51

For my bachelor thesis in theoretical CS I paid someone to

  • fix some weird LaTeX issues I had
  • make some figures in LaTeX for which I provided exact (!) hand-drawn pictures
  • adjust the document class/template (font size, margins, ...) to university standards

In particular, all the text, formulae, figure sketches and remaining, say, 70% of the remaining typesetting were done by. Let me also say that I got the best grade possible to highlight that my contents were more than substantial for a bachelor thesis.

By academic standards, is it ethical to outsource parts of typesetting one's (BSc|MSc|PhD) thesis by paying someone?

Note that I am looking for opinions about the academic culture, not about legal situations. My university regulations are especially blurry and demand that one's thesis must be solely produced (in German: angefertigt) by the author. Whether that includes typesetting and in what proportion, is probably up to interpretation.

Related post: PhD student hiring a LaTeX expert to typeset thesis? asks about pragmatic reasons, not about ethical concerns.

  • 38
    As the answers say, it's fine, but if you're planning on staying in academia it's worth learning how to do these things in LaTeX yourself. – astronat Mar 6 at 9:58
  • 56
    Unless your thesis is about LaTeX. Then you have a problem :) – Gabriel Mar 6 at 17:48
  • 21
    Once upon a time, students could make good money with their typewriter, typing up other students papers. – Jon Custer Mar 6 at 17:50
  • 12
    @Jon Custer: And if your typewriter broke in the middle of typing up your thesis, would it be unethical to take it to a typewriter repair shop instead of fixing it yourself? – jamesqf Mar 6 at 17:55
  • 3
    I notice from the OPs other comments that they did not admit to doing this to their advisor before handing in the thesis. Personally I would expect a BSc student to be able to produce their own figures and if not, I'd like to know. I think within the German university system the OP is on very thin ice here. – Marianne013 Mar 8 at 17:39

10 Answers 10

99

I do not see any unethical point in this. You were supposed to make an original contribution to your thesis in terms of your research. With respect to writing, you can take help from your friends, supervisor, or anyone else (free or paid).

In our university in New Zealand, there was a dept. which used to charge a small fee to fix language issues for students with English as a second language. I suppose this should also work for the images/pictures thing as you are not an artist but an expert in your particular field.

Cutting it short, I do not see anything unethical in it.

| improve this answer | |
  • 33
    To be absolutely sure: mention it somewhere in the thesis, in the acknowledgements, for example. If it is ethical (it is), then there is no issue stating it. – Jeffrey Mar 6 at 17:14
  • 6
    It's also pretty common (at least here in my EU country) to pay a linguist to proofread and fix gramatical and other language errors. Especially in cases where the thesis is in English which isn't the first language. That usually improves readability without affecting the actual contribution done by the author. – Mavrik Mar 6 at 18:49
  • 4
    @JeffreysupportsMonica I think acknowledging someone fixing formatting is silly. Should I thank Microsoft Office for the autocorrect? The print office for their recommendations about attractive margins? My wife for deciding the colors of the figure? Or the creators of my reference manager software? – Behacad Mar 6 at 20:26
  • 12
    Historically it was common to hire a paid typist to type one's thesis, working from your own long-hand manuscript. When I did my thesis, the secretaries in the department did this as a side-line, being well-versed in the domain-specific symbols and notation. (I was among the first wave who did my own thesis in TeX--plain Tex, not LaTex--in the mid-'80s.) More than a few professors would consider it a waste of a student's time to spend it typing, when a professional could turn out a better product faster; you should no more be expected to typeset your own thesis than to bind it yourself. – CCTO Mar 6 at 21:01
  • 2
    @Behacad: I certainly thanked some friends for proofreading. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 7 at 20:55
26

This is quite common. Some Universities in the UK are hiring private companies to improve the presentation of grant proposals, which includes typesetting, proofreading, professional preparation of graphics, and in many cases editing the text. Academics are encouraged to also use these companies to help improve their papers before they are submitted to a journal / conference (the Universities won't pay for this but academic can pay from their grants).

