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I am a computer science freelancer who takes on medium-sized projects I can complete in a month or less. I was approached by someone who wanted a set of 12 tutorials at least 500 words each about certain programming topics with code examples and workouts. We talked payment and I accepted this project and got to work. I have been using GitHub to write the pieces and publish them privately on my account.

Here's where things get tricky. After I had completed the tutorials, but before I sent them to him, he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. He has already paid me.

My dilemma is this: I would like to return his money and not send him the tutorials and have him fail his school project. However, I have worked on this for 3 weeks, and I obviously need the money.

In our original conversation, he made no such mentions of secrecy, so at the very least I could make the GitHub repository public and still accept his payment.

My question is this: What is my best course of action? I don't want him to submit that work as his own. However, I still would like to get paid as he did not confine to me he was planning on plagiarism until the very end.

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You did the work you were contracted to do, in good faith. I don't see a problem with you keeping the money, and providing the code. But you could also contact his institution and let them know what is going on. Optionally, you could tell the student you are doing so, giving him a chance to put together something on his own. Or not, maximizing the chance he'll get caught, if this doesn't feel too much like entrapment. – Nate Eldredge Mar 21 at 4:36
Consider adding an explicit notice of not doing university assignments to your freelancer profile, just to avoid this in the future. – svavil Mar 21 at 8:55
@NateEldredge you should make that an answer. – Davidmh Mar 21 at 10:11
Are you certain that these tutorials are the MAIN part of the work for the project? Seem plausible that the project is something like e.g. "Build a website to host programming tutorials", and the REAL project is the work involved in building the website infrastructure, while the tutorials he hired you to write were just like someone hiring a copy writer. In that case, it wouldn't be unusual for him to say, "Oh yeah, this is for my honors project" while not really meaning this IS the honors project - you're just facilitating content. In other words, just could be a misunderstanding. – loneboat Mar 21 at 14:11
Whatever you end up doing, I think you should at least have standard copyright/author headers on all your code files to protect yourself. If he removes them, it only incriminates him. – fhlamarche Mar 21 at 14:34

17 Answers 17

up vote 130 down vote accepted

I think you should take the money, try to retain as much of my copyrights as possible (the law may help you do this implicitly rather than explicitly, which may be helpful), and refrain from doing anything else until after the student misuses your work.

Why? Consider that:

  • Plagiarism is not a crime.
  • Copyright violation is a crime.
  • Neither has occurred yet.
  • You have done the work in good faith.
  • You are not responsible for preventing others from plagiarizing your work.

Refunding him and keeping the work would be unfair to you because you have already done the work. You have every right to keep the money for the work you have done.

Refunding him and keeping the work would be unfair to him too, since he has every right to obtain the work from you that he has paid you for and waited for. Even if you refund his money, you can't refund the time that he has spent waiting for you to do the work, so you would arguably be liable for damages too.

If your work is actually plagiarized, then you will have a basis for complaining academically and/or legally, and it will be more difficult for your client to view you as a "snitch", etc. if he violates your copyright.

If you let his institution know before the deed occurs, then I'd argue you're doing something morally wrong: you're putting him in trouble for an act that he has not even committed yet. (This might be fine if the act involved danger, but it doesn't.)


I should clarify that my answer is only intended for a "generic" freelancer, not someone who has something else at stake too. For example, if you yourself were e.g. a professor/graduate student/public figure/etc., then you could earn yourself a bad reputation among your colleagues by giving him the work even if most other people would consider what you do to be entirely ethical/moral/righteous. In that case, the wisest career move for you may not be the same thing as what a typical freelancer might or should do, so keep in mind I'm not addressing such situations.

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Since OP is doing the work for hire, if he is paid for the work then the copyright would probably belong to the student (even if this wasn't stated explicitly, though IANAL and that could depend on various complicated factors about what exactly was agreed between them). So it sounds like OP would not be in a good position to claim a copyright violation. – Dan Romik Mar 21 at 8:14
Claiming a copyright violation on something you clearly made for someone else without any specification or explicit limitation of use, and you were paid for is in my book very morally wrong. Legal aspects aside, that's just ripping someone off. – rubenvb Mar 21 at 8:28
@rubenvb: Uh, I disagree? If we're talking common sense/morals rather than law, my common sense and morals tell me that code that I write for someone as a contractor is still deemed to be authored by me and is generally intended for personal use (i.e. learning, executing, research, etc.)... it is certainly not OK with me for the one paying me to claim authorship of the work. He doesn't need my permission to use it, but he certainly can't claim he wrote it unless I explicitly give him that right. I actually think the law kind of makes sense here. – Mehrdad Mar 21 at 8:31
I think "neither has occurred yet" is the key point here. OP can simply hand over the files (if this was all that was originally agreed in the contract) but state clearly that it was not part of the contract that authorship of these files can be claimed by the buyer. If the buyer then claims authorship and hands these files to the university, the actual moral dilemma occurs: Should OP contact the university about it? – HRSE Mar 21 at 9:00
Edit: there is one caveat, which is that if the client has explicitly made it clear to him that the authorship will be misrepresented, then he needs to explicitly reject that. Otherwise then it's implicitly agreed to. However, IMO merely saying that the code is to be used in a project or thesis isn't sufficient here since it says nothing about authorship. – Mehrdad Mar 21 at 9:09

I think this is one of the more interesting ethical questions I've ever seen on this site. The answer is really not clear to me!

