My professor of Computer Science has a company (both based in Germany) that promotes an open-source software. Of course the software is free and open-source, but his company generates profits through support, training, etc. and they have a server-version of the software which is commercial and very expensive. The software is very modular, and the area of the software's specialty is growing quickly. So the company needs to implement a lot of modules for it. Each module is a separate algorithm. So what my professor is doing is basically the following:

  • Master students come to him asking for master thesis.

  • He assigns them to build algorithmic modules for the open-source software.

  • The student gets well trained in the software because of that.

  • The professor later offers the student to work in his company since he is now highly proficient in the software.

Of course the student gains substantial knowledge, so there is no problem in that aspect. However,
is it ethical that he is growing his commercial business using his professorship position?


My problem is that I believe he is assigning the thesis topics based on what his company needs, not based on what is good for research. I personally believe that professors are given those chairs to advance research. If they are concerned about money, then there is a place called "industry" to make money. I'm not saying that it's wrong to get money by working in academia, rather, what I'm saying that working in academia means doing everything for the sake of improving academia and research, not for other agendas.

In response to the argument "He didn't force it, so just pick a different advisor". Well my problem is that he is the professor that does the research in the field that I like. Other professors all work on different fields. So I might be interested in working on state of the art research or so in his area, but rather he would offer me a topic suitable for his company, then he says I only have these thesis topics. If I didn't like them because I don't like the area of topics that his company needs, then I would be left without any interesting topics. That would be unfair to me, since all other professors work on different fields. So if his focus wasn't promoting the software of his company, then he might find better topics that promote research and science. This is one of my problems with him.

Masters students fund themselves during their studies in Germany, so we get no funding at all. The problem is that when you do your master project and master thesis in our university, there is no predefined deadline for it. This is because it is assumed that you don't know what you want to do for your thesis. You go to the professor and he gives you a topic to work on. But he never tells you what your contribution is or anything else. So basically you have to do "research" to find contributions, i.e. you need to contribute to the state-of-the-art in this topic somehow. Basically you spend almost 5 months just reading papers to find out finally what you want to do. Now because of this, then you can't put a deadline for the thesis, since you don't know what to do! Once you know what to do, then you go and register your thesis and you then get a 6-month deadline, which you use 2 months to write the thesis and then submit. But you never register until you know what you want to do, otherwise it is very risky because you might fail the thesis defense! I don't want to make this much longer, but because of this procedure then professors are taking advantage of the students. So suppose that you go to this professor, then he will keep you working by saying (this is not enough yet for the thesis, we want to program algorithm X and Y as well). In this case the student is working on building this professor's company modules AND personally funding himself. Of course if the professor never says that this is enough, you will keep working... and working... and spending money on rent and so on...

I'm not doing my thesis at this professor's chair. Actually one of my friends did his thesis there and he finished much faster than me. I personally believe he was given a detailed plan to what to do so that is why he finished faster. He even did his master project there and I think it is the same topic/project. I spent nine months in another chair just for doing my master project, then switched to another chair for doing my thesis. It has been eleven months just working on my thesis and will soon finish the writing portion. So it took me almost two years just for working on my project and thesis and I didn't include the time for courses! Actually one of my friends because of this problem finished his masters in almost four years! I personally feel that I completed a PhD program not a masters! I actually can think about original research contributions because of the way I did my masters, but I doubt the students who do their thesis/projects at that professors will learn the same research mentality that I have now. But at the same time, it is good that they finished earlier than I did, because I'm from a poor country and I have been funding myself the entire time in a very expensive city. Sometimes I regret doing this master, because it really drained me. Every time I meet people and tell them that it is taking me this long to finish my master, I get very embarrassed. I also fear that because of taking this long, my chances will be lower when trying to find a job, because they will see that it took me so much time to finish the masters program. They will never understand that the system in our university for the masters is somehow different from others! So I probably think that doing a thesis at that professor's chair is a good idea to at least escape the misery that I went through!

