Today I saw a photograph of an upcoming exam at my university. At first I thought it was last year's exam; so I took a closer look at it as I think it is okay to see last year's exams even if they aren’t officially published. Anyway, later someone revealed to me that it was the upcoming exam which we’ll take in about three weeks. It was taken by another student in my course, who took it while the teacher was on a break outside the room.

I feel bad and unethical about seeing it, as it seems to be cheating for me, and even more I’m worried about my further career if this ever comes out. On one hand I don’t want to harm the other student who took the photo, on the other hand I don’t want to risk my career.

It is a semi difficult exam; I would say you should pass it quite well if you learned for it. So what should I do? If I tell the university I’d probably have to reveal the identity of the person who took it, which I don’t want to do under any circumstances.

There have been some questions on how the pic was made: the prof brought the exam to a lesson to give a rough guideline on what to learn or not. During the break he went outside (as I and many others as well) to get a coffee and that's how the pic was made. I know for sure that it is the upcoming exam as it had a big heading with our course name and year.

For those who say it is also cheating to look at old exams: I think you agree on that seeing an actual exam before you are going to take it is another dimension than seeing a year-old one. Also this is very common where I study. It´s not like we are using really illegal copies, it is just that we often see pics of post-exam reviews. It is allowed to make them and there is no NDA on it (at least I never had to sign one), the exams just aren't published officially. I also bet every prof knows that this is going on here and tolerates it (some said so explicitly).

Also some said I should "rat" the guy who took it: I don't know the punishment for taking a photo of an exam, but I doubt it is modest, considering the - in my eyes negligent - prof. Also I don't want to be responsible for "destroying" the career of another, very young, student. Also it would probably come out who "ratted" him out, and I doubt that I would have much fun in the next two years then (I think you can say that in our course it is considered worse to "rat" somebody than to do to reveal something unethical, but I really doubt that this differs anywhere in the world).

Anyways: Today I have created a new Mail-Address and send the Prof a letter, including one question I remember as a proof, where I told him that the exam probably has been leaked. I asked him to keep the matter as private as possible and I also asked him not to write back to me what he decided to do or to ask any person-specific questions as I don't know any thing more than I told him already. For me the matter is therefore hopefully closed.

  • 32
    As the answer says you have to tell the University - if you don't then you are also aiding and abetting cheating while benefiting from cheats.... Once you tell them, they have time to sort a suitable replacement....
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:06
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    Check your university's honor code - in some cases it may impose a duty to report all instances of cheating, i.e. the other student's actions. If so, if it's later discovered that you knew and did not report, you could be punished. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:59
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    I don't understand what all the responses and comments here are about??? If you are okay with being a cheater, don't tell anybody, If you don't want to be a cheater, write an anonymous note to the professor (with a small proof that you know the content of the exam). Problem solved. Why are you guys (including OP; that's really baffling me) treating this like a major moral dilemma or some complex scientific problem?
    – trunklop
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 8:13
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    @Mazura: I think the situation is even more outrageous. The instructor brought a future exam to a class meeting and left it where someone could find it during a break. While the student has to report it, the instructor made a major gaffe here and is not blameless.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 8:44
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    @aeismail It's like walking with an expensive phone in a rough area of town. It's unwise, yes, but the crime is still perpetrated by those who steal the phone. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 11:11

9 Answers 9


In a situation in which you would suffer no matter what you do, you can also work to protect yourself.

An anonymous note to the professor that the exam has been compromised and that there are photographs of it circulating comes close to resolving the issue. The person who took the photo likely deserves punishment, of course, so this solution doesn't resolve that. But at least academic integrity is preserved. The professor will need to provide a new exam, of course.

The professor may also announce to the class that there is a problem and ask that whoever sent the anonymous note inform him of their identity. You may have to deal with that.

Also, you may not be the only student struggling with this.

If you are friends with the person who took the photo, you could also confront him/her with a suggestion that they step forward. If they do this before an accusation is made, I would think any punishment would be less than otherwise.