I think this depends upon the ethical principles on which your business is based. Why are you freelancing medium sized CS projects for pay? Because you need or want the money? To improve your skills? To build your reputation as a programmer? To help the world? These are all reasonable answers, but the amount of weight you give them should inform your response.

Here's where things get tricky. After I had completed the tutorials, but before I sent them to him, he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. He has already paid me.

First of all, I think there's a lesson here about doing business for pseudonymous clients. Many mainstream businesses require identifying personal information from their clients. Some don't, but one presumes they are founded on different ethical principles than the ones that do. If you have any qualms at all about how your product will be used, you should exercise some due diligence in finding out who your clients are and how your work would be used. In this case: what did you think the work would be used for? Did you ask? I think that matters: if your client actively was dishonest or misleading with you, then he is behaving unethically even in his transaction with you. However, if you never asked then -- given that you actually care -- it seems that you have made a mistake.

My dilemma is this: I would like to return his money and not send him the tutorials and have him fail his school project. However, I have worked on this for 3 weeks, and I obviously need the money.

Maybe you need the money, but it's not obvious. Just because you've worked on something for three weeks doesn't make it ethically justified to take the paycheck. Clearly one can imagine conditions under which upon learning the purpose of the work, the only ethical action would be to not provide the product and take the loss of pay. On the other hand, if you would suffer sufficiently dire consequences from not receiving the money -- e.g. being evicted from your home or being unable to provide food and clothing to yourself or your dependents -- then in this case taking the money becomes the lesser evil.

I would like to say that you are only ethically justified in taking the money and turning the student in if (i) you need the money for serious reasons as above and (ii) the student was deceptive in his dealings with you, as above. Absent these two conditions, it looks to me like you are not dealing in good faith with someone who is paying you. The fact that the product is allowing a student to gain a degree dishonestly is definitely an ethical concern (to me, in particular) but it is not clear that it outweighs the other ethical concerns so as to allow you to "turn the tables" on the student after payment.

One should also point out that the ethical obligation not to commit academic dishonesty lies with the student; although it hurts me a bit to say so, I don't think that the rest of the world is ethically obligated to refrain from helping students cheat. I admire you for wanting to refrain from doing this, but I think that if you are really serious about this then you should seriously entertain not accepting the payment.

Added: Some others have suggested that the OP has an ethical obligation to complete the business transaction with his client. @Mehrdad says in a commment:

Food for thought: if you refused to give the code and refunded him but he sued you for damages (because of, say, a broken contract + lost time/opportunities), do you think you would win the case? I don't know about you, but if I were the judge, I would likely rule against you.

I am not a businessman, lawyer or judge but I find the prospect of a lawsuit extremely far-fetched, and even the underlying principle seems suspect. A business contract is, in my understanding, an agreement to receive payment for certain services rendered. In all of my experience, a willingness to forego the payment releases the business from the obligation to perform the services: in other words, the contract is probably not being broken. (In the TV show Catch a contractor -- a reality show that enacts sting operations for shady contractors -- when the contractor is "caught" they are presented with three options: completing the work, giving the money back, or being sued. They never give the money back.) In terms of suing for lost time and opportunities: the business has lost the time and opportunities as well. In this case the business would be refusing service for a clear ethical reason so public exposure would make the OP look much worse than the my opinion, of course.

Further Added: I seem to have missed the part where the OP said he has already been paid. In that case I agree that it is likely that according to the contract, the OP has a legal obligation to provide the services. He could still feel personally that his ethical obligation to not be part of academic dishonesty is higher than his legal which case he should be prepared to weather some loss on the legal/business side. I am not counseling him to do so, of course.

Another option is for the OP to confront his client and say that he believes his services have been contracted for academically dishonest reasons. Perhaps he is wrong about that and his client can set him straight. If not, then he and the client may well agree that the best thing is to dissolve the contract and stop the mutually known instance of academic dishonesty from taking place. From a purely ethical standpoint, this seems like a better outcome than taking the money and wondering whether to turn the tables on the client.

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I think the sufficient condition for retaining payment of facing eviction from your house is exaggerated. Clearly, the loss of 3 weeks labor income qualifies for (i). I also don't see that (ii) is a necessary condition as explained in the answer of @Mehrdad. – HRSE Mar 21 at 9:10
"Otherwise you are enforcing someone else's ethical obligations at a cost to them, not to you." However I'm not sure I get this. Shouldn't someone breaching their ethical obligations incur a cost to them? – mike3 Mar 21 at 9:45
This answers seems like a gross underestimation of the ethical dilemma in the client-provider relationship in favour of the student-institution relationship. Mehrdad seems to hit the nail on the head on this one. – Celos Mar 21 at 10:40
@HRSE: Calling a sufficient condition "exaggerated" is inherently confusing to me: it is not claimed to be necessary or nearly necessary, only sufficient. It is not clear to me that the loss of 3 weeks of labor income qualifies for (i) in general: what if the OP instead found out that his code was going to be used in a way to cause bodily harm to a group of people? Part of the point of my answer is that the OP has to evaluate how bad he feels the consequences are in this case. If he feels strongly enough about it, it could be reasonable to forego 3 weeks pay unless he really needs it. – Pete L. Clark Mar 21 at 11:47
As of 2015, the privacy of Swiss bank accounts was effectively ended -- – Daniel R. Collins Mar 21 at 14:03

I think the exact terms of your licence agreement with the client will be important here. Do you retain ownership and copyright on the code, and simply provide a licence to the client to use it, or do you transfer ownership of the code outright?

