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I have recently been told by the professor of a particular course of mine, that our final grades will be withheld (given as an "Incomplete" which is later replaced by the final grade) until we individually submit our semester papers in the course to a conference.

This has a few issues to go with it:

  • I defended my MSc and passed, however without this credit I will not receive my degree this semester.
  • I do not want a low-quality publication on my record, especially since it appears past students in the course published in pay-to-publish conferences.
  • I am far, far from an expert in this field. I took the course to learn about the subject and have only been spending the last few weeks on this research paper. To give more context, I don't even have a publication in my PhD work yet and I am 2 years in.

The situation prompts two questions from me:

  1. Is it ethical for the professor to require a student to submit a paper to a conference for a course? (This requirement is not mentioned in the syllabus.)
  2. Is it allowed for a professor to require this? Are there any rules or regulations in the US (state school) to prevent it?
  • 13
    Well, if you're only required to submit, then submit it to the top-conference in the field :) – user102 Apr 25 '13 at 20:29
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    @AustinHenley I'm pretty sure you can submit before the deadline (obviously, noöne ever does it, but you can) – F'x Apr 25 '13 at 20:31
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    Or we can arrange a conference for you. Let's hereby create the Stack Exchange All-Academia Transdisciplinary Multinodal Conference for the Advancement of Humandkind. It suits your needs perfectly: multimodal means you can run a conference node in your living room if you want; transdisciplinary means we don't care what you study; and obviously, we advance humankind by providing you with a degree. Who's in? – F'x Apr 25 '13 at 20:38
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    @F'x: well, it depends, how much for the registration fees? And do we get a coffee mug with it? – user102 Apr 25 '13 at 21:01
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    This would not be allowed under our regulations for at least one reason. You need to contact the student ombudsperson at your university to find out what the official rules are and ensure that your professor know this. – Dave Clarke Apr 30 '13 at 18:41
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I am a professor at a state school in the US, and American professors are currently the targets of a lot of undeserved grief (e.g. it is currently fashionable to believe that we are "lazy" and work much less than a full "business week"; that is not only a mistake but likely a dishonest, politically motivated mistake). So keep that preamble in mind when I say:

This is one of the most unambiguously unacceptable behaviors from a course instructor that I have heard.

Let me try to count the ways (but there are so many that I may get tired before I finish):

1) One of the most basic understandings between the student, the instructor and the university is the duration of the course. By a certain extremely public, agreed upon, well-publicized deadline, all of the coursework must be complete, and by a slightly later date that your instructor has been carefully informed of, the course grades are due. Planning to defer submission of the course grade after this date is just not the way the American academic system works.

2) Giving a grade of "incomplete" is not withholding a grade: it is assigning a certain kind of unsatisfactory grade. [Once in college a rather elderly professor literally did not submit any of the grades for the course I was taking. It was a little strange -- in these days we actually received transcripts in the mail over the break so the inquiry was less immediate than it would now be -- but he apologized and submitted the grades very soon after the start of the next quarter. That's withholding a grade.] In order to assign an incomplete, the student must not have completed the official coursework.

3) The instructor is not suitably respectful of the obvious problem which can occur if you assign students' grades too late: you may prevent them from graduating. Many American universities have policies to expedite final coursework and grading for (would-be) graduating students. Moreover, in the universities I've been involved with, beyond the written rules there is an unwritten culture that as an instructor you should think twice about any course practice that interferes with a student's timely graduation. (Sometimes it turns out the student fails your course and therefore does not graduate on time. That's "okay", but most of instructors would indeed think more carefully about assigning a failing grade under these circumstances and feel honorbound to convey the failing grade to the student sooner rather than later. What if their parents show up in town only to learn that the student did not actually graduate?) This practice is not hard to understand: one of very few commonalities among American academics is that we were all students at one time, so we should have some sympathies for the student perspective.

4) This course requirement is unusual and potentially problematic, and it is not listed on the course syllabus. I think that the whole point of the course syllabus is so that instructors cannot totally change their course requirements / grading schemes in the middle of the course, and that seems to be what is happening here.

5) Teaching a university course is not like playing a game of Truth-or-Dare: it does not give you authority to compel the student outside of the classroom and the dorm room / study carrel. Submitting a paper to a conference is a real-world action with real-world ramifications (the OP is rightly aware and concerned about this). It is creating work -- possibly rather pointless and frivolous work -- for other busy academics and/or professionals. It is setting a student up for harsh critique even up to the point of ridicule. It is also bullying a student into publishing something they didn't actually want to publish.

Okay, I got tired. What should a student do in this situation?

Talk to the faculty member in question.

