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I have the definite suspicion, that a fellow PhD student in my department hired someone else on a freelance cloud working platform to do his work. I saw him/her using the website of this platform several times and even found a very specific job posting. Despite the limited details in that posting, I'm 99 % sure that it is from him/her.

How should I behave? Should I confront him/her first, or should I directly go to his/her advisor? How to substantiate my suspicion and be 100 % sure? Should I fake-apply to that posting to get more details?

As asked in the comments: The suspicious job posting is about developing new research and is not related to editing or proof-reading etc. The posting offers several tens of thousands of dollars.

EDIT: I would like to thank you for the very good answers. You've all really helped me deal with this case. All the answers are somehow correct, but I accepted the answer that suggested to me, what I finally did. Our university has confidants/obmbudspersons for unethical academic practices to whom I have reported the suspicion.

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    Then my next question would be in what field you can expect PhD-level original research from a crowdsourcing service. Honestly, I would not be overly concerned of this scheme working out. – xLeitix Sep 9 '17 at 13:42
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    If it's just monkey work I would not worry about it. – Herman Toothrot Sep 9 '17 at 13:45
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    "Should I fake-apply to that posting to get more details?" Definitely not. – Karl Sep 9 '17 at 14:24
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    I also do not expect PhD-level work to come from such a service. -- Then what's the problem? – Mad Jack Sep 9 '17 at 15:22
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    @FixedPoint: there are plenty of rich people who want a PhD not do research but because it looks good on their resume and helps them advance in a political career etc. Often enough these hire out their PhD work... and sometimes get plagiarized works for their money (which is discovered to be so, much much later). It happened to some EU politicians... – Fizz Sep 10 '17 at 5:59

13 Answers 13

32

All universities have a Research, Grants, & Contracts office that is staffed with trained personnel to respond directly to reports of unethical / illegal conduct, and fraudulent or wasteful activities. Research facilities should have notices posted that explain how to contact them, including how to submit an anonymous report. You can also look up the contact information in your school's directory website.

That is the correct way to follow up. Doing anything yourself would only jeopardize or compromise their ability to conduct a legitimate investigation.

  • 3
    A thousand times this. You wouldn't investigate gunshots and screams outside your house. You bolt the door and call the police. Let the experts handle it so 1) you don't get hurt and 2) you don't contaminate the scene – corsiKa Sep 11 '17 at 21:06
84

First of all, I'd like to express my opinion that none of us here have the moral authority to tell you what to do, and you should be suspicious of anyone telling you that you definitely should or should not do this or that. This situation is very serious and you are the one who will be living with the consequences of your actions, not us anonymous (or not) internet strangers.

Instead of telling you what to do, I thought it may be helpful to list the choices you have and each one's pros and cons. Here they are as I see them:

1. Continue to investigate by sending a fake application to the job posting.

Pros: through such an investigation you will be helping (if your suspicions prove correct) to expose a very serious ethical breach (bordering on a criminal offense of conspiring to commit fraud) by the student in question, and helping to rid your department, university, and the academic world of someone who clearly has no business being there.

Cons:

  • You will likely incur the wrath and hatred of the student you will be investigating (and possibly his family members, friends, and even other grad students in the program) later on when he finds out you were the one who sent the fake application that helped expose him.

  • You may very possibly be suspected of sending in a real application, which would implicate you in unethical behavior yourself and cause you to get in serious trouble. Make sure to document your activities in a way that clearly establishes your honorable intentions. Even then, you could end up being accused in some unexpected way of causing harm or even doing something illegal by your meddling.

  • By choosing such a high level of involvement in what sounds like a very messy affair, you may cause yourself a lot of wasted time and emotional entanglement later on (e.g., being debriefed or interviewed by university officials and administrative investigation committee, even having to testify in court some day).

The bottom line is that this course of action carries a significant amount of risk and potential for trouble for you.

2. Continue to investigate by asking the student about his activities as one of the answers suggests.

Pros: can't think of any. Someone so immoral would almost certainly just lie and you will gain no information.