If the latter, then there's not much you can do (and you probably should stop doing this, seriously).

If the former, then the terms of the licence agreement should stipulate what attribution is required and whether or not the source code can be subsequently distributed without your permission. It's one thing to provide code as a service, which your clients are free to use in their projects, but your clients should probably not have the right to re-distribute your (commercial) code without your consent. I hope you have a licence agreement that makes this clear.

If you do have a licence agreement that makes this clear, then this is an open-and-shut case. If the code is for a thesis then the compiled executable will absolutely not be sufficient. The code must be published and this is where you have leverage. Either you have not granted them the right to re-publish that code (in which case you can make a legitimate protest after a violation has occured), or you have granted the right to re-publish the code but with stipulations (ie: inclusion of the licence, attribution, etc). In either of these cases, this checkmates your student as it would either immediately give away the fact that they outsourced their entire project (by inclusion of attribution and licence) or would initiate a legal complaint that would reveal the same.

Given that the student has now notified you of his intentions you can preemptively reiterate the terms of your licence (again, assuming you have one) to make clear that any republication of the code must be in compliance with said terms. This should not affect whether or not you have a right to be paid for the work because, presumably, the student agreed to these terms when you negotiated the job (you did do this, right?).

If you didn't negotiate clear licencing terms and you don't have a formal licence agreement then you're at the mercy of whatever defaults the law provides where you live. IANAL, so good luck with that.

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Ownership doesn't stop it being plagiarism. Buying an essay and handing it in as my own work is still a violation. No contract or licence can give me the right to do that. Partly because this is not primarily a legal matter. Note that submitting work probably doesn't constitute republication, either. – cfr Mar 23 at 4:12
@cfr No, but ownership changes the legal position of our OP here. If the deal was to transfer ownership then that's the deal and that's the end of what OP can do (and still expect to be paid). They can take the money and notify the school post-facto, but a licence agreement gives them more options. – J... Mar 23 at 9:37
It increases the options, yes, I agree. But it isn't true that otherwise 'there's not much you can do'. As other answers indicate, telling the educational institution is one option regardless if there's a licence or not. – cfr Mar 23 at 12:18

You should deliver the work you have accepted to do and were paid for. Doing otherwise (even if you refund your client) is unprofessional and damages your reputation. For example if you two got connected via a freelancing platform, you will probably get a bad review scaring your future clients, and rightfully so.

You may choose to contact the institution your client attends, warning them about the situation before the actual plagiarism happens. I don't see anything legally wrong with doing so (IANAL), it's up to you to decide if you want to report the student before they actually misuse your work.

Of course, you can (and should!) retaliate after the fact: if the said institution publishes the works of their students, and you discover parts of your own work in it, it is your right to send them a notice stating the attribution violation. The institution will, in turn, take actions against the student.

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How would it not be ethical? You weren't forbidden to reveal that information when you contracted (as the student didn't disclose it at that time), the student cannot unilaterally forbid you to do so, and disclosing your authorship would not harm an honest client. Any damage would be self-inflicted, and the student is apparently well aware of this. – MSalters Mar 21 at 12:53
You might report your work to the university without revealing the identity of the student. If the university never sees such work being submitted, no harm done. If a dishonest student does turn it in and gets caught, well, the university probably has a procedure to deal with academic dishonesty. – MSalters Mar 21 at 13:22
"You'll get paid for something your client won't be able to use because of your actions." - equally accurately, you'll get paid for something your client won't be able to use because of their actions. – immibis Mar 22 at 2:04
@immibis This, and anything else is victim-blaming. – anonymous Mar 22 at 3:20
You guys have convinced me. I'll edit my answer if you don't mind. – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 22 at 9:47

Here is what I would do: separate your concerns.

First, accept payment and deliver the work you did, because that's what you promised to do (and may indeed be your legal obligation, depending on what kind of process or agreement you had).

Secondly, forget your professional connection to this case and consider what you would do if you discovered by some other means that a stranger had outsourced work for their school project. Most people, I suspect, would decide to stay out of it, because they'd rather not have the conflict, or because they think it's beyond their duty. That's a choice that they are welcome to make, but I think the right thing to do is to inform their educational institution of the facts. They are overwhelmingly better-placed than you to decide what the appropriate response is, both in the sense of whether or not the student's behaviour was appropriate (maybe it was totally fine, maybe what you produced was actually not the focus of their assessment), and the broader context of that student's education, record, and what the school's policies and procedures are that this student has presumably already agreed to.

You are not (should not be) telling the institution to punish or otherwise cause problems for this student, and they would probably ignore your opinion on the matter if you did, so it doesn't seem like you need to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. You're only breaching a secrecy that, actually, no-one asked you to keep, and for a very small amount of effort and risk (you can ask the institution not to identify you, if you're worried about that) you can make a substantial contribution to ensuring that the fairness and accuracy of our educational assessment system is maintained.

In other words, judging what should happen to this student when they do what they did is a job you are neither qualified nor expected to do, nor is it one you need to take on. Just enable the people who do have that job to do it properly.

