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It is really difficult for me to decide on this situation: when someone calls me and asks for work-for-hire for his/her thesis. I don't know what to do. I want to help and earn money but I think this way of earning money is unethical. I think that receiving the title of thesis and giving back prepared manuscript is the intention that some people have, when asking for their thesis to be written. There are plenty of websites offering such services!

The question is that: Is it legal and or ethical to write someone else's master's thesis as work-for-hire?

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    @SSimon A website offering a service does not imply that it is legal. And it definitely does not suggest it is legal in every location. – Bamboo Apr 24 '16 at 12:51
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    If the question is, "is X legal," then academia.SE is not the best forum to really be asking it. – virmaior Apr 24 '16 at 13:53
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    @SSimon Anyone can put a legal disclaimer and privacy policy on their website. That does not make it legal in general, and it does not mean it is legal where you are. The laws around plagiarism vary from country to country. For instance, Polish prosecutors in this case were seeking a 3 year jail sentence against a professor for plagiarism. – Bamboo Apr 24 '16 at 14:41
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    Submitting a thesis written by someone else is unethical, and a violation of the academic integrity policies of most (if not all) universities. Whether the practice is legal is irrelevant. – JeffE Apr 24 '16 at 17:50
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    Which country or countries are you asking about? Ethically, this doesn't make a difference, of course: it's wrong and attacks the the foundations of education. The answer about what the practical legal consequences are depends entirely on location. The laws will be different (and this is not a place for actual legal advice, obviously) but what is of more relevance here is that in some places there will be people more likely to make an example of you and prosecute you to the full extent of the law. – Patrick Sanan Apr 25 '16 at 8:38

10 Answers 10

30

As a former academic editor, I agree. You are absolutely right!

Whether or not the act is legal, writing someone else's thesis is helping them commit fraud. You would be helping him or her to obtain a degree that he or she has not earned. The question is, do you wish to participate in that kind of activity? I think you have answered your own question.

Yes, there are (depressingly) many, many, thesis "services" out there. There are many people doing dishonest things in the world. That doesn't make them less dishonest.

It sounds a bit as if someone is pressuring you to do this. If this is true, then for me, dealing with such a person involves finding the wording with which I am comfortable making my stand. Sometimes setting the individual decision in a larger context helps to de-personalize it - I might say that I had considered it, but have decided not to take on full thesis projects as a rule. Or, maybe, I would say that I am going to stick with editing projects for now. Both of these statements relate what my decision is. That is not arguable. I get to say what my decision is. If the person continued to try to argue, I simply repeat what I said, until s/he got it that I was serious. A friend of mine is great at saying, very politely, in many kinds of situations, "I'm sorry, that is not going to work for me," and then offering an alternative. She is voicing a personal preference, against which others can have no legitimate or polite argument. However, every situation is different - each person has to say what reflects his or her thoughts and boundaries.

If this person is desperate because they "have to graduate in May" or whatever, being a former advisor, I would recommend they send see their advisor and confess the truth. Then, try to figure out some options. The world doesn't usually end if students have to finish a course or two over the summer, perhaps you could offer your services for that time. Many students struggle with a large project without supervison. Having a writing coach to keep them on track (you) can help a lot.

If you are an editor struggling for money, that is a familiar problem! More marketing may be necessary, and/or check if your rates are what they should be. If no one ever hesitates when you quote, you may be undercharging. Also, making sure all of your friends know what you are doing, giving them business cards or a flyer, (relatively inexpensive) can help because if you have thirty friends/acquaintances, and they each have thirty, then someone in that 900 must need some editing. This is actually a useful way to search for "regular" jobs too. When I was editing I did find it did take time for marketing to pay off - it seemed like people would file my name away, and when the time came (like six months later) suddenly I would get a bunch of calls.

Hope some of this is helpful; please disregard the rest! And please excuse any typos - I am edited out for today!

Good luck.