Cons: by asking him what he's doing you will alert him to the fact that his current deception scheme is too easily detectable, making it likely that he will come up with a better, less transparent scheme, and ultimately helping him to defraud the university.

3. Do nothing, just ignore what the student is doing and mind your own business.

Pros: no work for you, no wasted time and emotional entanglement in a messy scandal, no colleagues who hate you for getting them expelled from school, etc.

Cons: you will have to live with the knowledge and potential guilt and shame associated with having known about the student's possible unethical and maybe illegal behavior and done nothing. The student will go on to fraudulently receive his PhD and your university'a reputation may suffer as a result. Your own degree may be worth a little less as a result. In a small but real way, all of society will suffer.

4. Report your suspicions to the chair of your department and/or the student's advisor and/or other appropriate university officials.

Pros: you don't become involved in the affair in a messy, major way, but will likely lead to the student being exposed if he is in fact guilty. You will also know that you did the morally right thing by reporting the student and won't have to live with the guilt and shame of having done nothing.

Cons:

  • you may still eventually become known as the person who helped expose the student (you can try an anonymous complaint if you want to keep yourself completely out of the story, but I think that will be less effective and would make it harder to prove the student's guilt), with the possible animosity and other negative consequences I described above. However, the level of animosity would likely be less great than in the scenario where you submit a fake application.

  • you won't get the satisfaction, excitement, and superhero feeling that you might get by becoming actively involved in the investigation and playing private detective as in the suggestion to submit a fake application.


To summarize, you probably want a recommendation about which action to choose, but as I said, I don't think it's right to offer one. You will have to make your own decision, but hopefully the analysis above may still be helpful. Good luck!

  • 3
    Re #1, why would sending in a real application to do certain work, especially if it's in a field you have some expertise in, be considered unethical? The OP specifically states that since this is on-line, s/he does not know for sure that the job is posted by her fellow student. From what's in the question, it could equally well be the fellow student using that website because s/he is looking for work. – jamesqf Sep 9 '17 at 17:50
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    You will likely incur the wrath and hatred of the student...you were the one who sent the fake application that helped expose him.So what? Why should anyone care what unethical people think of them? – JeffE Sep 9 '17 at 20:07
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    @JeffE: so what? That's up to OP to decide, but surely this effect deserves to be noted; some people don't like to be hated. Also the part of my quote you left out in your "..." is potentially more significant. There could be very real consequences for OP for "incurring the wrath and hatred" of others, and it would be foolish to ignore that possibility. – Dan Romik Sep 9 '17 at 20:14
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    If it were me, I would have added another con to the last option: there is a possibility that the student is not doing anything wrong, but the adviser may not be so careful and he/she may overreact and soon come to a conclusion that ruins the student's life. – polfosol Sep 10 '17 at 15:27
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    @DanRomik There is also the "con" that by letting somebody get a PhD they don't deserve and could not get without cheating, they go on to actually harm people or even kill them. In mathematics, engineering and computer science (all my fields, and I am a PhD) we deal with issues of life and death. Some of my work is used by the FAA in judging commercial aircraft safety; I've done CS work in pharmaceutical drug safety, a fellow PhD developed code for an embedded defibrillator. It depends on the PhD, but letting an incompetent fraud into some fields could cause real harm and real deaths. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 12 '17 at 17:31
29

Assume good faith (while being aware that this is not always actually given).

If the job posting is indeed quite close to what that PhD student is doing, then sent an email to the student and their supervisor with a link to that posting. Just something brief, like "I just saw this posting, and it reminded me of your project. Maybe you want to check it out?". If the posting is not from the student, they might want to get in contact with the actual poster. You have helped.[1] If the posting is from the student, but is legitimate, then no harm is done. If the posting is an attempt by the student to pass off others work as their own, their supervisor will not be caught unaware, but you are not involving yourself in any drama directly[2].

If the posting itself does not relate to the project, and it is only in conjunction with you seeing the student using that website that you got suspicious, then the evidence is sufficiently weak that I would recommend forgetting about it. Trying to investigate is more likely to cause a mess that to improve the situation.