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Separation is a good idea, but here there is the stronger situation of "conflict of interest", where action on the second point (reporting the potential violation) should not only be independent of the first (having undertaken a contract), it should actually be inhibited by it. The conflict arises if one assumes that there is some duty to the client underlying the whole contract-and-promise thing. For instance, many wedding organizers discover that the clients' intention to marry is a disastrous idea, but sharing their thoughts about that would be unethical sabotage of the contract. – zyx Mar 22 at 4:36
By your logic, if a married man was cheating and bought a gold necklace for his girlfriend (not his wife), the jeweler clerk should phone the wife to tell her, since she's better placed to decide what the appropriate response is. The truth is, they specifically avoid doing this by being very discrete about all communication to their clients. (This also avoids spoiling birthday surprises and stuff too, but the 'don't let the wife find out I'm cheating' is a big part too.) I don't see how it's any different between cheating on your wife or cheating on your university. – corsiKa Mar 22 at 17:22
@zyx: There is SOME duty to the client, but I don't think this is part of it. I'm not sure if "conflict of interest" is what you mean, since there's nothing material to gain by reporting the student. – Ben Millwood Mar 24 at 15:19
The conflicting interests are the duty to not harm the client (at least in matters connected to the transaction), and the OP's desire to prevent what he believes to be an imminent case of plagiarism. If OP reports, the client will be worse off than without having entered into the transaction, and the OP bears some or all of the responsibility for that, since whether the worse-off outcome occurs is assumed (to avoid irrelevancies) to be entirely a function of whether the OP reports or not. @BenMillwood – zyx Mar 25 at 4:01

I'm afraid you should probably give him the work he paid for.

However, there are several points to take into account.

Your country will matter a bit. As the original author, you have the moral rights on the work, and other people cannot claim it as their own work. These will hold in many countries, and may not even be waived (eg. in most european countries), so no matter the licensing terms they can't claim your work as their own. OTOH the situation in US is quite different, and your contract could have given away such rights (though I doubt they cared to include such clause).

Even then, you should remind the client that he has to keep the copyright notices in the work you gave him (unless your contract authorizes him to remove them). A nice remind is appropriate so if they proceed in an infringing path, and you take action your position was clearly established in that you didn't expect them to be misattributed.

Next, I would ensure that the tutorials have clear copyright notices. This kind of work is great for that, as in addition of the explicit ones, there's ample room for hidden ones: your name could be read in acrostic on some paragraph, an example code could output when run "One of anonymous_display great tutorials", etc. Those would be very clear indicators of authorship should you had to prove if it was really your work or not.

Additionally, I would take digital evidence of possessing the code at the given point. For instance, you can hash the zip of what you are handling, and have a public timestamp server sign that. This way, a public CA is vouching that such zip (containing your © notices) existed at time X (so you couldn't have added them later after retrieving the PhD of your client).

You mention the possibility of publishing the work itself in Github. That would also help (I would still take the previous steps), and has the added benefit that you are making your work searchable without you having to be involved pointing out at this guy (it could have been found by any professor reviewing the honors project). Albeit publishing on your own the work you were hired to do might not be allowed (explicitly or implicitly).

I have to mention the excellent point by loneboat that his use of your work may be legitimate, even though you have to prepare for the case it's not.

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At last an answer which mentions moral rights! I'm almost at the end of the list of answers and 74 persons upvoted an answer which gives for granted what is or is not a crime based on one country's laws... – Nemo Mar 22 at 19:01
+1 for time-stampping the work with a trusted authority. – Tyzoid Mar 23 at 19:22
@Justpassingby The US is a signatory to the Berne Convention, but it also declared that the Convention's moral rights were subsumed under existing US law. Which probably means moral mights are pretty much worthless in the US. – deadrat Mar 25 at 9:30
@Nemo No, I'm fairly confident of my reading ability, and if I'm confused by some text, then my conclusion is that I'm confused. If by moral rights you mean the standard thing, than those rights are based on a country's laws, and assuming that "gives for granted"means "takes for granted", then yes, in most places what is criminal and what isn't finds its basis in law. I'm also fairly sure that if you wanted to make yourself clear to me, then you would have already made the attempt. – deadrat Mar 25 at 19:08
@Nemo I'm gonna guess that you've confirmed lots of things to yourself that aren't so. The only statement I made was I wasn't sure, which is a conclusion requiring no leaps. As I've said, if you wanted to make yourself clear to me, you'd have done it by now, and without commenting on either my understanding or my reasoning. – deadrat Mar 25 at 21:54

There is legal precedent for the comparable service of professionally writing essays for students, so-called essay mills. At the very least, one seems to tread muddy waters; some cases quoted mention states tend to hold the service provider responsible. The California law, say, apparently can hold the seller responsible if they "know or should have known" that their work will be used by the student as you say - and now know - it will.

You never intended for this to happen, and your question here speaks well about you. You are not a professional "github mill," just find yourself in a bad situation. It is very unlikely that you'd be prosecuted for this; it would probably go unnoticed. However, considering the legal context mentioned above and discussed more in the link, if you can return the money, I'd do it. Your client is likely going to protest, but what are they going to do: take you to court as you refused to write their thesis as soon as you were informed of their plan? As this would make their intent certainly public to their institution, I don't see that happening.

As others have said, do make sure to add related disclaimers to your work in the future.

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They could still give the OP a bad review on the freelancing platform (assuming one was used). Many such platform even penalize the freelancer automatically in case of money-back by keeping track of successful/failed projects ratio (naturally money-back counts as a failed project). – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 22 at 9:46
@DmitryGrigoryev: That's a good point. I'd personally still do as I say above, but it makes proceeding like it even more painful... – gnometorule Mar 22 at 22:38
Perhaps you mean 'prosecuted' rather than 'persecuted'? – cfr Mar 23 at 12:17
@cfr While persecuted works here, prosecuted indeed would make more sense. – TylerH Mar 23 at 15:07
@cfr, TylerH: Thanks for pointing out a typo! – gnometorule Mar 23 at 16:26

I'm really sorry you got conned into unwittingly helping someone cheat. I feel it would be unfair to offer you specific advice about whether you should or shouldn't take the money from my comfortable position of not having to suffer the financial (or moral) consequences of each decision. But your question brings to mind some general insights from economics that would perhaps be helpful to you.

