As a follow up on this question I am wondering whether it is ethical to receive gifts from students before grading their MSc thesis (or any other project where students feel like they need to thank you for).

Lately I have encountered this situation where a student gave me a present before I was able to fully grade his work. The student had to go abroad and wouldn't be able to drop by after grading. The gift was rather small, just a few bottles of good quality beers which are not that expensive where I'm from. He also said: "you can drink this when grading my work, ha ha". We got along quite well, so at that time I didn't feel like it was some sort of bribe (which I still don't feel like it was).

Generally, I don't have any problem in accepting gifts as they tend to be rather small. However, a month after receiving this gift and finishing my grading for his work I was starting to think whether I have made the right decision by accepting his gift.

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    The nicest gift I ever got from a student was very inexpensive, but bought specifically with me in mind, and given after she had graduated as a thank-you. I still tell people about it. The note said, "Thank you for staying on my back." You just can't beat that. – Bob Brown Nov 16 at 11:55
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    Regarding "it was rather small": nber.org/papers/w18543 for a video summary, see rationality-and-competition.de/research/videos/schmidt tldw; small gifts are more effective as bribes than larger gifts – HRSE Nov 17 at 1:36
  • @HRSE: that's an extremely interesting study! – cbeleites Nov 17 at 16:29
up vote 54 down vote accepted

In my opinion you are asking yourself the wrong question. The important problem is not if it feels like a bribe to you, but if it could look like a bribe to others.

Let's say you have another student whose thesis you are grading at the same time and he ends up with a worse grade. This might have been an objective decision, but still, if this other student now hears about the gift you got, he will start to wonder if maybe giving you a nice gift would have gotten him the same grade.

Since the gift is quite small, you are most likely legally in the clear, however in my opinion, ethically it wasn't the right thing to do. It is probably to late to return the gift right now, but for similar future situations, it is probably better to decline gifts until the grade is set in stone. Not only from an ethical point of view but also since it will give you an aura of fairness and incorruptibility at the low cost of a few cheap beers.

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    Our place has a clear-cut declaration policy and a (quite low) upper limit of acceptable value above which you have also to hand over your gift to the school. This makes it easy for me, even for students from cultures in which gift-giving is virtually obligatory: I decline any gift, because it means that I do not get to keep it plus I have to carry out extra paperwork. So, I explain that I do not get to enjoy the gift, and I get burdened with a chore. – Captain Emacs Nov 16 at 11:48
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    Great answer; additionally I wonder if the question should not be reversed: is it ethical for the student to give a gift to their professor before grading? From the professors' point of view, since the gift has little value, it's not really a bribe but more a sign of good will from the student. In this case, even if the professor refuses the gift, the student has achieved the intended goal (which was to make himself look nice and be considered differently than the others). So there really is nothing the professor can do about it. But I agree with the importance of the way it looks . – Kerkyra Nov 16 at 12:39
  • @Kerkyra, good suggestion. I was indeed thinking the same after I posted this question. Maybe it will be indeed nice to contemplate about this in another question using another 'setting', so to say. – Bollehenk Nov 16 at 14:11
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    In cultures where gift giving is "almost compulsory", there is often the expectation that you will receive a gift in return, and accepting a gift but not giving one in return is equivalent to a personal insult. That is not a situation you want to be in, while grading academic work! – alephzero Nov 16 at 14:31
  • @Kerkyra: I'd say it's a question both ways, and where I am it's off limits from whichever perspective you're looking at it. (Small gift after everything is finished would be OK). However, here (Germany) the official policy is far more heavy on the professor because a) of the perceived difference in power and b) professors are public officials, and particularly in exam situations. A few bottles of good quality beer would here be outside the "insignificant" range for school teachers, and the fact that a single student who is yet to be graded gave it alone would cause it to be unacceptable. – cbeleites Nov 16 at 14:38

Most students know that you grade according to the marking scheme and they offer the gift unconditionally.

It is the "other" students who you have to be careful of, and you get a "feeling" about those - a rare case usually.

Edit based on comment: There are policies dealing with this in some institutions, where, if the value of the gift is below a given amount then it is fine and accepted by all parties including management. However, if the value is above that limit then it must be declared and the line manager or line manager +1 makes the decision as to whether the gift can be kept or it has to be returned or held by the department etc.

