I have worked on a problem for close to two years. I feel I have an adequate theoretical solution. However I feel to get some backing on the theory I need some quantitative hard computer data. It is only a few days work of programming. Would it be ethically wrong to recruit an undergrad for a few days volunteer work without pay to get the computer crunching part done and not mention him as a coauthor and only mention as acknowledgement? This is only for time reasons as I am not familiar with tools required. Everything will be given as cook book to the interested programmer.

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    How do you know it's only a few days work? What are the limits on you implementing this yourself? – Bryan Krause Dec 7 at 18:16
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    Why don't you want to credit them? Given that you need this and they provided a significant contribution they deserve to be coauthors. – Bakuriu Dec 7 at 19:01
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    Why would an undergrad volunteer to do something for you for literally no benefit for themself? And second, are you really sure that they'd turn out good enough work that you could trust it without spending an equally long chunk of time verifying it yourself? – Azor Ahai Dec 7 at 19:06
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    Why not add them as an author? What's your reason for not wanting to do so in the first place? – Konrad Rudolph Dec 7 at 19:18
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    In the area where I live, the seasoned programmer earns ~ 100$ per hour. In addition to this I have noticed that people do not become seasoned programmers out of a sudden, it takes years of work to become a seasoned programmer. – Salvador Dali Dec 7 at 19:45

13 Answers 13

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Rather than proposing this to an individual, which should be interpreted as coercive since there is a power imbalance, you could publish a call for help, describing what you need and what you offer. Be clear that it is only an ack on offer, not authorship, and no money is involved. Ask for people to apply. You can choose among those who offer to help. Some probably will, but if not, you should consider something more substantial.

If there is a learning component, you could describe that in your "call" as well. It might make it more interesting, even though there is no academic credit involved.

Let me respond, indirectly, to some of the comments here by people who seem to think I'm suggesting an unethical course of action. Actually, all I tried to do was assure that coercion wasn't part of the OP's actions by suggesting an open call for assistance with little reward.

If I ask someone to mow my lawn and there is a power imbalance between us it is coercive and thus unethical. If I put out a general call for someone who would be willing to mow my lawn for no return but my thanks, it is no longer unethical. I hope that is recognized.

In fact, professors are on the "losing" end of exactly this sort of arrangement. Society has asked us to dedicate our lives, and often fund our own education, to educate the next generation. The tangible rewards are actually few. I earned, over a 45 year career about half of what I'd have earned working in industry (I actually have anecdotal evidence). Society asked me to do this, offering thanks and (often) respect, but not actually a "fair" compensation. Society depends, in fact, on lots of people being willing to take this deal, finding that the rewards are other than monetary or power or ...

Most of you reading this, and most of you disagreeing with me, have taken this deal or are in the process of preparing yourselves to accept it. While I'd like a "better" deal, I've never been unhappy with the deal as long as I had the respect of my peers and as long as I felt I was contributing.

Not every relationship needs to be strictly transactional. If I ask for assistance, offering only thanks but little else, I don't expect any particular person to accept, but I depend on the fact that those that do will find, somehow, their own rewards in helping.

Another analogy is precisely what happens on this site. People ask for help. There is very little offered in return for that help and yet other people - you and me - are willing to help and get our reward however we can. Sometimes the respect of our peers is enough.

I recognize that the current question may be a bit different, but I don't see that I'm suggesting finding a "sucker" if a student accepts such a request and finds in his or her own way a reason, educational or otherwise, for doing so. Those who are grant funded should, of course, build in funds for such things, but not everyone is. Many faculty at undergraduate institutions are required to do research but not compensated for it. You are paid for teaching and for being supportive of undergraduates and helping them grow and advance.

I also recognize that some here believe that any help on a paper should result in co-authorship. I think that is misplaced. I agree that those who contribute to the intellectual content of a paper should be recognized, probably as authors, but if someone works at my direction, then it is a different situation. Should someone translating my poor language skills into a polished paper be a co-author? Should my first Calculus instructor be a co-author in every Analysis paper I write?

