Moral dilemma in unwittingly being paid to complete a student's work



I am a computer science freelancer who takes on medium-sized projects I can complete in a month or less. I was approached by someone who wanted a set of 12 tutorials at least 500 words each about certain programming topics with code examples and workouts. We talked payment and I accepted this project and got to work. I have been using GitHub to write the pieces and publish them privately on my account.

Here's where things get tricky. After I had completed the tutorials, but before I sent them to him, he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. He has already paid me.

My dilemma is this: I would like to return his money and not send him the tutorials and have him fail his school project. However, I have worked on this for 3 weeks, and I obviously need the money.

In our original conversation, he made no such mentions of secrecy, so at the very least I could make the GitHub repository public and still accept his payment.

My question is this: What is my best course of action? I don't want him to submit that work as his own. However, I still would like to get paid as he did not confine to me he was planning on plagiarism until the very end.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 891

159You did the work you were contracted to do, in good faith. I don't see a problem with you keeping the money, and providing the code. But you could also contact his institution and let them know what is going on. Optionally, you could tell the student you are doing so, giving him a chance to put together something on his own. Or not, maximizing the chance he'll get caught, if this doesn't feel too much like entrapment. – Nate Eldredge – 2016-03-21T04:36:52.107

93Consider adding an explicit notice of not doing university assignments to your freelancer profile, just to avoid this in the future. – svavil – 2016-03-21T08:55:40.020

21@NateEldredge you should make that an answer. – Davidmh – 2016-03-21T10:11:39.820

4Food for thought: if you refused to give the code and refunded him but he sued you for damages (because of, say, a broken contract + lost time/opportunities), do you think you would win the case? I don't know about you, but if I were the judge, I would likely rule against you. Morals aside, if you agree with me on this, it should be enough to decide the case for you regardless. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T11:01:51.837

8You've done nothing wrong - keep the money for the work you've done. However you have reason to believe that someone is being dishonest - so take your evidence to the institution in question and let them handle that. – Eborbob – 2016-03-21T11:46:54.123

4@Mehrdad: It might not be that easy (and a fair question over at the Law.SE site). In general, you cannot contract to break the law, and any such contract is void (not voidable, it simply never has a legal status). It's not clear whether the student here is committing fraud in a legal sense. A breach of contract vis-a-vis the university may or may not give third parties the right to breach their contract, when the two are causually linked. – MSalters – 2016-03-21T12:49:04.473

35Are you certain that these tutorials are the MAIN part of the work for the project? Seem plausible that the project is something like e.g. "Build a website to host programming tutorials", and the REAL project is the work involved in building the website infrastructure, while the tutorials he hired you to write were just like someone hiring a copy writer. In that case, it wouldn't be unusual for him to say, "Oh yeah, this is for my honors project" while not really meaning this IS the honors project - you're just facilitating content. In other words, just could be a misunderstanding. – loneboat – 2016-03-21T14:11:05.323

21Whatever you end up doing, I think you should at least have standard copyright/author headers on all your code files to protect yourself. If he removes them, it only incriminates him. – 0xFF – 2016-03-21T14:34:36.260

2@Mehrdad I assume that the damages would be limited to the money paid. Wrt lost time/opportunities, perhaps the student should have hired a couple of freelancers to independently complete the same assignment to guard against this possibility. – emory – 2016-03-21T15:05:28.977

1Would it be possible to upload your tutorials onto TurnItIn or other such plagiarism sites? That way you're not outright accusing the student of plagiarism, but you're making it very easy for them to get caught. – David K – 2016-03-21T17:39:59.283

@MSalters: Are you replying to the correct comment? I'm not sure where exactly contracting to break the law came into play... where did I suggest that as a possibility in my comment? – Mehrdad – 2016-03-22T00:47:13.960

4There isn't an ethically and professionally acceptable option except to take the money and stay out of the client's business (unless the student is on course to violate a copyright agreement in your original contract). Forbidden categories of application of the code, such as schoolwork or military/surveillance use, are something that you should have negotiated at the start. Nothing you wrote implies knowledge of upcoming illegal or harmful activity by the student, but you sabotaging the value of the work (and the student's options to do the work honestly afterward) is quite harmful. – zyx – 2016-03-22T03:27:25.390

4(cont.) It would also be atrocious professional conduct to appear to take a client's contract, then harm them 3 weeks later because of surprise ethical concerns over a victimless crime that might never happen, and is not illegal in most jurisdictions. – zyx – 2016-03-22T03:29:50.700

4Note the premise in the question that the student will fail the class if you don't provide the work as promised. This implies that a difference of 3 weeks is crucial, and you ate that time up doing whatever you did, rather than investigating at an earlier stage the student's identity and intentions that are now being proposed as obstacles to the completion of the contract. As an analogy, suppose you hired a carpenter to fix things in your house, and he observed small but illegal recreational amounts of marijuana there. Should the carpenter report you to the police after taking your money? – zyx – 2016-03-22T03:36:14.703

1Has the OP made it clear whether there was a contract or not? Because that seems to be what many of the arguments pivot around. – juil – 2016-03-22T05:55:55.010

5You would certainly get my admiration if you report this guy. Actually it's even better to tell him/her beforehand and give him the option to report himself or come up with a better option. You could give back a third of the money as an incentive to do this. Perhaps he/she can even give you a partial motivation why they choose this route. Actually you already have my admiration by posing this question. So many people would come up with lame excuses for themselves, take the money and mind their own business. Your integrity and keeping up value of diploma's are valuable! – Bart – 2016-03-22T11:22:46.230

1I would deliver to him, keep your money, and then set the repo's to be public on GitHub. Google indexes public repos, so if his university professors do a quick google search for sentences out of your tutorials, they'll likely find your source. That alone, will be enough to sink his ship. Although, for undergraduate work, the professors are unlikely to actually check... – SnakeDoc – 2016-03-22T16:14:02.273

2In making this decision, imagine how you would feel about it in five years. Proud of the decision? Wish you could change it? This sort of thought process helps me filter out distractions. – None – 2016-03-21T21:06:08.463


Very nice and humourous analysis of this from a chat comment:

– zyx – 2016-03-23T03:34:11.877

How did you find out this was his honors project? If the answer is anything other than I have it in writing from the client directly, withholding the work is both morally and legally questionable. – WetLabStudent – 2016-03-23T09:57:16.737

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– eykanal – 2016-03-23T13:41:20.257

1@NateEldredge: Please consider making your comment an answer. – aeismail – 2016-03-25T02:59:10.437

What are the IP provisions of the contract? You need to be careful that by making it public on github, you are not violating your customer's copyright. – Theodore Norvell – 2016-03-27T18:30:05.623

Out of curiosity, any chance you could let us know how this turned out? – Mehrdad – 2016-12-16T08:28:17.170



I think you should take the money, try to retain as much of my copyrights as possible (the law may help you do this implicitly rather than explicitly, which may be helpful), and refrain from doing anything else until after the student misuses your work.

Why? Consider that:

  • Plagiarism is not a crime.
  • Copyright violation is a crime.
  • Neither has occurred yet.
  • You have done the work in good faith.
  • You are not responsible for preventing others from plagiarizing your work.

Refunding him and keeping the work would be unfair to you because you have already done the work. You have every right to keep the money for the work you have done.

Refunding him and keeping the work would be unfair to him too, since he has every right to obtain the work from you that he has paid you for and waited for. Even if you refund his money, you can't refund the time that he has spent waiting for you to do the work, so you would arguably be liable for damages too.

If your work is actually plagiarized, then you will have a basis for complaining academically and/or legally, and it will be more difficult for your client to view you as a "snitch", etc. if he violates your copyright.

If you let his institution know before the deed occurs, then I'd argue you're doing something morally wrong: you're putting him in trouble for an act that he has not even committed yet. (This might be fine if the act involved danger, but it doesn't.)


I should clarify that my answer is only intended for a "generic" freelancer, not someone who has something else at stake too. For example, if you yourself were e.g. a professor/graduate student/public figure/etc., then you could earn yourself a bad reputation among your colleagues by giving him the work even if most other people would consider what you do to be entirely ethical/moral/righteous. In that case, the wisest career move for you may not be the same thing as what a typical freelancer might or should do, so keep in mind I'm not addressing such situations.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 3 091

63Since OP is doing the work for hire, if he is paid for the work then the copyright would probably belong to the student (even if this wasn't stated explicitly, though IANAL and that could depend on various complicated factors about what exactly was agreed between them). So it sounds like OP would not be in a good position to claim a copyright violation. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T08:14:33.193


@DanRomik: IANAL either but if you mean the US, I don't think that's the case? Since this isn't an employer-employee relationship, it seems that the parties need to expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. So as long as he hasn't signed something like that it seems like he would have grounds to claim a copyright violation.

– Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T08:18:17.617

37Claiming a copyright violation on something you clearly made for someone else without any specification or explicit limitation of use, and you were paid for is in my book very morally wrong. Legal aspects aside, that's just ripping someone off. – rubenvb – 2016-03-21T08:28:01.250

44@rubenvb: Uh, I disagree? If we're talking common sense/morals rather than law, my common sense and morals tell me that code that I write for someone as a contractor is still deemed to be authored by me and is generally intended for personal use (i.e. learning, executing, research, etc.)... it is certainly not OK with me for the one paying me to claim authorship of the work. He doesn't need my permission to use it, but he certainly can't claim he wrote it unless I explicitly give him that right. I actually think the law kind of makes sense here. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T08:31:57.930

4Well maybe I jumped the gun here. I just feel that the intended use should be specified in the contract, i.e. there should always be a very complete contract. If there is none, you're right. Claiming authorship as in the OP's story is not OK without explicit transfer agreement. – rubenvb – 2016-03-21T08:34:28.453

1What's the model of "moral right" that books often list in the front matter? I am not too versed in US law. Might it be that the buyer can be required to mention OP as the author? May that help in addressing the problem? – Captain Emacs – 2016-03-21T08:39:32.617

@rubenvb: To me the "defaults" for a contract would be similar to the defaults for a book sold for cash. I don't think it's all that different. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T08:43:54.833

@CaptainEmacs: Books can write anything in their front matter, even unenforceable "facts" (e.g. "this book may not be sold in XYZ countries", which is often hard to defend legally or even morally). Legally speaking basically anything can be required if it's in the contract; I don't know what the default is if it's not in the contract. I think the OP would be better off here with his implicit rights rather than going for explicitly claiming his rights beforehand, otherwise he might find himself in a mess with his client before the deed is done. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T08:46:28.100

14I think "neither has occurred yet" is the key point here. OP can simply hand over the files (if this was all that was originally agreed in the contract) but state clearly that it was not part of the contract that authorship of these files can be claimed by the buyer. If the buyer then claims authorship and hands these files to the university, the actual moral dilemma occurs: Should OP contact the university about it? – HRSE – 2016-03-21T09:00:35.333

1@HRSE: Right, but I'm saying there is no need to explicitly state that authorship can't be claimed, because it's already implicit, and making it explicit may get him into a headache with his client even if he's right. W.r.t. the university: not before the deed is done, probably yes afterward. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T09:01:56.317

11Edit: there is one caveat, which is that if the client has explicitly made it clear to him that the authorship will be misrepresented, then he needs to explicitly reject that. Otherwise then it's implicitly agreed to. However, IMO merely saying that the code is to be used in a project or thesis isn't sufficient here since it says nothing about authorship. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T09:09:16.303

2I think your caveat applies here, since the OP by now knows about the planned misrepresentation. However, I would still check the exact legal situation with an expert. btw: nice answer @Mehrdad, I never understand how the answers of powerusers attract so many more votes even if they are nonsense. – HRSE – 2016-03-21T09:28:31.427

@HRSE: Haha aw, thank you! :) I'm not sure the caveat applies here actually... I would say that being told after the work is done and paid for doesn't really count. The OP would have to know beforehand, because the whole premise is whether or not the OP was under an implicit (or explicit) promise/contract regarding authorship while doing the work. Given that he didn't know about it and that he was already paid for it, a reasonable person would not claim that he was OK with the misrepresentation if that was only communicated to him after the work was already done (and paid for!), right? – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T09:56:54.887

To put it another way, unless he thinks it would provoke some kind of danger toward someone (in which case he's likely legally obligated not to give it), it's his moral obligation at this point to give the code to the client since it has already been written and paid for. What he is told about the usage of the code is otherwise irrelevant at this point. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T10:20:15.203

2Copyright violation may or may not be a crime, but the statement is irrelevant, since it's not going to take place in this case (why did you assume there's nothing in writing between the parties btw?). – Dmitry Grigoryev – 2016-03-21T11:07:42.430

@DmitryGrigoryev: I don't get it, how do you assume copyright violation isn't going to take place here? Also, I never assumed there was nothing in writing. That would be silly. I just assumed there wasn't an explicit transfer of authorship in writing, because that wasn't mentioned and is uncommon. Not sure where you got either idea... – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T11:10:17.760

@Mehrdad OK, I get it now. I didn't consider author's rights as part of copyright, those looked like separate concepts to me. All clear now. – Dmitry Grigoryev – 2016-03-21T11:16:00.710

2Should the OP warn the client that they will not tolerate plagiarism? Not saying anything before they turn it in seems like setting them up. – jpmc26 – 2016-03-21T17:23:08.220

1@jpmc26: I flatly disagree. No one's setting anyone up for anything here; the choice is entirely the OP's. It's not like entrapment or something. Does your common sense say that the default is to tolerate plagiarism unless stated otherwise? Mine certainly doesn't say that; I assume people don't appreciate unethical things unless stated otherwise. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T20:23:54.393

4@Mehrdad If the OP's suspicions are correct, the client does not have any qualms about unethical behavior. Informing them of the consequences may deter them from ever using the work unethically; it presents them with a choice: turn it in and bet on the accusation not sticking or don't turn it in and accept the consequences of not handing in any work. Since there is little (any?) risk to the OP that they might be harmed by warning the client, hiding their intentions is an unnecessary deception by omission. The deception seems ethically questionable to me. There is no need to be so antagonistic. – jpmc26 – 2016-03-21T20:34:36.043

@jpmc26: The question isn't whether the client has any qualms about the unethical behavior, it's whether the OP does. The default is that he does unless stated otherwise, which I'm assuming he hasn't. There actually is a risk to him that he might be harmed by giving a warning: it could result in a massive headache with the client before the entire transaction is complete, which would (at the very least) waste his time and energy. He has every moral/ethical/legal right not to say anything and IMO he shouldn't, for his own sake. – Mehrdad – 2016-03-21T20:43:06.690

Please take extended discussion to [chat]. – eykanal – 2016-03-22T00:47:40.330

@jpmc26, by "presenting a choice" do you mean threatening the student? The contractor could, somewhat obnoxiously and unprofessionally, tell the student his opinion that plagiarism is not nice. Anything more than that, that seeks to force the student's hand is a threat and puts the contractor in a position of having misrepresented his services. If there is any duty to a client it is first and foremost to not harm them. A contractor who randomly changes his mind about that incredibly basic point, whether due to surprise ethical concerns or other reason, is essentially committing fraud. – zyx – 2016-03-22T03:50:11.933

1@Mehrdad, From the way the question is phrased ("It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science."), it is clear that the work is not used as part of the thesis, but IS the thesis. That is to say that the client has made their intentions clear and your caveat applies. – Celos – 2016-03-22T08:44:18.163

7A lot of people here seem to be confusing authorship and ownership. While you can legally transfer ownership of a copyrighted work to another person, that doesn't change the fact that you are the author of that work. And I'm pretty sure plagiarism only takes authorship into account, not ownership. – Ajedi32 – 2016-03-22T15:53:27.950

2Agree with the thrust of this answer. It seems a possibility that the OP could avoid the various moral traps here by accepting payment, delivering code together with a warning that they'll be talking to the institution. Then finally contacting the institution to warn them of possible plagiarism together with information on what to look out for. – Matt Thrower – 2016-03-22T16:00:23.347

2I disagree on how you say you shouldn't do anything because no crime has been committed yet. Personally, I would like to warn the institution of a suspected problem, which really shouldn't be considered wrong. It's then up to the institution to investigate this further, meaning you're not "putting him in trouble", if the institution causes trouble without further investigation, then they are to blame. Optimally, I would provide the text in question to the institutions, but that may be hard to do due to copyright issues. – Jasper – 2016-03-23T10:13:17.913

1@DanRomik It's important to be careful about copyright law. Yes, the OP was hired to produce a work, but from the description of the circumstances, it's unlikely that the OP has produced a work for hire. The OP sounds like an independent contractor, and what he produces will be a work for hire only under certain circumstances, one of which is the OP and the student have agreed that the product is a work for hire. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T09:05:14.873

1Plagiarism is rarely a crime in the US. It's possible if the plagiarism results in obtaining state-backed certifications (licenses, diplomas, etc.), which are in turn used fraudulently. Copyright violation may be a criminal matter, but that requires willful infringement for commercial purposes. Copyright suits are notoriously fact dependent, so it's hard to say. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T09:17:24.127

I think @deadrat is right: this is probably not a work for hire. While the overall question of whether it really is or not is much more on-topic over at legal, my personal, non-expert reading of the circular on works for hire is that this is the work of an independent contractor without an agreement that it is a work for hire, and therefore in the US is not a work for hire. This answer's suggestion of registering the copyright on this work seems sound.

