I was using a Web service I particularly like the other day, and noticed that they have a referral program. (More specifically, UsabilityHub, but the details of the service itself aren't important.) So then this hypothetical scenario came to mind.

Suppose I'm slated to teach a class, and decide that said Web service would be valuable in my teaching. Let's say that:

  • It's genuinely useful in my pedagogy and/or for helping students produce quality work.
  • It's a commercial service and has no student discount, but the most relevant parts are free.
  • I don't require use of this Web service, but I encourage it (though not through any formal means, i.e. no extra credit for using this service).
  • I happen to use this service for both personal/hobby projects and for professional work, all under one account.

Now suppose that this Web service provides a referral program, i.e. if anyone signs up with my referral link, both I and the new user get benefits of some kind. However, these benefits are not monetary in nature--they're a form of credit for the service, and cannot be redeemed for cash.

Is it ethical to ask my students to sign up to this Web service through my referral link, given that I use this Web service in both a personal and professional capacity under the same account? Let's say that I tell them everything that I mention in this post, too (including my usage of the service).

Oh, and I should clarify that this is entirely a hypothetical scenario. I'm not even in a position where this is actually an issue for me.

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    While the answers below are all thoughtful, I'm wrestling with whether you need to disclose that you get benefit, and that's not real clear below Dec 29, 2015 at 23:51
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    How about just setting up a referral account for your school or department and let them get all of the referral funds. That removes any personal profit motive while still giving new users the referral bonus.
    – Johnny
    Dec 30, 2015 at 1:57
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    Really bothered that we're conflating "their marketing scheme" with "confluent benefit."
    – user18072
    Dec 30, 2015 at 16:22
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    Whether its cash or not matters little, as long as your receiving a benefit and its not directly and openly sanctioned, its unethical. Your risking your reputation as an academic for a few (usually) meaningless rewards points. Dec 30, 2015 at 19:54
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    This doesn't sound like a particularly bad thing to me and I think the decision could go either way. However, I want to point out that disclosing to the students and telling them it's optional are not as helpful as it sounds like they should be. It's not unknown for powerful people to say something is optional while still punishing those who don't do it, or to show deliberate or unconscious favoritism towards ones who do. Thus, students may feel coerced even when you're doing your sincere, level best to be noncoercive. This frustrates me greatly but I've seen it happen a number of times.
    – octern
    Dec 31, 2015 at 17:19

8 Answers 8


There is a saying, "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion," which I believe applies well to an ethical dilemma of this sort. Despite the somewhat nasty origins of the quote, what it has come to mean is that in some circumstances one must not only act ethically but also act to ensure a very clear appearance of ethical behavior.

In this case, the question is this: could a reasonable person question whether you might have chosen to recommend this service in part because of the benefits that redound to you yourself?

In this case, since there are a number of other ways that you might have gone about obtaining similar capabilities for the class, it would be reasonable for a student or other person to wonder if you were influenced to recommend that particular site due to the benefits that you would obtain through the referrals. Given your position of authority, then, I believe that does create a genuine ethical concern regarding the referral program.

I see two basic approaches to resolving this:

  1. Recommend the service, but do not make use of the referral program.
  2. Recommend both this service and several of the other competing services. Note that this is the one that you personally use, and for this service provide both a non-referral and referral link (being transparent about the benefit to you).

Personally, I would prefer the first option, since it's completely unambiguous, but would not find the second particularly problematic.

  • 7
    Have you noticed that the new user also gets some added benefit from the referral program, not only the referrer? By using your option 1, the OP is reducing the benefit to the students.
    – ff524
    Dec 29, 2015 at 22:13
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    @ff524 Yes, but the benefit to the instructor is multiplied many times the benefit to the individual students; a reasonable concern may still remain. The benefits to the students are also quite small in this case, so not getting them is not a big deal.
    – jakebeal
    Dec 29, 2015 at 22:16
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    Why is that a problem? Adding more wins on one side of a win-win...sounds good to me. Dec 29, 2015 at 22:17
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    I find it somewhat problematic to do something that reduces the benefit to students entirely to reduce a minuscule appearance of possible impropriety. It's sort of like writing a textbook, then recommending a different textbook that you believe is almost but not quite as good, because you want to reduce appearance of impropriety.
    – ff524
    Dec 29, 2015 at 22:21
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    @PeteL.Clark, ff524: then it sounds to me like both of you would personally prefer option #2 to option #1, either of which I think are reasonable. If the service really is the best, then the students will likely mainly choose it and get the win-wins. I have also thought of a third option: recommend the students refer one another, so that they get (almost) double the benefits in total.
    – jakebeal
    Dec 29, 2015 at 22:25

I don't see any clearly unethical behavior here. You use the tag "conflict-of-interest"...but where is the conflict? To me it looks more like a confluence of interest.

The best argument I can make is that the behavior might appear unethical to others, and as a professional and representative of a professional group (your department, your university...) you may well want to avoid that. A hard-nosed outside observer may say: how do I know that you did not gain a financial incentive at some pedagogical cost?