Note that I didn't, and don't, know all of the details here and so can't actually comment whether as student writing code to validate a theory has contributed to the intellectual content (My field is CS, actually). It may be or not, depending on the level of direction, which I don't have evidence for. Creativity should be recognized, certainly. Don't guess that I think otherwise. There are situations in which authorship would be appropriate and others for which an acknowledgment is sufficient.

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    But if an undergrad believes this would be a valuable experience in itself and decides to apply, does it make it ethical to not give them authorship status nonetheless? Just because the terms are clear beforehand does not mean the deal is fair. – Alexis Dec 9 at 12:56
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    It's still unethical if you find a sucker willing to submit. – einpoklum Dec 9 at 20:12
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    I agree with @einpoklum. Just because you make it clear up front that you are going to have someone do work and you won't make them co-author does not solve the ethical problem that arised in the first place. OP accepted this answer probably because it is more comfortable, but a good answer should definitely address this (see iayork's answer). – Ian Dec 10 at 10:10
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Additionally, some flags have been raised on some overly aggressive comments. Please keep it civil, folks. – eykanal Dec 11 at 23:32

The fact that to a seasoned programmer the work is easy doesn't have anything to do with it. As you describe it, this is work that's required for the publication. Without it, you don't have a paper. With it, you do. Therefore the programmer contributed significantly (critically) to the paper, and therefore the programmer should be an author.

The fact that it's quick and easy for a programmer simply means that programmers have spent significant time and effort learning skills that you don't have. If you consider the work trivial, then go out and learn the skills yourself, and do the work yourself. If that's too much work, then put an appropriate value on that work and offer authorship.

An example in my field is histopathology. I can take tissue slides to an expert who will look at them for five minutes and provide an interpretation. That expert becomes a co-author, not because of their five minutes of work but because of the decades of experience behind it.

Collaborators shouldn't need to run a bloody gauntlet and engage in hand-to-hand combat to become co-authors. If they provide a skill that contributes significantly to the paper, that should be enough.

  • Extended discussions in the comments have been moved to chat. Please check whether your concern hasn’t already been mentioned before writing a new comment. @iayork: Please try to implement important clarifications into your answer. – Wrzlprmft Dec 9 at 9:24
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    @Freeman I also do not see why the OP does not want to acknowledge the programmer as a co-author. Any contribution is a contribution. A contributor as a co-author. What are you going to loose? Since you made this question, you already has feeling that there is something wrong in not acknowledging the programmer. Most theorists unfortunately, because they do not have practical experience, they think it is trivial. Implementation is not trivial at all. It also require effort and most of the time reveal flaws in the theoretical part or articulate the theory which seems dummy without it. – user9371654 Dec 9 at 20:47
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    "this is work that's required for the publication" wouldn't you say the same for a translator? – Mehrdad Dec 12 at 1:44
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    @mehrdad just about every possible silly counterexample was already put forward in the discussion, which was removed as too long. All were irrelevant. Please don't start again. – iayork Dec 12 at 10:50

Seasoned's programmer's rate would probably be $100-$1000 per day. This, assuming that your estimation is correct (dangerous assumption) means you are asking for a volunteer to provide you with $500-$5000 of free labor(assuming that the work takes 5 days).

I also find it strange that you mention time for a seasoned's programmer, but want to hire an undergrad - the difference in the time required to finish the job might differ much. And no work is "Trivial" if it requires "few days" of expert's work.

Undergrad's work might also be of lower quality because of his lack of experience - what if the program is faulty and returns wrong results? How would you know that?

Ultimately it comes down to how you arrange it - you might find someone willing to do it for free. I suggest considering potential gains (is undergrad contributing $2000 in his time not enough to become a co-author?) and threats ( what if the work takes much longer? what if the program has bugs? what if the undergrad can't do it? ).

