One of my colleagues was teaching an introductory programming course this past spring. He discovered several students cheating by taking code from a public GitHub repository, which contained all the answers for this class. This repository already had an issue opened on it by a professor from another large school, who requested that it be taken down because his students were using it to cheat. No response.

Fortunately, the student left some identifying information in the comments, which we were able to use to determine that he attends our school, in our department. We attempted to contact him to request that he remove the offending code--unfortunately, emails to both his departmental email and his GitHub email went unanswered.

The department has a student code of conduct which states that students must take "all reasonable precautions" to prevent others from using their work. While this student is clearly in violation of that, we can't exactly fail him out of a course he passed over a year ago, and failing him out of course he's currently taking seems petty.

We've considered escalating this to the department, but we're not sure if the department can actually do anything about this. Can a department in the US punish a student for helping other students cheat even if the student is not taking the class where the cheating is occurring? If so, what should be done? If not, might there be anyone at the school that can do anything? This is a large, public state school.

  • Related, but doesn't deal with what to do if the offense has already occurred:academia.stackexchange.com/questions/34134/…
    – chipbuster
    Jul 11, 2017 at 2:56
  • Does your school have a Code of Honour? Jul 11, 2017 at 3:03
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    Related: the last part of my answer here.
    – ff524
    Jul 11, 2017 at 3:18
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    My opinion on this is always the same: instead of spending time chasing students who don't comply to more and more complicated code of conducts, avoid reusing the same assignments every year, and be the first to give the solutions. Jul 11, 2017 at 6:30
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    I don't see why this is a misconduct and why it's the student's fault. Was the solution created by the lecturer when the student in question uploaded it? Was the material protected by anf form such as a notice, not for further distribution? Can point exactly why you think the code is offending?
    – Pioneer83
    Sep 16, 2018 at 9:09

4 Answers 4


Can a department in the US punish a student for helping other students cheat even if the student is not taking the class where the cheating is occurring?

I don't know what you can do legally, but morally I think it would be wrong to try to prevent the student from making his/her coursework from past years' courses public. Making the work public could help the student market themselves to prospective employers, and has multiple other benefits for both the student (ego boost, impressing friends, fulfilling an altruistic desire to provide a useful internet resource they worked hard to create, gaining valuable experience using github, and more) and the internet (people from all over the world could download and use the code). Who are you and your colleagues to say that your selfish needs of not having such code available for download online because it facilitates cheating by your colleague's students are more important than the needs of the student and others who can genuinely benefit from the student's work? I think your premise that the student is doing something wrong is simply incorrect.

If so, what should be done? If not, might there be anyone at the school that can do anything?

Yes, something could be done; you and your colleague could free yourselves of the harmful mindset of trying to control what your students are doing with coursework they worked hard to create after they finish taking your classes. As Massimo Ortolano suggests in the comments, stop taking the easy way out of giving the same assignments year after year and then blaming others for how easy it is for your students to cheat, and instead put in the work to give original assignments.

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    +1, absolutely. Also, github seems to goad people into making their repositories public: If you start a private repository while you're on a university plan and then lose your university plan, you are faced with the choice of paying for your own plan, deleting your repository, or seeing it become public. This is actually a great way of nudging people towards open source (while also perhaps being a source of income for github); the slight collateral damage to teachers who don't bother coming up with new assignments is worth it in my opinion. Jul 11, 2017 at 9:43
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    I suppose you're right. It'll probably take me a few years to completely shake my current mindset though--I'm a (relatively) fresh grad student who came out of a chemistry undergrad, and there's a completely different attitude towards this kind of stuff there. Thanks (and thanks to @ff524) for the different views.
    – chipbuster
    Jul 11, 2017 at 15:29
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    I strongly disagree with the first part of this answer. The moral compass is not foremost to point to promotion of the student's efforts. It is to point to engendering full respect for the Student Code of Conduct. By example, the student can make a portfolio of his/her code and show it to prospective employers privately. Your premise that students have a preeminent right to promote themselves and to boost their ego in a way that entirely ignores an established, respectable code of conduct is misplaced. Dec 5, 2018 at 14:42
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    @JeffreyJWeimer you are entitled to your opinion, but I find your position needlessly authoritative and inconsiderate of student’s needs to build their careers and market themselves publicly in today’s competitive world. It also stands in stark contrast to the much more enlightened view expressed for example by ff524 in this answer. As for the student code of conduct, “respect” for it should be earned by said code of conduct making only reasonable, ethically justifiable requirements of students.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 5, 2018 at 16:29
  • The idea that adhering to a Code of Conduct that requests all reasonable precaution against others using one's work violates, restricts, or unduly limits the ability of students to build their careers by marketing themselves is a false dichotomy. Enlightened "views" are just opinions standing in stark contrast; they offer nothing else (except perhaps grounds to build a false premise). The big picture is that work done under a set of guidelines is to respect those guidelines, not ignore them just because another opinion (i.e. a supposedly "more enlightened view") implies the right to do so. Dec 5, 2018 at 23:40