If I were in this position, I think I would not have ethical qualms provided that I made clear to everyone how to they can make use of the service for no money and get the full course experience anyway. I would regard this behavior as more ethical than requiring students to pay a fee (typically on the order of $50-$100 per course) to use a professional service like WebAssign for required course elements like homework grading. In my mind, providing good assessment and feedback to the students is a key responsibility of the course instructor, the department and the university. Requiring -- or really, even sufficiently strongly encouraging -- students to pay for an external service is an alarming abdication of that responsibility. Moreover the slope looks quite slippery to me: this is clearly a step towards a for-profit model of higher education. Just because in this latter scenario the money is getting put in the pocket of a big company rather than the instructor or the department does not make it any better to me!


Is it ethical to ask my students to sign up to this Web service through my referral link, given that I use this Web service in both a personal and professional capacity under the same account? Let's say that I tell them everything that I mention in this post, too (including my usage of the service).

Before answering the "is it ethical" question, let's recognize that this would create (at least) the appearance of a conflict of interest: by managing the course in a way that benefits you monetarily on top of your normal salary, you can cast doubts in the eyes of the students or other outside observers as to whether your actions are purely motivated by the desire to get the best educational outcome or are influenced by the external, and potentially conflicting, interest of making money. Now, it is implicit in your question that you recognize this issue and are trying to think of ways to allay those doubts. Unfortunately this is not as simple as it seems. Consider some of the things you are proposing to do:

  • Advertise publicly that you believe in this product and use it yourself.

    The problem with this is that those actions are also consistent with the actions of a person who is "in it for the money" and doesn't actually believe in the product, but wants people to think that he does.

  • State emphatically that the students' use of the service is voluntary and absolutely not required.

    The problem is that this could still exert a subtle pressure on the students and signal to them that you would be happier with them if they used the service. You are an authority figure and hold substantial power over the students, and some of them may want to curry favor with you, either consciously or subconsciously, and might therefore use the service even if they don't think it's useful to them. Also, even if only a few students end up being influenced to use the service by your recommendation, you are still benefiting monetarily so this does not remove the suspicion of an action motivated by a conflicting interest.

  • Share the link to this Academia StackExchange question with your students, to let them know you have thought seriously about the ethical implications and strengthen their belief in the nobility of your intentions.

    Again, the problem is that an insincere person whose intentions are not noble might behave in exactly the same way.

To summarize this part of the answer, although it seems likely that your motivations are pure, which I assume is why a wise person like Pete L. Clark decreed in his answer that there is no conflict of interest here, it is still the case that there would be an appearance of a conflict (which would also mean that at least in principle there could be an actual conflict), and it is not obvious how this appearance can be completely removed.

Now let's turn to the ethics question. I happen to be on a committee of my institution that oversees potential conflicts of interests (which we refer to as COIs). The context is different (COIs that arise in scientific research funded by a mixture of public and private money on topics with commercial potential like pharmaceuticals) but many of the issues are similar to those raised by your question. One of the first things you learn when working on such a committee is that academia has many areas with a strong potential for conflicts of interests. Unfortunately it is completely impractical to take an approach that would simply forbid such conflicts to exist (e.g., by forbidding research to be funded by an entity with a commercial interest in the outcome of the research), since that would mean that a lot of very important research would simply not get done. So, the question becomes instead how to manage the conflict by taking steps such as disclosing the conflict in various ways and other measures.

The point I am trying to make is that just because there is a potential for a conflict doesn't mean that the proposed action is unethical. However, it certainly means that special care is necessary to make sure you are not even perceived as acting unethically, and it also means that there would have to be a fairly compelling reason for the proposed action to be taken. In your case, I have to admit that I am not seeing such a compelling reason. The small monetary gain and other benefits you are likely to receive from the referral links are overwhelmingly smaller and less significant than the benefit of a research that could lead to the development of a new drug or medical device. So I think the risk that your actions would be perceived negatively by your students or employer in this case far outweighs what you stand to gain. My recommendation is therefore: don't do it. The only exceptions I would make are 1. if you ask your department chair and he or she specifically approves this; or 2. if you announce that you will donate the proceeds you will make from the referral links to charity (and specifically, a charity whose mission is completely uncontroversial and could not possibly be frowned upon by any of your students).

  • Good point, but a minor detail: The benefit of the small monetary gain you are likely to receive it may not be a monetary gain per say, it might be a little perk like extra storage space as with dropbox. (I'm not familiar with the specific site the OP mentions, but I think the type and amount of perk received would color the perception of the OP's motivation.)
    – Kimball
    Dec 29, 2015 at 23:40
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    Minor comment: If the professor is getting a benefit from the students' use of the site, that is definitely a conflict of interest. Conflicts of interest are not necessarily unethical and do not need to be avoided in all cases, but they do trigger regulatory and ethical requirements for reporting.
    – octern
    Dec 31, 2015 at 17:14

Create a second account with your university email address and use that referral code.

There's a clear conflict of interest by using your professional role to benefit your personal side projects. If I were a student, noticing a referral link in which you benefit personally would be a huge turn off.

