I have been working very hard on my thesis and I have reached a point with my data where I am required to code.

I am no where near experienced in coding, and there is also not enought time left to learn it.

Simply, the coding is required to re-format the information and figures I already have.

I have used an external source (freelancer) to re-format my data and provide instructions as to how he has done it. I asked for instructions so I could carry out the task myself, and the reformatted data so I could check this against my work. Now, I am not sure if this is ethical and could compromise my degree?

I have not used the re-formatted data or instructions yet - as I am now unsure. I want to ask my supervisor about the ethics of using external assistance but I am unsure if this is a good idea?

In order to re-order my information and make it easier to process my initial formula instead of the manual way which I have been doing (there are close to 980,000 rows), the excel freelancer constructed a macro to essentially do the same work (which I still have not completed manually). I 100% want to give credit, and of course do not want to do anything unethical which is why I am asking here for advice.

What I mean by reformat is creating a macro/code that performs a process. I have been doing this manually and have not scratched the surface considering the large volume of data. The creation of the macro gives the same answers I have been getting manually. So essentially it is not creating anything new, except for the macro. I hope this clarifies things. Again, I do not want to pass any work as my own so I would appreciate any more advice!

What concerns me is that I paid this freelancer to create the macro, a very small fee. Nonetheless, it does not sit right with me. So, What exactly should I explain to my supervisor? Should I mention I have already found someone? Or will this raise suspicion?

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    What do you mean by "re-format"? Has the coder essentially just made aesthetic changes to your figures (and restructured the data to allow this)? I largely suspect that there's no problem here, but I'd be hesitant to tell you that it's fine when the details are a little vague. It would be perfectly fine to ask your supervisor for clarification though. As you've said, you've not used the figures yet, so if there is a problem then you know now not to use them.
    – Ian_Fin
    Oct 24, 2016 at 8:30
  • What's not ethical is passing (explicitly or implicitly) other people's work as yours. That being said, as long as only cosmetic changes (e.g. changing the style or labels of your figures, renaming table headers, switching the order of columns in a table, etc) have been made, you should be okay. But if this reformatting included some sort of analysis, or non-trivial modification, of your data, then you need to give credit where credit is due. Oct 24, 2016 at 8:43
  • Raise suspicion of what?
    – Ian_Fin
    Oct 24, 2016 at 9:23
  • If you have to do some arithmetic for your thesis, is it any different if you do it by hand or if you use a calculator? What if you buy the calculator especially? I'm not sure I understand your concern that paying a fee for this help changes things.
    – Ian_Fin
    Oct 24, 2016 at 9:34
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3 Answers 3


From what you've said in your question, it doesn't sound like there's a problem here. You said the information and the figures are your own, you've just had some assistance with making the data easier to work with.

It doesn't sound like what's been done is much different than if someone had pointed out that Excel already has a function that does what you were doing in a more streamlined fashion. Of course, this would be perfectly fine.

It's quite common for a student to have had the help of someone else in the course of working towards their thesis. This is particularly the case in technical matters like coding. You just have to make sure that you acknowledge their assistance appropriately (typically, by saying in your Acknowledgements that they provided assistance with your data). It's perfectly acceptable to get help from other people in your work. Seeking advice from people whose expertise is different to your own is an extremely common part of academic work. Where it becomes problematic is when you don't acknowledge that the advice came from someone else, and you (even inadvertently) pass it off as your own. I don't see that the fee changes this at all.

If you want to know for certain that this is acceptable then you should obviously ask your supervisor. Just explain the situation in full and ask "Is it okay to include this work in my thesis?" The thesis has not been submitted yet. So in the case that what you have done is inappropriate then no damage has been done. You would just ensure that the figures that appear in the thesis were not those that the freelancer produced.


When in doubt, give credit.

As Ian_Fin states, this doesn't sound like an ethical problem. But it never hurts to be explicit in stating, either as a citation, or as an acknowledgement, that you had assistance.

There are two cases here. Either there is no problem, and giving an explicit acknowledgement changes nothing to do with your thesis, or there was a problem, and you've made the ethically correct decision by being honest about it.

Unless you're getting a degree in Excel formatting, and showing that ability was the point of the thesis, I don't see this as a likely problem.


If you can manipulate a smaller dataset, say 20 rows, to reach the same stage of data manipulation, which you reach after the excel help, there is no new subject matter content added by the excel helper.

It might hurt if you mention it, verbally or in writing, because one can never be sure how much the reader would understand about the extent of help received.

But be sure to not use the excel file directly provided by the excel expert. Use the given instructions and generate it yourself, so that you can ensure repeatibility of the analysis as well as instruct others, if need be. If you cannot do it without help from that person, there would be no option than to acknowledge the assistance.

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