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    It's a pretty small and elite group of programmers who make $1000 per day; conversely, $100 per day is not much above minimum wage in some places in the US. So realistically, I think that range could be a bit narrower, like $200-400 per day for an average competent professional software developer in the US. – David Z Dec 8 at 1:43
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    @DavidZ I didn't want to try to account for all the different variables - experience, technology, location... I provided approximated rates so that I would have some numbres to show. Entry level software engineers at the big five earn 100k+ USD per year, that's more than 400 USD a day, and they are not experienced. Bottom line is, they are not pennies. – MatthewRock Dec 8 at 2:30
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    @DavidZ $100/hour is actually a pretty low consulting fee for a seasoned programmer out in The World, especially in places like California. And 10 hours of work per day for a short-term project isn't outrageous either. – JeffE Dec 10 at 3:03
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    (2 comments up) Well, the "big five" tech companies and others in tech hubs are not representative of what programmers make in general. If the OP is in one of these areas and has to pay a rate competitive with what those companies are paying, then yes, you have to go beyond $400/hour, but even then, $1000/hour is very high. And in a lot of other places the salaries are a lot lower. (1 comment up) @JeffE I suppose you're right in that consulting fees can be 2-3x higher than salary, I didn't consider that. – David Z Dec 10 at 3:12
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    @DavidZ Did you misread $100-$1000 per day as per hour? Because, yes, $1000/hour is absurdly high; $1000 per day (~$125/hour) is still a high salary, but not absurdly so, and actually well within the ballpark for an experienced contractor. – Nic Hartley Dec 10 at 18:40

Would it be ethically wrong to recruit an undergrad for a few days volunteer work without pay

"Ethically wrong"? Some answers say it isn't (though I disagree)

But that is the wrong question to ask

However, I feel [that] to get some backing on the theory, I need... computer data.

  • You've worked on a problem for two years.
  • You're going to trust "a couple days" free work from a random undergrad to prove it?

If you don't know enough to code it yourself, how do you know the code is right?

In other words (and this isn't meant as harsh or flippant) if you can't tell me how you will be able to tell the difference between these two outcomes:

  1. A person taking your assignment and coding something which produces the answer you expect
  2. A person writing a program which will prove or disprove your theory

...then you don't need the code, do you?

If it turns out you think #2 is correct, but later someone proves that #1 is what really happened... that's bad.

This is only for time reasons as I am not familiar with tools required. Everything will be given as cook book to the interested programmer.

This information was added after I wrote my answer. I answered with the assumption that OP was getting an undergrad to do the code because s/he lacked the knowledge.

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    Anyone who thinks that they can get useful, valid work out of an short-term undergraduate is probably mistaken. Anyone who's trying to do so while shafting that person on credit and pay deserves to be mistaken. – CJ59 Dec 8 at 0:44
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    While I agree with the latter part of your answer, the first sentence is so wrong that I have to -1 you. It's terribly wrong. If you edit that out I would definitely upvote the fine point regarding verifying the code. – einpoklum Dec 9 at 20:32
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    @einpoklum Do you mean where I say, "Maybe not" to it being ethically wrong? If so, please note I put that there because others have argued that under the right circumstances (agreement in advance, etc.) it would not be ethically wrong (at their institution / their field, presumably). I consider it wrong, and wouldn't advise it on a moral basis - but there are other answers here that say how to make it right ethically, and they seem to have valid points (regardless of my feelings). My main point is code correctness - sidestepping ethics because I doubt OP will care my opinion on the ethics. – J. Chris Compton Dec 10 at 15:45
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    I doubt OP will care my opinion on the ethics.” OP specifically asked whether it would be ethically wrong. This suggests that they care about your (and everybody else’s) opinion about ethics. It’s fine if you don’t want to comment about it, but you did actually state an opinion (“maybe not”) that suggests that you don’t feel strongly that it’s unethical, so your response to einpoklum where you now say that you “consider it wrong” makes you sound inconsistent. My suggestion is to edit your answer and either remove the ethics comment or give a clear statement of your position on this. – Dan Romik Dec 10 at 16:31
  • @J.ChrisCompton: So why not edit your comment into the answer, instead of the "maybe not"? Replace it with "in my opinion, it is, but \n this is not the right question etc." – einpoklum Dec 10 at 17:00

I don't suppose it's unethical so long as you are clear in your expectations and proposed reward (which is effectively nothing), and the other party fully understands what they are getting into. This could easily become exploitative, however, as you are hoping to get someone to work for you while offering really nothing of value in return. If you are a professor or are some other type of authority figure over the student, I'd tread very carefully here, as you could be exerting undue influence over this person.