This practice does not quite fit in a popular vision of academy as a world where personal skills and commitment are more important than social background, money, old boys network, etc. It appears that those with money, fame and powerful friends have better chance to be supported, win the competition and get even more money, fame and powerful friends. Personally, I find it frustrating, but on a global scale this is acceptable and is not considered unethical or morally wrong.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    In contrast to a student thesis, a grant proposal is not assessed and graded in order to hand out a degree. From my experience with bachelor theses, visual appearance is often taken into account when deciding on the grade. In this sense this might be considered as paying somebody to improve your grade. – Christoph Mar 6 at 10:53
  • 5
    Arguably, visual appearances has also a considerable effect on the success of grant applications, which in turn has a major effect in promotion / tenure decisions. If it's OK for academics to pay someone to boost their chances for grant success and promotion, why is it not OK for for a PhD student to do the same? – Dmitry Savostyanov Mar 6 at 12:27
  • 3
    @DmitrySavostyanov one could consider producing high-quality figures part of the learning process. I am not saying that it's necessarily unethical to have someone else produce the figures, but the two cases are quite different (by the way, the question is about a Bachelor's student, not a PhD thesis). – fqq Mar 6 at 17:58
  • @Christoph grant applications are assessed and graded (yes, graded) in order to hand out money, often public money. Presentation definitely influences who gets the cash. – rhialto Mar 6 at 20:08
  • @Christoph: I don't agree in this case, because it is solely to fix LaTeX errors, convert hand-drawn figures to LaTeX (instead of chucking in photographs of said figures), and adjusting formatting to university standards. None of these adds any significant improvement to visual appearance. That said, I do think it should be acknowledged anyway. – user21820 Mar 8 at 3:10
19

I also see no big problem here. Generally, there is nothing wrong with accepting help for any part of your thesis, I would even encourage everybody to discuss and refine their work with others from the field or the group. A paid service is nothing I would usually recommend, but it is also possible.

You however must make the support (paid or not) you got transparent, especially if you have to include a statement which says that you disclosed all help you got. Then it is for the graders to decide if your thesis justifies the top grade. In your specific case you could have mentioned the services you used in the acknowledgements.

| improve this answer | |
8

When publishing an article for a scientific journal, you provide the text (and formulas, and figures) in tex format, and they take care of the layout and typesetting. Alternatively, you have to use their template to fit your article in it.

I don't see why anyone should consider latex formatting as a part of the student work for a thesis, apart from strictly practical reasons.

| improve this answer | |
7

Unless the thesis itself is about LaTeX and its usage, I'd see no problem, and I've never seen rules against it. But if we're talking ethics...

  1. The university should provide a complete and usable LaTeX template for thesis and other works, so no student would need to waste time creating or adjusting a template. This removes a lot of the effort on both librarians who may need to review typesetting and the hassle of dealing with professors who make a big deal about typesetting/formatting errors.

  2. Dealing with LaTeX issues is just dealing with a text processors bugs. Good thing LaTeX is open source so you can debug it yourself, but what happens if you were using Microsoft Word and a bug prevented you from continuing your work? I once had to work with a document so large and so full of references that it would crash Word frequently (it also had configuration management). Would paying an IT technician to see this unethical? Would contacting Microsoft be unethical? Was it unethical in the first place to pay for a test processor? If the lack of RAM memory was the issue, would paying for more RAM sticks be a problem? I myself think its perfectly fine to outsource tools/software repair/maintenance, as long as those are means for delivering my thesis and not a part of the thesis itself.

  3. People, by default, will assume that if you've done your work in LaTeX, then you know how to use it. So maybe you have a small impostor syndrome for delivering a work that makes people assume you have a level of proficiency with LaTeX that you don't have. But that's easy to solve: Mention your LaTeX wizard on the acknowledgements. You could even ask for a discount for doing this.