Actually, yes, a department can sanction a student for posting his or her work online. But a better question is should they, and under what circumstances.

For situations such as this, I think the intent of the student is essential to know. But it is difficult to learn the intent. It is possible, of course, to speak with the student about intent, but if it was improper intent you aren't likely to learn much.

As other posters have said here there are a lot of valid reasons for students to post their own work online, so, in general, it is probably a mistake to forbid it, though it is possible to make online posting a general issue in the institution's or the professor's published rules.

However, the best solution is to use assignments for which online searching don't help enough to make the effort worthwhile, as others here have also said.

One possible, even recommended, solution is to allow the student to use any sources that they can find, but to cite the sources precisely, whether it is wikipedia or anything else. This can have several beneficial outcomes, including having students learn about proper citation.

  • Wish I could accept two at once. I think the citation solution is probably the best solution in the case that creating original assignments every semester is infeasible.
    – chipbuster
    Dec 6, 2018 at 0:00
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    @chipbuster Exactly. Teach students about the Code of Conduct, the Copyright Policy at your university (you must have one right?), the Fair Use Guidelines to the Copyright Law, and Patent rights. Teach them so that, when they move forward next year, they appreciate why they will not post their code on GitHub for the classes that follow. Dec 6, 2018 at 0:12

If don't see the problem - the students who reused the code were caught for their plagiarism: If you lift code directly from a public repo, you are likely to get caught be a plagiarism scan.

If the students are just using public repos to get a grip on the shape of the solution then they are just doing what thousands of professional programmers do every day. This is why StackExchange was invented. We actively encourage our students from googling stuff, adapting others code is how most programmers learn to code.


First ... Can some form of punishment be carried out? With the statement as phrased in the Student Code of Conduct, perhaps a case might be built. The case would ask whether the action by the student is truly in violation of the guideline/requirement to take all reasonable precautions to prevent others from using his work. At its core, the question is whether the action was done out of ignorance or with intent. As this is a civil case not a criminal one, only the latter has grounds to move the case forward at all. Along with the question of can some form of punishment be carried out, the companion question is what is suitable punishment. Since you have not asked, I will not venture.

Second ... Should such an action be initiated? That is a question to ask of your Provost and your Legal Affairs Office. At a minimum, they should be made aware of the issue and offer you advice on their stand.

Third ... Will this happen again? You bet!

Finally, even when assignments are changed to try to get around this problem, resources exist that will tempt students to just "copy and paste" an answer. I therefore also suggest explaining to the class the reasoning behind the Code and bigger policies such as Copyright and Patents. The intent is to teach students so that they do not fear that they cannot look outside for resources or must otherwise hide their actions behind a mantle of secrecy. It is to teach them the right way to do what they want to do anyway.

  • Okay, I'll admit I was a little irritated when I wrote this question, but expulsion seems way overboard. I think your last paragraph is quite good though, and something that we don't cover enough.
    – chipbuster
    Dec 6, 2018 at 0:02
  • @chipbuster You did not ask what penalty. You only asked CAN a penalty be applied. Where you thinking perhaps of slapping the student's wrist? In any case, I will remove the statement about expulsion. Dec 6, 2018 at 0:04
  • A fair point. When I wrote the question I suppose I was hoping there would be some intermediate solution between failing the student retroactively and slapping their wrist, but I guess no such thing exists.
    – chipbuster
    Dec 6, 2018 at 0:11
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    @chipbuster: at our school, what we often do for cases like this is put a statement of what happened in their file, so if they ever do anything like this again, people will know it is a second offense, and they will get a more severe punishment. (And of course, talk with the student, explain why what they did was unethical, and tell them that the note is going in their file.) Unfortunately, this won't work unless there's some central authority who is keeping the files. Dec 6, 2018 at 0:15

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