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Some years ago, I was stiffed for $100, but I let it go and took steps in my business model to be sure it never happened again. However, my colleague, is being stiffed for $600, an amount that is pretty painful to ignore.

Situation

  1. The university provides a list of approved editors to students. (The editors are not university employees.)
  2. Student pays deposit for editing their doctoral proposal.
  3. When invoiced for the balance, student ignores the editor. They will not respond to texts, emails, or phone calls.
  4. Student is still in the doctoral process.
  5. Student is also a prof at a different university.

Is any part or parts of what has happened an ethics violation that can be reported? If yes, to who (the chair? DSEM? student's advisor? Other?)

Clarifications

Editing Context

This is a response to questions from viewers of this post who might find it helpful to have more context. Please take note this is in a U.S. context.

  • DSEM = Dissertation Scholarship Editorial Manager. This person approves the readiness of a study for the next step at different stages (i.e., ready to write the proposal, ready to defend the proposal, ready to defend the final, ready for dean's review).

  • At the start of their writing, all students are advised to plan for an editor because in the end, all final doctorals must be submitted to DSEM with an editor's signed certificate of compliance with APA and university standards.

  • Some students take this immediately to heart, starting with the doctoral justification. Others do nothing until either the chair or DSEM insists on it.

  • Chairs who take their role seriously will know early on which students need immediate editor help to ensure that DSEM approves the work at every stage. Other chairs will "pass the buck" and let DSEM reject the manuscript over and over.

  • Although students do not need to use an editor from the approved list, it's high risk because students do not know what they do not know about the expected standards or process and therefore how to vet an editor's qualifications.

  • In addition to proofreading and copyediting for APA standards and university Handbook standards, it is very typical to provide coaching on how to synthesize, "connect the dots" within and across chapters, write transitions, and more.

  • On occasion, the university does contract directly with an approved editor on a student's behalf. This is not the case in this situation.

Debtor's Academic Experience and Credentials

To the degree that a LinkedIn profile can be trusted, the debtor claims to be a

  • graduate with a PsyD in Industrial Organization at the same university related to this post;
  • current adjunct instructor at a different university and a technical college, and an adjunct professor at a community college;
  • past dean of academics at a business school; and a
  • past faculty program advisor at a different university where they provided subject-matter expertise in "... global financial markets, legal environments, ethics, ... ."
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    Where is this? Usually people aren't profs without doctoral degrees. Why is someone needing to edit it? Is it a scientific or copy-editing service? Feb 16, 2023 at 23:00
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    @RJo I would call that quite unusual. It's usual for someone to teach while a grad student, but that's not a "prof." Second doctoral degrees are also exceedingly rare. Feb 17, 2023 at 1:38
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    What field is this? This setup is strange for me. Feb 17, 2023 at 1:39
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    Also, what's DSEM? Feb 17, 2023 at 1:39
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    Maybe they should be described as a "teacher" rather than as a "prof"? I mean, their institution might assign them whatever job-title they'd care to, but use of that job-title in a general-context might be misleading.
    – Nat
    Feb 17, 2023 at 4:45

5 Answers 5

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I'm responding as a dissertation and faculty editor with various types of relationships with universities (approved editor, designated editor, and on the payroll).

First, this is not merely a case of ethics: theft of services is a crime and your friend could simply report it to the police, which would undoubtedly get the debtor's attention. In fact, a simple letter stating that intention might be enough to get the bill paid.

The ethics involved here are more general rather than pertaining specifically to academia. Along the lines of "If you see something, say something." If your friend does not report the debtor to the university, that sends him the message that he can get away with theft. Assuming that the debtor is willfully refusing to pay his bill (and not, say, incapacitated), he has a character flaw that is likely to be repeated in future contexts. Any current or future employer would not be well served by employing him. In that sense, it's a service to the university and society to report him.

I agree with Graham that the editor who is a victim of theft would be justified in reporting the incident to the student's department, especially since the university maintains a list of approved editors. The editor does have in some sense a relationship with the university despite not being on the payroll. It's in the university's interest to stop incidents like this to keep this DSEM system moving smoothly. Otherwise this debtor could very well cheat his next editor.

Holding the debtor accountable is the right thing to do morally, and anyone who is aware of the situation should exert whatever influence they have to correct it. I see no reason why the student's advisor could not have an informal conversation with him about the bill.

I would try the following solutions, in this order:

(1) Letter to the student stating the intention to take action to collect the bill. (2) Speak with the student's advisor. (3) Letter to the department chair. (4) Report it to the police.