  • 22
    Are the students funded? Where does the money come from? If he's funding students from business profits, then that's great. And/or if the students know about the business before starting, that's also fine. If the answer to both of those is negative, then... mutter mutter grumble grumble.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 16:40
  • 17
    If: 1) the software done by the students is open-source. 2) students don't need to maintain legacy code they didn't make, they work on separate modules (possibly using but not maintaining or modifying legacy code) then I'd be happy to work there. And additionally there are career opportunities in an "area of speciality that is growing quickly". Yes, the area in the intersection university ∩ bussiness is grey as the intersection student ∩ employee, however, this is in the light-grey area, very light, I'd be happy.
    – Trylks
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 18:21
  • 6
    For comparison. I'm working in a project, several partners, including universities and companies. A company has all the rights on the software (not open source) that is developed in the project (written by any partner) and a non-aggression contract with the partners. The project is funded by the EU.
    – Trylks
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 18:24
  • 56
    I would recommend that you remove "p.s. i don't respect him anymore because of this behavior." When you ask for someone's opinion, you'll get more valuable results if you don't telegraph what you want the answer to be. Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 22:08
  • 16
    The ethical concern I would have, which no answers have addressed yet, is the conflict of interest in the choice of thesis topic. Is the professor suggesting a particular topic because it's of academic interest, a worthwhile experience, and a good fit for the student's abilities? Or does he suggest it simply because it's a problem his company needs solved? How is the student to know? (There are counter-arguments: even on academic topics it's certainly possible for a professor to recommend a thesis topic mainly because it advances her own academic research.) Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 1:29

14 Answers 14


Contradictory to the other posters here, I fully understand OP's ethical concerns. Although I'm all in favor of commercialization of research output, I witnessed the same behavior in my previous university and I'm not comfortable about it.

Although the difference between the study systems in Germany and the Anglo-Saxon countries have been discussed many times on this site, it's important to note that the Master degree in Germany is the 'undergraduate' degree, that students pay almost no tuition but are expected to fund their expenses by themselves (they rarely if ever get a stipend). Professors positions and laboratories are typically state-funded, that is with taxpayer money.

What bothers me most in OP's description is the systematic aspect of it. The main purpose of a Master project is for the student to develop a rather general set of skills (problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, thoroughness, etc.), and to be tested on the ability to achieve a research project, although modest in scope. It is not to write commercial-grade software in a state-sponsored trainee program for a Professor's spinoff company. Professors have a teaching and mentoring responsibility towards the Master students they supervise, and it's not waived by offering them a job when they graduate.

The other issue I see is the unsound hierarchical relationship. Master students are at the mercy of not getting their degrees if they do not perform according to the Professor's commercial requirements. This very often results in students being exploited.

I have seen professors use (state/university-funded) PhD students as free R&D, technical support and sales employees for their spinoff company, and I think it's dishonest towards the students, the funding agencies and the taxpayers. I even think it borderlines embezzlement of public funds, as the sole person really benefiting from the scheme is the owner of the spinoff.

  • 16
    Voted down - mainly because of the implication that a Master's student can't learn something and be a commercial trainee at the same time. Answering, or developing, something a commercial company needs is also potentially research.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 23:04
  • 5
    I agree with the sentiment (and it's an important discussion to have), and in fact "the purpose of a masters" may be changing. By comparison, this is how the academic system now functions in the U.S. (public & private); and arguably is where European (in particular, German) academic institutions are going (for better or worse). It's hard to blame individuals in a system that encourages the practice. Whether it's good or not is certainly open to debate. For argument's sake, this is how many Silicon Valley start-ups began (Google, Sun, Yahoo, Cisco, HP), and probably why SV even exists.
    – mal
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 7:29
  • 19
    (+1) for the unsound hierarchical relationship. In Germany, the professor is (usually) a public official (Beamter), and the thesis is (part of) an exam. There are clear rules about not abusing the exam situation. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 15:38
  • 2
    And what about professors that use students to push their own scientific work? Students here at least get real-world skills and a job offer.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 14:38
  • 3
    Professor - student relationship is very asymmetric and unmonitored, which makes is prone to abuse. Professors very often exploit students, for direct financial gain or an indirect one. This is to be expected. We all agree to this, because at the end, the student also gains something. IMHO OP's colleagues, who gained real-life skills and a job offer, got out of it much more than my friends, who compromised their own scientific work just to make their superior let them through.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 12:28

In many countries, universities are allowed to have spin-off companies. Many of them are run by successful professors. In contrast to the universities, all companies' purpose is to make money and not work simply to promote knowledge and science. In that regard, your professor has done nothing wrong or (most importantly) illegal. He is using his unquestionable know-how to make a successful company and more money for himself. But along with him, several good students get the opportunity to be hired on a promising job, once they finish their studies. And this is not only good for the professor, but it is also good for the university, the students and the country's economy in general. In that sense, you should stop seeing the whole thing as a corporate conspiracy.

