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I'm relatively close to someone who is currently attending an Ivy League graduate program. He believes he has it all made in life and yet here he is paying one of my friends to do his coding assignments and projects.

It is an online program, so it makes getting away with this even easier. This situation only benefits both of them, but it's just bothering me. I just hate the idea of someone bragging about being in an Ivy League graduate just to pay someone else to do his work. Should I just drop it or report the student?

In response to questions: no, I am not a student myself.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 27 at 15:01
  • How are you going to prove it? How is the university going to prove it? Is this just a Coursera course? Does anyone (including employers) actually care about that online course / degree? I can tell you that when reviewing CVs, I immediately ignore any kind of "online courses"; I see them as showing interest and drive in that area, but I wouldn't weight them in as proper certification / education (like a physical Ivy League degree entails). I find it very odd when people fill their "Education" section full of supposedly Ivy League courses that end up just being Coursera in the end... – devoured elysium Mar 29 at 11:09
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What would I do? I would report them both, anonymously.

What is my rationale for this? Mainly because it is not a "victimless crime":

  1. There are plenty of employers who weight the reputation of a university very highly (perhaps too highly) in hiring processes. A more-deserving and capable candidate might not be given an interview or an offer as a result of this person having cheated.

  2. To the extent that any university's reputation is well-deserved, this is founded upon other people's judgements of its integrity. i.e. that the degree means something. If that impression of integrity is eroded by unqualified people receiving degrees, that hurts the employment chances of everyone with a degree from the same school.

I feel these two points are basically just statistical. Given enough incidents of cheating either or both seems to be a likely consequence.

Somewhat more subjective reasons:

  1. Bad outcomes are possible when an unqualified person is granted responsibility. Crashed airplanes? Deadly medical devices? Losing money for their stakeholders? Maybe the odds of great harm are small. And perhaps such a person has no actual interest in taking a job like that. But I don't think this can be totally ignored.

  2. More broadly, what other harm are these people likely to cause in life? Chances are that this is not at all their first case of untrustworthy behavior and won't be their last -- as long as they perceive it to be in their interest to act this way. On the other hand they may be early enough in life that a "shock to the system" from being caught could actually be helpful. Or at least a deterrent.


Why an anonymous report? I think this is pretty obvious, but I would not want to take any personal risk (in any sense) from this. People can be petty, angry, etc., and I see no reason to expose myself as any kind of 'target' of those emotions.

On the other hand you might have to trust the institution to protect your identity, it depends on how you can make a report.

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    A more basic issue with anonymity is whether the friend could guess who reported him. – Kimball Mar 26 at 20:01
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    @Kimball this is a good point. And the OP has to decide if its worth the risk. Whatever evidence they have of cheating (if any) also might be attributable only to them or a small # of people, even if the basic accusation itself would not. I haven't looked but there might be good questions on here about HOW to go about reporting such a thing – UuDdLrLrSs Mar 26 at 20:03
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    One small issue is I do not know who else knows. I could possibly be pinpointed quite easily and unfortunately this could cause drama as we are all stuck at our location due to military. I share your point of views and I know that this student will continue to do this in the future. He is the type of person who only show any form of respect to you if he has something to gain from the relationship. – youravgguy Mar 27 at 5:48
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    @youravgguy Maybe you could have a preliminary communication with your university without naming anyone or even mentioning an academic dept. Share your concerns all around and see if their guidance is helpful. (Don't be pressured by them however). While this is probably a first for you, it presumably is not for them. And/or, a confidential discussion with a faculty member you trust, perhaps your own adviser. – UuDdLrLrSs Mar 27 at 11:59
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    You're missing an important point here (which supports your case): if they investigate one specific instance of cheating or put measures in place to make similar cheating more difficult, they may uncover or prevent many other cases of cheating. Your 1 report could very well by itself put a huge dent into the number of cases of cheating. – NotThatGuy Mar 29 at 14:26
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Just my personal view. I think you can do that if it makes you happy, but... it reminds me of an old joke: "I cheated on a train line -- I got a ticket, but didn't ride". Your friend is basically paying for education he doesn't receive. Will it do him any good? If no, he'll just punish himself by paying for nothing; if yes, then something is wrong on a somewhat deeper level of society, I am afraid.

