Ethics of Helping with Student Papers (summary-long)

Subject: Ethics of Helping with Student Papers (summary-long)
From: Ellen Fenwick <ellefenw -at- MAILSTN -dot- SARMC -dot- ORG>
Date: Fri, 29 Dec 1995 13:11:54 -0700

About a month ago I posed a question to the list about whether it was
ethical to help college students with the papers/theses/dissertations they
turn in for credits or degrees. The topic was one I was exploring for a
term paper for a class on ethics in technical communication. I've
summarized here the responses I received, as well as what I learned in my
research. I've also included, at the end, my resulting recommendations.

First, responses from the list. My thanks to those who shared their
thoughts and experiences. The consensus seemed to be that it was ethical to
assist, as long assistance was limited to normal editing functions (for
example, spelling, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, formatting).
For more serious problems, you should only point them out and provide
general instructions or suggestions. Many felt that it was important that
the collaboration between writer and student be a learning experience for
the student ("Learning to work with an editor is a useful skill.") Most
concurred that the research, organization of ideas, and writing MUST remain
the original work of the student. Sample differences of opinion: "For the
graduate student finishing a thesis or dissertation, . . . the time for
learning is over. It is time to demonstrate one's competence." And "The
idea [of helping a student with a thesis] is repugnant. The primary point
of doing a thesis is to demonstrate that one has a thorough command of a
subject. It is therefore crucially important that the thesis be the work
of the student--and this includes such things as its organization,
structure, and the writing. This would appear to exclude any 'help' from a
technical writer."

The practice of assisting students with term papers is widespread.
Companies provide custom-made and ready-written term papers for a fee, and
often advertise their services quite blatantly. Universities, states, and
the law take a pretty dim view of the practice, and most states have
enacted specific legislation prohibiting it. In these states, providing
custom research and writing for a fee, and even offering assistance,
violates either the state's education or criminal code; in addition, using
the mails in connection with the work violates federal mail-fraud statutes,
and both the student and the assisting writer may be both criminally and
civilly liable. The foundation for all these codes and statutes is the
legal viewpoint that, by enrolling in a school, students enter into a
contract with that school, whereby they tacitly agree to obey certain
rules--one of them being that the work they submit must be their own; to do
otherwise is fraud.

There is ethical justification for the stance. I won't go into details,
but I used ethicists Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and W. D. Ross to
underscore the idea that keeping contracts is a self-evident duty, a
fundamental law, necessary for the very preservation of society, etc.

I looked at several professional codes of ethics, including the Society for
Technical Communication's recently revised ethical guidelines. Not much
practical guidance there for this case.

What was most interesting to me in this case was comparing the
student/writer relationship with real-world collaborative practices. In the
"real world," collaboration is considered ethical and desirable.
Ghostwriting is a common practice. In the scientific and academic
professions, significant assistance from colleagues and peer reviewers in
preparing articles for publication is legitimate and routine. Also,
theories of education and how we make knowledge would seem to tell us that
collaboration between student and writer is both beneficial and desirable,
and enables students to better join their eventual professional
communities. For example, social constructionism asserts that learning is
a social process, where knowledge is created through interaction with
knowledgeable peers.

However, there is a difference between the educational environment and the
professional environment, and it all boils down to that issue of the
contract between the student and the school. However, it's not that black
and white. What's necessary is to define where the line is between when
the student is breaking the contract and when not, between what is "their
own" work and what is not.

University writing centers provide an obvious model. Writing center
principles define legitimate collaboration as directed primarily at
developing students' writing abilities so they can become independent
writers and learners. Their practices include making sure students'
contributions remain predominant, and leading students to discover their
own solutions. In other words, they want to produce a better writer, not a
better paper.

Conclusions? I believe that you can assist a student with a writing
project. However, there is a line between what is ethical and what is not.
I think you can draw that line pretty clearly, and I propose the following
guidelines for doing so:

1. Be explicit with the student at the very beginning about what you
ethically can and cannot do, and why.

2. If there is any doubt about the ethics of the work, have the student
check with the professor. The student should be able to comfortably
acknowledge the level of assistance you will be providing.

3. Do not contribute to or change intellectual content.

4. Do not do any original writing or any significant rewriting.

5. Where you see flaws or inadequacies in organization, logic, or
expression, only point them out. Let the student decide how to resolve

6. Explain all your editorial changes to the student, so that the student
learns from them.

Ellen Fenwick
ellefenw -at- mailstn -dot- sarmc -dot- org

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