Specifically, two concepts that come to mind are the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion. If we compare your situation to a different situation in which a hypothetical dishonest student approaches you today and offers to pay you the exact same amount of money as you are owed by the real-life student, and all you have to do is to complete a short programming homework assignment he was given so that he can submit it as his own (let's say it will take you 30 minutes), it seems very likely to me that you would refuse to participate in such cheating: it would be much easier for you to forgo a profit you haven't earned yet than it is to accept a loss of a sum of money you have been imagining for some time you will be receiving and have become emotionally invested in. Such is the nature of loss aversion.

Nonetheless, behaving differently towards sunk costs than future costs (or forgoing a hypothetical future profit) is called a fallacy because it is considered by economists as irrational behavior. The point is that a rational decision-maker should (in theory at least) behave consistently when faced with two decisions that involve the same payoff, the same amount of future investment of work (as in my example, where the 30-minute time investment in the homework assignment doesn't really make a material difference), and the same moral consequences, and not take into account irrelevant information about things that happened in the past. So perhaps one approach to thinking how to proceed would be to imagine a parallel situation like I described in which you need to make a fresh decision about becoming complicit in someone's cheating, and thinking how you would react to that. This is assuming that you agree that loss aversion is indeed irrational, which I think is only one way of looking at it. After all, we are all human beings, and no one can blame you for being upset at the possible loss of a considerable amount of money you thought you had earned through honest work.

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The fallacy seems to be somewhat lacking here. He has spent time on this project already. Time he cannot get back, but which could have been spend on another project if he had not accepted this one. – Tobias Kildetoft Mar 21 at 8:53
@TobiasKildetoft "He has spent time on this project already. Time he cannot get back": precisely, the time is the sunk cost that causes OP to rationalize engaging (or considering to engage) in behavior that he would not normally agree to engage in. This type of situation is what the sunk cost fallacy is all about. – Dan Romik Mar 21 at 9:01
That was not the important part of my comment. The fact that the time could have been spent on another project instead is. The reason he could more easily have said no up front is that this would allow him to take on another project to earn him the same money. – Tobias Kildetoft Mar 21 at 9:03
@Tobias and I think you're missing my point. In my hypothetical scenario with the HW assignment he wouldn't even need to spend 3 weeks doing the work, it would be easy money that doesn't take his time away from another project. And the fact that he has spent 3 weeks in the past that he could have been doing something else with is (theoretically) irrelevant to deciding what to do in the future. The past cannot be changed. Our actions only affect the future, and (if you subscribe to this theory about rational behavior) should be informed only by what we want to see happening in the future. – Dan Romik Mar 21 at 9:13
@ErikE the logic is indeed tricky here (perhaps too tricky for 600 character comments), but I'm afraid I have to insist that you're wrong, or possibly we're just talking about different things. The entire point of the sunk cost fallacy is that sunk costs are irrelevant for decisions about the future. It doesn't matter if he worked for 3 weeks, or 3 months, or 3 years. He can either take the money and be complicit in cheating, or not take the money and refuse to help with the cheating. In no case will he have to not work for 3 weeks in the future, so your Situation 2 is irrelevant. – Dan Romik Mar 22 at 1:47

To everyone who's suggested OP should abide by the contract despite what the products might be used for: Shame on you. Are you so devout in your fetish of commercial contractual relations as to put them before moral considerations? I I would pontificate more, but that wouldn't answer OP's question.

Now an answer for OP:

Issue 1: You bear some responsibility - you should have known better

This contract was strange from the get-go. Usually when someone is contracted to prepare educational material it is by an institution, not by an individual. It is also unusual, if I am not mistaken, to contract a freelance SW developer rather than someone with a teaching background. Finally, you said you were "approached" by that person, i.e. you physically met. Did he strike you as a person who would need this strange kind of service?

Also, when you were discussing the work - you must have asked about the context of the tutorials' use; the target audience; what they are assumed to know; their typical experience; the goals for audience members after the tutorials are through, etc. If he answered these questions, you had probably figured out what this was going to be used for - enough to realize this was funny business; if he refused answer these questions, that's even more suspicious. Or, I mean, ok, he could tell you: "This is work I need done no questions asked." - but then you cannot be surprised there are more/ethical(/legal) issues with this work you're doing.

So, at any rate, you knew there was something amiss with this transaction. I'm not saying that means you're not entitled for compensation for your work, but it's not like he sprang something on you completely out of the blue.

Now, be honest with us: Isn't it the case that you're feeling guilty about going along with what you were contracted to do, and are, shall we say, semi-consciously forgetful in presenting the less-than-pleasent details? I suspect the answer to be yes. If you want moral or ethical advice, the first piece of advice is be fair in how you tell yourself, and us, the story. That very often leads you to conclusions you may not like, but you already know are right.

Issue 2: An honors project - or perhaps misuse of honors' students by the university?