The fact that science sometimes provides exceptionally good consumer products (from TVs to mobile phones and electric lamps) should not be considered evil in itself. Yes, many times companies use technological advances for evil purposes but providing support and extending open-source CS projects, is surely not one of those cases. The only questionable thing your professor might have done, is if he has used his students as free workforce (without any compensation), during the master's thesis when they were working on extending his product. But even then, this is sometimes how internships work on many companies.

So, I would not worry too much. Having a spin-off is not really an ethical issue, nor does it make your professor a horrible person. Of course you have the right to disagree with this practice and avoid participating in his business endeavors. So, finish your studies, minimizing contact with this professor and do things differently the way you see ethical and fit when you enter the job market.

  • 16
    +1 for the last two sentences of the penultimate paragraph. it is what I think so too. Note some people even pay to do an internship. This already sounds like a better project (in the view of getting a job) than a lot of master projects I know (although I am from a different discipline). I know financial maths students who did Master projects for big investment bank. I'd rather have this guy making money than Goldman Sachs...
    – Lost1
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 16:30
  • 3
    @emcor penultimate paragraph, not last paragraph.
    – Lost1
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 16:50
  • 4
    It's not only a matter of caring about general ethics, for several reasons. Students qua students are clearly stakeholders in the functioning of the university. Students qua citizens have every right to be concerned about the use of public funds. All this is their business.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 17:08
  • 5
    @michael_n: The last paragraph in the answer used to be: "So, I would not worry too much about how ethical your professor is. It is none of your business after all. Finish your studies and do things differently, if you do not agree with his practices." It is fair to characterize this as telling the OP not to worry: in fact, the language seems stronger than that. Since then the answer has been edited, perhaps making some of the comments obsolete. But I don't see any misrepresentation. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 8:07
  • 5
    (-1) Although there is no ethical problem with a professor having a spin-off, there are huge ethical problems about a professor potentially abusing the fact that a student is in an exam (master thesis is [part of] the final exam in Germany). Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 15:43

Yes, it's ethical to have students work on your research interests

The core idea of research mentorship is that it's useful for people to collaborate, and for professors to 'split off' interesting, manageable chunks of research directions for others to handle - either as part of study projects or research grants. Pretty much always it will be related to topics that interest the professor personally, and it's okay.

I believe that most researchers have a list of subproblems that they aren't going to do themselves, but for which they'd like a solution and a student research project could [attempt to] to solve it. I have such a list myself, students are happy that it exists, but most of them do have some use case where the thesis outcome (data/tool/method/etc) would be directly useful to me personally in my research.

If the student wants to work on X, and the professor says "you must do topic Y", then that would be unethical unless there's funding/employment agreement for the student to do Y. However, if student "needs" a thesis topic and is okay with doing Y, then it's ethical to recommend topics that aren't "neutral"(which would that be?) but are of personal interest to you.

Yes, it's ethical for your research interests to benefit you commercially

Turning academic research into commercial spinoffs isn't an unwanted exploitation - in fact, it generally is the explicit wish of the universities, funding agencies and government research policies to facilitate commercialization and implementation of research.

If a professor has ideas on how particular research topics can be applied commercially, then it's a good thing - it estabilishes that the topic is meaningful and provides a real world context to otherwise abstract notions.

Having the research benefit your business as such is okay, given the university approval for that spinoff, but there may be ethical concerns with how it's done.

Is he coercing students to work in that direction?

Are there signs of coercion - i.e., do students feel threatened that if they choose an unrelated topic then they'd be treated differently, get different grading, etc?

Is he recommending students to work on bad / non-research topics?

Are the recommended projects ("algorithmic modules for the open-source software") a good fit for the master thesis requirements of your university?

If software engineering and algorithmic implementation are valid and recommended goals for thesis in your particular master's program (it often is), then it's ethical.

If that study program expects students to focus on academic research during the thesis, but in those projects students spend 90% time on software engineering and thus either produce poor thesis or have to spend huge work that's not beneficial to the thesis, then that would be giving misleading and hurtful advice and it's not ethical.

Is he stealing intellectual property?

If copyrighted or patentable items are created by the students (such as software) as part of their academic work, are they either (a) freely available to the public; (b) clearly owned by the student; or (c) purchased as a separate agreement or through an employment contract for the time of developing it?