This is an in-person conversation. You should think carefully both about want you want to say and how to behave in such a conversation. Your goal is to convey the specific problems and hardships this course policy will impose on you. (You don't want to frame it as an ethical or hypothetical discussion.) Be calm but very specific. Bring in a copy of the course syllabus and refer to it at some point during the discussion. Bring in a copy of an academic document that says you need to have your grades by a certain date in order to graduate. Say specifically: "I'm concerned that this course policy will jeopardize my graduation. Can we address this?" If your instructor says "Don't worry about it right now" then explain why you are worried about it right now. Talk about your family's travel plans, talk about the financial implications of having to enroll for another semester....

(The point of the above strategy is this: I imagine that your instructor likes this course idea from his perspective. Clearly he has not taken the time to think about it from your perspective. If you make him see the negative consequences, he is much more likely to repent.)

You should not be brushed off in your meeting: this is a serious matter. If in the course of the meeting you don't see things working out to your satisfaction, you should let him know that you intend to talk to (e.g.) the department chair about it.

By the way, apparently this took place almost a year ago. What happened??

  • 5
    I agree with what Pete says. At my school (US, small, private, undergrad), the syllabus is viewed as a contract. The student, and the faculty memeber, are bound by what appears in it. So, if there's something I want to do in the course, it had better be in the syllabus or I am out of luck. Grades are due the Monday after final exams end. There is a significant process involved to submit an incomplete, and an even more significant process to change a grade. The same thing goes in our graduate programs. It continues to amaze me the things professors think they can get away with. – Chris Leary Feb 18 '14 at 17:26
14

This is highly suspect behavior—particularly when it is not published in the original course syllabus, or written down anywhere.

In general, however, this requirement seems highly impractical—most conferences operate on a schedule far longer than a typical semester. Therefore, it would seem that almost every student's grade would be held up waiting for the work to be accepted.

While I can understand (perhaps) the logic behind such a move, I don't agree with this. A scientific conference presentation is a serious undertaking, and should be an option, not a requirement!

However, whether it is allowed will depend upon your university's regulations. You should check first within the department, and escalate only if necessary.

(However, under such circumstances, if there are no proceedings published, and no formal record, I would be entirely comfortable leaving such a presentation off of my CV.)

6

It's a little odd to require something that is not mentioned in the syllabus. I understand that things can change in the course of a semester. But this is a rather draconian requirement and as such should have been specified up front in the syllabus.

If (as appears to be the case) the professor is willing to "soften" the requirement, then this entire question might be viewed as an overreaction.

3

Your two reasons strike me as very intelligent and responsible: 1. I do not want a low-quality publication on my record, especially since it appears past students in the course published in pay-to-publish conferences. 2. I am far, far from an expert in this field. I took the course to learn about the subject and have only been spending the last few weeks on this research paper. To give more context, I don't even have a publication in my PhD work yet and I am 2 years in.

I recommend drawing them to your course instructor's attention, and requesting him to guide you in finding a low or zero-cost relevant conference to which you could submit an abstract without spending too much time when you are busy working on your PhD.

At my university, submitting an article based on the student's research is a graduation requirement. The idea is (a) to get graduands familiar with the different demands of presenting research to a conference (probably something that would benefit you since you have moved on to doctoral studies), and (b) to get more of the Masters level research out into the research literature which in many cases tends to never get beyond the university library (something in the interest of the "knowledge economy" and also beneficial to the public image of relatively young universities struggling to gain acceptance in their own nations and in the wider international arena.

The concern you raise about some of your contemporaries taking the short-cut of submitting their work to "pay-to-publish conferences" is particularly hazardous with regard to the objective (b), and your professor may find it instructive to reflect on the wisdom of your reluctance.

2

Your question is missing the following info. Obviously, you have approached the professor and talked to him about the specific issue you are facing: your paper is ready, you could submit it to a conference, but what you really want is to be able to get your degree this semester. There is no reasonable expectation that, if all the work is done, you should just postpone your degree waiting for an upcoming conference.

So, the missing information is: what did he answer about your specific issue?

  • I was looking for a more general answer to the question of ethics and that requirement being allowed. What he basically said about it: don't worry about it right now. :) But I am freaking out! – Austin Henley Apr 25 '13 at 20:40
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    Why are you freaking out then? The requirement is to submit not get published per se. I know of professors who have this requirement in certain courses as well. Its meant to be a good thing, not a some punitive measure. – Shion Apr 25 '13 at 20:41
  • @Shion It isn't that I think the professor is bad or doing anything wrong, I am just new to this idea and trying to get others feedback based on my intuition that it is unethical. – Austin Henley Apr 25 '13 at 21:09
  • Agreed. Ethics has multiple cultural norms and definitions. IMHO, I don't think that this particular requirement is unethical. I am sure others will beg to differ and they have that right. – Shion Apr 25 '13 at 21:12

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