It is quite strange that preparing 12 tutorials on a subject would be a honors program project for anyone. These are tasks for (tenured or untenured, regular or temporary) members of the academic faculty. I believe one of the following holds:

  1. You've misunderstood or misheard what he's told you. This is not so unlikely, since I'm sure he was uncomfortable discussing his transgressions and may not have related them coherently and accurately.
  2. The tutorials are not the honors project, but perhaps part of what happens to honors students is that they are given a one-off teaching position on a subject of their choice.
  3. (and this is what I'm the most worried about) The university may be manipulating honors students into preparing teaching materials for it instead of actually paying junior/senior academic staff to do it.

I've encountered many cases of option 3 in my experience as a graduate teacher/researcher union organizer. We considered this part of a process of "Juniorification" (rough translation from Hebrew): Adjuncts are used to do tenured faculty work; PhD candidates to do young faculity's / post-docs' / adjunct teachers' work; M.Sc. candidates to do PhD candidates' work; and senior undergrad students used as teaching assistants for peanuts.

If this is the case, I'm not sure it's your problem to have to deal with, but perhaps it would be useful to try to contact the university's academic staff union(s) and discuss the situation anonymically (if they're active and don't have their heads stuck up their asses, which is not impossible considering what I suspect may be going on.)

Issue 3: This is a social/group dilemma, not just a personal dilemma

This situation is not just about you, or you and that student. It's about:

  • His university
  • His fellow students, who may be adversely affected by underhanded activity (by him or by the university, or both, see above)
  • His parents/family, who may well be footing the bill for this project
  • Teachers or other members of faculty who may be affected (see above)
  • His fellow non-honors students, who might be held to standards of competence/capability which this person is unfairly inflating

Don't try to deal with it just by yourself, or yourself-and-him. Even before acting (disclosing what he did, taking the money etc.) try to get in contact with several of these parties. The parents option might be particularly useful if he is indeed young and living with them.

Now, it's true that there is increased risk of him avoiding payment if you do that, or the deal getting otherwise cancelled, but the more you do that the better you chance would be to get compensation in this case without having to resort to legal means. Also, this would reduce the chance of him trying to get money back from you.

... don't return money for the work you've done, but take no more

You did do work. And you should have been able to do more work and get paid for it, and must now look for another job. On the other hand, you have some responsibility for the way things ended up. So, without making an exact judgement, I would say that what you got so far is probably fair...

But do keep an open mind about how much you should get additionally, or return from what you've received, when talking to third parties.

I really hope this works out - for you and for him and for everyone else involved and am sorry you got into this mess!

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This is taking a simple matter and making it very complicated. The student operated honestly with the OP and his only transgression against the university is breaking a promise, an action that does no direct harm to anyone (arguments about long term harm work in both directions here, eg. undermining trust/integrity in the world of commerce by reporting clients vs plagiarism in academia). So: the OP discovered that client is breaking a promise to a third party, with minimal negative consequence for anyone else, including the third party. Not a big deal and not the OP's business. – zyx Mar 23 at 1:56
Nobody has dared to put me in a terrible spot like that .My appearance would make most people think twice .The poor tutor was tricked into doing illegal work by the devious student leading him to believe that it was a normal design contract.If the student was upfront about the dodgyness of this then the tutor could make his own moral choice .When I was at uni cheating was almost unheard of .I feel really niave. – Autistic Mar 24 at 6:21
@Autistic: I'm not sure I understand your comment; you're not OP - why does your appearance have anything to do with my answer? Could you rephrase that? – einpoklum Mar 24 at 8:05
The client added no new surprises that modify the contract or the task. Rather, the contractor (if he deviates from the original plan) is retroactively altering the agreement from "I will do X" to "I will do X if it feels good to me". The client kept up his side of the bargain by paying the money. What if, before paying, the client had Googled the OP and discovered his name on a list of donors to entities the client finds morally repugnant. Is he entitled to withhold payment because his money will support something immoral in his world-view? @einpoklum – zyx Mar 25 at 3:51
@CaptainEmacs: I emphasized (hopefully not over-emphasized) the moral/ethical problems I see in this situation. Also, since this is not a conversation with OP, I thought I had better let him fend off my judgement if it's unwarranted, rather than understate it myself. Without guessing the specifics of your "3rd world" example, I'll say.. 1. It's our world, not really a different 3rd world. 2. I'm guessing it's the kind of legality of "quod licet jovis non licet bovis". And states are often repressive, corrupt and/or exploitative, so their legal standards are not a good enough baseline AFAIK. – einpoklum Mar 26 at 13:15

Consider the possibility that the work that you did, while being good craftsmanship (I hope), may not be considered a scientific work, and may be used and properly attributed by the student.

The normal way of quoting someone is to find a publication that supports your work, and citing it. If it just happens that you need something to support your work but nobody has ever written it, if you are a professor you might encourage a student to write a paper about it and then cite it. If you are a student with enough cash you could hire someone to write that paper or do that work, pay them, and then cite them correctly.

If he takes your paid for work and claims that he wrote it, sure, that is plagiarism, and you should tell the relevant people.

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Since you posted your dilemma in Academia section, most will tell you to act to punish the student. In academia, the student must have violated a set of serious rules that normally should be followed up by a punishment.

You are a software developer though and you must abide first of all by your contract, agreement with the client and your intermediary (freelancer website), and the general law. Unless your work has some sort of a license that requires the end user to acknowledge the original author (like MIT license), then the student may not be breaking the law here.