Publishing work results on an open source project would be ethical; a company using public and published results of student's work is also clearly okay.

Publishing work results on a dual-licenced project where the student's code is available, say, as GPL to the public and also the same student's code as a closed source licence for a fee from the company raises the question on how does the student licenced the code to that company. A scenario where work is done on "university time", and the company simply takes the not-public work without compensating the author would be unethical.

Is he hiding his vested interest in that particular project?

Is he disclosing that he has a commercial interest in this open source project to the students? If he's not telling them it when offering the topics, then it would be unethical.

  • 7
    +1 - Excellent analysis of the different facets of the question!
    – Mangara
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 13:32
  • "If the student wants to work on X, and the professor says "you must do topic Y", then that would be unethical unless there's funding/employment agreement for the student to do Y. However, if student "needs" a thesis topic and is okay with doing Y, then it's ethical to recommend topics that aren't "neutral"(which would that be?) but are of personal interest to you.". What about the situation where the students "needs" a topic and agrees to do Y but only because the professor "forgot" to mention X that would benefits more the student but less the professor?
    – Taladris
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 16:45
  • @Taladris if you ask me to pick a topic for you, then we're automatically discarding 99% of possible X'es - I can recommend topics that I have identified during my research interests, which are a small part of my subfield; and my subfield is a small part of CS as such. About topic "benefitting the student" - who would know better about those topics than the student themselves? But if they have no specific interests and don't have a preference for any research direction, then apparently there are no research directions that would be "made especially for them" and they just need a valid topic.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 17:00

If the thesis is on an academic topic, and the student later agrees to work at a company, there is nothing wrong with that.

But the professor must not exert pressure on the student for example that the thesis grade would depend on accepting a work contract, and if some of the work is not directly related to the thesis it should be compensated like normal work. It appears that here the student works out a thesis based on an industry-topic, and later decides where to work. The fact that the professor who assigns the topic also owns a company has no direct ethical consequences as such, because the student is free to choose from any possible company or supervisor out there.

  • 3
    ... with big emphasis on the very first "if" and "must not exert pressure". Although I'm not sure the student is that free to choose their supervisor (how many alternative supervisors are available, given that the student probably wants to specialize in that field?) Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 16:24

IANAL, and I guess that the question cannot be completely answered as some details are missing, but:

  • Doing a thesis in a company or on a subject that is suggested by a company is perfectly fine. This is called "Externe Abschlussarbeit" (external thesis). There can also be contracts between the student and the company. But in oder to be legally valid, the contracts must not abuse the fact that the student has to do the exam and is therefore not an equal party to the contract but dependent.

  • Many universities actually have rules (and/or even a contact person) for related questions. Here are some examples

  • However, the usual setup is that the supervisor from the company and the professor are two different persons, and it is the professor's task to ensure that the thesis consists of the proper amount of research.
    With this I do see a conflict of interest in the OP's scenario.

  • In Germany, a master's thesis is a "Prüfungsleistung" (part of the final exam). The Prüfungsleistung must be produced solely by the candidate. This implies that the master's thesis (not only the written thesis, but all ideas, software etc) is IP of the student.

  • Highly relevant lecture: Helmut Messer: Rechtsgrundsätze zu Diplomarbeiten
    rough translation of a scenario on page 7:

    Professor tells student that he has 2 kinds of thesis subjects: nothing-special subjects and highly interesting very innovative external thesis subjects which will practically lead to immedate job offers. For the external theses, however, the transferrable IP rights need to be tranfered in advance (either to the prof. or to the company).

    The text then goes on explaining that this constitutes at least Vorteilsannahme (acceptance of benefits by a public official) by the professor, and that depending on the pressure and the exact situation also blackmailing is close by. Basically, the professor must not ask any more than the exam regulations say.

    So the ethic problems in question are not only of the "does not behave well"-kind but can actually constitute criminal offenses. And IIRC, public officials already have to avoid the appearance of Vorteilsannahme (and of course blackmailing).

    • However, after the thesis is finished (and the mark is given) the company (or university) can negotiate to buy the transferrable rights, because then both parties of the contract are in an equal position, and the student can say no, or ask for compensation. Obviously, the student can decide on his own to release the product Open Source.
      Somehow I doubt that "we will hire you if you give us your previously written code" is a legal contract, but again IANAL.