– Todd Wilcox – 2016-03-27T18:25:41.663

@ToddWilcox In the US, registering the copyright won't gain very much. In any disagreement over ownership, the author will still have to prove that the work is his. Once that's accomplished, registration defeats the claims of the infringer that the infringement was unintentional. – deadrat – 2016-03-27T19:00:59.893

2Thank you for the insightful answer. What matters most is that I know how to avoid this situation in the future. – anonymous_display – 2016-03-28T02:10:33.533


I think this is one of the more interesting ethical questions I've ever seen on this site. The answer is really not clear to me!

I think this depends upon the ethical principles on which your business is based. Why are you freelancing medium sized CS projects for pay? Because you need or want the money? To improve your skills? To build your reputation as a programmer? To help the world? These are all reasonable answers, but the amount of weight you give them should inform your response.

Here's where things get tricky. After I had completed the tutorials, but before I sent them to him, he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. He has already paid me.

First of all, I think there's a lesson here about doing business for pseudonymous clients. Many mainstream businesses require identifying personal information from their clients. Some don't, but one presumes they are founded on different ethical principles than the ones that do. If you have any qualms at all about how your product will be used, you should exercise some due diligence in finding out who your clients are and how your work would be used. In this case: what did you think the work would be used for? Did you ask? I think that matters: if your client actively was dishonest or misleading with you, then he is behaving unethically even in his transaction with you. However, if you never asked then -- given that you actually care -- it seems that you have made a mistake.

My dilemma is this: I would like to return his money and not send him the tutorials and have him fail his school project. However, I have worked on this for 3 weeks, and I obviously need the money.

Maybe you need the money, but it's not obvious. Just because you've worked on something for three weeks doesn't make it ethically justified to take the paycheck. Clearly one can imagine conditions under which upon learning the purpose of the work, the only ethical action would be to not provide the product and take the loss of pay. On the other hand, if you would suffer sufficiently dire consequences from not receiving the money -- e.g. being evicted from your home or being unable to provide food and clothing to yourself or your dependents -- then in this case taking the money becomes the lesser evil.

I would like to say that you are only ethically justified in taking the money and turning the student in if (i) you need the money for serious reasons as above and (ii) the student was deceptive in his dealings with you, as above. Absent these two conditions, it looks to me like you are not dealing in good faith with someone who is paying you. The fact that the product is allowing a student to gain a degree dishonestly is definitely an ethical concern (to me, in particular) but it is not clear that it outweighs the other ethical concerns so as to allow you to "turn the tables" on the student after payment.

One should also point out that the ethical obligation not to commit academic dishonesty lies with the student; although it hurts me a bit to say so, I don't think that the rest of the world is ethically obligated to refrain from helping students cheat. I admire you for wanting to refrain from doing this, but I think that if you are really serious about this then you should seriously entertain not accepting the payment.

Added: Some others have suggested that the OP has an ethical obligation to complete the business transaction with his client. @Mehrdad says in a commment:

Food for thought: if you refused to give the code and refunded him but he sued you for damages (because of, say, a broken contract + lost time/opportunities), do you think you would win the case? I don't know about you, but if I were the judge, I would likely rule against you.

I am not a businessman, lawyer or judge but I find the prospect of a lawsuit extremely far-fetched, and even the underlying principle seems suspect. A business contract is, in my understanding, an agreement to receive payment for certain services rendered. In all of my experience, a willingness to forego the payment releases the business from the obligation to perform the services: in other words, the contract is probably not being broken. (In the TV show Catch a contractor -- a reality show that enacts sting operations for shady contractors -- when the contractor is "caught" they are presented with three options: completing the work, giving the money back, or being sued. They never give the money back.) In terms of suing for lost time and opportunities: the business has lost the time and opportunities as well. In this case the business would be refusing service for a clear ethical reason so public exposure would make the OP look much worse than the my opinion, of course.

Further Added: I seem to have missed the part where the OP said he has already been paid. In that case I agree that it is likely that according to the contract, the OP has a legal obligation to provide the services. He could still feel personally that his ethical obligation to not be part of academic dishonesty is higher than his legal which case he should be prepared to weather some loss on the legal/business side. I am not counseling him to do so, of course.

Another option is for the OP to confront his client and say that he believes his services have been contracted for academically dishonest reasons. Perhaps he is wrong about that and his client can set him straight. If not, then he and the client may well agree that the best thing is to dissolve the contract and stop the mutually known instance of academic dishonesty from taking place. From a purely ethical standpoint, this seems like a better outcome than taking the money and wondering whether to turn the tables on the client.

Pete L. Clark

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 106 564

8I think the sufficient condition for retaining payment of facing eviction from your house is exaggerated. Clearly, the loss of 3 weeks labor income qualifies for (i). I also don't see that (ii) is a necessary condition as explained in the answer of @Mehrdad. – HRSE – 2016-03-21T09:10:47.210

6"Otherwise you are enforcing someone else's ethical obligations at a cost to them, not to you." However I'm not sure I get this. Shouldn't someone breaching their ethical obligations incur a cost to them? – The_Sympathizer – 2016-03-21T09:45:27.347

3This answers seems like a gross underestimation of the ethical dilemma in the client-provider relationship in favour of the student-institution relationship. Mehrdad seems to hit the nail on the head on this one. – Celos – 2016-03-21T10:40:54.867

3@HRSE: Calling a sufficient condition "exaggerated" is inherently confusing to me: it is not claimed to be necessary or nearly necessary, only sufficient. It is not clear to me that the loss of 3 weeks of labor income qualifies for (i) in general: what if the OP instead found out that his code was going to be used in a way to cause bodily harm to a group of people? Part of the point of my answer is that the OP has to evaluate how bad he feels the consequences are in this case. If he feels strongly enough about it, it could be reasonable to forego 3 weeks pay unless he really needs it. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-21T11:47:05.810


As of 2015, the privacy of Swiss bank accounts was effectively ended --

– Daniel R. Collins – 2016-03-21T14:03:25.953

A lawsuit for broken contract is feasible. As soon as a contract is formed it cannot be broken by either party without repercussions, unless terms allowing the contract to be void are in the contract itself or are agreed on by both parties (that's what the options in your TV show example represent - an attempt to negotiate a way out of the contract favourable to both parties). – Logan Pickup – 2016-03-22T22:50:38.770

@Logan: The legalities certainly depend on the precise wording of the contract. Since the OP has not received the money yet, the contract presumably states that upon presentation of the completed work the programmer will be paid. The logical reaction to not receiving the work is not paying anything for it. In theory and in principle anyone can sue anyone for anything. In practice...if you know any successful lawsuits of someone for refusing to provide a service that they were not paid for, please let us know. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-22T23:18:29.553

@PeteL.Clark From the OP: "He has already paid me." But yes, you're right that it in the general case it depends on the precise wording. – Logan Pickup – 2016-03-23T03:10:04.993

@Logan: I did miss that. Thanks for pointing it out. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-23T03:13:45.803

1I'm surprised no one mentioned this, but the OP never claimed how he found out this piece is supposed to be the honors project. I can't think of anything other than a written declaration of such that would hold up as reasonable evidence prior to the incodent actually occuring. There is the issue of the client retroactively claiming the work was for somethingelse. – WetLabStudent – 2016-03-23T09:59:52.733

(This is a comment on legal issues for the curious that has little to no bearing on the answer) "A business contract is, in my understanding, an agreement to receive payment for certain services rendered. In all of my experience, a willingness to forego the payment releases the business from the obligation to perform the services: in other words, the contract is probably not being broken." I only know German law (but IANAL), and barring a necessary interpretation that says the contractor can unilaterally end the contract by foregoing payment, the quoted statement is not true.(..) – G. Bach – 2016-03-23T13:39:25.710

The parties to a contract are held responsible for damages to each other caused by a breach of contract, which includes failure to fulfill. The extent of the liability is determined by what the parties considered when they entered into the contract. In US law, the relevant technical term appears to be consequential damages, which may include loss of profit. As for TV shows with bad contractors, I expect that the TV network offers to cover those damages for the home owners, or they wouldn't have a loss of profit to claim anyway.

– G. Bach – 2016-03-23T13:43:09.120

1I think this looks like a case for a professional lawyer. Not easy to answer, and certainly not by random people on the internet. As mentioned further down (rephrased here), university cheating is not breaking laws, strictly spoken, but it's devaluating a parallel currency (in this case academic credit). I think a good test tube is the coffee points example: you collect points for coffee, and after 10 points, you get a free drink. Assuming you fake the points (or ask an unwitting expert to fake them on the ticket), what should the penalty be, and who does the penalising? – Captain Emacs – 2016-03-25T12:55:27.157

+1 for where the ethical obligation lies, much as it is distasteful. – copper.hat – 2016-03-26T21:22:19.333

Odd comment "Why are you freelancing medium sized CS projects for pay?". That seems a bit like asking a plumber "Why do you undertake small/medium-sized plumbing jobs for pay?". – Steve Ives – 2016-03-30T09:19:34.400


I think the exact terms of your licence agreement with the client will be important here. Do you retain ownership and copyright on the code, and simply provide a licence to the client to use it, or do you transfer ownership of the code outright?