If you feel mistreated you can send an e-mail to his institution reporting his breach of academic ethics. You will feel better but face a risk that the student will contact the freelancer intermediary and try very hard to spoil your reputation there to get back at you.

My advice would be just to make sure you explicitly discuss copyrights with your future clients.

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This one is easy. You did work for money. You keep the money.

I refer you to Stanley Fish's "Plagiarisnm is not a big moral deal".

The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like the rules of golf. I choose golf because its rules are so much more severe and therefore so much odder than the rules of other sports.

Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.

If Joe Biden didn't do anything morally wrong, then neither did OP.

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What does Joe Biden have anything to do with this question? – scaaahu Mar 22 at 10:03
@scaaahu Joe Biden plagarized one of his speeches, but it is OK because he is a politician not an academic. In the same way, OP is a freelancer not an academic. Neither Biden nor OP should have to worry about academic policies. – emory Mar 22 at 10:09
This student isn't just trying to claim credit. He is trying to defraud the university and probably the taxpayers, in order to get a degree which he did not earn. – Jørgen Fogh Mar 22 at 18:36
@JørgenFogh It is highly likely that the student was violating university rules. So what? How is that different than the student hiring the OP to create a card counting system for blackjack (which would probably violate the casino's rules)? In either case, there is no moral issue. – emory Mar 23 at 6:29
Wow. Fraud is not a moral issue? I really don't see how defrauding a university is different from defrauding any other business. – Jørgen Fogh Mar 23 at 7:58

A moral dilemma indeed! I do believe there is a solution.

  1. Give the code and they give you the money, according to your contract.
  2. Warn the university of your dubious business partner.

It is their own fault that they paid you for nothing. They choose to act immorally. There are four variations of the above:

  1. Tell the university the person's name and the fact that he planned on plagiarizing. It then entirely up to the university what they do.
    • Some have voiced concerns over the fact that he hasn't plagiarized yet. Well, tell the university that. It is up to them whether plotting to plagiarize warrants sanctions against the student.
  2. Tell the university that one of their students may use their code, but don't tell them who. Now the outcome is fully determined by the student's decision.
    • To give the student a fair chance, comment on how fairly he dealt with you, and that his honesty is refreshing. This will cause internal conflict within him, as he considers his own values. If he chooses incorrectly, he will have caused his own fall.
  3. Tell the university. CC the offender.
    • This option puts everything to light. Light is the best moral disinfectant.
  4. Tell the university (but not who). BCC the offender.
    • This option forces the offender to make the right choice. He will be angry, but you can note that the money is sunk cost, and you have in fact saved him from moral decay. You may even ask for more money for this additional service, but expect to get stiffed on this fee.

Also, in the options where you don't tell the university who did it, make sure to prepare a moral defense as to why you are withholding that information.

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The advice is to take the money. And let me explain why. If not you, he will find another contractor to write a work for him for sure - don't even doubt it! You will be unable to prevent an IT industry from one more asshole-with-money entering it. He will fail later and for sure, and be tainted by it's fail on a practice. It's not a question, it's just a question of time. You did your job, a good result must be paid well - respect yourself and honor your skill : you are definitely not the person who should suffer from the fact that someone is a money-minded dick, who thinks that can just buy everything

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[Edit: I seem to have misread the question, and thought you had already been paid prior to starting work (since you said "discussed payment" and "accepted the job"). Hence my original response. I've edited under the assumption that the asker has not been paid yet.]

In my opinion, you should:

  1. Withhold the work from the student, telling him in detail why you do so:

    a. It is morally wrong for him to submit your work as his own.

    b. You did not know about it earlier otherwise you would not have done the work.

    c. You have no obligation to him since he purposely had not revealed his intentions.

    d. He wanted to pay money for a dirty job, and you cannot give him your work without becoming complicit.

  2. Still ask for a token sum that you feel you deserve in light of the whole situation, based on:

    a. The amount of time and effort and other costs you spent on the work done.

    b. The amount you feel like returning to him since you do not give him the work after all.

    c. How much you feel it was your mistake that you did not find out earlier.

  3. Not tell him your exact reasons for how much money you decide to ask for, but just tell him that:

    a. He has wasted your time and effort because he knows what he is doing is wrong (almost every student has to sign some kind of agreement to uphold academic honesty).

    b. If he wants proof that you actually did the work, you will upload your work to GitHub publicly and inform his school that you were recently made aware that someone might pass it off as their own, without revealing the identity since the potential cheating offense has not yet been committed.

  4. If he refuses to pay you, then you have no choice but to accept the outcome.

The reason for all this is simple. If we do not know that what we are doing is wrong or intended by others to be used for immoral purposes, then at that point we are not guilty of the wrongdoing itself, and this does not change when in the future we can look back on the situation with hindsight or with a different viewpoint. However, we are still responsible for doing our best to make sure that whatever we do is not misused for wrong purposes, to a reasonable extent. If we give enough thought to how our work is being used, we can at the end of the day say honestly that we did our best and had sufficient reason to believe that it was for good. This explains why one has to take into account his own responsibility in not perceiving the possibility of cheating, when expecting payment.

I do not agree with some other people that it is alright to give him the work and get paid but secretly inform his school of the potential cheating offense (even if you do not reveal his identity), because by doing so you will be not be giving the student any impetus to change his mind about cheating. If that is your goal, namely to get the student into trouble, then indeed it would serve that purpose well. However, I do not think it is the goal of anyone who wants to make this world a better place. (Doesn't it sound like biting the hand that feeds you?)