    • The lecture explains that the professor has a certain responsibility also concerning abusive contracts between student and company (in general, not only in the OP's scenario) because the student depends on the professor.

I commented to @Steffen Winkler that software copyright is somewhat special and different from other copyrighted works. According to Urhg §69b the (transferrable economic) rights are automatically assigned to the employer. Court cases apply this automatism to a rather wide range of software (i.e. as soon as it is related / useful for the employer, e.g. regardless of whether the development took place in free time at home), and state that the wages are already the proper compensation.

However, AFAIK it is non-trivial to formulate a legal contract that has the student employed for the subject of the thesis. The linked lecture gives scenarios that work and scenarios that do not work.


I'm with Marc. There's no issue at all here... In fact, under this arrangement, he needs not worry about securing public grant funding which means he's more free to do any kind of research work he wants... which can certainly filter back to you.

You might even be able to strike up an arrangement where you'll do work for him and you can use his lab for whatever research topic you want... There are multiple ways to look at this, and to me, all of them are positive. The community gets source, the public doesn't have to fund his research (though he probably still has students write grants for new ideas), for-profit businesses pay for top-tier service.

Let's not also forget, that in the non-academic world, practical experience is valued more than your education (especially in the USA). Your time working in the professor's company while at the same time getting BOTH thesis research AND "real-world" experience puts you in a much better position come graduation than peers who go the traditional route.

I'd be more inclined to hire someone who has dealt with source-code management + a good thesis ahead of someone who only had a superb thesis topic. (The more things you can be measured with, the better for you.)

  • @Jigg...because the company is not profitable. You do not know that. Internships are always very cheap labor, even for Google, Yahoo, MS. The fact that the money offered are not great, it is not due to those companies not being profitable.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 19:19
  • 1
    @Jigg As currently stated, the question doesn't supply enough information to make a judgment on profitability, bets or no bets. Also if the company isn't profitable, moot point. There ceases to be an ethical dilemma if the prof isn't profiting lasciviously, or in a way that is grossly unfair compared to other student workers.
    – avgvstvs
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 19:37
  • @Jigg I'm not getting paid to do my thesis, and the results will ultimately get used by someone else, maybe for profit, maybe not at all. Doesn't bother me.
    – avgvstvs
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 20:09
  • 4
    @Jigg No company, in it's right mind, will pay when it doesn't have to, even if it is capable of doing so. Using student work doesn't imply anything about the profitability of the company.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 23:05

Spin-offs normally are not allowed to stay inside the university forever, they move away and become independent companies. Staying permanently in a state-owned building, with free access to the laboratory equipment, Internet, library, etc, probably would not be very fair. However the "spinning-off" process usually lasts for several years.

Creating a successful commercial product on the base of research is an important process that is usually allowed, supported and encouraged. Spin-offs receive support from the parent institution in the early stages when they are not yet capable of self-sustaining.


I see two issues:

One, it sounds like the students just get a programming assignment -- "here, make this". That alone wouldn't make it Master level research fit for a thesis.

Second, the student is the author of the software he writes and holds copyright over it, so he should decide under which license he wants to release it, if he wants to release it at all. Forcing him to release it under a specific license that happens to work well for the company is a clear conflict of interest.

  • If he works for the company of the professor during his internship, it is much more common that the copyright of the project goes to the company. At least, that is what any sensible company does. There are even companies that claim ownership of code that an employee writes in their own time (which I think goes too far). Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 19:41
  • Yes, but he didn't mention an internship. Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 20:02

Bottom line:

Studying a university is more about how you use opportunities available to you than about how much do you learn from the baseline 'forced upon' everyone. I presume there is a free choice available to you and other students whether to take the master thesis assignment from the professor in question or from other. That means, that 'working for free for a commercial company' (this is how I understand your concern) is not the only possibility to finish your studies. Every student, you included, have the choice to do what they find right and beneficial. That means, that you can do whatever you can with the opportunity - get some hands on experience, or, for example, train your inner sense for what you find right and what wrong. Which is equally as important!

The professor is giving you opportunity, not forcing something on you.

Personally, I would rather work on a demanding task from a high flying professor with a prospect of a nice job in the open-source world than do some mundane task that has been repeated over and over just because the latter may seem more fit for academia.

If you plan to get a job in a commercial company (rather than staying in academic field for your PhD and further career), having done your thesis in the described setting may very well give you a noticeable advantage over competing job-seekers.

