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A grad student has offered to hire me to write simulation code of a published paper and they said they need the simulation for their master thesis. Is it considered cheating if I accept the project?

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    It'd be difficult to give an answer without knowing the field and the subject of the master's thesis. I wrote code for people in linguistics grad school to help them automate processes. The point of their research, however, wasn't that such-and-such process can be automated. (For that matter, years afterward I wrote code for my masters students!)
    – adam.baker
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 13:35
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    Are you a grad student or professional academic yourself? I'm inclined to believe for some reason you are an undergrad/out of the school system and therefore perhaps you should consider getting a position at the same lab as this graduate student. It seems like your skills would be valuable there Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 19:00
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    Do you mean is it cheating by you or by the student? Because lots of the answers are about whether it is wrong for the student to do this, but not about whether it is wrong for you to do this (which IMO are two separate questions) Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 22:08
  • Depends on if you produce the results that were paid for. If not, that's fraud, which is illegal. - It'd be difficult to give an answer without knowing if you are grad student or professional academic, or just a professional, and whether you mean is it cheating by you or by the student. If you're not a student or a teacher then no it's not; it's called the free market. If you are either of those, then no one can answer this except the people at your institution.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 0:13

7 Answers 7

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As long as the thesis states who did which things, it's not cheating.

If the thesis says someone else did all the work, it will fail, but it won't be cheating.

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    Not necessarily... The thesis could quite easily be based around developing the theory underlying whatever is being simulated and the simulation is only actually being done to aid in visualisation. The actual writing of the code is probably not that complicated for a software engineer, and the software engineer doesn't necessarily need to understand the underlying theory, just implement the algorithm. I don't think it's necessary for a researcher to have actually implemented it themselves, as long as they don't claim that they have. Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 12:32
  • It wouldn't say "someone else did all the work", but "someone else created the simulator". Let's say your thesis is about a rare phenomenon. You could use a simulator to check thousand cases quickly and cheaply and let it tell you five cases where it thinks that rare phenomenon is most likely to happen. The real work getting the thesis is examining these five cases for real, not with a simulation.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 13:05
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Not necessarily, though it might be on their part and it might not be wise to do it in such a case.

I suggest that you ask for a three way conversation with the student and their advisor to clarify.

The software might not be an important component of their intellectual contribution to the thesis, or it could be.

Ask for that conversation. If the student refuses to do it, you have a strong indicator that they aren't being honest.

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    Another indicator is who is paying: If it is the student, that is a red flag. If the money comes from the chair/department/university, it looks not suspicious.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 7:00
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    I like this - it's a simple way to resolve it. It's also a thing that research labs do sometimes farm out, and something I wish they'd farm out more, as many of them are bad at this whole code writing thing.
    – lupe
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 9:00
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    @lupe I suspect that we're even worse at writing clean specs than clean code! I've had to do both. We also have to keep evolving our code after the funding runs out
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 13:35
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    +1 A PhD is essentially an apprenticeship in research in that field. To pass, you need to demonstrate you have gained the research skills to work successfully as a researcher in that field. If writing simulation code is one of those skills, then getting someone else to do it for you is an admission that you are not able to work independently on that topic and don't deserve the qualification. Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 14:11
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    That conversation doesn't need to be adversarial: it is absolutely appropriate to understand the context your software will be used in, and how customers might hope to extend it. Here, that very reasonably means understanding how the software will be used, and also how this research fits into the lab's larger efforts. In an academic context it's also worth discussing whether the software itself will have anything novel enough to publish or present separately from the main thesis.
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 18:01
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You do not say what field your "client" grad student is in.

In physical science fields it's normal for the grad student to do models, simulations, etc, themselves - though the extent of the help they get from others (typically in their Academic Computing Support service) depends on the nature of the project and the degree of coding skill by the grad student.

If I was you I'd:

  1. Meet the grad student and their supervisor to discuss the work and ensure that nothing is being done by you that - academically - ought to be done by either the grad student or by staff in the ACS unit.

  2. If the extent of the work goes beyond what a grad student in that research field could reasonably be expected to do, or if the ACS cannot/will not provide adequate help, then remuneration to you is in order. The extent of the payment - either on a task or hourly rate basis - should be outlined at your meeting with the grad student and their supervisor.