As a teacher, I am trying to identify and punish cheaters, because it's my job, and it keeps our educational environment healthy. But when I think what motivates people to cheat, I cannot find a good answer at my or other students' level of responsibility (okay, it is possible that a certain course is poorly designed, but usually it isn't the case).

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    The motivation is presumably the degree. Even if you don't actually learn the material, having a degree can give you an advantage against other job candidates. I guess that's the societal problem you allude to. – Barmar Mar 26 at 17:30
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    If no, he’ll just punish himself by paying for nothing”. Well, no, he’ll also punish the future employers who hire him, future subordinates working under an incompetent boss, future honest people competing with him for jobs and social status, etc. This mindset of “you’re only cheating yourself” sounds very philosophical and deep, and may be useful as a simplistic lesson to teach to immature twelve years old, but unfortunately — and I sincerely wish it weren’t so — it’s factually wrong. – Dan Romik Mar 26 at 18:57
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Mar 31 at 4:19
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Considering you asked this in Academia, and Academia is all about objectivity, integrity, trustworthiness and reputation: report them.

However, considering you used the phrase

it's just bothering me

I would like to give an answer as if you had asked in Interpersonal Skills:

I would talk to the one you consider a friend (or both of them). Tell them how you feel about this topic and make the moral implications clear. Explain to your friend how this is beneficial to them money-wise, but hurting their reputation and their relationship e.g. with you. Ask them to stop. If you already had this discussion or it goes badly, you should probably reconsider the term 'friend' for your relationship. Doing nothing or pretending this is ok will likely hurt your relationship anyways, at least unconsciously. Depending on your relationship with your friend you can also consider informing them about being on the brink to reporting the actual cheater (or both of them) and you may give an ultimatum.

If you are friends, this will likely resolve the issue without further escalation. Even if not, you'll better understand the relationship you have with them, and this will likely make it easier to report them.

However, keep in mind that you cannot report them anonymously afterwards. We cannot estimate the chance of success or their potential level of aggressiveness without knowing them personally.

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    Bear in mind that challenging one's personal projects/views, even among friends, can be dangerous though. Expect backfire, especially if the other person is under the impression you want to shape them into the way you want them to be. – Clockwork Mar 27 at 14:25
  • I like this answer. But note that if you tell your friend that you think what they're doing is terrible, and then anonymously report it, they're more likely to guess it was you who made the report. – Ben Millwood Mar 29 at 6:42
  • @Ben Millwood: I tried to highlight this problem with my approach in the last paragraph. However, I didn't suggest to report them anonymously in the first place. – fruchti Mar 29 at 13:39
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This is a moral question and each person has their own morals. It seems like you have already decided what you want to do and ask for validation but you need to decide that for yourself and live with the consequences.

I suggest to think about whether "it is bothering you" is enough of a reason for you to report someone or if there are other facets to the issue. Is the life or health of someone in danger if the cheater gets the grade but doesn't earn it? Is the cheater in danger of failing the course or is it just laziness? Would the cheater be deported back to a war-torn country if they drop?

However there may be more options to consider than just the two you listed (report or ignore). You could also talk to them.

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  • Very true. The government is paying for this expensive program. – youravgguy Mar 27 at 6:01
  • I'd up vote this, except your definition of "morals" is wrong. Morals are defined by a community or civilization. Each person might have slight tweaks to them, but they still have to conform to the norm. Cheating on a test or class is not a "tweak" nor the moral norm. Letting others cheat should not be the moral norm. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/moral – computercarguy Mar 30 at 15:50
  • @computercarguy: I looked up the link you gave me but as far as I interpret it, it is consistent with my usage of the word:"Morals often describes one's particular values concerning what is right and what is wrong: It would go against my morals to help you cheat on the test. " However what you mean is described as "ethics" there: "In addition, morals usually connotes an element of subjective preference, while ethics tends to suggest aspects of universal fairness and the question of whether or not an action is responsible: [...]" – Konrad Höffner Apr 4 at 15:18
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I personally don't like the idea of people cheating like this in an academic setting, but reporting them is a very serious undertaking with a potential to damage lives and should be considered carefully. I suggest that you proceed through this sequence of questions to help determine if you should report them or not:

1) Is the person who is helping really your friend? If so, don’t report them out of loyalty to your friend. Most likely you only know about this because your friend told you, or the other person told you because he knows that you are a friend of the person who is helping him cheat. I feel that your loyalty to your friend is a higher obligation than reporting them. Of course, it’s OK to talk with your friend and tell your friend that you disapprove, or possibly even break off the friendship if you disapprove of this behavior strongly enough. Obviously if your friend was involved in a more serious crime then your duty to your friend would not necessarily be your highest obligation.