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    I like this answer very much. Thanks. Right now my plan is to use an anonymous email adress and tell the professor that the exam has probably been leaked. After that it is up to him to deal with it. If he wants my identity i am going to say nothing until this becomes the last Resort (which seems very unlikely, because what can he do?). Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:49
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    @SomeUserPassingBy include a question from the exam as proof
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:01
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    @DonQuiKong: … or just include prints of all photographs.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:02
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    Do NOT provide prints of all photographs when an email with a question will suffice as proof. Any extra information is just evidence waiting to identify you or the photographer. For example, a printout can be traced back to when and on what machine it was printed (see Machine Identification Code).
    – Fax
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 11:31
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    Punishment can be meted out by creating a completely different test and administering that. Those that were going to cheat by studying just that test, will be unprepared for the tweak and will likely do very poorly. Those that studied the coursework will be un-phased. Combined with the answer, this teaches some life skills for the cheaters as well. Win:Win
    – boatcoder
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 17:33

I agree with the advice offered by Buffy. Moreover, you write:

I feel bad and unethical about seeing it, as it seems to be cheating for me

To emphasize, it doesn't just seem to be cheating, it is cheating: it's not just that you are aware of others cheating, but you yourself have already gained illicit knowledge about questions that will be on the exam. As such, if you take no further action to inform the professor of the situation and simply go and take the exam, you have not just helped others to cheat, but in fact have directly participated in cheating yourself.

So, as far as ethical dilemmas go, this one is a complete no-brainer; you simply have no ethical choice other than to let the professor know about the existence of the photo ahead of the exam. Do it anonymously if you wish, and the question of whether to let the professor know who took the photo is a less obvious one (with both options being pretty reasonable in my opinion), but it looks like you understand perfectly well that taking the exam after what you saw would be unethical and quite likely to get you into serious trouble. I commend you for having a moral compass and the good sense to realize you cannot just sit by idly and pretend this never happened. Good luck! Do consider adding an update to your question later on to let us know how things worked out.

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    How should this get you into trouble? Everybody who has more than 80% correct answers gets zero points? Your conclusion is of course right, but fear of punishment is not a reliable ethical compass.
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:46
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    @Karl one of the other students who saw the photo can be similarly troubled and tell the professor, mentioning OP's name among others. And I don't understand your last sentence - where did I claim that fear of punishment is an ethical compass?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:41
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    Some other student might tell the prof that the exam has leaked (so far so good), and then denunciate (without proof or even any knowledge) a few of his colleagues? Really? That'd be as despicable as, hopefully, inconsequential. Unless your university has a Committee of Public Safety. ;-)
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:54
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    @Karl I would hope that an accusation of cheating would be at least investigated; likely OP would be interviewed
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 2:44
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    Many would see reporting academic misconduct as the right thing to do, not "ratting out". If you see someone steal something and you can recognize or describe them, is reporting the theft "ratting out"? Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 14:03

In addition to ethics, you should also consider what the implications are if you are found out to have told somebody. What they are, is highly cultural-dependent - if you are unfamiliar with the culture you are in, ask organizations like a student union or add a culture tag. I lived in several countries ("corrupt" ones and countries which were a dictatorship previously involving a Secret Police) where ratting out someone is perceived as much worse than what this student did. (I also know many high school teachers and professors who share the viewpoint that basic solidarity among students dictates not ratting out someone in this situation.) This could make your life bad - in university and also if your future employees would find out about that episode. Unfortunately, ethics and reality are not always the same.

I am not saying you should not tell someone. But find out before what the risks are, how you can protect and be as anonymous as possible.

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    On the other hand, if corruption is the cultural norm, failing to rat someone out means that you're now participating in the corruption. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 13:44
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    I would not go so far to equate "failing to rat someone out" with "participating in corruption" (this may also be culturally dependent), but in principle you are right. However, there are countries where you cannot move forward without bribing etc. - you may or may not participate, but you definitely should think before about what you can lose when not participating.
    – Udank
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:37
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    @DonBranson, in the OP's problem, corruption per se is not involved. Rather, it is involved in developing such cultural norms: if the government (and generally any authority) is corrupt, dobbing anything to them will invariably be viewed as the worst possible behaviour; in fact, as participating in (or siding with) their corruption.
    – Zeus
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 8:00

You must tell your professor that you've seen the exam, and explain how. Although it is understandable that you don't want to reveal who took the photograph, you are ethically obligated to do so.

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    Why would you have to reveal who took the photo? That's totally unethical, a mean, useless denunciation. Sorry.
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:30
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    @Karl There's nothing mean, the student willingly cheated. He should be ready to accept consequences
    – IEatBagels
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 18:40
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    @Karl The "crime" is taking the photo of the test and spreading it around with the intent to cheat. Whether they are successful or not is irrelevant. Robbery and attempted robbery are both crimes too.
    – David K
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:13
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    @Karl there's harm done in that the professor has to write another exam.
    – IEatBagels
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:51
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    @Karl I think it's reasonable of OP to not want to rat out their friend (and reasonable for you to agree). However, it's quite unreasonable of you to think that denouncing the friend is unethical. Note that the friend: 1. snooped without permission in the prof's office; 2. took the photo; 3. spread the photo around to a bunch of other students. This was done over a period of time, showing premeditated intent to cheat and to massively aid others in cheating, thus completely undermining the exam's value as an assessment. That's very serious misconduct most certainly deserving of punishment.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 1:04

