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I am taking Complex Analysis for a master's degree in Pure Mathematics. The grade is:

  1. Three written evaluations.

  2. Questions the teacher asks that must be submitted every week.

The teacher's questions serve as supplementary notes. They are difficult for me, as I don't have a good Analysis base. So far I haven't been able to solve this week's question. I have to submit it next Monday. Am I lacking in ethics if I look for a solution on the internet, study that solution and deliver it?

If it were an undergraduate degree I would even understand, but now in the Master's degree I feel like I'm lacking in ethics. How am I going to become a mathematician by acting this way?

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    Are you allowed to discuss with your fellow students? When we studied, joint discussions were permitted, but it may differ. Mar 30 at 14:38
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    As for ethics, I suggest a reframing: if you look up all answers on the internet and find them there, who deserves the Grade A? You or the sources? Assume you are hired on the basis that you got an A in this module, would you get the salary of someone who knows how to google stuff on the internet or that of someone who can solve the problems on their own? Finally, why do you study Pure Mathematics? So that you learn how to do things yourself or so that you learn how to find solutions online? These are the questions that you could ask yourself. Mar 30 at 14:41
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    Are you allowed to list & cite sources with your answers? Mar 30 at 17:49
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    You need to ask the instructor. Mar 31 at 1:47
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    Is it unethical? Yes. Should you do it? No. Is it that big a deal if you search for the solution to one hw assignment on one course off the internet? Realistically, no, not really. But your post makes me worried that you're heading for a whole semester of doing this unless you solve the underlying problem: "[the hw is] difficult for me, as I don't have a good Analysis base." Instead of hand-wringing over copying a single assignment off the internet (not great, but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things), the real question is, how are you going to deal with the above problem? Mar 31 at 1:47

2 Answers 2

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If you search the internet or books or other places for understanding, then there is no ethical issue. The course actually sounds like it might require that.

To be a mathematician, you need to develop insight. Insight for many comes from working out a lot of problems. It won't come, for most, by reading a lot of solutions.

If you search for answers, rather than understanding, or submit the answers of others, it is an ethical issue in two ways. The first is probably obvious, but the second is that you are cheating yourself out of an education. Instructors don't ask questions to get answers (other than research questions, of course) since they can provide their own answers. They ask questions to initiate a learning process.


As a side note, I found that insight into Complex Analysis was quite different from Real Analysis. I don't know if that is a general perception or not.

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  • Great answer as usual :) I suggest adding: the OP should ask their instructor for confirmation that this matches the instructor's understanding; if so, they should also ask the instructor if they should acknowledge their sources. For that matter, they should also check with their instructor about discussing problems with the other students. (I acknowledge that all these ideas appeared in others' comments/answers on this post) Mar 31 at 9:21
  • Better to talk with the teacher about how to develop more skills in this area than to pretend they have no issue (which won't help at all when they have the written evaluations). In general, teachers also need to know what areas people are having trouble with in case they need to modify their approach to teaching or allocate more time for a particular subject. Teachers cannot find this out if people pretend they have no problems. Mar 31 at 11:22
  • I also found insight into Complex Analysis to be very different from Real Analysis. But then I transferred from the masters in mathematics program I was in to law school near the end and I never claimed to actually be any good at mathematics. ;) Mar 31 at 16:21
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There is an easy fix to ensure that you are acting ethically here:

Acknowledge the source.

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    Eh I don't know about this. There are situations where it'd be unethical to use an outside source at all, e.g. a closed-book exam, and in those cases acknowledging the source you used doesn't make everything okay. I don't think we really know if the OP's situation is one of those. (Though it probably does make sense that being open about what you're doing puts a "cap", loosely speaking, on how unethical it can be.)
    – David Z
    Mar 31 at 4:15
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    So it's ethical to cheat if I write "I acknowledge the person sitting next to me in this exam for questions 1 to 3"?
    – DonQuiKong
    Mar 31 at 9:49
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    @DonQuiKong I would say it is ethical because you are not deceiving anyone. Of course, the grade should be zero points because you did not demonstrate your own knowledge, but I would not see grounds for much more punishment beyond that. There is no dishonesty involved.
    – wimi
    Apr 1 at 11:51
  • @wimi in that case "ethical" and "the result OP wants to and should achieve" are probably not the same, the latter being more that just acting ethically.
    – DonQuiKong
    Apr 1 at 12:18
  • @DavidZ My answer pertains to the situation described by the OP, not every possible situation.
    – Arno
    Apr 1 at 12:18

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