2) On a spectrum of “bad things” this is fairly minor. Have you ever done anything that is this bad or worse than this? Would you have wanted to have someone report you for that behavior and face the consequences? You are in a position to help guide both of these people to a better path of behavior and you can potentially do so without reporting them.

3) Do either of these people know anything about you that could put you in a bad light if it was revealed? You should consider that they will probably know that you were the one that reported you and if they know something bad about you, they might reveal that information after they figure out that you were the one who reported them. Although this might seem like item two above, it is not. Item two was concerned about your behavior, regardless of if anyone knew about it or not. This is concerned with protecting yourself from harm by one of the people that you report.

4) Are you in academia? If so, you would probably feel a higher obligation to report it and that would be understandable.

5) Why do you want to report them? You said “I just hate the idea of someone bragging about being in an Ivy League graduate just to pay someone else to do his work.” That sounds like you are resentful that this person is going to get an Ivy League degree. Did you want to get an Ivy League degree and you were unable to for some reason? If not, what is your reason for wanting to report them?

6) What do you want to accomplish by reporting them? Is it just to satisfy a moral duty that you feel that you should report them, or are you wanting to see the person removed from the program or some other punishment?

After having been out of school for a long time, I have adopted the philosophy that the real world is an open book test. For most things in life, it doesn’t matter if you know how to do things, or you know how to get things done (by yourself or others), as long as you can produce the results in the end. This person could end up being a dismal failure, or he could end up running a company one day. In the real world, knowing how to get a good or great result is what matters. Also, a person who bends the rules like this might be more likely to bend the rules in the future about more important things, but there’s no way to know if that will happen or not. I don’t like the idea of people cheating in a program like this because it is an academic setting, and the rules there are different than the rules in the real world, but I don’t see that this situation rises to the level that you should report it.

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    Thank you for your response. I am currently in school as well but have no desire to go to any Ivy league. I used to be very close to this person but as i've gotten to know them deeper over time, I have come to dislike many of their traits. He has an faux image of being wealthy he tries to maintain to trick people into thinking he knows the markets and knows how to trade. He gives poor financial advise to people but they listen because the average person seems to trust someone with his image. He is now using money of those around us as he has convinced them of his successful trading career. – youravgguy Mar 30 at 0:11
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If the university is willing to give someone a diploma for someone else's work, then it reflects badly on the university. They should design their programs (in particular online programs) to make this harder: for instance, have live interviews with participants and ask them questions about the work that they have supposedly done, and catch those who can't answer.

But I would not say that you have a moral duty to report this. You are not in charge of defending this university's reputation. (No matter the university, actually -- would this be somehow OK if it were a less reputable one?) I guess you could, if you wish, and if you don't fear negative consequences (e.g., your acquaintance figuring out it's you), but I wouldn't blame you for not doing it.

To answer @UuDdLrLrSs's points to argue that this should be reported:

  1. If employers value degrees too highly, and don't test that candidates are able to perform the work that they're in charge of doing, then I'd say it's their responsibility.

  2. If the university's reputation suffers, it's the job of the university to defend it, and people with an interest at stake (e.g., alumni) can pressure the university to do it.

  3. I think it's the same as 1. I could imagine exceptions for some areas, e.g., medicine, when you have jobs with high responsibilities which can legally only be practiced with people having a certain degree (and with legal oversight on which institutions can grant these degrees). Then I would see a clearer moral imperative of defending the value of such a degree.

  4. In general could see a moral imperative of denouncing criminals that do harm, even when you're not the victim. But when the crime is made possible by the victim's negligence (here, the university not making sufficient efforts to catch cheaters), I think the imperative disappears.