1) some professors "s**t test" their classes by "accidentally" leaving out an exam that students could sneak a peek at. They show up, go over an exam review, and everyone sees that they have an exam in their hand their flipping through. Then prof has to step out for a bit. They might be doing this on purpose. Person steps up, takes a quick pic with smartphone, and is back in seat before prof shows up. Person shares pic with class. Come test day, everyone "studied to the test" .. and blows the test, b/c prof gave a TOTALLY DIFFERENT EXAM.

Prof's do this one of two ways...

a) have a honey pot test that has questions that won't be asked on the real test they'll give you (so folks will study only those honey pot questions, and own't be prepped for the real test)

b) they have wrong answers circled on the honey pot exam, so folks thinking they can just memorize A, B, A, C, D, E for a scantron .. will bomb the test horribly. This lets the prof pretty much ensure they can pick out the cheaters, b/c they will simply compare a student's answers to their fake / wrong test, and if they match up fairly well.. well, it means the student probably cheated some how.

So... just b/c someone got a pic of the test doesn't mean that's the real test, and it could be a honey pot where the professor is testing everyone's academic integrity.

2) My personal feeling about looking up old exams .... we live in an age where knowing how to look up info is just as important as retaining information in your head. If a prof is too lazy to update their test to keep students from just studying a quizlet of their old test and passing with flying colors.. that's the prof's fault.

However, I also feel that asking students that take a test (in the same semester) before you take it is scummy. EG: a prof is teaching back-to-back classes of same kind. Showing up on test day to ask the folks ahead of you what was on the test, and specific answers to the test.. is scummy. A prof not having different tests for same classes in same semester is just lazy, too, though.

3) I have a third notion about cheating after I had to deal with one particular professor in my college career. This prof was giving online quizzes with short timers, but the questions required a lot of time to frame up the math. Basically, you cuold either legitimately answer 1 or 2 of the 5 questions in the time span, or you cuold guess and hope you got more then 1 or 2 right, or .. since the quiz questions were already online .. some folks just started blatantly cheating, b/c that was the only way to successfully get an A or B on the quizzes .. while everyone that was trying to be legit was getting F's.

I confronted the professor about this, b/c a) if my theory about this was true, then he should see an inverse bell curve (high F's, low dip into D/C territory, then rising as cheaters got B/A's). Quizzes are supposed to help people study, so all I wanted him to do was either remove the time limits, or extend them.

What he told me was basically he never even bothered to look at the quizzes. He was using quizzes that someone else setup, but slapped on a short time limit thinking they were just glossary terms / definitions multiple choice, not advanced math.

But, what he felt was the main concern was that people were cheating. I told him that people were cheating, b/c the quizzes forced them to. The quizzes were worth 15% of our grade, so if you bombed the quizzes it was almost guaranteed you'd drop a letter grade. So, folks were cheating to try to even the playing field.

He felt that cheating is still cheating, which I thought was absurd. Cheating to me is when people have a fair advantage and try to stack the deck in their favor. Cheating is NOT cheating to me when it's a last resort measure just to try to get a fair advantage.

I guess my chat with him paid off, b/c he increased the time limits, but sent out an email telling people not to cheat. I felt bad, b/c now I felt like a narc tattling on others cheating, but for good reason (b/c they felt it was their only option).

So, I have a flexible moral constitution. I try not to cheat, b/c the effort you put into tests and school reflects the effort you will put into your career / real life. If a person wants to cheat and skate by, then they will quickly hit glass cielings in the working world as folks realize the person isn't creative, or hard working, and can't do anything without someone's coat tails to ride upon.

But, when the deck is stacked against me, while I myself may not cheat, I will speak up to someone to explain why cheaters are cheating, b/c it's a rebuttal to something being unfair.