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 25 at 13:44

Nonetheless I do not like people with diploma who have no knowledge behind it, I would say that you have to do everything that you obliged to provide without trying to screw someone up.

You can't tell a person: "now after one month of work I decided that I do not need your money", because if he would know this beforehand he would have chosen someone else, or may be have done it himself.

Giving him work and contacting university is even worse. It is like backstabbing him, or inserting a backdoor in his program.

How would you feel if some plumber started to fix your water system couple of weeks ago, then noticed that you have a hamster in a cage and has his own moral dilemma. He is one of this ultra PETA people and believe that hamsters should be free, so he decided to break everything he fixed for you, leaving you without water for a couple of weeks (gracefully returning you the money).

Some things to consider

  • university honor code is not a crime
  • you can't out of a sudden add additional copyrights that makes all the work unusable
  • you have to negotiate your contract beforehand and stick to it. Otherwise you will be a freelancer who has a whim and screws up people based on his moral judgements (a lot of people has different and strange moral judgements, so it is impossible to predict the next one).
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I'm sympathetic to your answer, but would like to note also that there is a mirroring position to take: "You can't tell a person 'now after one month of work I am letting you know that you're helping me cheat'". And a mirroring anecdote: You hire a plumber to fix your water basement system, and he has just finished up and has your cash in hand, when you tell him that you'll be using the water and the basement to torture children. Are you sure that the plumber *can't tell you 'now after one month of work I decided that I do not need your money'?". – ErikE Mar 22 at 1:02
@ErikE from the OP's post it does not look so he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. It looks like he only told his name and institute, everything else is OP's guess (which may be totally right). It was up to OP to ask beforehand what was the goal of the system. Your second part does not make a lot of sense because you mixes moralists view with a law. It is illegal to torture children, but there is no law against asking paying people to do homework for them. – Salvador Dali Mar 22 at 1:52
@ErikE for example some people believe that drinking alcohol is forbidden. In some countries (small amount of them it is illegal). So if I sold you alcohol and then concluded that you might start drinking it (there are some other things you can do with alcohol apart from drinking), it would not be a nice idea for me to investigate and contact your family members about it, write to your employer, call the cops telling that now I feel moral remorse. – Salvador Dali Mar 22 at 1:57
Please don't get all hung up on the laws. Try to take my point: you can't decide which side of the circumstances is the one that has a right to claim "You can't do this". I don't care if torturing children is illegal or not, the idea is that both sides can lay a claim to against their will being made complicit in something abhorrent or highly objectionable to them. By your logic, in my child-torture scenario, it was up to the plumber to ask beforehand what was the goal of the basement water system. As I said, I'm sympathetic to your position but it's just not as clear cut as you position it. – ErikE Mar 22 at 1:57
In my basement scenario, the plumber takes the money without destroying anything, and goes and reports the man to the authorities. Do you think that other people will not trust the plumber in the future or that he will put himself in a terrible position in so doing? – ErikE Mar 22 at 2:05

Α supplier contracts with a customer to produce some goods. The agreement is to get paid before delivery, and this happens. Then the police appears and tells the supplier that the specific customer is prohibited by law to get these goods (they' re bad for the customer's health). Something that the customer has not disclosed to the supplier. Then rightfully, ethically and educationally, the supplier keeps the money and the goods, and the buyer hopefully learns a lesson. Or not. The customer got himself into this predicament, purposefully withholding vital information, and since he is not a child or mentally incapacitated, he should bear any concequences, intended or not, of his course of action.

The fact that in your case the customer himself acted as the police, does not change anything.

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Unfortunately your analogy is ruined by the fact that there is nothing going on here that is prohibited by law. The OP is worried that the goods are frowned upon by a specific subgroup of which the buyer is a member: that's not the same thing at all. – Pete L. Clark Mar 25 at 5:59
Agree with @PeteL.Clark . This is is the logical opposite of the OP's story. The supplier is required (by the law and the police) to stop the transaction regardless of what he thinks of its moral qualities. In the question OP posted, there is no obligation to do anything such as stop the transaction or report the assumed plagiarism. It is only the OP's opinion about plagiarism that makes him want to stop the transaction. Consider the reverse situation where the client Googled OP and discovered he donates money to causes the client considers immoral. Should he refuse to pay? – zyx Mar 25 at 6:01
@PeteL.Clark The dilemma is whether "not prohibited by law" is the relevant criterion here. Taboos in different societies exist, of course, and we probably do agree that anti-alcoholism or veganism rules on which people disagree should not spill over to other branches of society. However, plagiarism has something from fake currency printing: it dilutes the credit to the originator, it creates fake credit to the plagiariser. Let's check the following analogy: you can collect points on a card for drinking coffee; after 10, you get a free one. What are acceptable consequences of faking points? – Captain Emacs Mar 25 at 12:46
@PeteL.Clark As is always the case with analogies, they are analogies, not equivalences. But let me make sure I understand this: are you saying that writing by oneself one's own Honors project for an undergraduate major is a maybe strong but still, "just a custom", a tradition, waiting for the next generation of innovators to disrupt it by start outsourcing the job? – Alecos Papadopoulos Mar 25 at 14:15
@Alecos: No, I am certainly not saying that, and I hope that no one who carefully read my answer would be led to that conclusion. I find your analogy to be, at best, fundamentally unclear: I don't know what "acted as the police" means, and "does not change anything" is, at best, something you would have to carefully justify. – Pete L. Clark Mar 25 at 15:28

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