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I have a friend who’s an undergraduate at university. I believe myself to be fairly proficient in TeX/LaTeX; I’ve seen some of the assignments that he’s received back, and we both agree they could look more professional.

Is it ethical for me to typeset his work to look more like a paper before it's submitted for grading? I would not be adding any new information to the assignment and I would not correct any mistakes that I think I see, but it still seems to me that perhaps it could be against the rules.

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    No, I mean the assignment is to be graded (it will directly impact his grade). – Bluefire Jan 15 '18 at 21:10
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    I would have them ask the instructor if its ok, he is the ultimate authority in this case. If this was a class on how to use LaTeX its clearly not ok. However, in other cases it might be ok. – cybernard Jan 15 '18 at 21:55
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    Back in the old days (pre-ominipresent computers, my experience is early 1980's) a fair number of students made good money typing other people's essays (the alternative was handing in a hand-written essay or typing it slowly oneself if you weren't a good typist). And there were a good number of people in the community who advertised as well. If you are not editing as you go, I really do not see the problem. If the professor is swayed by how it looks, that is a different problem. – Jon Custer Jan 16 '18 at 0:29
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    You're so innocent! How would you typeset this? :-) (exaggerating obviously, but hopefully you can see the point underneath) – user541686 Jan 16 '18 at 0:41
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    "Student... look professional." This is a category error. – David Richerby Jan 16 '18 at 18:59
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I think this is probably not appropriate. You could ask the professor, but if it were me I would say no.

An important part of learning math at the undergraduate level is being able to write math clearly, and this includes the low-level yet essential skill of being able to handwrite or typeset math notation. If you're typesetting the assignments for your friend, the professor is not getting an accurate view of their proficiency at this skill, which could factor into the grade.

There could be an exception if your friend has a disability that makes it unusually difficult for him to write clearly by hand. But again, you would need the consent of the professor (and possibly also of some university disability service office).

(If your friend doesn't have a disability but just has particularly atrocious handwriting, the professor might agree to this, simply out of self-preservation; reading bad handwriting can be really frustrating.)

I agree with Massimo Ortolano that in the long run, the best thing would be to help your friend learn to typeset the assignments himself. You could of course typeset some of his previous assignments for him as an example.

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    i was once asked to submit a handwritten math assignment.from that teacher's point of view, atrocious is an underreaction. – CptEric Jan 16 '18 at 12:10
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    Furthermore even if the person doing the typesetting honestly intends it to be "just typesetting" it is difficult to rule out them either adding (because they made a typo) tor removing (because their brain read what it thought should be there rather than what was actually there) errors. – Peter Green Jan 17 '18 at 4:05
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I think that the best favour you can do to your friend is to teach him how to use LaTeX, so that he can improve the look of his work by himself.

In this way, you won't go against any rule and you'll teach your friend a new skill.

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    Excellent advice, which otherwise doesn't answer the question. – Orion Jan 17 '18 at 13:46
  • Rather than teaching LaTeX, you could suggest LyX (or similar), which is easier. (Whether it is worth learning LaTeX depends on a person's career plan.) – user2768 Jan 17 '18 at 14:00
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    @Orion - from the help center: What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful – Kimball Jan 18 '18 at 22:46
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    @Kimball I personally like and encourage such useful "alternative" answers. I simple noted that it doesn't answer the question about whether x is ethical. – Orion Jan 19 '18 at 13:13
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In my department, any homework/assignment etc. ends with a declaration which includes the claim that the author(s) did all of the work themselves unless mentioned otherwise.

My opinion is that typesetting is a process that is included in the assignment and while not explicitly stated is work you should do yourself.

I do agree with Massimo Ortolano that showing someone the ropes with a typesetting system is a good way to handle the situation though.

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    I did not notice this answer until I saw there was a Low Quality Post flag raised against it. After I read the answer, I decided to give it an upvote because it's a good answer. – scaaahu Jan 18 '18 at 4:16
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I agree with a lot of the other answers and comments: I think ultimately it should be the professor who makes this decision.

That said, I've occasionally had students ask me if it was acceptable to do similar things. Many times – assuming I didn't feel it was a matter of academic integrity – I've answered by saying it would be okay if the student got formatting help, but I wanted them to acknowledge the help openly in the assignment.

In other words, an assignment such as the one you are describing could include footnote with an acknowledgement, something to the effect of:

This assignment was typeset in LaTeX by J. Smith

That way, everything is above board, and the student isn't passing off someone else's work as their own.

One other idea that might be considered or proposed is handing in a copy of original work along with the LaTeX document, so the professor can get an idea of what the original work looked like before the improvements.

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How much the look of the assignment/paper affects the result?

If the key value is the content (proof, research results, etc.) and the look is just the icing on a cake I dare to say your help is acceptable. At least your friend realized that the outcome he produced can be improved and you showed them how it can be improved.

If the graphic outcome is the key value, your friend's topic is graphics, for example, then your help - typesetting it for them - is unethical. Teaching them to use (XxLa)TeX is, on the other hand, completely different case.

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As pointed out in the comments, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, students (and others) routinely hired typists to type their papers. There was nothing wrong with this then, and there's nothing wrong with it now, although I haven't heard of anyone hiring a typist in decades (except in the case of disability).

LaTeX, unfortunately, tends to occupy a different place in many professors' minds than typing does. In principle, having someone else TeX your work is no different from hiring a typist, and in fact in the early days of TeX the only people using it were professional technical typists. However, many professors, especially in mathematics, believe that "learning TeX" is an integral part of the course if they specify that assignments need to be LaTeXed. So it is probably not acceptable to typeset your friend's assignment if the professor requires LaTeX.

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  • I just think the OP will have trouble copying the document without also doing some formatting...especially since they say that the students work looks unprofessional, and they want to make it look more professional. – user3067860 Jan 17 '18 at 17:48
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Why do you want to do this work for him?

Is it because he is your friend and you want to help him? Why don't you help him learn LaTeX then instead of doing all the work of typesetting yourself? (Give a man a fish...) You can help him learn by guiding him through typesetting a non-graded homework assignment.

Is it because you believe that he is likely to get a better grade if the typesetting is better? If your work directly influences his grade, the answer is clear: it's inappropriate. He should be graded solely on his own work.

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From personal experience in the UK, both the Undergraduate course (completed in 2013) and my current Masters programme have had various stipulations on submission presentation.

I can recall a particular assignment in the final year of my undergraduate degree where the marking scheme required submission in IEEE format with appropriate referencing. It was constructed such that if you followed the format and referenced correctly you would attain 30% of the marks, regardless of content.

The module leader allowed us to peer review the submissions as it was his (rather clever) way of teaching us to critique. You would be amazed how many failed to read the marking scheme and didn't submit in a format that you can download from the internet.

Your friend needs to learn that in the real world presentation, together with spelling and grammar are often as important as said content. If you can proficiently enable him and have the time and patience, he can go away and do it for a lifetime.

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