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    I think this answer really looks to the problem with a deeper level of insight. Noting the OP may be under all sorts of pressures financial or social to do this. However do note, depending on location the "have to graduate in May" thing can be a lot more serious, certain professional courses that require accreditation in certain territories can have truly hard deadlines, failing which results in a failure of the entire degree. I can attest to this and the pressure it results in. I understand why someone would want to pass any way possible in such circumstances, not that it it is justified. – Vality Apr 26 '16 at 4:06
74

Think about it this way: Eventually one of those people for whom you write the thesis will be working for your stockbroker and influencing your investments, or working for your doctor or a hospital and influencing your medical care, or working for your government and influencing permits and regulations, or ...

Leaving aside the potential immediate consequences for your "principal" and yourself, you would be making the world a worse place for everyone.

Does that answer your question?

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    It is (or should be!) self evident that doing this is not ethical. The OP's question was whether it was legal, and presumably that means "legal for the OP". I can't think of any legal objection anywhere in the world to person A making a contract with person B to create some written work for them. The legal question is what A does with the work after receiving it, and possibly also whether B knew beforehand that A was going to use it for some illegal purpose. – alephzero Apr 24 '16 at 15:35
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    Actually, OP answered the legality question himself with a NO. (That may or may not be correct.) The real question lurks in the last paragraph, and seems to be, "Can I coach someone through their master's thesis, possibly doing most or all of the work?" – Bob Brown Apr 24 '16 at 18:45
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    More directly, you just took a bad outcome that could result from the OP's action and turned that to evidence the action was unethical. It's consequentialism on crack, a fallacy in the strict sense and a very poor way to convince someone of right or wrong in the practical sense since it's so easily rationalized and countered. Pretty much all they have to do is donate half of their earnings to any worthy cause and the world comes out ahead. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 4:39
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    @djechlin I am not sure why this would not be bad in a deontological or virtue ethics framework. The argument works well in those frameworks as well... – Yet Another Geek Apr 25 '16 at 10:51
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    @emory that's a very good point; either the OP is performing beheadings, or we are making a laundry list of absurd arguments. It's one of the two. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 22:02
34

when someone calls me and asks for work-for-hire for his/her thesis; I don't know what to do

Just say NO.

I am struggling to earn money

There are plenty of ways to make money. Why do you want to do this? Writing a thesis is not an easy way to make money.

I think this way of earning money is not good

Okay. Then why do you want to do it?

However there are plenty of websites offering such services

There are plenty of websites offering good jobs, why not pick some other decent jobs?

Now, back to your main question,

Is it legal to write someone else's master's thesis as work-for-hire?

I am not a lawyer. I don't know the answer in your location. In my location, I do know that you will bear serious consequences if you write someone else's master's thesis and get caught . There are cases that people did this and their own degree would be revoked by the Ministry of Education.

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    Re "There are plenty of websites offering good jobs such as helping poor disabled people.": Supporting evidence, please? – jamesqf Apr 24 '16 at 21:59
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    Re. 'people did this and their own degree would be revoked' Do you have examples? Some degrees have been withdrawn when cheating within those qualifications has come to light, but I think it would generally be impossible for a university (or any other body) to remove a degree on arbitrary grounds of disapproving of something. I might be the most callous arms-smuggling, wife-beating murderer, writing other people's homework in my spare time, but no-one (including my universities) can control or modify my legitimately-achieved qualifications. That would be illegal, would it not? – Captain Cranium Apr 24 '16 at 23:49
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    @CaptainCranium in fact one of the professors at my alma mater did some illegal funded research for Saddam Hussein related to advanced weaponry. No one revoked his degree, but the Mossad assassinated him. – emory Apr 25 '16 at 0:00
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    @emory Exactly my point: if I misbehave(d) during my own studies then a university can retrospectively disown me, within its own policies. It cannot, however, do anything about the degree that it legitimately awarded me if it suddenly starts disapproving of my later Nazism, flat-Earthiness or oil painting. – Captain Cranium Apr 25 '16 at 0:11
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    @CaptainCranium In my location, degree awarding needs to be approved by Ministry of Education (MoE). If somebody is caught cheating, say plagiarism on their thesis, the MoE can revoke the degree. If someone hires somebody to write master's thesis, both the degree awardee and the ghost writer's degree would be revoked (assume the ghost writer did have a degree). I can find examples, but they are in Chinese (our language). I do not want to include here for reasons. – scaaahu Apr 25 '16 at 3:34
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The primary question is that: Is it legal to write someone else's master's thesis as work-for-hire?

