Is it unethical to research journals for other students?

For example, a student is researching gifted students and their subsequent ACT/SAT scores. Then:

  1. Would it be unethical for me to research educational journals and give the student the title of articles that pertain to their research?

  2. Would it be unethical for me to charge for this?

  • 5
    Welcome to Academia.SE. You mean you want to do a literature survey for others? Why would that be unethical? It only seems impractical, because the other person will know better what he needs to know and what is relevant to his study.
    – user25112
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 22:04
  • 11
    Is that student then going to mislead others into thinking that they found the articles themselves? e.g. are you doing this for someone who has an assignment to write a term paper and cite journal articles that pertain to their topic, and they are expected to do the literature search themselves?
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 22:13
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    And to add on further to what @Keelan mentions about impracticality, there is the added issue that the person doing the actual research may not know what they don't know, or may not know what they need to know until the future. A lot of parallel discovery takes place when reading the literature, and often relevance becomes apparent some time in the future, when a question comes up and you think "hmm, I seem to remember reading something about that, let me try to find it..." - this isn't possible if someone else did the reading.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 23:18
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    Tagged this with "cheating" under the assumption that you're asking about what's appropriate when doing research in the context of, say, a report done as part of a class. However, it'd help if you could clarify the context.
    – Nat
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 2:07
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    You should definitely charge for your time if you want. But I just don't see why that person would use you and not use public librarians who do this job for free (because they're being paid by their public library). This job may become an issue if the student misled you about the type of work he wants you for. So be sure to explain what you're willing to do, and not do, and require an upfront cash deposit to make sure he's serious about paying you and not just wasting your time. If the student refuses, you'll know he wasn't completely truthful. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 10:41

3 Answers 3


What would be unethical is for the other person to misrepresent work that you did as having been done by them, or for you to knowingly aid someone in such a misrepresentation. It’s important to credit people for the work that they’ve done. Relatedly, if the work results in an academic publication, it may be an ethical requirement to list you as a co-author depending on the standards of your field.

There's nothing intrinsically unethical about the work you describe, or about charging people for it.

  • 1
    If academic credit is given, it is not per se unethical. However, it needs to be recorded that OP provided that information. Not sure that I agree with the payment issue, as the research would not have happened without the mandate, and that has a smell to it, even with the credit being given. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 1:08

There are at least two sides to the question: whether the actions are unethical when applied to anyone (not just students), and whether there is an ethical difference when a student is involved.

First, considering the actions when applied to any person, in principle, there is nothing unethical about doing a literature search for someone, nor is there anything unethical about you charging the person to do intellectual work for them. In fact, whether you are paid or not, shouldn't make much of a difference (except for the very important point I make at the very end). Ethical problems would mainly come up when asking if that person credits you for your contribution or not.

If a researcher has someone do some research work for them and then published the work, it is usually considered a professional courtesy to at least acknowledge the other person's contribution, but this is not usually considered an ethical obligation. (Indeed, it would probably be unethical to credit you as a co-author for such little work; see Literature review and authorship).

Second, the fact that the person is a student only really matters if the student intends to submit the work for academic credit. If the student is expected to submit work that they did on their own, then the student would be obligated to report the extent of your assistance to their instructor. Again, whether or not the student paid you is irrelevant--what matters is that the instructor should understand that they received outside help for the work they are submitting.

From your side, it probably isn't strictly required for you to care what the student does with your help. However, if you have reasonable ground to suspect that the student is using your work to cheat on an assignment, then I think you should certainly ask the student to clarify this suspicion. If the student's explanation is acceptable to you, then act as you see fit. However, if you still suspect that the student is cheating, then you should act with the understanding that you are probably collaborating in their cheating.

Ultimately, you should take care of your conscience and act accordingly. And that's where the matter of payment really matters: if the fact that you are being paid makes you less sensitive to your conscience, then you certainly shouldn't receive any payment. Your conscience is worth far more than any monetary price.


Although your question is about a student, consider first the situation of professional researchers. It is certainly not unethical for researchers to employ assistants to do some of the work for them; this is common in academia. If this leads to published or submitted work, the employer should not attempt to pass-off the employee's work as their own, and this would usually mean giving some acknowledgement to the assistant in the paper (or giving co-authorship if their contribution is sufficiently substantial to warrant this).

Now consider your problem where the employer is a student rather than a professional researcher. The only difference here is that the work is being submitted as assessment for courses rather than as an academic publication. The same considerations apply: the employer should not attempt to pass-off the employee's work as their own, and should give appropriate acknowledgement in the submission. If the course requires the work to have been done without assistance, then this will fall foul of that requirement. If you have reason to believe that your employer will use this work in a way that is unethical (i.e., submitting as his/her own work for an assessment item that was supposed to be done without assistance) I recommend that you should decline to participate.

Finally, the fact that you are being paid is irrelevant. Whether you are being paid or not, the ethical issue is about whether the student receiving your work is attempting to pass it off as their own.

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