If the latter, then there's not much you can do (and you probably should stop doing this, seriously).

If the former, then the terms of the licence agreement should stipulate what attribution is required and whether or not the source code can be subsequently distributed without your permission. It's one thing to provide code as a service, which your clients are free to use in their projects, but your clients should probably not have the right to re-distribute your (commercial) code without your consent. I hope you have a licence agreement that makes this clear.

If you do have a licence agreement that makes this clear, then this is an open-and-shut case. If the code is for a thesis then the compiled executable will absolutely not be sufficient. The code must be published and this is where you have leverage. Either you have not granted them the right to re-publish that code (in which case you can make a legitimate protest after a violation has occured), or you have granted the right to re-publish the code but with stipulations (ie: inclusion of the licence, attribution, etc). In either of these cases, this checkmates your student as it would either immediately give away the fact that they outsourced their entire project (by inclusion of attribution and licence) or would initiate a legal complaint that would reveal the same.

Given that the student has now notified you of his intentions you can preemptively reiterate the terms of your licence (again, assuming you have one) to make clear that any republication of the code must be in compliance with said terms. This should not affect whether or not you have a right to be paid for the work because, presumably, the student agreed to these terms when you negotiated the job (you did do this, right?).

If you didn't negotiate clear licencing terms and you don't have a formal licence agreement then you're at the mercy of whatever defaults the law provides where you live. IANAL, so good luck with that.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 2 487

5Ownership doesn't stop it being plagiarism. Buying an essay and handing it in as my own work is still a violation. No contract or licence can give me the right to do that. Partly because this is not primarily a legal matter. Note that submitting work probably doesn't constitute republication, either. – cfr – 2016-03-23T04:12:07.280

@cfr No, but ownership changes the legal position of our OP here. If the deal was to transfer ownership then that's the deal and that's the end of what OP can do (and still expect to be paid). They can take the money and notify the school post-facto, but a licence agreement gives them more options. – J... – 2016-03-23T09:37:54.420

1It increases the options, yes, I agree. But it isn't true that otherwise 'there's not much you can do'. As other answers indicate, telling the educational institution is one option regardless if there's a licence or not. – cfr – 2016-03-23T12:18:48.633


You should deliver the work you have accepted to do and were paid for. Doing otherwise (even if you refund your client) is unprofessional and damages your reputation. For example if you two got connected via a freelancing platform, you will probably get a bad review scaring your future clients, and rightfully so.

You may choose to contact the institution your client attends, warning them about the situation before the actual plagiarism happens. I don't see anything legally wrong with doing so (IANAL), it's up to you to decide if you want to report the student before they actually misuse your work.

Of course, you can (and should!) retaliate after the fact: if the said institution publishes the works of their students, and you discover parts of your own work in it, it is your right to send them a notice stating the attribution violation. The institution will, in turn, take actions against the student.

Dmitry Grigoryev

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 3 148

9How would it not be ethical? You weren't forbidden to reveal that information when you contracted (as the student didn't disclose it at that time), the student cannot unilaterally forbid you to do so, and disclosing your authorship would not harm an honest client. Any damage would be self-inflicted, and the student is apparently well aware of this. – MSalters – 2016-03-21T12:53:58.670

@MSalters apparently not, otherwise he/she wouldn't tell that the OP later on. I'm not sure why, but it feels wrong to report someone before they actually do the wrong thing. Maybe it's OK to report before the fact after all. – Dmitry Grigoryev – 2016-03-21T13:14:18.987

18You might report your work to the university without revealing the identity of the student. If the university never sees such work being submitted, no harm done. If a dishonest student does turn it in and gets caught, well, the university probably has a procedure to deal with academic dishonesty. – MSalters – 2016-03-21T13:22:55.243

6"You'll get paid for something your client won't be able to use because of your actions." - equally accurately, you'll get paid for something your client won't be able to use because of their actions. – immibis – 2016-03-22T02:04:11.030

1@immibis This, and anything else is victim-blaming. – None – 2016-03-22T03:20:01.113

@MSalters, suppose the work had been for a client who was not planning to do anything unethical, but whose use of the work required it to be kept secret. However, due to an oversight or some other reason, nothing in the contract forbade the contractor to disclose the work. Would it then be acceptable for the contractor to discuss the work with client's competitor over a beer, thus nullifying the value of the work, just because not forbidden to do so? I would say that the principle of "don't deliberately harm your client" is implicit in any contract, and does forbid both conversations. – zyx – 2016-03-22T04:13:30.493

1You guys have convinced me. I'll edit my answer if you don't mind. – Dmitry Grigoryev – 2016-03-22T09:47:35.370

1@MSalters Employees owe their employers a duty of loyalty, even if they are dishonest. Breaking the law is, of course, a different story. If the client actually violates copyright law, then you can do whatever you want. But otherwise, taking actions that you know harm your employer is not morally justified, even if your employer is immoral. Plagiarism and academic dishonesty are (usually) not illegal. – David Schwartz – 2016-03-28T22:27:31.033


Here is what I would do: separate your concerns.

First, accept payment and deliver the work you did, because that's what you promised to do (and may indeed be your legal obligation, depending on what kind of process or agreement you had).

Secondly, forget your professional connection to this case and consider what you would do if you discovered by some other means that a stranger had outsourced work for their school project. Most people, I suspect, would decide to stay out of it, because they'd rather not have the conflict, or because they think it's beyond their duty. That's a choice that they are welcome to make, but I think the right thing to do is to inform their educational institution of the facts. They are overwhelmingly better-placed than you to decide what the appropriate response is, both in the sense of whether or not the student's behaviour was appropriate (maybe it was totally fine, maybe what you produced was actually not the focus of their assessment), and the broader context of that student's education, record, and what the school's policies and procedures are that this student has presumably already agreed to.

You are not (should not be) telling the institution to punish or otherwise cause problems for this student, and they would probably ignore your opinion on the matter if you did, so it doesn't seem like you need to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. You're only breaching a secrecy that, actually, no-one asked you to keep, and for a very small amount of effort and risk (you can ask the institution not to identify you, if you're worried about that) you can make a substantial contribution to ensuring that the fairness and accuracy of our educational assessment system is maintained.

In other words, judging what should happen to this student when they do what they did is a job you are neither qualified nor expected to do, nor is it one you need to take on. Just enable the people who do have that job to do it properly.

Ben Millwood

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 207

1Separation is a good idea, but here there is the stronger situation of "conflict of interest", where action on the second point (reporting the potential violation) should not only be independent of the first (having undertaken a contract), it should actually be inhibited by it. The conflict arises if one assumes that there is some duty to the client underlying the whole contract-and-promise thing. For instance, many wedding organizers discover that the clients' intention to marry is a disastrous idea, but sharing their thoughts about that would be unethical sabotage of the contract. – zyx – 2016-03-22T04:36:37.193

1By your logic, if a married man was cheating and bought a gold necklace for his girlfriend (not his wife), the jeweler clerk should phone the wife to tell her, since she's better placed to decide what the appropriate response is. The truth is, they specifically avoid doing this by being very discrete about all communication to their clients. (This also avoids spoiling birthday surprises and stuff too, but the 'don't let the wife find out I'm cheating' is a big part too.) I don't see how it's any different between cheating on your wife or cheating on your university. – corsiKa – 2016-03-22T17:22:19.453

2@zyx: There is SOME duty to the client, but I don't think this is part of it. I'm not sure if "conflict of interest" is what you mean, since there's nothing material to gain by reporting the student. – Ben Millwood – 2016-03-24T15:19:27.080

The conflicting interests are the duty to not harm the client (at least in matters connected to the transaction), and the OP's desire to prevent what he believes to be an imminent case of plagiarism. If OP reports, the client will be worse off than without having entered into the transaction, and the OP bears some or all of the responsibility for that, since whether the worse-off outcome occurs is assumed (to avoid irrelevancies) to be entirely a function of whether the OP reports or not. @BenMillwood – zyx – 2016-03-25T04:01:27.940


There is legal precedent for the comparable service of professionally writing essays for students, so-called essay mills. At the very least, one seems to tread muddy waters; some cases quoted mention states tend to hold the service provider responsible. The California law, say, apparently can hold the seller responsible if they "know or should have known" that their work will be used by the student as you say - and now know - it will.

You never intended for this to happen, and your question here speaks well about you. You are not a professional "github mill," just find yourself in a bad situation. It is very unlikely that you'd be prosecuted for this; it would probably go unnoticed. However, considering the legal context mentioned above and discussed more in the link, if you can return the money, I'd do it. Your client is likely going to protest, but what are they going to do: take you to court as you refused to write their thesis as soon as you were informed of their plan? As this would make their intent certainly public to their institution, I don't see that happening.