Footnote: [1] Contrary to what some of the commenters mentioned, I would not discount this case. I can perfectly well imagine a situation where the job posting itself is very similar to a PhD project, yet surrounding circumstances make the poster absolutely sure that it is not from the PhD student. Maybe some technology being developed by a PhD student is of interest to some start-up? "Write a short note to student and advisor." would be my recommendation, then, too. Thus, jumping to conclusions is avoidable for both sender and receiver (and should be avoided).

[2] Just to clarify: Of course there is significant risk that the student or others will blame you somehow. However, this is others involving you in the drama, rather than you jumping in head-first.

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    I agree with every part of this post -- especially the "assume good faith" part -- except for your assertion that ...you are not involving yourself in any drama directly. Your name is on that email -- at that point, you're involved no matter what, and I would fully expect that (in the worst case) that student could seek retribution. But it's still IMO the right thing to do, and the way you propose is probably the best way to do it. – tonysdg Sep 9 '17 at 18:59
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    The email you are suggesting is very transparently disingenuous. OP may as well write "I just saw this posting and I am pretty sure that [name of student] is trying to pay someone to do his thesis work for him. [name of adviser], maybe you want to check it out, and come talk to me for more details on why I am suspicious?" If you're going to send such an email, it's a bad idea to copy the student on it... – Dan Romik Sep 9 '17 at 19:12
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    If you send such an email to your advisor, prepare for them to ask you why you're cruising a website for freelance work. Don't you already have enough work of your own? – JeffE Sep 9 '17 at 20:05
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    CC'ing the adviser is basically an attack. I don't think a professor or a Ph.D. student will be dumb enough to assume innocent intentions on your part. You might as well come out and say it directly instead of beating around the bush. – Mehrdad Sep 9 '17 at 21:11
  • @tonysdg I'm not claiming that sending such an email will have no consequences for the OP. The stress in that sentence is on "directly", no promises for "indirectly". – Arno Sep 10 '17 at 8:05
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tl;dr: Ask your own adviser.

Describe the situation (keep the person anonymous) and let your adviser suggest what to do.

If you care, make it a case to him that you think it will devalue your degree as well as the department's reputation to have the department award the same Ph.D. degree to someone who is not putting in an honest effort like you, especially if this later comes out as a scandal. This should make it clear that you don't view silence as an option, but that you also don't know how to proceed.

If you are sure he can't guess whom the student would be, bring examples of the work and the post online, showing their similarities and asking him to make a judgment.

If internal politics (e.g. between your adviser and his) might prevent your adviser from acting on this, then maybe go to another (ideally, tenured) faculty member in the department whom you trust.

In any case, what I would NOT do is to go to anyone in the student's reporting chain.
This could be seen as an attack on everyone below and may make things worse for yourself.

8

Oh my goodness, I'm startled by the tone of so many of the responses here.

You have a duty to report what you've seen to the Graduate Chair or the Department Chair. Investigating is not your job but it is theirs.

  • I'm surprised this isn't the most upvoted response. It's succinct and really the only right answer, I think. +1. – MPW Sep 12 '17 at 21:41
4

Just innocently ask him about it. If he's evasive or incoherent, you know there is something fishy going on, and you can tell him he's stupid, endangering his own, your profs and thereby also your reputation etc. If you find he still tries to afterwards, you can still turn him in.

Or you find what he's trying to outsource is totally legit, and that's it.

3

First of all, make sure before you act on reporting potential academic dishonesty to some seniors whether the adviser or the departmental chair since the false accusations often create negative perception on the person who is accused, and it also creates distrust and disarray within the environment. Both are harmful to a research lab or group of colleagues.

I have witnessed similar situations where a friend or a colleague hired an undergrad or ms researcher, or used outside freelancer experts in small parts of a project to expedite the progress of the project. They resorted freelancer way when the job requires certain expertise that noone in the office has, or the job is some drudgery AND outsourced job does not violate the confidentiality if the project is funded by a private party.