(The first paragraph edited to reflect on Jigg's comment)

  • 3
    Everybody would rather work on a 'demanding task from a high flying professor' rather than a 'mundane task'. How is this relevant to the ethical question raised by OP?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:57
  • @Jigg valid point, thank you. I wrote the answer rather as a reaction to other answers without re-reading the question first. I'll edit my answer.
    – Pavel
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 14:19

I am going to back a bit Jigg's point of view.

I believe it is not ethical to pressure students into master thesis which is a module of some software for which the student will not be able to set license and more of that which is used for profits of the professor.

I also should say that it fine if student signs some kind of contract if he chooses to go this way and if not he still has a choice to do masters thesis with this professor that is not anyhow connected to the professor's company or that software.

I was myself in the similar situation (German style education system, but not in Germany) however it wasn't a masters thesis but just a semester final thesis for one of the subjects.

In my case professor was taking the best of the software students developed as a thesis in whole or as a part to the product of his profit making company (no attribution to student at all). I don't claim that the OP's professor does the same but I believe OP can still have the issues I had:

  1. I couldn't determine the actual theme of thesis.
  2. The subject final mark was decided not by the standards of university thesis but rather by the commercial standards which are obviously higher.
  3. I was under pressure to agree with everything professor wishes for the product even if it was out of the thesis scope.
  4. I was under extreme pressure to deliver commercial quality product in restricted time having other subjects to study.

Because of this situation I ended up almost failing this and another subject and with a very bad relationship with that professor since I wasn't able to deliver what he wanted(although it was perfectly fine for the scope of the semester thesis). I could get a very bad reputation but fortunately for me quite a lot of other professors/stuff knew how he does things so the damage was not that big.

What I am trying to say is that by dealing with such people OP puts himself in the situation when he is totally dependent of them and people tend to be quite cruel.

  • +1 Coding a commercial product (robust, documented, benchmarked, etc.) is different than doing research (creative, novel, conceptual). One thing I noticed about the students in your situation is how vigorously they would defend their abusing supervisor (some of the reactions on this thread seem to be along that line) when it's suggested to them that they are not fairly treated. It doesn't seem to be your case.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 11:12
  • 1
    Stockholm syndrome. This guy(professor) made my life much harder in remaining years since at the time of event I wasn't silent among students about it(I didn't try to report him to university being afraid of consequences). He probably was afraid that more students will know how he does business and try to avoid him. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 11:19
  • An alternative is that these people do not share your opinion, and see this as a great opportunity. Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 19:43
  • @PaulHiemstra 2 persons out of ~20 were satisfied, the others hated the guy as they said about a year after when he no longer could do harm to them. Although this is only my case and I don't say that in other cases such work can't be beneficial for students. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 7:40

We can split this problem to two:

From Professors perspective it would be unethical to assign students a project that does not support the objectives (ie. research or education) of the academic organization by which he is currently employed. If this condition is met, the project can as well be open sourced. He can not, in general, force the student to open the source, but this may vary from one country to another and depends on who holds the copyright of the original work, student or the organization.

From student perspective, only question is (if you really hold the copyright) whether you allow the source to be opened. Either you allow, or you do not.

If these conditions are met, and the work is released as open source under a proper license, anyone may try to make legally money with it as long as the license terms are not violated. Including the professor. It is inherent nature of open source: someone may benefit from it also financially, and you can try to do that too.


My first impulse is crying out loud, but I see that it must be explained.

What is the goal of academic instituitions / science / humanities ?

The goal is to collect and reserve the current knowledge, give it to the next generations and gain further knowledge. We want to find good explanations for phenomena and refine them further und further until ideally we can explain them fully (The explanation need not to be identical with the "real" cause, it should only give the correct predictions).

What we do not want is to consolidate our prejudices or fall victim to wishful thinking. The key is honesty: Do not fool yourself to believe you know something which you are not absolutely sure of. You are able to give convincing reasons to other people.

You are completely convinced that astrology is truthful because an astrologer described you correctly and you pay a study which confirms your impression ? This is not science.

You are completely convinced that astrology is baloney because it seems to be old and it violates what you think is correct knowledge ? This is not science either !

You write down the logical inconsistencies of astrology, put up a study to test the conclusions and the tests repeatedly and consistently failed ? This is science.

What is the goal of businesses ?