No, it is not illegal in the US to ghostwrite someone else's thesis.

The source is a former Texas Tech professor who did this to get through hard times.

Your other question about what you should do has been beaten to death by other, highly-upvoted answers.

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    What in the OP's question leads you to believe this is about the US? – a CVn Apr 25 '16 at 14:29
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    @MichaelKjörling, I didn't any specification in the comments or question about what legal jurisdiction he was asking about, so I specified one. – user1717828 Apr 25 '16 at 14:54
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    How does it help if you jump to conclusions about where the OP is working/studying? – Yemon Choi Apr 25 '16 at 17:04
  • Moreover, without knowing more details of the case at hand, how do you know that the rules have not changed since 2009? – Yemon Choi Apr 25 '16 at 17:07
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    I also find the link to be an inadequate source (a HuffPo article from 2012, which does not link to any legal ruling, only the claim of the former TT prof.) – Yemon Choi Apr 27 '16 at 7:03
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If you are aware (or have enough reasons to believe) that your work is going to be used as a thesis, you may be considered a co-conspirator, a necessary accessory to crime, or something else, depending on your jurisdiction. So, in my non informed opinion, you are not legally safe.

You point out that there are many of these cases, and they seem to get away. The problem with a broken system is that, at some point, someone is bound to annoy the wrong person: think the surgeon operating on the minister's son, or the Dean's favourite student not getting the top grade, and then heads will roll, and you may find yourself being the scapegoat for the whole country.

Lastly, the existence of websites is not guarantee of legality. First of all, it will be difficult to find out who is actually behind it, and second, it may be difficult to enforce punishments. For example, I am based in Europe, and I am pretty sure if I started writing theses for US students, it would be nearly impossible for the Department of Education to get to me: they would have to get an extradition (if even possible), get my country to cancel my degree, etc. You, on the other hand, are in the same country, and therefore, accessible to the full weight of the law.

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    have enough reasons to believe as in having the phrase Master Thesis on the title page? – Ghanima Apr 24 '16 at 18:35
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    @Ghanima yeah. A prosecutor might use exactly that as evidence. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 4:37
6

In my country, cheating on the exams, plagiarizing, or getting someone to write your thesis are kind of normal. Imagine trying to remember formulas from your courses, to honestly solve your exam problems, while half of the people in the classroom have their textbooks on their knees and the proctor on the exam pretends he doesn't see. That was how my high-school graduation exam worked. "A mere formality", in the words of one of my teachers.

Now, you would expect this sort of academic dishonesty wouldn't go too far. It turns out that it works at the undergraduate level, too. Only this time, people are more mature, and in a 150 students class, so only 5 don't cheat on the exams, given the opportunity. Then there are the diploma theses. Everyone has to have one, but only 10-15 people go to advisors who are asking them to do actual research. Strangely enough, none of those 10-15 people gets to start a PhD at the university. They just leave the country for a place with a little less corruption.

Getting a PhD in my country follows a few distinct paths. The hard way is to find an advisor who has both a grant and interest for science. The easier ways are to be a professor's relative, or outright bribe a professor, or to be someone with political or financial power. To get the PhD the easy way, you only need a thesis. This is a formality. This is where OP comes in.

Once you have the thesis, the professor makes a thesis committee whose job is to award you the PhD. The committee, and the professor, cost you lots of money. Some professors want just money but there are others who like finer things like art and Japanese cuisine. In any case, this is well worth it. With a PhD you can be a researcher, an assistant professor, or a politician. As a professor, you are so untouchable that you can do things like throw all your students' notebooks over the window and pass the exam only the first ten who bring them back (sorry for not linking this, but I heard it on the bus).

Since the easy way is much easier than the hard way, we have lots of people in the system who just collect salaries. They also have permanent positions in the universities, while the guys who get the grants sit on unpaid "researcher" positions until they get fed up and leave the country.