As others have said, do make sure to add related disclaimers to your work in the future.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 6 779

1They could still give the OP a bad review on the freelancing platform (assuming one was used). Many such platform even penalize the freelancer automatically in case of money-back by keeping track of successful/failed projects ratio (naturally money-back counts as a failed project). – Dmitry Grigoryev – 2016-03-22T09:46:13.450

1@DmitryGrigoryev: That's a good point. I'd personally still do as I say above, but it makes proceeding like it even more painful... – gnometorule – 2016-03-22T22:38:46.100


I'm afraid you should probably give him the work he paid for.

However, there are several points to take into account.

Your country will matter a bit. As the original author, you have the moral rights on the work, and other people cannot claim it as their own work. These will hold in many countries, and may not even be waived (eg. in most european countries), so no matter the licensing terms they can't claim your work as their own. OTOH the situation in US is quite different, and your contract could have given away such rights (though I doubt they cared to include such clause).

Even then, you should remind the client that he has to keep the copyright notices in the work you gave him (unless your contract authorizes him to remove them). A nice remind is appropriate so if they proceed in an infringing path, and you take action your position was clearly established in that you didn't expect them to be misattributed.

Next, I would ensure that the tutorials have clear copyright notices. This kind of work is great for that, as in addition of the explicit ones, there's ample room for hidden ones: your name could be read in acrostic on some paragraph, an example code could output when run "One of anonymous_display great tutorials", etc. Those would be very clear indicators of authorship should you had to prove if it was really your work or not.

Additionally, I would take digital evidence of possessing the code at the given point. For instance, you can hash the zip of what you are handling, and have a public timestamp server sign that. This way, a public CA is vouching that such zip (containing your © notices) existed at time X (so you couldn't have added them later after retrieving the PhD of your client).

You mention the possibility of publishing the work itself in Github. That would also help (I would still take the previous steps), and has the added benefit that you are making your work searchable without you having to be involved pointing out at this guy (it could have been found by any professor reviewing the honors project). Albeit publishing on your own the work you were hired to do might not be allowed (explicitly or implicitly).

I have to mention the excellent point by loneboat that his use of your work may be legitimate, even though you have to prepare for the case it's not.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 311

1At last an answer which mentions moral rights! I'm almost at the end of the list of answers and 74 persons upvoted an answer which gives for granted what is or is not a crime based on one country's laws... – Nemo – 2016-03-22T19:01:46.677

The United States is a signatory to the Berne convention, which stipulates unalienable moral copyright in its article 6bis. Don't know what the actual jurisprudence is, though. Disclosure: I do not live or work in the US. – Justpassingby – 2016-03-23T17:01:28.090

1+1 for time-stampping the work with a trusted authority. – Tyzoid – 2016-03-23T19:22:34.187

@Nemo I'm not sure that moral rights means what you think it does. Moral rights guarantee a right to attribution, a right not to have your work misrepresented (i.e, defaced) , and in some cases, a right to preserve your work in the face of the owner's determination to destroy it. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T09:29:10.760

1@Justpassingby The US is a signatory to the Berne Convention, but it also declared that the Convention's moral rights were subsumed under existing US law. Which probably means moral mights are pretty much worthless in the US. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T09:30:49.370

@deadrat Even if only the right to attribution were guaranteed (which I infer from your second comment, in the US they are not) then the problem would be solved: the OP can require the student to mention him/her as the author or coauthor when handing in the assignment. – Justpassingby – 2016-03-25T09:44:23.210

@deadrat where did I say something about what moral rights mean? – Nemo – 2016-03-25T18:13:32.420

@Nemo Moral rights is a term of art in intellectual property law. If you have a private definition that differs from the standard, then either you should say something to that effect or use a different term. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T18:26:23.550

@deadrat what makes you think I have a private definition? – Nemo – 2016-03-25T18:27:48.043

@Nemo I don't, which is why I assumed you meant the standard definition, which in turn means that you wouldn't actually have to say anything about their meaning. What's your point here? – deadrat – 2016-03-25T18:30:48.850

@deadrat my point is that I have no idea what you're talking about when you say "I'm not sure that moral rights means what you think it does". If you came to such a conclusion, you certainly misread what I said and you are free to ask for clarifications of my initial comment to this answer. – Nemo – 2016-03-25T18:31:42.587

1@Nemo No, I'm fairly confident of my reading ability, and if I'm confused by some text, then my conclusion is that I'm confused. If by moral rights you mean the standard thing, than those rights are based on a country's laws, and assuming that "gives for granted"means "takes for granted", then yes, in most places what is criminal and what isn't finds its basis in law. I'm also fairly sure that if you wanted to make yourself clear to me, then you would have already made the attempt. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T19:08:45.320

@deadrat thanks, your comment confirms that you didn't understand my comment. Let me know when you're interested in understanding it rather than in jumping to conclusions. Thanks for the give/take correction, noted. – Nemo – 2016-03-25T20:44:04.390

1@Nemo I'm gonna guess that you've confirmed lots of things to yourself that aren't so. The only statement I made was I wasn't sure, which is a conclusion requiring no leaps. As I've said, if you wanted to make yourself clear to me, you'd have done it by now, and without commenting on either my understanding or my reasoning. – deadrat – 2016-03-25T21:54:58.073


I'm really sorry you got conned into unwittingly helping someone cheat. I feel it would be unfair to offer you specific advice about whether you should or shouldn't take the money from my comfortable position of not having to suffer the financial (or moral) consequences of each decision. But your question brings to mind some general insights from economics that would perhaps be helpful to you.

Specifically, two concepts that come to mind are the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion. If we compare your situation to a different situation in which a hypothetical dishonest student approaches you today and offers to pay you the exact same amount of money as you are owed by the real-life student, and all you have to do is to complete a short programming homework assignment he was given so that he can submit it as his own (let's say it will take you 30 minutes), it seems very likely to me that you would refuse to participate in such cheating: it would be much easier for you to forgo a profit you haven't earned yet than it is to accept a loss of a sum of money you have been imagining for some time you will be receiving and have become emotionally invested in. Such is the nature of loss aversion.

Nonetheless, behaving differently towards sunk costs than future costs (or forgoing a hypothetical future profit) is called a fallacy because it is considered by economists as irrational behavior. The point is that a rational decision-maker should (in theory at least) behave consistently when faced with two decisions that involve the same payoff, the same amount of future investment of work (as in my example, where the 30-minute time investment in the homework assignment doesn't really make a material difference), and the same moral consequences, and not take into account irrelevant information about things that happened in the past. So perhaps one approach to thinking how to proceed would be to imagine a parallel situation like I described in which you need to make a fresh decision about becoming complicit in someone's cheating, and thinking how you would react to that. This is assuming that you agree that loss aversion is indeed irrational, which I think is only one way of looking at it. After all, we are all human beings, and no one can blame you for being upset at the possible loss of a considerable amount of money you thought you had earned through honest work.

Dan Romik

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 65 319

12The fallacy seems to be somewhat lacking here. He has spent time on this project already. Time he cannot get back, but which could have been spend on another project if he had not accepted this one. – Tobias Kildetoft – 2016-03-21T08:53:46.060

@Mehrdad sorry I meant getting conned into helping someone cheat. I edited to clarify. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T08:56:27.043

7@TobiasKildetoft "He has spent time on this project already. Time he cannot get back": precisely, the time is the sunk cost that causes OP to rationalize engaging (or considering to engage) in behavior that he would not normally agree to engage in. This type of situation is what the sunk cost fallacy is all about. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T09:01:44.543

7That was not the important part of my comment. The fact that the time could have been spent on another project instead is. The reason he could more easily have said no up front is that this would allow him to take on another project to earn him the same money. – Tobias Kildetoft – 2016-03-21T09:03:32.417

3@Tobias and I think you're missing my point. In my hypothetical scenario with the HW assignment he wouldn't even need to spend 3 weeks doing the work, it would be easy money that doesn't take his time away from another project. And the fact that he has spent 3 weeks in the past that he could have been doing something else with is (theoretically) irrelevant to deciding what to do in the future. The past cannot be changed. Our actions only affect the future, and (if you subscribe to this theory about rational behavior) should be informed only by what we want to see happening in the future. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T09:13:37.760

Indeed, but in the present case, the time was not that short, which changes the description in terms of rational agents. Because three weeks later, it is no longer the same agent (namely, it is an agent in more need of the money). – Tobias Kildetoft – 2016-03-21T09:13:57.390

1@TobiasKildetoft agreed. How much he needs the money in the present is a valid factor that he should very much consider. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T09:15:08.073

1He originally had the choice to do four weeks work and hand over the work to a possible cheat, for X dollars payment. He now has the choice of doing one weeks work and hand over the work to a possible cheat, for X dollars payment. The "sunk cost" fallacy would apply if he figured out after three weeks work that it was much more work than expected, and there is a new estimate that it will take five weeks to finish. In this case, the more work he has done without payment yet, the more favourable it is to finish. – gnasher729 – 2016-03-21T09:18:04.973