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    I usually very much like your suggestions, but this one is dangerous. As they say (and said above): "Caesar's wife must not only be faithful, but must also be seen to be faithful." Do not create ambiguity. – Captain Emacs Nov 16 at 11:51
  • @CaptainEmacs It is not a question of ambiguity, but of policy. There are policies dealing with this in some institutions, where, if the value of the gift is below a given amount then it is fine and accepted by all parties including management. However, if the value is above that limit then it must be declared and the line manager or line manager +1 makes the decision as to whether the gift can be kept. – Solar Mike Nov 16 at 12:20
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    Better, thanks. In our dept., we have to declare anything (except, of course, thank you cards, these are always welcome). – Captain Emacs Nov 16 at 12:22

I'll give you a corporate point of view.

Many companies are required to have compliance programs, which include establishing clear policies for many situations, make the documents for such policies accessible for everyone (sometimes public even for people outside the company), and ministering presentations for all employees (required to sing an attendance list).

So, you can probably check one of these policies from a company whose reality you believe is representative of yours.

A common rule in corporate compliance is that you can accept gifts from bidders. It would often sound rude if you rejected them. But there is a limit to the likely value ofa gift you can accept. Where I work it is 100 dollars. And the case is pretty much analogous, if w're talking a bidder, this person represents a company whose offer you'll need to evaluate. Though usually you need to pick a winner, rather than grading his proposal.

If a gift is known or discovered to surpass the limit value, one option it to auction the item and donate the value for charity. Of course this is expected to be done without the gifter's knowledge.

Sometimes there are specific policies against accepting alcoholic drinks, but this is not so usual.

Up until here, I would said you pretty much should have clearance to accept this gift. And I would accept if I was a teacher, given one last condition:

How fair and objective is the grading system?

Could you be accused of favoring the student's grade because of his gift? If you a math teacher who practices binary grading (i.e. each question is right or wrong, only the final result counts), no one would expect a test grade to change over a gift. If you are correcting essays which are related to subjective topics, the type where student would often argue that better grade are attributed if "guessing the teacher's opinion on the topic", then care should be taken.

Even for the latter case, further trouble could be precluded by formally delivering a grading reference to the students, showing their graded papers/tests/homework such that any unfairness, if suspected, could be pointed out, clarified and corrected. Which sounds like good practice to me.

In the end, don't put yourself in trouble, have decent practices and nothing wrong should happen for accepting a small gift.

  • The funny thing is I checked our policies and previous schools and there are no written policies I could find about gifts from students. There are policies for gifts from vendors and people with financial interests, and gifts to admission personnel, but none in the context of grading. Unlike a company, usually a instructor has the sole right to assign grades, under the rights of academic freedom. It may not be changed by the administration. – user71659 Nov 17 at 23:43

No, this is not ethical; don't accept such gifts.

Whether it is ethical to receive gifts from students before grading their MSc thesis

It is not. A gift influences the receiver in favor of the giver. It also carries an implicit indication of the assumption the receiver will give a high, pleasing grade; you wouldn't gift someone who stuck it to you in grading and made you appear incompetent, would you?

(or any other project where students feel like they need to thank you for).

This is the more serious problem. The gratitude an M.Sc. candidate feels towards his thesis graders/readers/examiners is not the kind that should translate - in practice and in their minds - to personal gifts.

I would try to reflect upon why that is that such gifting seems like a reasonable thing to try and do - to students, and apparently to you. I would then think of how to educate students and faculty that this kind of gratitude should be expressed by, say, contributing to the faculy/department; volunteering for some academia-related cause etc. - something roundabout and diffuse in a larger community of people.

Lately I have encountered this situation where a student gave me a present before I was able to fully grade his work.

You're implying that it matters very much whether it's before or after. This is part of the work you are (hopefully) paid to do, and part of your duties towards the larger academic community. You're not doing a favor here.

The gift was rather small, just a few bottles of good quality beers which are not that expensive where I'm from.

So, multiple bottles of somewhat-expensive alcoholic beverage. Totally inappropriate, even if you're in a beer-drinking culture.

He also said: "you can drink this when grading my work, ha ha". We got along quite well, so at that time I didn't feel like it was some sort of bribe (which I still don't feel like it was).

You should have told him: "I appreciate the sentiment, but you know, there is at least the appearance of an ethical issue here, so please don't be offended, but I have to decline. I suggest you bring the beer to your thesis presentation" [assuming you have that custom, where people give a seminar-style talk about their thesis] / "farewell party."

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