I notice that you plan to approach an undergraduate student about this, which could very easily be seen as preying on someone who doesn't know any better. If you have a really interesting problem that's so cool to work on that someone should be happy to do it for a simple "thank you", why not approach a true "seasoned programmer" instead of an undergraduate student? If true professionals find your proposal unpalatable, I'd say it would be unethical to try to hoodwink a less experienced person into the deal.

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    Nicely said. If you offer to pay, it is fine. If you offer co-authorship it is fine. I would have taken either as an undergraduate programmer. If you have department approval and offer course-credit it is fine. But if you use a position of at least apparent and possibly actual authority to pressure a person that is at least apparently subordinate into it with then it is unethical and could be illegal depending on the details. – TimothyAWiseman Dec 7 at 22:31
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    "I'm looking for a sucker undergrad who's willing to do work I really need done, and for which I'm paid for, while receiving literally no reward." <- If OP made this clear, and someone showed up, I don't see how it becomes legitimate. – einpoklum Dec 9 at 20:30

Would it be ethically wrong to recruit an undergrad for a few days volunteer work without pay to get the computer crunching part done and not mention him as a coauthor and only mention as acknowledgement?

Yes. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the most terrible ethical offense, but if forced to choose one of the two words “no” or “yes” to answer the question “would it be ethically wrong?”, I’d go with “yes”.

The reason why it’s wrong is that you are going against established conventions of what authorship means. You think that by offering a student some other sort of reward for doing part of the work involved in publishing a paper, whether it be an acknowledgement, a letter of recommendation, or the opportunity to add another experience to their CV, then it is okay to not list them as a coauthor. But this is wrong, for two reasons: first, there is a clear power differential at play here that makes it likely the student may be tempted to go along with your scheme even without really finding the arrangement very fair or agreeable. In other words, it’s exploitation and an abuse of authority (of a sort we hear about all too often on this site unfortunately).

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it is not just the student you are offending against. The scientific community has an expectation to be given honest and accurate information about who contributed meaningfully to the creation of the paper. And, by current conventions at least, “several days of work by a seasoned programmer” is more than enough to be counted as a coauthor. I find the idea of you reaching a private agreement with the student to deprive the community of that information by having the student give up authorship rights quite problematic, even overlooking the separate issue of exploitation. Imagine for example if rich people started paying famous academics to collaborate on research with them, giving them a high salary with the agreement that the famous and super-talented person will give up their coauthorship rights. Is this just a private transaction between two consenting adults that doesn’t hurt anyone else? No, of course it’s much less innocent and is harmful, since it deprives the community of information it needs to function effectively, and goes against agreed-upon norms of what’s acceptable.

Now, of course, in your situation you are actually the person who will have done almost all the research, and that’s fine. The student being a coauthor doesn’t mean that they will get half the credit for something you worked on for two years. It would be completely legitimate for you to make it clear to people what each coauthor contributed in any way necessary (by writing it in the paper, or in your CV or publication list, research statement etc). You absolutely deserve to get the correct portion of credit, and there is an honest way to make that happen. But as for coauthorship, the student programmer should get it, since they will have contributed time, creative thinking and a technical skill that’s quite nontrivial (at least, nontrivial enough that you yourself don’t possess it) to the project, and those are the accepted criteria for being a coauthor.

  • I would +1 you for mentioning an offense against the community; but I think you're being to lenient with your downplaying of the inethicality (sp?) of OP's suggestion. – einpoklum Dec 9 at 20:34
  • @einpoklum thanks, glad you partially agree. I did say it was unethical, it’s just less unethical (and less obviously unethical) than some other things I can think of. Actually I noticed that my answer was the only one that brings up the community aspect, so it’s nice to see that someone took notice. :-) – Dan Romik Dec 9 at 20:47
  • You've inspired me to expand my answer accordingly, so now there are two. – einpoklum Dec 9 at 21:52

It would be exploitative and quite unethical, yes.

It is only a few days work of programming.

You'll know that after the programming is done. Preliminary estimates of programming time are typically much lower than actual effort expended, not to mention the significant amount of not-actual-programming overhead we tend not to account for.