  4. Now the controversial part: Teachers will sometimes let typesetting and other aesthetic aspects of a work have a more than fair impact over final grades. Nobody admits it, but this happens. Any bold claim made by a paper with several typos receives much more skepticism than a similar claim made by an aesthetically flawless paper. While I think this justifies investing a lot of effort into typesetting and formatting, it is a flaw in the system and in us humans that we need to live with. So maybe you think hacking this flaw by adding steroids to your formatting (by hiring professional typesetting work) looks like "cheating". But that's just a regular dose of life being unfair, you are not in the wrong in this case, and reviewers should make the effort to separate pure typesetting from the actual content merit.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    "The university should provide a complete and usable LaTeX template for thesis and other works, so no student would need to waste time creating or adjusting a template." That would be great, but in the real world this seems to be rare. – Nate Eldredge Mar 6 at 18:50
  • 2
    @NateEldredge : That,s true, but where I've graduated, there was a template made by students that was easily accessible in some communication channels. Where I've got my Msc, they had an official template provided on the library website, and there was a contact to reach for help in case of bugs and other issues. So, not so far from reality, and pretty worthy sending the feedback to your university. – Mefitico Mar 6 at 18:59
  • 2
    "People, by default, will assume that if you've done your work in LaTeX, then you know how to use it" <- Not necessarily. A lot of people get others to help them with LaTeX, or just avoid the more difficult constructs. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 22:20
  • Good answer. But I don't see why the university should choose any official template. In my university the directive was to simply use "article" setting. It was the best. – carlo Mar 6 at 23:06
  • 4
    @carlo : In each place I've been, people were a bit picky on some formatting stuff like "the page count begins after the index" or "the list of figures is before the list of tables". And each place had different rules for those. Those are for thesis rather just homework papers, of course. They also required some custom front face with university logo and so on. This is why the one-size-fits-all never applied to me. – Mefitico Mar 7 at 1:55
7

Yes. Typesetting is not the same as contributing to the contents of a document. It is not unethical to hire a typist either, who would take your handwritten essay and produce a properly formatted document using MSWord, LaTeX or any other typesetting/processing program.

The contents (and associated ideas) is expected to be and should be your own.

Note that in some cases hiring outside help for such technical matter can be efficient, especially if one is not so proficient with the tools needed to produce a document meeting specific technical requirements.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    (+1) This was my reaction. Indeed, I would guess that a large minority of theses before the early-mid 1980s were typed by someone else, as I've seen this explicitly mentioned in the acknowledgements of quite a few Ph.D. theses from the manual/electric typewriter times, and I don't recall ever hearing about a change in something like this. On the other hand, the ability to prepare sufficiently elaborate diagrams could be considered part of the training in one's field, and I can imagine for certain fields that even in earlier times a certain competence in engineering drafting might be desired. – Dave L Renfro Mar 7 at 19:26
  • The OP has changed the title of their question, such that the first word of your answer should now be "Yes". – wimi Mar 9 at 8:34
  • @wimi thanks for the heads up. – ZeroTheHero Mar 9 at 9:20
2

Learning LaTeX requires significant time and effort. By not learning LaTeX to the point where you could overcome your problems on your own and draw your own figures you have had more time to develop and polish your thesis compared with your peers. If you have not acknowledged the aid you have purchased you have given the grader the impression that you have acquired skills you do not have. As a rule, you simply do not present the work of others as your own. The regulations of your university are crystal clear to me. They require your thesis to be produced by you. I am Danish and work at a Swedish university. I would not approve the involvement of third party, unless there were special circumstances, such as sudden illness or a death in the student's family. I wonder, what is the position of your department?

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    +1. I think you should emphasize your last point. The rules clearly state that the thesis must be solely produced by the author. Not following that is academic misconduct and therefore unethical. – Vincent Mar 7 at 14:18
  • I am not sure if I should ask the department with my real name in retrospect. I can, however, casually ask the prof, who is still my ongoing advisor. Also, I'd like to question that "learning LaTeX to the point where [I] could overcome [my] problems on [my] own" is a useful time and skill investment given that some problems I had were really obscure and hard to track down without having months of LaTeX experience. – user897029 Mar 7 at 17:01
  • What would be the alternative to overcoming typesetting problems other than paying someone? Certainly I could ask at TeX.SE, but that would require creating a minimal working example (MWEs) (which is non-trivial sometimes) as well as it would take longer response times. I do acknowledge that creating MWEs is often a great learning experience, but not necessarily with a technology like LaTeX. (Understanding LaTeX probably won't give you great practical insights in a good [internal] design of a typesetting system.) – user897029 Mar 7 at 17:05
  • 1
    @user897029. You have to make use of tools and techniques which you have mastered during your undergraduate studies. That is the only option. – Carl Christian Mar 7 at 20:56
  • 1
    It is surely not common to suggest that getting secretarial help is not allowed: the OP is not getting a degree in LaTeX after all. Granted that it is good form to acknowledge such help, but I suppose all hinges on the interpretation of the words “solely produced by the author”. Certainly in NA this would refer to contents, not to technical help in the production of the thesis. – ZeroTheHero Mar 7 at 23:25
1

Many departments have some official description of the educational goals, grading criteria, or similar, for the thesis. Do these educational goals or grading criteria include anything about learning scientific/professional typesetting, or something less specific like “presentation” that could be understood to include typesetting?