A key concept of a business is to gain revenue by fulfilling a demand. Because in private enterprise you have competitors you must also apply strategy to keep your business and use that to increase your influence. That means

  • Having unique or better knowledge. If your competitors do not know how you achieved your desired results, it would be stupid to tell them. Or you protect your invention with patents.

  • Propagate your influence by using your revenue to spread out. Gain power from important persons (friendships, franchises and working together).

  • Protect yourself and hold your competitors down. You can do that defensively (lawsuits, patents) or offensively (buying them off, spread bad rumors, outpace them in quality and quantity).

Both goals are perfectly ok.
If you leave university and begin a startup, no problem. If a firm buys your invention, no problem. It starts to be trouble if you have a conflict of interest and the professor has a severe conflict of interest.

If you did not see it, honesty is not a business goal. Let's say the professor gives you a task to improve a specific software module. You are starting to analyze the module...and you find that it has a flaw. It does not work or even causes harm, you can scientifically prove it. You have found out that the prospering company your professor leads has sold a defective software. Revelation of this could harm the reputation of the university, the software company and even your economy of your country. Or, on the other hand, it does nothing, but the professor wants to improve the user experience so that the customers are happy even if sold junk.

Do you feel still perfectly ok with that scenario ?

Because for this reason research and business should have distinct areas because you cannot honestly find a scientific answer if you are under constant pressure to modify your findings in a specific direction (or to be punished if you insist on honesty). The law of reciprocity always kicks in, I have supported you, why don't you support me.

I mean, we see the problem everywhere. "Think tanks" are buying old academics to support "research" in environmental issues. Politicians and companies are buying supportive studies. Consumer products are called back and almost always the problem was known long before. Academic fraud for research grants is a known problem. etc.

The problem is not that the professor is a horrible person or that business is evil or science must be pure and idealistic. The problem is that many universities are dependent on private funding and try to give students the impression that it is absolutely no problem to mix business and scientific research. Guess what: It is a lie.

  • If this were true, no collaboration between academia and industry would ever be possible. For a start, there are tons of PhD studies funded by private companies for people to develop and improve their products. They know they work, but they know there are people that know how to make them better, and so they pay for it. I personally know many cases where there is no conflict of interest at all, and the academics have freedom to critizise the current state of affairs, if necessary.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 10:42
  • @Davidmh Yes, collaborations between academia and industry have existed. No, it does not invalidate what I said. First, once you have grown to be a full academic, you are free to choose what you do. Second, in collaborations there are two superiors, your professor and your manager. If things go awry on the business side, you can go to your professor and he should be obliged to support you. In this specific case, this is broken: The student's academic career is dependent on the professor and there is no second instance. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 17:15
  • Addition: The whole concept of tenure is to provide academics with a background which allows them to tell their opinion without pressure from advocate groups. Millions of americans have driven before the seat-belt and airbag and never had an accident. Does it mean that it is a sound and safe practice to do that because it works on most cases ? What if the situation I said really occurs ? Small scale: You have found out that your PhD study does not show any improvement. One option is to be frank and get no/negative acknowledgement. And then there are other options. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 17:26

I would say that the best advice is to make sure that there is a clear partition between the open source parts of the software vs. the business parts and that the students are informed of this.

Many professors get students to work on research that is (or becomes) commercial in nature (e.g. biology). The key ethical issue is that the students are informed and are educated to make proper decisions about it.


I think that it depends on several factors. If the supervisor is offering you some grants from the company to do your research work than he may expect something back that he may commercializes. But in any case, it would be better to have a discussion about that before the project starts. It is always important to makes things clear before starting a project. If things are not made clear than it may cause some conflicts afterwards. If things are made clear and a student is not satisfied, he may also just work with another professor.

Besides, I think that the job of a master degree student should be to do research, not to do unrelated software development tasks (unless he is getting paid or if he wants to). But participating in a company project can also have several benefits. Besides, from what I understand, you are also publishing your research as open-source. I believe that publishing research as open-source is very beneficial. Personally, I do research in the field of data mining and publish all my research as open-source (data mining algorithms and datasets) as part of a data mining library/software, and I don't earn any money from that. But this has increased the visibility of my research. Thus, perhaps that you should see it from this perspective. If your new algorithms is included in a commercial software or large open-source project, it will probably gives a lot of visibility to your algorithms, and your research will be probably used and cited by more researchers.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .