I’m an undergraduate student, and I find that multiple times (each week), I have an obsessive need to make sure something I’m doing is allowed/accepted. I do this by asking the TA/Professor for my course in question. It’s usually situations where it’s almost certain that something I’m doing is ethical, but I feel the need to ask for each instance if the professor did not explicitly state the rules. Some examples:

  • A little while back I asked my professor if thesauruses were allowed, and if I had to cite them. Based on common sense, I was over 95% sure it was fine – even on the university library website, links were given to a few online thesauruses. When I asked my prof, he said that it was absolutely fine, and that thesauruses did not have to be cited.

  • My professor for another course mentioned that certain calculators were not allowed on tests (the kind of calculator I currently have). I wondered if I could still use my calculator on assignments, and I assumed I probably could since he only mentioned tests. I asked the TA about it, and he said I could.

  • I was wondering if I could use my course notes while doing an assignment. I was always allowed to do this in high school, and I was 99 % certain it would be okay. I asked the TA about it, and he replied that it’s completely okay.

I want to earn a degree that was done in perfect ethical standing. I feel that if I don’t ensure every single thing I’m doing is completely ethical, then inevitably a few of my actions will be unethical over the four years.

I don’t want to have to keep pestering my professors about every single detail, as it wears on me and also (I’m sure) will wear on them. At the same time, I have the problem I discussed above. Should I just accept that it's pretty much impossible for anyone to finish a degree with a 100% ethical standing? Any advice/experience would be greatly appreciated.

  • 64
    Ethics are subjective (google if you don't believe me). Just use common sense. To say it differently: you should work on developing your own good sense of ethics instead of relying on the opinion(!) of others.
    – Louic
    Sep 24, 2017 at 10:26
  • 8
    Can you clarify your actual motive here: "I want to earn a degree that was done in perfect ethical standing"? Why is this/what are the motives? By which I mean 1) does this has some positive outcome, or some fear of some negative outcome you want to avoid? 2) who will be judging or assessing it ("who's it for") is it just for your own self image and self perception, because it will please you if you do or depress you if you don't, or because one or more other people might see you positively or critically, and reward/punish you? 3) is this a general thing in your life and if so...
    – Stilez
    Sep 24, 2017 at 13:15
  • 3
    ... how have you and others seen it in the past, and how has it played out?
    – Stilez
    Sep 24, 2017 at 13:21
  • 24
    Have to checked for OCD or other compulsive behavior? The label carries stigma, but you should get professional assessment so you know how to direct your energies. You're channeling your energies in trying to satisfy this internal criteria of "100%", but it probably has a better use.
    – Nelson
    Sep 24, 2017 at 14:58
  • 2
    None of the examples you gave sound too problematic to me. But if it is a true case of OCD, maybe it would help to just acknowledge that upfront when you ask these questions. Like, "Thank you for answering these questions, I have a bit of OCD when it comes to academic honesty, it's something I'm trying to work on." Sep 24, 2017 at 22:36

6 Answers 6


Should I just accept that it's pretty much impossible for anyone to finish a degree with a 100% ethical standing?

No, I find that to be a rather unreasonable formulation of your predicament as well as a loaded question. What you should correct is not your notion that ethical behavior is achievable, but rather your unreasonable idea of how to achieve it, and your misguided view that there is some ideal level of "100% ethical standing" that is only attainable through extreme efforts of constant vigilance and constantly pestering your professors and TAs with annoying (and unnecessary, as you yourself seem to understand quite well) questions. In general in human affairs, trying to attain 100% of anything is an example of what is known as a category error -- the act of attributing a concept that is applicable to one realm of thought to another realm where it is no longer applicable. "100% ethical standing" is simply a meaningless concept.

I could go on and give a detailed answer touching on all kinds of philosophical issues and giving you a crash course on academic ethics, but a more lightweight approach seems like it will be more useful here. Basically, you just need to chill out. Relax, trust your instincts and common sense and stop worrying about this and you'll be fine, just like the vast majority of students who just want to complete their studies honestly and then go on to make use of the knowledge they acquired.

  • 71
    A good yardstick is: would you be happy to have your deeds being published on the front page of your local newspaper? Let's assume it is the NYT, and not some tabloid headline as per: "Student uses Thesaurus!" "Class notes consulted during assignment!" "Scandal: pocket calculator helped to compute sine for homework!" Sep 24, 2017 at 13:41
  • 22
    @CaptainEmacs great comment. "Student Uses Thesaurus!" would be one of the best New York Times headlines ever :-)
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 24, 2017 at 18:28
  • 5
    @Dan Romik Thanks, you helped put my mind at ease a bit more. What I've gathered from this answer and the others is that completing my studies ethically doesn't necessarily mean making sure I've followed every single rule. Being ethical just involves using common sense and acting as honestly as a I can, based off what rules I already know. Is this a correct interpretation?
    – user80249
    Sep 24, 2017 at 20:16
  • 12
    @Inertial glad I've helped a bit, but as for your question "Is this a correct interpretation?", I would have to say no, it's not, and if you have to ask, it looks like you've missed the point of my answer almost completely. You're asking me the same pointless questions that you were asking your professors and TAs. Completing your studies ethically means exactly what it says, nothing more or less, and your desire to have someone break it down for you into some exact set of instructions is precisely the nature of the problem plaguing you, and which you need to break free of. Anyway, good luck!
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 24, 2017 at 20:39
  • 2
    "stop worrying about this and you'll be fine" ( except when you mess up ), "just like the vast majority of students who just want to complete their studies honestly" ( except the vast minority that gets into trouble anyway ). A little guidance on how to adjust your moral compass for uni would be more helpful than a dismissive "you just need to chill out". Sep 25, 2017 at 9:50

First of all, while ethics and rules should ideally be aligned, they are not the same. If you spent a reasonable effort to inform yourself about the rules and to apply common sense, accidentally breaking some bizarre rule is not an unethical action. This does not only help your conscience: Resorting to the ideal of an alignment of ethics and rules is a reasonable defence against non-obvious rules in situations where repercussions are decided on a per-case basis. While you may face legal consequences for importing Kinder Surprise to the US without knowing about this being illegal, you will almost certainly not be expelled from your studies for something like this.

I have yet to encounter a case where somebody claimed lack of knowledge as a defence against accusations of academic misconduct where I would not consider the lack of knowledge itself to be unethical, i.e., the accused acted unethically by neglecting to inform themselves. (Note that in most such cases, I do believe the excuse to begin with.) Going by your question, you are sufficiently informed about academic rules to satisfy my ethical standards. Now, all that is left to do for you is to use your common ethical sense and act accordingly.

All that being said, some rules of thumb for cheating and other academic misconduct are:

  • Adhere to the Golden Rule.

  • In no situation may you present somebody else’s work as your own (plagiarism). This in particular means that you may not let somebody else do your work.

  • In exams and similar, all resources (pocket calculators, books, notes, communication devices) and communication are disallowed per default.

  • Everywhere else, all resources are allowed per default.

  • If there is no practicable way to prove that you broke a rule, it likely doesn’t exist. (Note that letting somebody else do your work can be checked by having you explain your work.)

  • If something’s main purpose besides learning is to prepare you for an exam (e.g., exercises), it’s your own problem if you get too much help.

  • If you cannot think of any (good or bad) reason why something should be disallowed, it probably isn’t.

Regarding your individual examples:

A little while back I asked my professor if thesauruses were allowed, and if I had to cite them.

The work contained in a thesaurus is the collection of a list of synonyms. Using a thesaurus to find the right word to use in a text does not pass off that work as yours. (If your task was to compile a list of synonyms for a given word, you would indeed need to cite.)

My professor for another course mentioned that certain calculators were not allowed on tests (the kind of calculator I currently have). I wondered if I could still use my calculator on assignments […]

The reason why advanced calculators are forbidden in exams is that they can store information and completely automate certain tasks. If you use a calculator in assignments and you still can explain how you arrived at your result, that’s usually fine by the rules. It’s your fault if you do not sufficiently learn the respective technique (for the exam) or understand the underlying concepts (for your future). Also, a hypothetical ban of calculators could not be enforced.

I was wondering if I could use my course notes while doing an assignment.

Besides helping you maintain your attention, the entire point of taking course notes is to allow you to use this information when learning – which is exactly what assignments are for.

  • 2
    Re "... letting somebody else do your work can be checked by having you explain your work", that's not always reliable. Maybe I'm an extreme case, but I've found that it's far easier to do things than it is to explain them.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 24, 2017 at 17:46
  • @jamesqf: Unless you have a severe communication problem, I doubt that this is so bad that others do not believe that your work is your own. Either way, it’s a common method of assessing your work (e.g., every thesis defence is this).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 24, 2017 at 18:08
  • Maybe half a communication problem - I do often find it easier to do things like home & auto repairs myself than to explain what I want done. But it's not that people don't believe my work is my own - after all, they see me in the process of doing it - it's that I often can't explain why I did what I did. Sometimes I don't really understand it myself: why did I look there for the bug, instead of painstakingly working my way through the code? I don't know, it just felt like that's where the problem was. Call it intuition or educated guessing: it's not perfect, maybe 80%.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 25, 2017 at 4:26
  • 2
    +1 "accidentally breaking some bizarre rule is not an unethical action" exactly! Great answer. This breaks through OP's misplaced focus on the rules and highlights the principles underneath instead. Sep 25, 2017 at 14:05

I want first of all to follow up on a comment made by @Nelson. You speak of an obsession and an obsessive need to behave ethically in all your student endeavors. Could this actually be an obsession, i.e., a mental disorder? If you (and/or your close friends and family members that are familiar with the situation) feel there is any possibility of this, I recommend that you look into it, e.g. starting with student health / counseling services. The point is, if you do have OCD or something similar, then your course of action will be quite different from what the other answers recommend.

If things like OCD can be ruled out, then it seems that your problem is one of a lack of confidence in your understanding of the rules. This need not be pathological: I agree that in order to act ethically according to the norms of some particular group, you have to have a good cultural understanding of those norms. Rather than asking about every single doubt as it comes, please consider getting some more systematic help in understanding the culture of academic honesty at your particular institution. If you are at a US institution, it is virtually certain that there are people on staff whose job it is to be experts in the local culture of academic honesty and inform the university members about it. Making an appointment with such a person could (perhaps) go a long way to setting your mind at ease.

I suggest that you ask in particular:

Can you list some things that I can be confident it is ethical to use when doing assignments unless specifically informed to the contrary: e.g. dictionaries, thesauruses, calculators?

Are there any contexts in which it would not be permissible to use my own course notes when doing an assignment? Is it the instructor's responsibility to specify them?

I will end with two comments:

First, as a math professor I find it completely reasonable to ask whether calculators are permitted when doing homework assignments. There are times when they won't be. Asking once per course is not pestering anybody.

Second, both of my parents were English professors and there was never a thesaurus in our home. My own unsolicited opinion is: choosing the right word is a critically important writing skill. If you have it, you don't need a thesaurus. If you don't have it, then -- because a thesaurus just lists approximate synonyms without analyzing gradations of meaning -- using a thesaurus could lead to replacing a better word by a worse one and could make your writing sound stilted and artificial.

  • 2
    There are thesauri that analyse gradations of meaning, see e.g. my suggestion in this answer. Sep 24, 2017 at 20:06
  • 1
    @Massimo: Well, get ready for an unsatisfying response: yes, in my house growing up we had a book that analyzed gradations of meaning. It just wasn't called a thesaurus! Nowadays if I want to understand subtle differences in meaning between X and Y I am liable to google "X versus Y." Sep 25, 2017 at 0:26
  • 4
    Having a thesaurus for a great writer is like a programmer having access to an API reference manual or a programming language spec. It's an essential skill to be able to use the resource and to know when to use it, but if you are consulting the resource every ten seconds you are doing it wrong. Sep 25, 2017 at 15:08
  • 1
    I sometimes use a thesaurus to see if there is a better or equally good word. However, the thesaurus doesn't tell me if the words it suggests are better, worse or as good as the word I look up. If this is what you expect a thesaurus to do, then it is going to turn out badly. But I think the answer is that you shouldn't expect a thesaurus to do this in the first place.
    – cfr
    Sep 26, 2017 at 3:00

Like Dan Romik I think you should just relax. But I can't understand the rest of his answer. There are plenty of areas where it is sensible to try to attain 100% of something, and often possible to achieve that - attendance at work, correct spelling, responding to e-mails, etc.

I suppose by "100% ethical standing" you mean complete certainty that you have not violated any ethical rule, even inadvertently. I think you should read the ethics rules of your university and do your best to follow them (but without constantly pestering the professors), and if you are 99% sure that something is OK then stop worrying and just do it.

I don't agree with louic, who says "Ethics are subjective (google if you don't believe me). Just use common sense." Just because people have different views about something doesn't mean they are all equally valid. People who deliberately cheat at university sometimes try to defend their actions with arguments such as "Everyone else does it," "I had to do it in order to pass," etc. They are presumably using their own judgment and following what they see as common sense, but they are acting unethically.

And I don't much like Captain Emacs' view either: "A good yardstick is: would you be happy to have your deeds being published on the front page of your local newspaper?" This assumes that everyone's conscience is basically right, or as good as anyone else's, and everyone feels shame when their misdeeds are exposed. In reality some people have stronger consciences, or stronger moral fiber, than others. But we can all try to improve.

  • 8
    While noting that this isn't a discussion forum, I'd point out that Captain Emacs isn't assuming that everybody's conscience is basically right: rather, they're assuming that the asker's conscience is basically right. That seems like a reasonable assumption, given that the asker is clearly trying to avoid cheating in any imaginable way. Sep 24, 2017 at 17:03
  • Well, the phrase "A good yardstick is ..." and the generality of the advice suggest that Captain Emacs did mean it as a maxim that applies to everyone.
    – toby544
    Feb 2, 2018 at 12:07

Basically, everyone else is suggesting you should relax, and probably they are right. But it seems possible that sometimes you do not feel comfortable doing that, but still you do not want (or you can not) ask your TA or your professor. Then there is a very simple way to be sure you do not make anything bad. If you think you might be breaking a rule even with probability 0.1%, then you can still follow that rule ; probably, there is no rule forbidding you to follow it.

Moreover, most of the time, the university will do something to enforce everyone follows its rules. In this case, you will know what you do is ethical as you do not have to hide to do it.

So that is my advice :

  • in most universities, every rule that could easily be enforced by the university but is obviously not is not a rule of the university. Probably you should know if it is the case of your university.
  • some rules may be possible to follow anyway. If it is obviously impossible (like your assignment is impossible to complete without a calculator), then such a rule does not exist.
  • for the other rules, maybe you can ask.
  • 1
    How do I know the assignment is impossible without a calculator rather than my just not knowing how to do it without one? I don't see that this bit of your answer is usable by a student. After all, my assignment may seem to me to be impossible with or without a calculator. (Obviously, there might be some exceptions e.g. where the assignment actually references a calculator, but then the impossibility test is hardly needed.)
    – cfr
    Sep 26, 2017 at 3:06
  • 'Every rule that could easily be enforced by the university but is obviously not is not a rule of the university.' This is false. Some rules are just widely ignored and nobody does anything about it or nobody cares. But they are still rules. At least in the UK, some of these are really bizarre, but they are rules all the same.
    – cfr
    Sep 26, 2017 at 3:09
  • @cfr : 1. It was more of an example, but sometimes it may be said explicitely somewhere that such or such thing cannot be done without a calculator in short time. 2. I guess that any such rule should at least be well-known (and then there is no doubt to have), else there is no purpuse having a rule which is both hidden and not enforced ; perhaps everyone forgot to remove it? Anyway it is bizarre and I admit I did not think it was possible. I correct my answer accordingly.
    – Distic
    Sep 26, 2017 at 11:16
  • Sometimes I think that "Well, people who break the rules get caught and punished, and I've not been notified of any pending disciplinary proceedings, so I must be following the rules!". I get confident, but then turn on the TV and see another news article about another clergy member facing charges for sexually abusing children way back in the 1970's, and I think that there's a Sword of Damocles hanging over me, threatening to nix my career on a vague suspicion that I might have used crib notes on a sixth grade spelling test, making my career a lie built on lies soon to be exposed to the world. Nov 20, 2018 at 17:21

This is a problem of yourself not trusting your judgment, not a problem of academic ethics.

So if you honestly ask yourself is the probability of this being ethical 99% or more and you make decision based on that you will be fine.

Problem is that you are uncomfortable doing that, not that most of the dilemmas you face are actually hard to estimate.

disclaimer: I am not saying that your problem is invented or easy, just that this does not sound to me like a question of ethics.

You must log in to answer this question.