To summarize: it's a broken system if a university must rely on bystanders to report cheaters. If they grant degrees with online programs, they should make the necessary efforts to ensure that the person who's getting the degree is the person who's been doing the work.

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    I sort of fell it is everyone's responsibility to stand up for the system (if not improve it) not out of moral reasons but because we all rely on it. I don't disagree about a university potentially being negligent, but I also think societal good behavior pretty much has to be cooperative as well. – UuDdLrLrSs Mar 28 at 11:25
  • I understand the point and I even agree to some extent, but I don't care too much about the system I think. If it turns out that someone from famous university X is actually a fraud, I won't shed a tear for the system :) I'll just update my perception of the reputation of university X in the future. – a3nm Mar 28 at 20:44
  • I may be wrong, but I'd assume that no one gives any credibility to purely online programs. One thing is having online classes and another completely different thing is being evaluated online. I don't think I would weigh in any more value to an online Ivy league certificate than I do to the typical Coursera certificate -- next to nil. – devoured elysium Mar 29 at 11:05
  • "it's a broken system if a university must rely on bystanders to report cheaters." Agreed. It's a good thing if this university's reputation suffers. Their lax policies greatly empower cheaters and people with no moral scruples. The colleges takes the tuition money (often from the gov't), conveniently ignores cheating, easily graduate these clowns, and washes its hands. But as more of these substandard students receive degrees, employers will slowly start to get the message -- which in turn, will force colleges too as well. – user64141 Mar 30 at 2:49
  • I disagree completely with the idea of not "rel[ing] on bystanders". This is how most crimes are reported as well as solved. When the police are called, they look for witnesses, and it's become a TV trope about how no one is willing to say anything, so the crime goes unsolved and unpunished. Even Homeland Security has the saying "If you see something, say something." Reporting a crime, or even breaking the rules at a school, is essential to keeping our society working without massive crime and stupidity. So, no, don't hold your friend's beer while they do something stupid, talk them out of it. – computercarguy Mar 30 at 15:58
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The school isn't going to be able to prove anything and is not going to make any effort to investigate. There will be no consequences for your friend. If you want to report him go ahead but you'll probably be the only one negatively affected by it.

EDIT: Aight, so I'm just gonna lay this out cause some of the comments that are here are wildly unrealistic.

1) It is unethical to take anonymous accusations about your students. Whistleblowing is protected when the target of the complaint is powerful and can retaliate. Allowing anonymous character assassination of people with no resources to fight back is not some sort of noble gesture, it's abusive. Once you open this door you can't close it.

2) This is an accusation which is essentially impossible to disprove. If I want to pursue it, I need hard evidence. I am not going to grill someone without being sure that they've been cheating; incorrectly accusing students of misconduct is deeply damaging to the student, and quite frankly to you as a professor. I can be sure people who have plagiarized have cheated.

3) I would chose not to protect your identity if you weren't also a student. If you are also a student, the university's misconduct system will not protect your identity if this gets escalated. Either way the person will find out who you are (as is appropriate; there is a reason you get to face your accusers).

4) There is no investigative system for misconduct that doesn't start with the professor. Most professors will be familiar with all these things that I've laid out here and will take no action.

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    If the institution's reputation is on the line, don't you think they could mobilise the resources to find proof? – Peter Mortensen Mar 26 at 19:22
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    @PeterMortensen : if it was an accusation of plagiarism, it would be trivial to find proof. But in this case, what evidence can be found besides the OP's hearsay? – vsz Mar 26 at 20:00
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    @PeterMortensen there's kinda a global pandemic going on, people have bigger fish to fry – eps Mar 26 at 20:14
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    How do you know this? Justify your post. – curiousdannii Mar 27 at 2:43
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    I think there is a valuable perspective here -- there is a good chance that the university does little/no investigation even if OP does report this. I would suggest editing this answer to add more justification -- why do you think the school is unlikely to investigate? Another part of the question is whether OP has a duty to report this regardless of the school's likely response. Finally, I think you should should use the phrase "unlikely to investigate" rather than "will not investigate." We cannot say for certain what the school will do or will not do; we don't even know what school it is. – cag51 Mar 28 at 20:08

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