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  • I have accepted Eggy's answer because IMO it illuminated the nuances in the original question, other answers, and comments, and was supported by the context of Eggy's background. ~ This was a hard call. ~ I think the topic will remain popular, and I invite StackExchange Academia posters to keep weighing in.
    – RJo
    Mar 3, 2023 at 3:55
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Whilst there are certainly ethical issues around paying debts, the ethics processes in universities are not really there as a mechanism for adjudicating ordinary commercial disputes like unpaid invoices. A claim for an unpaid invoice can be pursued in the small claims court in your jurisdiction and that is the appropriate forum for it. Sometimes invoices are unpaid because there is a dispute about the delivery of the service pertaining to the invoice, and these are the types of issues that are resolved in small claims court. It is unlikely that a university would want to wade into the details of a dispute over service provision and payment, and so it is unlikely that the university would consider this issue to fall within the scope of its ethics policy.

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Never

Failing to pay one's personal debts may be immoral or illegal, or even a violation of personal or business ethics, but it has nothing to do with academic ethics - even if the debt is for academic-related services. And any other kind of ethics is outside the scope of this site.

Academic ethics might be relevant to the question of whether it's ethical to use a third-party editor for academic work, but I don't see it as having anything to do with the financial side of such an arrangement.

If your colleague tries to "report" this person to the student's advisor, employer, or any official at either university, I would expect them to say: "That is a matter between you and X, it has nothing to do with me or the university. Goodbye."

(The other alternative, if they have a strict interpretation of FERPA, would be: "I can neither confirm nor deny that there is any student named X affiliated with this university. Goodbye.")

Actually, in some jurisdictions it is illegal for a creditor to reveal the existence of a debt to any third party for purposes of collecting it. So your colleague must tread very carefully.

By analogy, look at what happens when a student owes money to the university itself (overdue tuition, library fines, what have you): the university might withhold any further educational services (by preventing the student from taking classes), but I have never heard of them invoking any kind of academic ethics procedure. If they don't do it for money owed directly to them, they surely wouldn't do it for money owed to an unrelated third party.

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    Hmmm. There is ethics beyond a very narrow view of "academic ethics".
    – Buffy
    Feb 17, 2023 at 0:19
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    @Buffy: Sure, but I believe it's also beyond the scope of this site. Feb 17, 2023 at 0:26
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    To Nate - Yes, I struggled before posting this query because it seemed a gray area. I am finding the responses helpful and am very appreciative of those who have weighed in. I hope they are also find the query helpful for their own academic purposes.
    – RJo
    Feb 17, 2023 at 0:57
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    @DikranMarsupial: If I'm writing the reference in my capacity as a professor, then I would only report instances of unethical behavior that had been adjudicated as such by the university (assuming that institutional policy allows me to report them at all). I certainly would not report uncorroborated accusations from an unknown third party. Feb 18, 2023 at 19:36
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    @DikranMarsupial: Straying into general ethics, I think failure to pay a debt is unethical only if the borrower incurred the debt with the prior intention to never pay it; or if they accept that the debt is valid, and have the means to pay, but do not. In this case, I have no knowledge of the student's state of mind on entering the bargain; nor whether the validity of the debt is in dispute; nor what the student's financial means may or may not be. Feb 18, 2023 at 19:39
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It may not be directly actionable by the university. However if the student is failing to respond, it is perfectly justifiable to directly contact their advisor at the university they're a student at, their departmental head at the university they're a student at, and their departmental head at the university they're a faculty member at. Phrase it as "I'm very sorry, but I can't get hold of them and perhaps they've moved house and you're the only other contact point I can think of" or something like that, which makes it all sound reasonable and polite. But be very clear that you're trying to contact them because they owe you money for work on their course and they haven't responded to you.

As a faculty member, it also becomes easier to visit their actual university to demand payment in person.

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At any point when the student attests to the school that the unpaid work is their own

This answer has come to me after considering the answers and the comments from other posters, as well as my understanding that students must attest to the work being their own.

Here is my line of thinking on when failing to pay the editor (or a fact checker or anyone else who was hired to help the student) crosses the line from a contract dispute to an ethics violation.

  1. The editor has provided services that the student accepts (in essences, approves).

  2. However, the student cannot attest to "owning" the effort until the service has been paid for.

  3. To attest that all of the work is theirs is true only when they have, indeed, paid for all of the work. If they have not paid for the work, then they cannot ethically claim ownership of the entire work.

Depending on the institution, the student may not be asked to attest to the "their" work until they pass their final oral defense. In others, they might be attesting to "their work" at several major gates in the process.

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