3@DanRomik If you consider the the time spent to be irrelevant because it's a sunk cost, then the correct analogy is "A dishonest student approaches you today, and offers to pay you the money for nothing in return". – immibis – 2016-03-21T09:35:49.340

@immibis yes that is correct, and I deliberately chose a scenario that is close to that, only a bit more realistic. I assume that the 30 minutes of work will not make a material difference to the decision. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T15:26:39.353

@DanRomik: I don't know how realistic it is to expect that you get three weeks' pay for thirty minutes work. You have to admit it is surely at least unusual and liable to make you consider actions you wouldn't otherwise have taken. – Ben Millwood – 2016-03-21T15:59:31.830

@immibis actually on second thought getting the money for nothing in return is not a better analogy, since it does not involve being complicit in dishonest behavior. So my 30-minute example is better. BenMillwood: yes, I agree it's not very realistic, and I agree an offer of a large amount of easy money in return for doing something dishonest can tempt a lot of people. It's still interesting to do this thought experiment, and if OP decides that in both the real-life scenario and the hypothetical scenario he would take the money, at least he is being consistent. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-21T17:08:38.823

1@DanRomik You've already been complicit in dishonest behaviour whether you take the money or not. That's a sunk cost too. – immibis – 2016-03-21T20:07:53.523

You're using the wrong two situations. 30 minutes may not make a material difference, but 3 weeks does! Situation 1: you've worked for 3 weeks, been paid a few thousand dollars, and completed work, but are possibly complicit in cheating. Situation 2: You must sit idle, not working for 3 weeks and receiving no pay during that time, but are free of all complicity in cheating. That a harder one to choose between! The sunk cost fallacy and the loss aversion have to operate on the same factors: the gain is "3 weeks with pay" and the loss is "3 weeks without pay". @TobiasKildetoft was right. – ErikE – 2016-03-22T00:57:58.383

5@ErikE the logic is indeed tricky here (perhaps too tricky for 600 character comments), but I'm afraid I have to insist that you're wrong, or possibly we're just talking about different things. The entire point of the sunk cost fallacy is that sunk costs are irrelevant for decisions about the future. It doesn't matter if he worked for 3 weeks, or 3 months, or 3 years. He can either take the money and be complicit in cheating, or not take the money and refuse to help with the cheating. In no case will he have to not work for 3 weeks in the future, so your Situation 2 is irrelevant. – Dan Romik – 2016-03-22T01:47:05.110

I'm afraid I have to insist that you're wrong, and we are talking about the same thing. Not counting the cost of the lost 3 weeks when trying to analyze how humans weigh "losing possession X" against "potentially gaining X". If X != Y, it's not a valid comparison! Please see this room:

– ErikE – 2016-03-22T02:07:14.820


To everyone who's suggested OP should abide by the contract despite what the products might be used for: Shame on you. Are you so devout in your fetish of commercial contractual relations as to put them before moral considerations? I I would pontificate more, but that wouldn't answer OP's question.

Now an answer for OP:

Issue 1: You bear some responsibility - you should have known better

This contract was strange from the get-go. Usually when someone is contracted to prepare educational material it is by an institution, not by an individual. It is also unusual, if I am not mistaken, to contract a freelance SW developer rather than someone with a teaching background. Finally, you said you were "approached" by that person, i.e. you physically met. Did he strike you as a person who would need this strange kind of service?

Also, when you were discussing the work - you must have asked about the context of the tutorials' use; the target audience; what they are assumed to know; their typical experience; the goals for audience members after the tutorials are through, etc. If he answered these questions, you had probably figured out what this was going to be used for - enough to realize this was funny business; if he refused answer these questions, that's even more suspicious. Or, I mean, ok, he could tell you: "This is work I need done no questions asked." - but then you cannot be surprised there are more/ethical(/legal) issues with this work you're doing.

So, at any rate, you knew there was something amiss with this transaction. I'm not saying that means you're not entitled for compensation for your work, but it's not like he sprang something on you completely out of the blue.

Now, be honest with us: Isn't it the case that you're feeling guilty about going along with what you were contracted to do, and are, shall we say, semi-consciously forgetful in presenting the less-than-pleasent details? I suspect the answer to be yes. If you want moral or ethical advice, the first piece of advice is be fair in how you tell yourself, and us, the story. That very often leads you to conclusions you may not like, but you already know are right.

Issue 2: An honors project - or perhaps misuse of honors' students by the university?

It is quite strange that preparing 12 tutorials on a subject would be a honors program project for anyone. These are tasks for (tenured or untenured, regular or temporary) members of the academic faculty. I believe one of the following holds:

  1. You've misunderstood or misheard what he's told you. This is not so unlikely, since I'm sure he was uncomfortable discussing his transgressions and may not have related them coherently and accurately.
  2. The tutorials are not the honors project, but perhaps part of what happens to honors students is that they are given a one-off teaching position on a subject of their choice.
  3. (and this is what I'm the most worried about) The university may be manipulating honors students into preparing teaching materials for it instead of actually paying junior/senior academic staff to do it.

I've encountered many cases of option 3 in my experience as a graduate teacher/researcher union organizer. We considered this part of a process of "Juniorification" (rough translation from Hebrew): Adjuncts are used to do tenured faculty work; PhD candidates to do young faculity's / post-docs' / adjunct teachers' work; M.Sc. candidates to do PhD candidates' work; and senior undergrad students used as teaching assistants for peanuts.

If this is the case, I'm not sure it's your problem to have to deal with, but perhaps it would be useful to try to contact the university's academic staff union(s) and discuss the situation anonymically (if they're active and don't have their heads stuck up their asses, which is not impossible considering what I suspect may be going on.)

Issue 3: This is a social/group dilemma, not just a personal dilemma

This situation is not just about you, or you and that student. It's about:

  • His university
  • His fellow students, who may be adversely affected by underhanded activity (by him or by the university, or both, see above)
  • His parents/family, who may well be footing the bill for this project
  • Teachers or other members of faculty who may be affected (see above)
  • His fellow non-honors students, who might be held to standards of competence/capability which this person is unfairly inflating

Don't try to deal with it just by yourself, or yourself-and-him. Even before acting (disclosing what he did, taking the money etc.) try to get in contact with several of these parties. The parents option might be particularly useful if he is indeed young and living with them.

Now, it's true that there is increased risk of him avoiding payment if you do that, or the deal getting otherwise cancelled, but the more you do that the better you chance would be to get compensation in this case without having to resort to legal means. Also, this would reduce the chance of him trying to get money back from you.

... don't return money for the work you've done, but take no more

You did do work. And you should have been able to do more work and get paid for it, and must now look for another job. On the other hand, you have some responsibility for the way things ended up. So, without making an exact judgement, I would say that what you got so far is probably fair...

But do keep an open mind about how much you should get additionally, or return from what you've received, when talking to third parties.

I really hope this works out - for you and for him and for everyone else involved and am sorry you got into this mess!


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 16 152

1This is taking a simple matter and making it very complicated. The student operated honestly with the OP and his only transgression against the university is breaking a promise, an action that does no direct harm to anyone (arguments about long term harm work in both directions here, eg. undermining trust/integrity in the world of commerce by reporting clients vs plagiarism in academia). So: the OP discovered that client is breaking a promise to a third party, with minimal negative consequence for anyone else, including the third party. Not a big deal and not the OP's business. – zyx – 2016-03-23T01:56:16.543

1Nobody has dared to put me in a terrible spot like that .My appearance would make most people think twice .The poor tutor was tricked into doing illegal work by the devious student leading him to believe that it was a normal design contract.If the student was upfront about the dodgyness of this then the tutor could make his own moral choice .When I was at uni cheating was almost unheard of .I feel really niave. – Autistic – 2016-03-24T06:21:40.987

1@Autistic: I'm not sure I understand your comment; you're not OP - why does your appearance have anything to do with my answer? Could you rephrase that? – einpoklum – 2016-03-24T08:05:40.887

@zyx: I disagree. It does not seem the student acted dishonestly - adding information and requirements after work had started which may well have made OP not agree to do it. Also, that's not the main issue; the question of who's transgressing against whom is complicated and does involve several parties. – einpoklum – 2016-03-24T19:39:33.427

1The client added no new surprises that modify the contract or the task. Rather, the contractor (if he deviates from the original plan) is retroactively altering the agreement from "I will do X" to "I will do X if it feels good to me". The client kept up his side of the bargain by paying the money. What if, before paying, the client had Googled the OP and discovered his name on a list of donors to entities the client finds morally repugnant. Is he entitled to withhold payment because his money will support something immoral in his world-view? @einpoklum – zyx – 2016-03-25T03:51:33.280