So back to OP's question, yes, it's definitely wrong, but, if it was my country, the guy would get his thesis written anyway, even if he has to google translate the thesis of someone from Holland. The way to think about things is this: if there are enough people to turn a blind eye to academic dishonesty, soon enough their country would become like mine, i.e. a country whose former prime minister plagiarized his PhD thesis. Or where Italians come to get medical degrees from fake universities. In my country, mobsters, or politicians who happen to be jailed, can also write books in prison, and their term would be reduced. This is a small industry and it was started by another of our prime ministers (the advisor of the one who plagiarized his thesis) who also got jailed for corruption. The way this works, is you ask someone to write the book for you, and, then, there is a university professor to certify the book is scientific. Practically, in every university, there is a professor like that. I could name of the top of my head at least ten famous guys who produced valuable scientific works while in prison, while I barely wrote my own PhD thesis.

In conclusion, if you like how academia works in my country, sure, do the guy's thesis. Maybe you'll end up working for him.

3

Just let's treat this as a theoretical problem.

  1. We are now putting ethics aside and focusing on the legal aspect. (I BELIEVE that what I am presenting is COMMON - meaning that it is true for many countries, and for sure is in line with the European Union laws).
  2. If you do not have samples (let's say - patient's blood) you can pay a company that will arrange a clinical trial and pay the patients for participating in this trial. Data acquired this way are legal.
  3. If you do not have a PCR machine in the lab you can ask another company to do the PCR for you and pay them for it. This is legal.
  4. If you can not interpret the results you could pay a consulting company to write you a report, analyze the samples. You will have to pay them for it. It is legal. This report might be of course big and vast - meeting full requirements of a thesis. This is still legal.

BUT

If a person takes this report - discards the first page with the company's logo, writes his name on it and claims they have written it - this is illegal.

So writing a thesis/report for someone is actually legal, and it is best if you never knew what this is actually for.
The actual fraud is when a Ph.D. student signs a disclosure where he states that this work is his own.

Now if you know that this report is going to be used to commit fraud - then you should have ethical dilemmas - and they are there for a reason.

If you decide to write it anyway - do not tell anyone about it because it may cost you your academic career.

2

Let me complement the other answers by pointing out what and how helping with a thesis is legal and ethical:

  • Expert help during a thesis in itself is both legal and ethical.
    As @WojciechF points out that typical situations range from getting samples over measurements to data analysis. In addition, you'd typically discuss the interpretation with colleagues and your supervisor and in my field (natural sciences) having someone proofread your thesis is even recommended (and as legal as using spell correcting software).
    It is also legal and ethical for the student to pay someone to typeset their text and to make high-quality graphics/drawings/diagrams according to the student's instructions/draft and from the student's data (though that would be considered a luxury).
  • But the student (here: Germany) declares which help they had for the thesis. This has to include (typically in the form of acknowledgements) everyone from the TA that took samples/did measurements (who would not endanger instrument by letting other people's master students fiddle around with it) to the supervisor and colleagues for helpful discussion and advice and proofreading friends/family.
  • If that does not leave enough own work, there are no ethical problems but the student will fail because of poor performance. In order to avoid this, it is advisable to discuss with the supervisor beforehand which help will be obtained and what is the student's very own work in the thesis.

  • I'd also consider an opposite ethical point of view: for everything that is not to be done by the student and that is not considered luxury the institute/project and not the student should pay. This way, there is no discussion whether it is OK to have help for sampling, measurements, data analysis consulting.

I do consulting, also for students. However, that's on the basis that the institute pays (hired me as remote-working part-time postdoc instead of as a freelancer - but that'd just legal contract details).

If I had the impression someone may be tempted to omit the proper acknowledgements, here are some steps to take:

  • Ask the student whether this consulting has the OK of the supervisor. This can be done when asking who is to pay: the institute or the student. Suggest that the default is the institute should pay, and that you'll accordingly send an offer for the consulting to the institute.
    (business perspective: even though universities are very bad at paying in time)
  • In the consulting contract, make the student sign that
    • they will properly acknowledge this help in any work using the results of this consulting
    • as far as this consulting constitutes proper research authorship, you'll be co-author of any papers that use the results of this consulting
    • the use of figures/diagrams/tables in theses is permitted on proper acknowledgement ("Courtesy of ...."/"with kind permission by ...")
    • you'll get an electronic copy of the thesis (this gives you the means of checking whether your reserved copyrights are violated).
0

I don't feel competent to comment on the the legal or ethical aspects of your situation; my answer is strictly economical.

You should simply demand so much money that you would be equally happy whether your prospective client utilizes your services or not. (This principle is actually independent of the kind of service.)

  • this begs the question, as how much money to demand seems to depend on the legal and ethical risks of the proposition. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 4:31
-3

While being able to write up your own work is an important part of the education, the students who use these thesis writing services are not going to stay in academia, they only need to have a degree as a pure formality to get a job outside of academia. Usually, only a fraction of what they learned is of use to them. With very high tuition fees to deal with, these students often have multiple jobs and suffer from sleep deprivation as a result. From their perspective, it's quite reasonable to cut corners to get the degree they need asap.

We also need to keep in mind here that someone doing the thesis writing work won't be able to do a lot of nontrivial research work for the student. This means that if the student is able to outsource the bulk of the total effort for research and writing to a thesis writing service, then it follows that the research part is quite trivial. We can thus safely conclude that the academic value of such a degree is quite low, we're certainly not talking about Ph.D theses in hard sciences like physics or chemistry, instead it could be a master thesis in a soft science like sociology. But in practice, as I pointed out above, it's typically going to be used by students who need the degree as a pure formality.

As far as pure academic work is concerned, it is uncommon for people to not write up their own research work, but there are exceptional cases e.g. if a scientist suffers from dyslexia. Also, non-native English speakers may have difficulties writing up their scientific papers, Elsevier has a professional scientific writing service for such scientists.

Niels Bohr is a notable example of a great scientists who was so bad at writing that his mother had to write his thesis for him:

Bohr could never master the language he spoke or wrote. In fact in his school, Bohr’s worst subject had been Danish composition. It is said that even for writing a postcard Bohr would first prepare a draft. Bohr was not at all comfortable in writing. He dictated his entire doctoral thesis to his mother. While Bohr’s father thought that a PhD student should write his own thesis but his mother firmly believed the task was hopeless. Most of Bohr’s later work and correspondence was dictated to his wife and his secretaries or co-workers. He took long time to write a paper. Seven or eight drafts were very common. Bohr shaped his ideas while orally communicating with other fellow physicists.

In conclusion, while at first sight it may not look ethical to work for a thesis writing company, if we take into account the context in which these companies operates, that should lead to a different view. Context matters because it's no good applying very strict ethical norms selectively, e.g. if you don't want to work on ethical grounds for a thesis writing company and instead consider getting a job at McDonald's, are you then going to consider the ethics of selling Big Macs to obese people?

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    What's the name for that fallacy? Einstein failed 4th grade and became a great physicist, so can you? – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 4:33
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    "Usually only a fraction of what they learned is of use to them. So, I don't see an ethical problem here." This is what I contested and you are calling irrelevant. You should remove the irrelevant part of your answer in this case. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 5:15
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    Paraphrasing Stephen Jay Gould, a man does not achieve Bohr's status just by having difficulties writings, he must also be right. One thing is transcribing the student's work, another is writing the report by yourself and sell it finished. Also, what kind of job requires a MSc, and does not involve writing up reports, documentation, protocols, or similar? I honestly cannot think of any. – Davidmh Apr 25 '16 at 5:41
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    You seems to have misunderstood the question. The question is not about getting people to "write up your own work" (i.e. typesetting as in the Bohr example), but rather about getting people to do the whole research for you (including writing it up). Also "In academia you must of course be able to write up your own work" is not correct. Dictating a thesis to your mother/friend/secretary who types it in is perfectly OK even today. Having for example dyslectia does not exclude you from being a good scientists. – Winther Apr 25 '16 at 14:02
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    @CountIblis That argument can be used to justify almost any action and your last conjecture is wishful thinking at best. Anyway, thank you for clarifying your position and I appologize for suggesting that you might have misunderstood the question which was not the case. I don't have much more to say here except that I strongly disagree with your take on this. – Winther Apr 25 '16 at 17:42

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