I should mention that if you are on the permanent university staff, academic or not, it is generally seen as bad form to seek money for small services to other staff/students. Rather it is usual to have the benefiting department "owe you one" in the future. This promotes goodwill and give-and-take between faculty in different departments which is worth more than money to permanent staff. Naturally, your own department seniors should be aware and approve of your freebies to other departments as it does take your time (which is really at their disposal) and they have to "get something back" from that allocation of your time.

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Without a much better description of the situation it's pretty hard to tell, but as written, but no, providing a computational tool, is not in and of itself cheating. Also, yes, there are ways that the student can write this up in the dissertation that would be cheating.

Let's use a typical piece of lab apparatus as an example. If a student needs a gas chromatograph to analyze samples, and goes out and buys one, I think everyone would agree there's no dishonesty there (so long as the student doesn't claim to have built the chromatograph).

In this case, the student is asking the simulation a question. If the student says "I specced out a simulation and it was constructed to that spec by person X", citing the code builder, there would be nothing dishonest about that. If the student says "I built a simulation and used it", that would be clearly dishonest. If the student presented it a little more wishy-washily, so it wasn't perfectly clear that the simulation was created by another, that's a bit more of a gray area, but most would say without proper citation that would be cheating.

Now, if the sim were absolutely central to the student's work, and not just a side gig, then it's a bit more serious, even with proper citation. The coder may well deserve authorship, and the student's supervisor and exam committee may well question whether the student made an adequate contribution to merit a degree. Note that these issues are not cheating per se, but it may be a reason why the student one of these issues is necessarily cheating, but might provide motivation to hide or obfuscate the provenance of the code, which would be cheating.

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    to extend the analogy to the last paragraph: if the student's paper is "a new method for the manufacture of gas chromatographs" and the student goes and buys a gas chromatograph - even one constructed with the new method - they haven't really done anything. (They could change their thesis to "evaluating the accuracy of two different kinds of gas chromatographs" and then it would be okay, but maybe not so interesting to research, depending on what their supervisor wants them to research) Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 16:51
  • Obviously work that someone else created would not contribute to the grade.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 0:30
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The thesis should clearly state that you wrote this software. So when the thesis is judged, your software will contribute zero to the grade. As long as the grad student does this properly, they are not cheating. If they gave you instructions how to write the software they can add those instructions to the thesis, because they wrote those instructions.

Are you cheating? If the grad student is cheating and you knew or suspected it, then you would have contributed to cheating. If you are a student yourself that might be a problem.

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Undergraduates and graduates have a toxic behavior of having such assumptions of cheating behavior regarding moral (godly) judgment. As long as things are consensual, you can pay anyone to do anything to you. Another question is if the content is highly valued intellectually and financially, which makes rather the question a further issue related to publishment and credit sharing in future profits. I helped my colleagues in college to do their essays for free. :-)

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  • I guess, your position is laissez-faire capitalism taken to the extreme. Do you think it is ethical or legal to hire a contract killer as long as you and the killer agree on the price? A bit less extreme: Do you consider it ethical to hire somebody to write your entire dissertation, as long as you and the writer agree on the price? Etc... Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 1:48
  • There must be a law or rule somewhere, but it is not written in stone, as we say in Portuguese. Yes, the extreme cases are oftentimes the first-thought counter-examples, but they must not be.
    – Bruno Lobo
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 1:55
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Yes it is cheating if the student did not do the work itself than the student is cheating. An dyou are an acompliance to it.

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    Yeah, this isn't correct, particularly at a grad student level - cheating would be you writing the software, and them passing it off as their work in a part of their thesis. You're expected to collaborate, but not to plagarise
    – lupe
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 22:30
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    It happens frequently that I write a prototype program in MATLAB/Python/R, and then I ask someone else to convert my program into a C program for higher efficiency. That's not cheating as long as I properly acknowledge their help.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 0:57
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    Is it cheating to use numpy? That is doing numerical computations using code that others have written. Shouldn't an honest grad student implement their own numerical routines in C or Fortran or even assembly language? Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 14:12
  • @JohnColeman Even assembly language is relying on someone else's language design and a third person's chip implementation. Etc.
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 13:53
  • @JohnColeman The cheating aspect largely depends on who they end up claiming did what. The citation of code has also been increasing. In my publications we cite each R package used and the version, likewise the version of R, and the names and versions of all other major software used. Admittedly, some extremely common software seems to escape citation (e.g. the C++ standard library). I suspect that publishing a preferred citation method for such software (like CRAN has for R and R packages) will greatly increase citation frequency. I should maybe see if there is a recommended way...
    – ttbek
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 17:25

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