Violating the contract is a legal issue that could affect OP significantly -- it is not shameful to take that into account, though it's quite disingenuous to represent it as the "fetishization of contractual relations". It's also not fair to pretend that their agreement created zero moral responsibility for the work to be done. – Matthew Read – 2016-03-25T07:16:28.337

The downsourcing hypothesis introduces an interesting slant on the problem, although, without further information, the overall response may be probably more judgemental than may be warranted. It used to be legal to do various types of business in 3rd world countries, but still, a contractor, after discovering that it happens, might have ethical qualms of pursuing this business. In the meantime, such procedures may have been made illegal. I do not want to overstretch the analogy, therefore I won't mention the concrete examples I have in mind, but there is a thing like a moral dilemma. – Captain Emacs – 2016-03-26T11:54:58.403

1@CaptainEmacs: I emphasized (hopefully not over-emphasized) the moral/ethical problems I see in this situation. Also, since this is not a conversation with OP, I thought I had better let him fend off my judgement if it's unwarranted, rather than understate it myself. Without guessing the specifics of your "3rd world" example, I'll say.. 1. It's our world, not really a different 3rd world. 2. I'm guessing it's the kind of legality of "quod licet jovis non licet bovis". And states are often repressive, corrupt and/or exploitative, so their legal standards are not a good enough baseline AFAIK. – einpoklum – 2016-03-26T13:15:22.963

1@einpoklum I used the analogy to 3rd world, because, as mentioned earlier, there is a "ethical gradient" in this problem in that we are talking about an overlap over civil law, academic integrity, business ethics which pull in different directions and create a "moral arbitrage". And do not forget the argument by which one would exclude various value systems to interfere with the operation of a civil state (e.g. religious observances entitling to various exemptions from job duties). I do not think this case is of the same kind, but it's not so obvious to me how to define the distinction. – Captain Emacs – 2016-03-26T13:56:56.657

@CaptainEmacs: Fair enough... I just hope OP scrolled down this far. – einpoklum – 2016-03-26T14:58:35.887


Consider the possibility that the work that you did, while being good craftsmanship (I hope), may not be considered a scientific work, and may be used and properly attributed by the student.

The normal way of quoting someone is to find a publication that supports your work, and citing it. If it just happens that you need something to support your work but nobody has ever written it, if you are a professor you might encourage a student to write a paper about it and then cite it. If you are a student with enough cash you could hire someone to write that paper or do that work, pay them, and then cite them correctly.

If he takes your paid for work and claims that he wrote it, sure, that is plagiarism, and you should tell the relevant people.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 1 154


Since you posted your dilemma in Academia section, most will tell you to act to punish the student. In academia, the student must have violated a set of serious rules that normally should be followed up by a punishment.

You are a software developer though and you must abide first of all by your contract, agreement with the client and your intermediary (freelancer website), and the general law. Unless your work has some sort of a license that requires the end user to acknowledge the original author (like MIT license), then the student may not be breaking the law here.

If you feel mistreated you can send an e-mail to his institution reporting his breach of academic ethics. You will feel better but face a risk that the student will contact the freelancer intermediary and try very hard to spoil your reputation there to get back at you.

My advice would be just to make sure you explicitly discuss copyrights with your future clients.

Arthur Tarasov

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 4 092


A moral dilemma indeed! I do believe there is a solution.

  1. Give the code and they give you the money, according to your contract.
  2. Warn the university of your dubious business partner.

It is their own fault that they paid you for nothing. They choose to act immorally. There are four variations of the above:

  1. Tell the university the person's name and the fact that he planned on plagiarizing. It then entirely up to the university what they do.
    • Some have voiced concerns over the fact that he hasn't plagiarized yet. Well, tell the university that. It is up to them whether plotting to plagiarize warrants sanctions against the student.
  2. Tell the university that one of their students may use their code, but don't tell them who. Now the outcome is fully determined by the student's decision.
    • To give the student a fair chance, comment on how fairly he dealt with you, and that his honesty is refreshing. This will cause internal conflict within him, as he considers his own values. If he chooses incorrectly, he will have caused his own fall.
  3. Tell the university. CC the offender.
    • This option puts everything to light. Light is the best moral disinfectant.
  4. Tell the university (but not who). BCC the offender.
    • This option forces the offender to make the right choice. He will be angry, but you can note that the money is sunk cost, and you have in fact saved him from moral decay. You may even ask for more money for this additional service, but expect to get stiffed on this fee.

Also, in the options where you don't tell the university who did it, make sure to prepare a moral defense as to why you are withholding that information.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 206


This one is easy. You did work for money. You keep the money.

I refer you to Stanley Fish's "Plagiarisnm is not a big moral deal".

The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like the rules of golf. I choose golf because its rules are so much more severe and therefore so much odder than the rules of other sports.

Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.

If Joe Biden didn't do anything morally wrong, then neither did OP.


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 1 413

3What does Joe Biden have anything to do with this question? – scaaahu – 2016-03-22T10:03:02.247

2@scaaahu Joe Biden plagarized one of his speeches, but it is OK because he is a politician not an academic. In the same way, OP is a freelancer not an academic. Neither Biden nor OP should have to worry about academic policies. – emory – 2016-03-22T10:09:45.033

1Joe Biden plagarized one of his speeches Whose speeches? – scaaahu – 2016-03-22T11:08:52.083

1Biden borrowed heavily from British Labor Leader Neil Kinnock. Biden copied Kinnock's speech word for word including personal details like being the son of a coal miner and being the first in his family to attend university. Biden's father was a car salesman. Kinnock's father was a coal miner. – emory – 2016-03-22T13:19:45.177

Biden said "My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania ". Look, I don't intend to engage in this meaningless argument here and I don't want to be picky about who said what. I'll stop here. – scaaahu – 2016-03-22T13:32:52.170

1@scaaahu, it was a very famous episode, you can surely find videos of Biden's speech compared with videos of Kinnock's. Biden also plagiarized as a university student. – zyx – 2016-03-22T16:10:46.723

2This student isn't just trying to claim credit. He is trying to defraud the university and probably the taxpayers, in order to get a degree which he did not earn. – Jørgen Fogh – 2016-03-22T18:36:01.733

3@JørgenFogh It is highly likely that the student was violating university rules. So what? How is that different than the student hiring the OP to create a card counting system for blackjack (which would probably violate the casino's rules)? In either case, there is no moral issue. – emory – 2016-03-23T06:29:11.580

2Wow. Fraud is not a moral issue? I really don't see how defrauding a university is different from defrauding any other business. – Jørgen Fogh – 2016-03-23T07:58:18.913

@JørgenFogh People who count cards are defrauding the casino. – emory – 2016-03-23T09:02:29.380

2@JørgenFogh, plagiarism may involve breaking a promise to the university (to accurately represent the sources of the work), and can be considered a form of lying. That is not the same thing as fraud. There is no obvious group of people being directly harmed, and the responsibility for valid certification is on the university (that assigns the grades and degrees and publishes transcripts) not the student. If a university has procedures that lead to a high rate of false certification then it is engaging in deceptive business practices. – zyx – 2016-03-23T14:41:38.860

By analogy: A mortgage lender must take steps to ensure that people do not lie on their applications. That does not absolve applicants of their obligation to tell the truth. IANAL, so my point is only about moral responsibility. – Jørgen Fogh – 2016-03-23T15:18:08.537

2People who deal with mortgages have explicit contractual clauses and written ethical codes on that subject. A real estate sales agent cannot assist fraud by a mortgage applicant, and might be held legally liable in case of (informed) assistance. There are no such specific duties in the OP's situation. The story in the question amounts to OP discovering that somebody he met is lying to some other people. Nothing more. That does not warrant interference that overrides the OP's obligations in a client-contractor transaction. @JørgenFogh – zyx – 2016-03-23T16:22:24.043


The advice is to take the money. And let me explain why. If not you, he will find another contractor to write a work for him for sure - don't even doubt it! You will be unable to prevent an IT industry from one more asshole-with-money entering it. He will fail later and for sure, and be tainted by it's fail on a practice. It's not a question, it's just a question of time. You did your job, a good result must be paid well - respect yourself and honor your skill : you are definitely not the person who should suffer from the fact that someone is a money-minded dick, who thinks that can just buy everything

Alexey Vesnin

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 227


[Edit: I seem to have misread the question, and thought you had already been paid prior to starting work (since you said "discussed payment" and "accepted the job"). Hence my original response. I've edited under the assumption that the asker has not been paid yet.]

In my opinion, you should:

  1. Withhold the work from the student, telling him in detail why you do so:

    a. It is morally wrong for him to submit your work as his own.

    b. You did not know about it earlier otherwise you would not have done the work.

    c. You have no obligation to him since he purposely had not revealed his intentions.

    d. He wanted to pay money for a dirty job, and you cannot give him your work without becoming complicit.