However, you are missing an easy opportunity for yourself and your students to benefit from this. When you act under your professional role that benefits the university, your students, or your department, use this account and the credits that come with it. When working on side projects, use your personal account and cover the costs yourself.

When using the link make it explicitly clear that you/your department are getting a credit for it.

Because all the credits obtained are going back to the students and the university, the conflict of interest gets eliminated.


As the meaning of "ethical" is rather personal and there is no evil lurking here I suggest you get around the problem. One way of doing this is to...

  1. Make the issue clear in your syllabus or course site: just stating what you write in your question should do it.
  2. Offer you students two links, one being through the referral program and the other not, while explaining the differences in terms of consequences both for you and the student. (having access to click-statistics would be interesting, btw.)
  3. To be extra-safe, inform you head of department.

My opinion as a former student:

It is known, that a percentage of persons in a position of authority are seen as corrupt or at least not as honorable/neutral as they should be according to there position. For example I know about doctors which get gifts worth at least 4-5 digits sums from companies for prescribing their drugs instead of other ones. A patient knowing this might ask himself if alternative drugs might be cheaper or more effective and the doctor prescribes it only for his incentitives and question if he does his duty to the best of his knowledge and belief. The same goes for teachers at universities. Your question suggests that you don't want to be one of them.

I know that neutrality is impossible for universities because

  • they have limited funds and they get free learning material or samples from private companies for their own products
  • there is no company neutral product/method and there is no time in the curriculum to cover all of them at the same extend

So what should you do?

  • If you are affiliated to a product/company or get money directly or indirectly, make it clear
  • There should be no comparable product, which is noticable cheaper. (comparable in the sense of quality and depending of the use of it in class)
  • Especially if it is not the standard product used by most other universities and there is no special reason for it.
  • If you are unsure, ask a neutral colleague, if they would recommend this product for this course.

Other points to consider:

  • Is it free for the students and are the students required to use it?
  • What/How much is the incentive? (like there is a free plan which gives you 15 free x and with the referral you get up to 30 free x or you get x$ per person up to unlimited, especially if multidigit sums are expected for referring all your students)
  • What are the benefits for the students? Do they also get free x? Is this the only affordable way for the university to provide an acceptable teaching standard? Is it even connected to the course?

We once managed to get a class replaced by the administration because the teacher was paid by a company and tried to force all of us to get a credit card and use an online service of the company which didn't provide any significant benefits for this class.

In my opinion there is no black/white line. It should be clearly visible that you don't recommend it for your benefits but for the benefits of the students. Sometimes it's better to show it instead of only saying it which sometimes requires not to get benefits or at least provide a non-referral link too. Not only one politician was discredited because they awarded a big contract to commpany from which they got big donations while elections although they said this was not the reason for this choice.


Similar to several other answers:

  • When I taught computer science and referred students to the company I consulted for I had the company send the referral bonus to the department.

  • When I assigned a textbook I'd written I arranged a no-royalties price with my publisher. Had that not been possible I'd have donated the royalties to the university. (I think that in fact my school's faculty union contract specified that I could not profit from those royalties, but I'd have done what I did in any case.)

You should be able to make a similar arrangement for the web referral.


This is not fundamentally different from recommending (not requiring) a textbook for which you receive royalties. I would be very uncomfortable doing either.

For another comparison, my students can buy others' textbooks from Amazon for less than from the bookstore. I could have an Amazon Associates account that pays me every time a student buys a book through my link. (So, both the student and I receive a benefit.) I have chosen not to do that because I believe it would be unethical.

I refer you to Meyer's* Rule of Ethics: in any ethical dilemma, the thing you least want to do is the ethical choice.

* From the Travis McGee novels. Also from Baruch Spinoza.

  • 3
    I'm having trouble seeing why any of the action you suggest are unethical. Your proposed Rule of Ethics looks pretty fishy. (Let me try it out: I believe the thing I least want to do at the moment is kill myself and the family member I am currently staying with. Pretty sure this is not the ethical choice. I suppose you could say that this was not an ethical dilemma but still: quite unconvincing.) Dec 29, 2015 at 21:50
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    I think though that it is a good caricature of the way that ethical question are often viewed by academics (and the kind of answers to ethics questions we often receive on this site). I could summarize it myself as "If you have to ask, the answer is no." For instance, keeping this rule in mind has enabled me to rapidly pass "ethics training tests" my university gives out to me periodically. Getting back to the matter at hand: why do you think it is unethical to suggest that your students should save money and you should make money? Who is being harmed: the university bookstore?!? Dec 29, 2015 at 21:54
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    I'll have to think about the first part of your comment. Concerning the second part, a county commissioner here was recently reprimanded for voting to hire a construction company that was paying "consulting fees" to the commissioner. The difference between that and making money for suggesting a source of textbooks students are required to buy is one of degree, not substance.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 29, 2015 at 22:12
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    I downvoted this answer, because it was the thing I least wanted to do.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 30, 2015 at 2:15
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    "In any ethical dilemma, the thing you least want to do is the ethical choice" - an example of another heuristic for shortcutting the need to think things through.
    – ff524
    Dec 30, 2015 at 12:24

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