Would it be ethically wrong to recruit an undergrad for a few days volunteer work without pay

So, you want someone to do work you need for your research - for which you yourself are paid, and for which your university is funded - without the person doing the work getting paid?

You bet this is ethically wrong. Ethically, morally, and in some countries also legally.

It should also be noted you would not just mistreating that student. You would be:

  • Legitimizing younger, inexperienced researchers not getting acknowledged for their work.
  • Legitimizing students not getting acknowledged for their material contribution to the work of people higher-up the ladder.
  • Legitimizing exploitative employment practices in academia, where it is unfortunately quite common to squeeze unpaid work out of people who depend on the system in various ways.

So your suggested act would be offensive both to the academic community at large. If I were in your university you could expect harsh action from the nontenured academic staff union upon us finding out you've done this.

to get some backing on the theory I need some quantitative hard computer data... and not mention him as a coauthor and only mention as acknowledgement?

Since this data is necessary objectively, it will also be necessary to present it, to some extent, in the paper. And this necessary part of the paper will be generated by that undergrad programmer. ... Sounds like a co-author to me; and you cannot drop co-authors.

Also, while it is sometimes legitimate to ask people about whether they want authorship or not - when an undergraduate is involved, there's a power and knowledge imbalance which makes it unethical to ask them to give up co-authorship.

What you could do - if you like - is describe the extent of his/her involvement; but even this may be impolite (depending on the conventions in your field of research).

This is only for time reasons as I am not familiar with tools required.

So the co-author will even utilize some expertise which you do not have? An even stronger co-authorship.

If not for time reasons, I would have written most papers in most scientific fields all on my own. I just need enough time to become familiar with all of that stuff.

Everything will be given as cook book to the interested programmer.

That would be nice and a good idea regardless of who writes the code. However, an unethical, immoral, and exploitative act is not excused by a related socially-beneficial and commendable act.

Oh, and, just so you know - implementing something to just work for a paper and implementing it for publication so that other people can use it to is a significant difference in the amount of work necessary.

I also very much agree with @DanRomik's observation that you would be committing an offense against the scientific community, not just the undergrad; and with @JChrisCompton's observation that you're ignoring the issue of verification/trustworthiness of the code.

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    You make quite a few, perhaps unwarranted, assumptions. In many undergraduate institutions in the US, the professor is paid to teach, but still expected to do research. There are no grants involved and no pay for the research. It is just an expectation. Any pay would come out of the professor's pocket and he/she may not be especially well paid to begin with. In such an institution, all of the students are undergraduates, and in many cases they have fairly close relationship with their professors. Not everything there needs to be transactional as you seem to prefer. – Buffy Dec 9 at 22:11
  • Likewise, two years of work at such an institution is nothing like two years at a top research institution. It is done in odd moments between classes and during summer "breaks". There are no university funds to support it, maybe not even for publication fees. – Buffy Dec 9 at 22:26
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    To clarify, when I said OP’s actions would be an offense against the community I meant something specific: that OP would be depriving the community of information about who contributed meaningfully to the paper. That’s different from what you are referring to in your answer about legitimizing exploitation and so on. (By the way, can’t you accuse any wrongdoer of offending everyone else by legitimizing wrongdoing of that particular sort? This hardly seems to be worth mentioning. The main thing that’s wrong with doing something wrong is that it is wrong, not that it “legitimizes wrongdoing”.) – Dan Romik Dec 9 at 22:26


(Ethical) academic authorship is independent of other forms of rewards, so it doesn’t really matter here whether you pay somebody or not. The crucial aspect here is whether your programmer made a creative contribution. Now, what is creative is somewhat fuzzy and difficult to assess, but a good litmus test can be obtained from considering what a non-creative contribution would look like:

  • It always produces the same result with respect to your research question. (Irrelevant or unavoidable differences like the programming language, statistical fluctuations, etc. are excluded.)
  • It follows a clear established protocol.
  • Understanding your research question yields no advantage to the contributor, e.g., in form of assessing the plausibility of results (also see J. Chris Compton’s answer).