  2. Still ask for a token sum that you feel you deserve in light of the whole situation, based on:

    a. The amount of time and effort and other costs you spent on the work done.

    b. The amount you feel like returning to him since you do not give him the work after all.

    c. How much you feel it was your mistake that you did not find out earlier.

  3. Not tell him your exact reasons for how much money you decide to ask for, but just tell him that:

    a. He has wasted your time and effort because he knows what he is doing is wrong (almost every student has to sign some kind of agreement to uphold academic honesty).

    b. If he wants proof that you actually did the work, you will upload your work to GitHub publicly and inform his school that you were recently made aware that someone might pass it off as their own, without revealing the identity since the potential cheating offense has not yet been committed.

  4. If he refuses to pay you, then you have no choice but to accept the outcome.

The reason for all this is simple. If we do not know that what we are doing is wrong or intended by others to be used for immoral purposes, then at that point we are not guilty of the wrongdoing itself, and this does not change when in the future we can look back on the situation with hindsight or with a different viewpoint. However, we are still responsible for doing our best to make sure that whatever we do is not misused for wrong purposes, to a reasonable extent. If we give enough thought to how our work is being used, we can at the end of the day say honestly that we did our best and had sufficient reason to believe that it was for good. This explains why one has to take into account his own responsibility in not perceiving the possibility of cheating, when expecting payment.

I do not agree with some other people that it is alright to give him the work and get paid but secretly inform his school of the potential cheating offense (even if you do not reveal his identity), because by doing so you will be not be giving the student any impetus to change his mind about cheating. If that is your goal, namely to get the student into trouble, then indeed it would serve that purpose well. However, I do not think it is the goal of anyone who wants to make this world a better place. (Doesn't it sound like biting the hand that feeds you?)


Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 560

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– eykanal – 2016-03-25T13:44:00.950


Nonetheless I do not like people with diploma who have no knowledge behind it, I would say that you have to do everything that you obliged to provide without trying to screw someone up.

You can't tell a person: "now after one month of work I decided that I do not need your money", because if he would know this beforehand he would have chosen someone else, or may be have done it himself.

Giving him work and contacting university is even worse. It is like backstabbing him, or inserting a backdoor in his program.

How would you feel if some plumber started to fix your water system couple of weeks ago, then noticed that you have a hamster in a cage and has his own moral dilemma. He is one of this ultra PETA people and believe that hamsters should be free, so he decided to break everything he fixed for you, leaving you without water for a couple of weeks (gracefully returning you the money).

Some things to consider

  • university honor code is not a crime
  • you can't out of a sudden add additional copyrights that makes all the work unusable
  • you have to negotiate your contract beforehand and stick to it. Otherwise you will be a freelancer who has a whim and screws up people based on his moral judgements (a lot of people has different and strange moral judgements, so it is impossible to predict the next one).

Salvador Dali

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 807

12I'm sympathetic to your answer, but would like to note also that there is a mirroring position to take: "You can't tell a person 'now after one month of work I am letting you know that you're helping me cheat'". And a mirroring anecdote: You hire a plumber to fix your water basement system, and he has just finished up and has your cash in hand, when you tell him that you'll be using the water and the basement to torture children. Are you sure that the plumber *can't tell you 'now after one month of work I decided that I do not need your money'?". – ErikE – 2016-03-22T01:02:04.960

3@ErikE from the OP's post it does not look so he disclosed to me his full name and the institution that he attends. It turns out that this was his honors project for an undergraduate major in Computer Science. It looks like he only told his name and institute, everything else is OP's guess (which may be totally right). It was up to OP to ask beforehand what was the goal of the system. Your second part does not make a lot of sense because you mixes moralists view with a law. It is illegal to torture children, but there is no law against asking paying people to do homework for them. – Salvador Dali – 2016-03-22T01:52:32.967

2@ErikE for example some people believe that drinking alcohol is forbidden. In some countries (small amount of them it is illegal). So if I sold you alcohol and then concluded that you might start drinking it (there are some other things you can do with alcohol apart from drinking), it would not be a nice idea for me to investigate and contact your family members about it, write to your employer, call the cops telling that now I feel moral remorse. – Salvador Dali – 2016-03-22T01:57:02.427

2Please don't get all hung up on the laws. Try to take my point: you can't decide which side of the circumstances is the one that has a right to claim "You can't do this". I don't care if torturing children is illegal or not, the idea is that both sides can lay a claim to against their will being made complicit in something abhorrent or highly objectionable to them. By your logic, in my child-torture scenario, it was up to the plumber to ask beforehand what was the goal of the basement water system. As I said, I'm sympathetic to your position but it's just not as clear cut as you position it. – ErikE – 2016-03-22T01:57:18.210

1@ErikE I got your point, I respect it, I just have another opinion. And from my point of view the OP wants to get the money and at the same time screw up a guy: I don't want him to submit that work as his own. However, I still would like to get paid. He clearly can do this, but he has to understand that he puts himself in a terrible situation as a freelancer whom no one can trust. Because a next customer has no idea what will be his next moral remorse, and a next customer has no obligation to outline fully in detail why does he want something to be done. – Salvador Dali – 2016-03-22T02:03:33.463

2In my basement scenario, the plumber takes the money without destroying anything, and goes and reports the man to the authorities. Do you think that other people will not trust the plumber in the future or that he will put himself in a terrible position in so doing? – ErikE – 2016-03-22T02:05:25.423

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Salvador Dali – 2016-03-22T02:07:06.210


Α supplier contracts with a customer to produce some goods. The agreement is to get paid before delivery, and this happens. Then the police appears and tells the supplier that the specific customer is prohibited by law to get these goods (they' re bad for the customer's health). Something that the customer has not disclosed to the supplier. Then rightfully, ethically and educationally, the supplier keeps the money and the goods, and the buyer hopefully learns a lesson. Or not. The customer got himself into this predicament, purposefully withholding vital information, and since he is not a child or mentally incapacitated, he should bear any concequences, intended or not, of his course of action.

The fact that in your case the customer himself acted as the police, does not change anything.

Alecos Papadopoulos

Posted 2016-03-21T04:20:10.940

Reputation: 1 880

3Unfortunately your analogy is ruined by the fact that there is nothing going on here that is prohibited by law. The OP is worried that the goods are frowned upon by a specific subgroup of which the buyer is a member: that's not the same thing at all. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-25T05:59:44.047

Agree with @PeteL.Clark . This is is the logical opposite of the OP's story. The supplier is required (by the law and the police) to stop the transaction regardless of what he thinks of its moral qualities. In the question OP posted, there is no obligation to do anything such as stop the transaction or report the assumed plagiarism. It is only the OP's opinion about plagiarism that makes him want to stop the transaction. Consider the reverse situation where the client Googled OP and discovered he donates money to causes the client considers immoral. Should he refuse to pay? – zyx – 2016-03-25T06:01:23.817

@PeteL.Clark The dilemma is whether "not prohibited by law" is the relevant criterion here. Taboos in different societies exist, of course, and we probably do agree that anti-alcoholism or veganism rules on which people disagree should not spill over to other branches of society. However, plagiarism has something from fake currency printing: it dilutes the credit to the originator, it creates fake credit to the plagiariser. Let's check the following analogy: you can collect points on a card for drinking coffee; after 10, you get a free one. What are acceptable consequences of faking points? – Captain Emacs – 2016-03-25T12:46:06.060

@PeteL.Clark As is always the case with analogies, they are analogies, not equivalences. But let me make sure I understand this: are you saying that writing by oneself one's own Honors project for an undergraduate major is a maybe strong but still, "just a custom", a tradition, waiting for the next generation of innovators to disrupt it by start outsourcing the job? – Alecos Papadopoulos – 2016-03-25T14:15:35.060

@Alecos: No, I am certainly not saying that, and I hope that no one who carefully read my answer would be led to that conclusion. I find your analogy to be, at best, fundamentally unclear: I don't know what "acted as the police" means, and "does not change anything" is, at best, something you would have to carefully justify. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-25T15:28:04.377

@Captain Emacs: Well, of course I am an academic and thus abhor plagiarism. But outside the academic world it is my understanding that plagiarism per se is not illegal, though closely related things are (copyright violation). Presumably when you contract work from someone else, you are paying for the copyright...though that depends on the details of the contract and I agree that it is a possibility that the client's claims may violate the OP's copyright or other creator rights. – Pete L. Clark – 2016-03-25T15:35:32.737

@PeteL.Clark I always read carefully anything that is addressed to me. Your comment stated, "there is nothing here prohibited by law", which is a clear enough statement. When things are not prohibited by law, but they are prohibited, then they are so by ethics/tradition, which would then be the enforcing mechanisms. Alternatively, they are not prohibited at all. As for clarifications requested, "act as the police" means that it was the customer himself who eventually revealed the initially concealed details of the arrangement. But this "does not change anything" related to what has happened. – Alecos Papadopoulos – 2016-03-25T16:07:24.630