Re: Ethics - Helping with a Thesis

Subject: Re: Ethics - Helping with a Thesis
From: Gary Merrill <sasghm -at- UNX -dot- SAS -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 1 Dec 1995 14:53:13 GMT

In article <199511302250 -dot- AA00075 -at- mailstn -dot- sarmc -dot- org>, Ellen Fenwick
<ellefenw -at- MAILSTN -dot- SARMC -dot- ORG> writes:

|> In a recent thread about avenues for finding work, it was suggested that
|> one might approach graduate students about assisting with a thesis (with
|> appropriate cautions about limiting the degree of assistance and perhaps
|> getting approval from the thesis advisor beforehand).

My first reaction to this was pretty visceral. Initially, the idea
is repugnant and the fact that it is suggested by someone in a
discipline that is now struggling to define a clear sense of professionalism
(as witness various STC publications over the past year) is scary indeed.

But it deserves some serious consideration. Let me offer some comments
with the very brief bit of background that I have gone through the
processes of writing a bachelor's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation myself
and served for a number of years on the graduate faculty of a university
where I acted as both an advisor and review board member on dissertations.

|> This was great! I'm doing a research paper on this very topic. Is the
|> practice really unethical?

This depends upon what "helping" means. The primary point of doing a
thesis is to demonstrate that one has a rather thorough command of a subject.
In the case of a Ph.D. dissertation there is usually a phrase along
the lines of "original work" as well. It is therefore crucially
important (from the point of view of the faculty) that the thesis
be the work of the student -- and this includes such things as
its organization, structure, and the writing. Initially, this
would appear to exclude any "help" from a technical writer, but
it bears closer scrutiny.

|> On what ethical grounds? For example, are
|> there any rights that are being violated? Who does it really hurt
|> (utilitarian argument)?

I won't get into this too deeply (though I could get into it much
more deeply than you would desire: prior to becoming a software
geek I was a professor of philosophy). Let me just repeat the point
that the requirement for the thesis and the expectation of the
faculty is that it is the work of the *student*.

|> Is it unethical for just the student, just the
|> assisting writer, both?

To the degree that it is unethical, obviously it is unethical
for both.

|> Is there a line between what is ethical and what
|> is not?

Always. (Maybe you ought to take a nice course in ethics
in your local philosophy department. In fact, take two:
one in introductory ethics and one in business ethics.)

|> Does the line change, for instance, for ESL (English as a second
|> language) students? Etc.


The following are my opinions, devoid of any justification or
amplification, as though I were (still) a faculty member with
the responsibility of evaluating theses. These are the answers
I would provide were a student to ask me the questions.

1. Would it be acceptable for a writer to help with the thesis
to the degree of providing text or rewriting passages?


2. Would it be acceptable for a writer to provide the outline
of the thesis, to provide the structure, or to provide
details of organization?


3. Would it be acceptable for a writer to tutor me in methods
of writing, organization, etc.?

Yes, but not to illustrate these by providing text for the

4. Would it be acceptable for a writer or editor to edit
a draft or partial draft of the thesis?

Yes; but the editor should go only so far as to point out
errors and to perhaps make general suggestions concerning

So I think that the most "help" that a writer ethically could
provide would be along the lines of general instruction or
hints in writing and organization, and in the area of editing.
Now note, that this is the sort of help that the student
*should* get from his advisor or other faculty members. So
in theory at least, the writer/editor would not be needed.
In practice, not all faculty are up to this or inclined to
do it. And the injunction against the writer actually
doing any of the organization or writing has a practical
side (for the student) as well. Keep in mind that (certainly
in the case of Ph.D. dissertations and in most or many
cases of the master's thesis) the student is well known
to the faculty who will review the thesis. They have seen
the student's written work before. They will *know* if
(and to what degree) the thesis was not written by the
student. And in most cases there will be an oral exam
(a "defense"). If performance at the oral exam does not
match the written work (in use of language, ability to
express thoughts, organization, etc.), then the thesis
will be rejected.

Gary H. Merrill [Principal Systems Developer, Compiler and Tools Division]
SAS Institute Inc. / SAS Campus Dr. / Cary, NC 27513 / (919) 677-8000
sasghm -at- theseus -dot- unx -dot- sas -dot- com ... !mcnc!sas!sasghm

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