    sending Jason the report, but Jason's dishonesty coupled with
    inadequate supervision by his degree committee at his new
    institution. Nelson must effectively communicate all of this to
    the appropriate persons or institutions.

    Next it is time for controlled paranoia to take over. Nelson
    is entering the crazy, upside-down world of 'whistle-blowing',
    in which honest attempts to reveal wrongdoing can all too
    easily end in failure or even personal disaster for the
    initiator. The unpleasant truth is that those corrupt enough to
    plagiarize, or falsify scientific reports, etc., are also
    corrupt (and clever) enough to prepare elaborate fall-back
    positions if their deceitful activities should ever be

    For example, Jason may have kept voluminous records of his
    own and other student's contributions to the original project.
    Then, if ever challenged on his thesis, he would claim that
    after all it was he, and not Nelson, who had done the work on
    which the report was based. If for any reason Nelson no longer
    has full records of the project, Jason's ploy could well

    Even if Jason has no such fall-back, he may well find
    invaluable allies in the officers and institutions of his new
    university. In the face of claims by outsiders of gross
    academic malpractice or negligence, those involved are quite
    likely to 'close ranks' and attempt to cover-up the problem,
    rather than undergo searching and painful investigation of what
    went wrong in the case. A Department whose graduate program
    might be seriously compromised by publicity about poor-quality
    advising of students is unlikely to be impartial in judging
    claims of plagiarism by its students.

    So overall, Nelson Nice needs to act both cautiously and
    decisively, to both protect his own interests and to forestall
    attempts by others to 'cover-up' the problem. As for the
    future, Nelson would be wise to include warnings about the
    evils of plagiarism and falsification of evidence in his
    graduate courses.

  • Posted 12 years and 7 months ago

    Information costs money to generate and store and has value.
    Many companies consider information a form of asset.
    Proprietary information is information which a company or
    organization owns or is the proprietor of. This term is used
    primarily in a legal sense, just as "property" and "ownership"
    are ideas carefully defined by law. Normally it refers to new
    knowledge generated within the organization which can be
    legally protected from use by others. A rough synonym for
    "proprietary information" is "trade secrets." A trade secret
    can be virtually any type of information which has not become
    public and which a company has taken steps to keep secret.

    Jason has no proprietary right to the information developed
    by Prof. Nice and in whose development he participated in a
    minor way. That information is proprietary to the university or
    the sponsor who funded the research work. Some agreement prior
    to the initiation of a research project must be developed (and
    adhered to) about to whom the data and information assembled
    during the project belong. When Prof. Nice receives a request
    from Jason he must get clearance from the owner of the
    proprietary information before sending a copy to Jason. The
    only case in which this would not be necessary is if the
    university/Prof. Nice arrangement grants ownership of the
    information contained in the report to Prof. Nice. Even in that
    case, it is unwise to send the information to Jason without a
    clearly defined explanation of just what Jason intends to do
    with the report.

    When Prof. Nice finds out what Jason has done with the
    report he must admit the error he made and inform authorities
    at the university that granted Jason his degree of this
    flagrant case of plagiarism (passing off of another's work as
    one's own). Hopefully, this step (which is a form of
    "whistleblowing") should lead to the action granting Jason a
    master's degree being rescinded. Where were the university
    supervisors of Jason's graduate work when this plagiarism was

    A case somewhat similar to this occurred at a company for
    which I worked. An employee left voluntarily to go to graduate
    school. Due to some slipshod handling of his "exit procedure"
    by the Human Resources Department, the fact that he had taken
    his laboratory notebooks (containing company proprietary data)
    was not discovered until several weeks after his departure.
    Letters asking him for his notebooks, which contained
    proprietary (and sensitive) data on the flammability of
    plastics, were ignored. A couple of years later he received a
    Master's Degree in Chemistry from a reputable university. Major
    portions of his thesis bore strong resemblance to the research
    work he had done for the company at which I worked. We chose to
    take no action because we felt we could not prove his
    plagiarism in court if a legal action developed.

Cite this page: "Request From a Former Student" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Friday, March 22, 2019 <>