If this applies to the contribution you seek, then it is likely not creative. However, as others noted, this is very likely not the case here.


Your programmer is very likely not helping you for purely altruistic reasons, so there must be something else you have to offer. I can only see the following options:

  • Scientific credit (authorship). This requires a scientific contribution, which you excluded to be the case.
  • Formal payment. You also excluded this.
  • A prospect of recommendation letter, good grades, thesis projects would imply an abuse of power and in some cases bribery. This could very well be compared to just receiving money from the student.
  • Getting insight into the scientific process would be in conflict with your claim that this is a trivial task.


I often found that tackling a research question from another point of view yielded valuable new insights or perspectives in unexpected ways. Given that you spent two years on your question, investing two days in programming will almost certainly be a worthwhile experience on average.

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    This is the best answer. Either this is truly "crunching" (akin to buying a microscope or feeding the rats) -- in which case it should be paid or otherwise remunerated -- or it is a creative contribution, in which case it deserves authorship. Whether the student consents to be exploited is irrelevant. I could maybe see a case if OP were willing to let the successful student continue to collaborate with him and earn authorship on future papers (as well as a LoR), but no evidence this is the case here. – cag51 Dec 10 at 4:17

I don't think is unethical if you provide something of value of exchange to the prospective student. Will he gain an understanding of some theory that he/she's interested in as part of the engagement? Be upfront at what you're offering to your prospective collaborator.

If you just want a free coder then yes this is unethical. This is pure and simple exploitation, and abuse of power from your side. Would you like to be on the other side of this exchange?

ps. Check the regulations of your institution!

Is the output of the computer program going to be included in the paper? If so, that output has an author, and that author deserves credit. But who is the author? Is it the computer? Is it the program? Or is it the programmer? I think it's the programmer.

If the output has no intellectual merit, why does it add value to the paper? Would including the program input instead of the output serve the reader equally?

Contrary to popular belief, programming is intellectual activity. It deserves respect.

I am a software engineer. There's a story that has always resonated with me whenever a friend asks for "free" software development

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer approached and asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, swiftly executed the work, and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!” “No”, Picasso replied, “It took me 40 years”

Even though I am no Picasso in the software world, the overall message is the same and applies to any professional. A good story to consider when asking for "free" help

Blog Link to story

In many institutions, it is common for undergraduates to help with research, either paid or for credits. It is not necessarily unethical to post your project and ask for help, but you have to consider what the student is getting from this experience.

Authorship might reasonably be off the table, but at the same time the undergraduate might come with some interesting insights/get more involved. You never know.

Regardless of the authorship or financial aspect, there is some form of payment that, for some, is invaluable: the experience and the advice. For most undergraduates, getting involved in research (especially if they are actively interested in pursuing such a career) can be tough.

However, you should consider that undergrad less as the one doing the dirty work and more as your mentee. You are, after all, more experienced than him, and you could provide some useful insights into academia or into your field. This comes of course at the cost of you spending some (possibly rather fun) time with the undergraduate, sharing your knowledge.

To put is shortly, if you find somebody willing to be just a coding monkey, it's not necessarily unethical, but adopting the coding monkey as a (possibly very short term) tutee is a win-win situation.

Would it be ethically wrong to recruit an undergrad for a few days volunteer work without pay to get the computer crunching part done and not mention him as a coauthor and only mention as acknowledgement?

It's not ethically wrong if the engineering contribution is too tiny, compared to the whole contribution of the paper.

In fact, it's very common that professors/researchers hire several undergrads/interns to work on engineering a tool, and only list them in the acknowledgment. (I can provide many examples).

However, it is ethically wrong if the engineering contribution is substantial, and you don't list them as co-author. Whether there contribution is enough for co-authorship depends on your judgement, but your judgement can be wrong.

If you read the book "7 habits of highly effective people", one of the habit is always thinking about win-win solution. You can't just expect somebody to work for you for free. It sounds unrealistic.

  • "You can just expect somebody to work for you for free." I think you meant to write "can't" or "cannot". – Faheem Mitha Dec 12 at 13:45
  • @FaheemMitha Yes, that's a typo. Thanks. – qsp Dec 12 at 17:42

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