(I’ve certainly seen these explicitly named as goals/criteria for courses that had a “mathematical writing” component, which are often a prerequisite for theses. I’ve never seen them explicitly listed for a thesis itself, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a department chose to include them.)

If the goals/criteria don’t mention presentation/typesetting, then I agree with most other answers, outside help on typesetting is fine.

If the goals/criteria do include typesetting or presentation, though, then what you did was possibly problematic. In this case, I would recommend speaking to someone suitable (e.g. your advisor or the dept’s bachelors thesis co-ordinator) for advice; if they think it is problematic, you could offer to e.g. re-typeset the thesis yourself, as make-up work. Since you acted in good faith, I hope they would not react punitively, but they will almost certainly be more sympathetic if you approach them pro-actively and apologetically than if they discover this independently.

If your department doesn’t have a document publicly laying out the goals, criteria, etc, for the thesis, then again, as other answers say, you were quite reasonable to assume that typesetting wasn’t considered part of the content.

| improve this answer | |
  • I admit I do not know of situations where such educational goals would refer to the proficiency in a specific typesetting software like LaTeX. I would think that, if this is required to complete the degree, the program would offer a course on it. Typesetting is a very useful soft skill although some of this is quite intricate, and become proficient to the point of producing a specific technical document might require quite a bit of experience. I for one would be stumped if I had to produce some MSWord document in a strange format. – ZeroTheHero Mar 9 at 13:46
  • @ZeroTheHero: I’d agree, if a program expects typesetting proficiency, they should offer a course covering it (not necessarily a whole dedicated course, but enough to help attain the expected skill level) — and indeed, they often do offer that. Expanding on what I said in the answer: I’ve been TA on a course where producing professionally written and presented mathematics was explicitly in the syllabus, and LaTeX was what we recommended and gave teaching/assistance for. Students could use other software if they preferred, but were expected to aim for LaTeX-equivalent output quality. – PLL Mar 9 at 16:44
0

When you really want to make sure that nobody can claim academic misconduct, add a note to the thesis that you got typesetting help. The reviewers should review the content of the thesis and not the typesetting details and probably do not have any problem with it.

Then nobody can claim you were not honest when you undersigned that you did not use any help that is not mentioned in the thesis.

When you're unsure if you are allowed to get such help, ask your advisor before getting the help.

| improve this answer | |
-1

Is paying someone to fix LaTeX issues in one's thesis ethical?

No, it is not (but you should ask your advisor), but you should mention (in acknowledgements) that you did this.

Another important consideration : if you want to get additional degrees (e.g. a Master's or a PhD thesis) you'll better improve your LaTeX skills. They will be useful later (even in industry).

So pay someone to teach you how to better use LaTeX. You are extremely likely to need LaTeX later, if you stay in technical circles (a big lot of technical conferences prefer LaTeX to Microsoft documents). With oversimplification: LaTeX is useful for a technical career, MicroSoft Word and Excel is useful for management. A big lot of computer science or programming books (e.g. this one) are typeset using LaTeX. Doxygen can generate LaTeX documents (so PDF) from comments inside your source code. Pygments can do something dual.

If you write (later) any kind of computer software running on Linux (and most web servers are running Linux), generating *.tex files (or some \inputed parts of it) is an efficient way to automatically generate PDF printable files (even if there are other solutions, maybe involving Lout or Patoline or LibreOffice or libpdf++ etc).

At last, tex.stackexchange.com is a nice place to get help in LaTeX.

Be also aware of LaTeX to HTML5 converters such as HeVeA. They can be a nice way to write a documentation in LaTeX and have it converted to a set of web pages.

PS. A big mistake of mine was to write my PhD thesis in AI without using LaTeX (in 1990). That was probably the biggest professional mistake of my entire career (ending in a few years by retirement).

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.