Moreover, I believe a person who plans to commit academic dishonesty would not use office or school's network to do that. Or I would call that, excuse my language, a dumb move.

Instead of directly confronting and accusing him of whatever you think based on what you see on his computer's screen, I suggest just casually open the topic asking him whether he is doing freelance work or looking for a freelancer that you noticed while you had a glance at his computer. I think his behavior will give the answer whether he is hiding something or not.

Also, I like to point out that as an engineering PhD with many international students from different nations I noticed that the perception of plagiarism or academic dishonesty is different and mostly they have not faced or witnessed with a situation with harsh consequences such as being dismissed or expelled from the school. That's why sometimes they don't really think. Maybe the person is not aware of that he is committing academic dishonesty.

Remember, who starts up in anger sits down with a loss, so make sure of what's going on before taking actions.

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    "Maybe the person is not aware of that he is committing academic dishonesty" ... by offering to pay someone several tens of thousands of dollars to do their thesis work? Are you serious? – Dan Romik Sep 9 '17 at 23:12
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    @DanRomik Yes, I am serious. As I served in international student advocacy boards, and helped settle them down, and be a bridge between academic institutions and student to adapt to new environment, even if you don't believe, there is a difference of the definition of and what is considered as cheating, plagiarism, or academic dishonesty or misconduct across culture. And easy google with an easy case is here: insidehighered.com/news/2007/05/24/cheating – kukushkin Sep 10 '17 at 1:22
  • @DanRomik I don't think the money sum has anything to do with it. Some people just are stupid. ... I got such two such "offers" in the past (as someone without any particular reason why I'm the target) Both times, the person had trouble understanding why I became pissed. Reaction summary: "But ... but ... everyone is doing it...?? whine". Yeah lol. – deviantfan Sep 10 '17 at 1:23
3

Only proceed with your investigation if you understand how anonymity works in the Internet. Don't use your regular Internet connection, or an e-mail account that you have connected to using your regular Internet connection, at any point in this. Learn how to use Tor, or do everything using a public Internet connection which couldn't be traced back to you geographically. That is, don't just go to McDonald's next to the campus (or even worse, next to your house). If you have a chance, ask someone completely unrelated to your university to reformulate whatever messages you're planning to send in their own words, or use Google Translate to translate your own writing to a different language and back, then edit the result into a reasonable form while keeping as much structure and vocabulary as you can.

If you do obtain evidence, keep in mind that the plagiarism occurs only when the student actually submits their work for review or publication, so alert your institution only when (or if) it actually happens.

  • This is great advice. – mathreadler Sep 13 '17 at 14:44
1

Have you considered the possibility that the person is on the other side of the transaction... may be using the platform to try and make a little extra money helping others for example bachelors or masters students?


If you are indeed right then anyway there will be times in the PhD programme where (s)he will be required to present the work among peers : conferences, seminars, group meetings , collaboration seminars with other groups, the dissertation and possibly also half-time seminars.

(S)he should then be bustable on not being able to respond to questions or criticism about the work in the case that (s)he has not done it / and-or does not understand it.

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    Indeed, I already thought of that. But I think this is very unlikely because of the specific topic of the research project. – GetsWorkDone Sep 11 '17 at 7:53
  • @GetsWorkDone : Well then it should become obvious for anyone who who actually knows anything of the topic to ask a few well directed questions to him/her and see if (s)he knows what (s)he is talking about. If (s)he doesn't, well then that will reflect badly on the institution that supposedly would hand out that diploma. – mathreadler Sep 11 '17 at 7:59
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    You don't say it explicitly but it sounds like your advice is "do nothing, if he is guilty then he will fail anyway". Is that correct? – Dan Romik Sep 11 '17 at 17:46
  • No you are not correct. – mathreadler Sep 11 '17 at 17:53
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    @DanRomik even after reading all the comments I still read the 'answer' as 'do nothing he will fail anyway'. In the comments it's suddenly about OP asking questions but in the answer itself it clearly talks about peers, conferences, seminars etc. So no strawman, just a reasonable question imho. – Stijn de Witt Sep 13 '17 at 9:17
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I would suggest you to spend your time working on your PhD. A PhD is not a competition, and generally there is no need to look over your peer's shoulders for suspicious activity, nor is it your responsibility. As another answer puts it, assume good faith.

What you have here is a suspicion of academic dishonesty based on (what I hope) a chance and unintentional glimpse of their computer screen. Let us ask this hypothetical question: how would you feel if someone saw you browsing the same sites and suspected you of academic dishonesty? And what if they went to speak to your advisor or department head about it? Or if they started shadowing your web browsing or postings to find dirt on you?

The reason I give this answer is because suspicion is potentially harmful to the suspected individual and detrimental to the work environment. I've made these clarifications in light of the downvotes.

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    So if you see a crime happening (or reasonably expect a crime to be happening), you should just ignore it? – Muschkopp Sep 9 '17 at 14:23
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    ‘To be blunt, what does it matter to you?’ Firstly, if widespread fraud is tolerated for a qualification, that qualification becomes meaningless. A PhD demonstrates that you're able to do research in your chosen field, which is important for employers looking for researchers; if we let people buy PhDs, they become useless for this purpose. Secondly, some degrees qualify people for jobs with serious, real-world consequences. What did it matter that Gerald Shirtcliff faked his engineering degree? It mattered when he designed a building that collapsed, killing 115 people. – Pont Sep 9 '17 at 15:11
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    Downvoters are missing an important point; there is only the suspicion of academic dishonesty by one student of another. And what a jump of logic to go from a suspicion of plagiarism to "crime" to faking degrees and causing deaths. Are we to overlook the potential effects of wrongly suspecting someone based on suspicion alone? Frankly I find the behavior of the OP suspecting someone (not even from the same group I'm assuming) of fraud, watching his web browsing, and going so far as fake-applying a suspicious posting to be ridiculous. – user44476 Sep 9 '17 at 16:17
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    “And what a jump of logic to go from a suspicion of plagiarism to "crime" to faking degrees…” Perhaps we have a misunderstanding as to the term ‘fake’. When I stated that Shirtcliff ‘faked his engineering degree’, I meant that he got someone else to do his Master’s for him, as is the suspected case here for a PhD. I’m not arguing for any verdict of guilt or innocence, or any course of action (which would merit an answer, not a comment). I’m just answering your question: “What does it matter?”. – Pont Sep 9 '17 at 17:10
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    "Downvoters are missing an important point; there is only the suspicion of academic dishonesty ..." Yeah, and it is only that suspicion that would get reported. What's your point? If people cannot act on suspicions, when should they act? Should the police not arrest people when they are suspected of crimes? Should airport security allow suspected terrorists on flights? Should workers not report a suspected embezzler because they could end up being wrong and suspicion is "detrimental to the work environment"? Your logic contradicts all known ways in which our society actually operates. – Dan Romik Sep 9 '17 at 23:25
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Tough one.

If you're right, it's dishonest, though you are then up against the problem that the advisor may not want to admit that this is going on in their group. Say anything and you may not make yourself very popular.

In fairness to yourself, this needs to be as anonymous as possible - as far as advisors are concerned. If you do anything, talk to the department chair. Most will not want this kind of academic dishonesty in their department, you certainly should not investigate yourself since it's the department's responsibility, and taking you away from your responsibilities.

Talking to the chair is far less likely to result in a nasty situation, since his advisor will have no idea if it was a student or some member of the office staff that found it.

  • Yep neither advisor nor institution or university or financer is likely to want to admit that happening so the naive interpretation of my response that they would be "failed" just because skilled individuals will see through them is plain... well... naiive. – mathreadler Sep 13 '17 at 14:38
0

Besides Dan Romik's suggestions, which provide good details into the consequences of all actions that were raised in the question, I would also consider another approach:

  1. Instead of fake-applying to the suspicious job posting, contact the freelancer's website and explain the situation.

    Pros: with the information you provide:

    1. The website's team may consider that the job posting goes against their policies and remove it from their website.
    2. An opportunity may arise to know further details of the person who posted it in subsequent replies, e.g. they try to confirm the relation you are trying to establish (with this feedback information the suspicion may be more easily cleared out).
    3. You may remain anonymous.