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    'A prof not having different tests for same classes in same semester is just lazy, too, though.' Have you considered that, in many cases, people's work loads make anything else completely impractical? '4 sections; 1 prep' means your work load assumes you can prepare one set of materials for all 4. Given that many academic workloads are insane anyway, your remarks strike me as blatantly unfair. It's reasonable for students to cut corners when they have no better option, but instructors are 'just lazy' if they cut corners their employers tell them to cut. Professors are people, too.
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 2:48
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    I would be much more concerned about somebody using quizzes without examining their content. Unless the module is the joint responsibility of several people, so that this instructor is not supposed to be responsible for all parts of the assessment, this is completely irresponsible.
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 2:50
  • The behaviour you narrate under 1) would be highly unethical on the professor's part. In fact, I seem to remember it'd be unlawful in Germany.
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 7:44
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    Most "cheating" people I know do actually study for a test etc. and are not at all stupid - however, they take every opportunity to get more information. When presented with (the unethical) 1b, they would of course not memoreize A,C,B,D but would compare this exam with their notes - if everything is so blanately wrong, they would soon realize this and find out the real answers. People are not so stupid as you think.
    – Udank
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 19:44
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    Where in the world do professors live which are so mean as you describe? A good professor should prefer "prevent cheating" over "catch cheaters".
    – Udank
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 19:57

Since you haven't yet sat the exam, and you didn't know that the photo you were looking was the exam, it is not cheating, nor unethical, for you to merely have seen that photo. The student who took the photo has clearly cheated, but you have not. However, now that you have seen a photo of this exam, and know it is the upcoming exam, it certainly would be unethical if you sit the exam anyway, without reporting the issue to the university.

The simplest thing to do here is to inform the professor of what happened, so that he/she knows that there is a copy of the exam being circulated. You could do this anonymously if you want, but I don't think it would be an issue if you reported this without anonymity. In the latter case, it is likely that you will be asked who showed you the photo.


Send this negligent prof an anonymous note, with details of the exam so he knows you have indeed seen the actual thing. If you know him well enough and trust him to just admit his own error, tell him personally.

But it's not your job to rat on that guy who yielded the temptation to look, and then thought he was nice and shared it.

There might be one dilemma left for you afterwards: If and how to make sure everybody who has seen the photos knows that the prof knows.

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    Your answer almost sounds like you blame the professor more for being leaving his office unattended than to the student for snooping while the professor was away. Also, if the other students rely on their photo for all of their studying (aka intending to cheat), then it is their own fault if they are unprepared for the actual exam.
    – David K
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:11
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    Edit out the blame and I'll reverse my downvote.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 19:19
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    Honestly, it would be best for the the OP and the prof to not let the students know, so that he can catch the students who would cheat by changing the exam. Let their immoral actions bite them in the butt, and the smart ones will learn from it.
    – mbomb007
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:02
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    @Joshua OP said nothing about breaking and entering. As I understand, the student was in the room, the exam lying on the table, and the prof left. The guy had probably already read half the thing before he realised this was the new exam. Now take out the taking photo part from the story, and it looks a lot different. The prof has carelessly put that student into a stupid dilemma, in which he failed, 200%.
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:53
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    @DavidK and Joshua, the photographing student is certainly at fault for taking the photograph, but that does not negate the fact that the prof was clearly negligent. When I have an exam printed out in my office, I take great precautions not to allow students to see it, which include: 1. locking the door whenever I leave the office, even for just a few minutes, and 2. hiding the exam when students are around, and even then thinking very carefully before I leave my office with students there, avoiding such an action if at all possible. Calling the professor "negligent" seems wholly justified.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 0:48

"...later someone revealed to me that it was the upcoming exam which we’ll take in about three weeks."

If true then the Prof. is not serious at all about the potential for cheating. If you believe that the picture compromises the exam, and you think that the Prof. would think that this would be a huge problem, then you also need to re-assess the reliability of the statement about the paper in the picture being the actual exam.


As Buffy already suggested, write an anonymous note, but with an additional twist.

Suggest that the professor stays completely silent and informs the class before the (now revised) exam that the exam he "coincidentally left" was a honeytrap.


  • What before could have been interpreted as neglience on the professor's part is now quite fiendish.

  • The students will be punished to learn entirely for a honeypot.

  • The students are not angry that someone was ratting them out, now they are angry for themselves not learning.

  • The students won't try to cheat this way ever again.

Everyone feels fine. You have done your task of informing the professor, the professor is now not an idiot, but a devilish antagonist and the students are punished for cheating.

The nice thing is that some professors actually are that fiendish, so even if the students cheating read all the answers here in SE, in contrast to the others they cannot identify that someone told the professor.

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    This is completely silly. If I was tbe professoor, I would have a really bad opinion about you since (a) you want me to be part in such a stupid scheme which helps noone and (b) you tell me how to do my job. Awful.
    – user114084
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 11:11
  • Did you actually test this version (as a student or prof)? Is seems "academic" to me (ie not working in practise)
    – user111388
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 14:37

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