    Cons:

    1. The website's team may ignore your information.
    2. Part of the information you gave may be sent to the poster in order to explain the conflict, which may lead to the poster knowing more about you.
    3. If the website considers and removes that post and if it was indeed your colleague, it may not stop him from posting in other websites (perhaps in a more obscure way).

A personal note, think carefully of what information you may disclose to anyone without having the chance to be related to you or, in the end, affecting you personally. If the poster is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for that research, they may also be willing to generously pay others in order to keep "disturbances" out of the scope...

  • If I were to run a freelancing website, I'd avoid doing anything that had even a remote change of getting me sued for disclosure of personal information. And in case of a backfire, keeping the OP's identity secret would not be my priority. And I certainly wouldn't remove a posting which earns me money (assuming the site gets a fee) without sufficient proof. – Dmitry Grigoryev Sep 12 '17 at 13:42
  • @DmitryGrigoryev valid points. I am not experienced in solving legal conflicts, but I presume that if the posting is proven to be related to a research that is developed by an university which holds some rights to it, the website may decide to avoid the risk of profiting with something that may end up being illegal. – Armfoot Sep 12 '17 at 14:15
  • @DmitryGrigoryev A privacy policy example: "We will disclose information about you to ... private parties as we believe ... appropriate to respond to claims and legal process (including but not limited to subpoenas), at the request of ... third parties conducting an investigation, to protect the property and rights of ... a third party, ... or to prevent activity we may consider to be ... illegal, fraudulent, unethical or legally actionable activity" I needed to cut parts since I couldn't paste all of it in this comment. – Armfoot Sep 12 '17 at 14:17
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    Judging by the amount of homework related offers that can be found in some freelancing webs, preventing cheating doesn't seem to be among the site managers priorities. – Pere Sep 12 '17 at 16:53
  • @Pere homework cheating may be indeed impossible to prevent by freelancer websites, but a PhD thesis is far from being simple homework and may be seen as far more important to the interested party (i.e. university teachers, researchers and the community that will later review it and have a reputation to maintain). – Armfoot Sep 12 '17 at 18:07
0

Is what he is doing illegal or against any academic code at your institute?

I can't think of any code that prevents you from using other person's services unless you are doing plagiarism or being dishonest about the hours that you put in the work or what you actually did for research.

For example, you cannot have somebody else write a paper and put your name on it without you actually being involved in the research, but there is nothing wrong with having someone doing some experiments for you, and create a table of results under your supervision. Specially when this is related to repetitive manual work. Isn't that what post-docs or senior PhD's do all the time? Or isn't this what automation with a computer script do in many situations?

Unless you know for a fact that what he is doing is illegal, I would say it is none of your business.

Also, as others mentioned, even what he is doing is illegal, unless I was in charge, I would not start investigating it myself, but I would just report it to someone who actually is in charge.

  • Any PhD dissertation is supposed to be the original work of the candidate; the dissertation as a whole is an "original contribution to the field". Any work in the PhD that is somebody else's work must be credited to the other person; it is then up to the committee to decide if using somebody else's work invalidates the "original contribution" requirement. If somebody else does work for the candidate, including grunt work like coding or categorizing samples or does some artwork, they must be credited. Proofreading for spelling/grammar/English does not have to be credited (at my univ anyway). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 12 '17 at 17:41
  • @Amadeus: Then he is violating the rules only if he doesn't credit that person at the end, not during. Many research projects hire interns, undergrad students etc to do some work for them. I don't see the difference here. I agree that he must credit them though if that is clearly mentioned in the rules (and it is also ethical to do so). But I would suggest to the OP not to unnecessarily fall into the nosiness trap. – Ari Sep 12 '17 at 17:49

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