How Much Help Is Too Much?


This case discusses issues of faculty's responsibility as a mentor and advisor to graduate students.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

The Department of Chemistry at Anywhere University (AU) has established a number of requirements for the Ph.D. degree, including successfully completing several courses, engaging in original research and publishing the results, and passing a number of cumulative exams. These exams are given three times a semester and cover the four major areas of chemistry. In order to meet the requirement, students must pass exams in more than one area. It is the department's policy that the topic and the identity of the faculty member preparing the exam remain secret until exam time.

Part 1

James is a graduate student who is just completing his second year in the AU chemistry program. When he first enrolled in the program, the requirements for completing the Ph.D. were explained to him.

James decided to join the research group of Dr. Brown, a senior member of the department and chose a project that Brown said would produce results and not be difficult. Although James did not like the project, he began the experiments and continued them on Brown's assurances of results.

Now two years into his graduate career, James has completed the required courses for his degree, but has failed to pass a single cumulative exam. Seeing that one of his students is in trouble, Brown decides to aid James on the exams. As a faculty member Brown knows who will be giving the upcoming exams. Brown begins to suggest to James exactly which articles and books would be helpful in preparing for the exam, a clear violation of departmental procedure. Over the next year James is able to score well on all of the exams he takes and completes his requirement. Although many of the departmental faculty and students are aware of this situation, no one challenges Brown.

Discussion Questions

1. What are advisers' responsibilities when they see that students are struggling? What are the responsibilities of the student? The department?

2. How much help should Brown (or any professor) provide? What determines the appropriate level of help when a student is struggling?

3. When faculty or students are considering complaining about unfair or unequal treatment, what issues should be considered in determining a course of action? Are any issues specific to the faculty? the students?

Part 2

Three more years pass, and James is finishing his fifth year in the program. James has put in long hours and worked hard, but his experiments have failed to yield reproducible results. Brown and James meet to discuss his impending graduation. During the meeting Brown reminds James that he needs to publish in order to complete the departmental requirements. As the meeting progresses, James indicates his lack of interest in continuing the project. Brown concludes that it is time that James finished and moved out of the lab, but he realizes that James cannot graduate without assistance. Therefore Brown decides that he will add James's name to a paper that he (Brown) is writing based on data collected by an undergraduate. Although James has not contributed in any way to this research, he agrees to the plan.

Discussion Questions

4. What are the criteria for authorship?

5. Is James's effort in a failing project sufficient reason to include him on the manuscript? Why or why not?

6. Brown encouraged James to begin the project initially. What is his responsibility when the project fails to yield reproducible results?

Part 3

Once the article is published, James begins to write his dissertation. Although the literature portion of the dissertation is his own, the research chapters are simple expansions of the paper to which his name was added and which he has studied thoroughly. At his defense, James makes his presentation and is asked to leave the room while the committee discusses his accomplishments. During this discussion, the members of the dissertation committee conclude that James has not completed the minimum requirements for the degree (i.e., conducting and publishing original research). However, many of the committee members are friends of Brown. With some lobbying, the committee decides to award the degree to James.

Discussion Questions

7. What are the dissertation committee's responsibilities? Did James's committee fulfill these responsibilities?

8. What are the expectations of a person with a Ph.D.? Does James meet these expectations?

9. What are the consequences, if any, of awarding James the Ph.D.?

10. What alternatives are/were available to the dissertation committee?

Part 4

After his graduation, ABC Chemicals hired James to work on drug discovery. While James was interviewed like every other candidate, the strength of his recommendations secured him the position. After only six months, however, it was clear that James was incapable of completing even the simplest research tasks. He has cost the company time and resources by failing to complete his experiments. One of ABC Chemicals' senior scientists, Dr. Georges, is a former student at Anywhere University. Georges decides to call his former adviser; after a brief conversation, he learns the story of James's graduate training. Incensed that AU would award James a Ph.D., Georges immediately calls the department chair as well as the dean of the graduate school threatening to inform the American Chemical Society (ACS) if some action is not taken. Fearing a loss of certification, the dean sends a memo to the chair indicating that he should "take care of the problem."

Discussion Questions

11. Should James's Ph.D. be revoked? Can it be revoked? Would revocation of his degree undermine the assumption that the faculty will be fair and impartial in their evaluation of students?

12. What, if any, action should be taken against Brown? The other sources of James's letters of recommendation?

13. Should the journal to which the paper was submitted be alerted that James's name was added to the paper inappropriately?

14. Should the ACS be alerted to this incident, or should Georges wait until he hears from the chair about what will be done? What criteria could be used to determine his course of action?

15. What alternatives are/were available to Georges?

16. Should ABC Chemicals develop a new company policy to ensure that recently hired employees are competent?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

There is no argument here that Professor Brown is guilty of moral misconduct. Society, which indirectly pays his salary and supports his cushy life-style, must hold him accountable for doing the right thing. Part of his job is to certify that graduate students have certain expected skills, and in this regard he is clearly violating the public trust. The rest of the faculty, by knuckling under to Professor Brown, are equally guilty accomplices.

But should the focus of this unfortunate situation exclude James, the student who was unfairly helped through the program? Did he not, by accepting unfair assistance in passing the cumulative exams, essentially steal his degree? Is this behavior any different from that of students who cheat on exams or plagiarizes papers in order to graduate from college? In such cases, while the students receive the degrees, they must, at some stage in their lives, reflect on what underhanded means they had to use, and that reflection must be personally painful.

Just recently the local newspaper carried a story about how term papers can be purchased; the author of the news article estimated that at least 10 percent of college students use one of these paper mills during their time in college. The author had interviewed a writer of such term papers, who understood the sleazy nature of her craft, but then rationalized it by saying; "It's a natural thing [to purchase term papers and use them as your own]. If someone tells you a joke, you tell it as your own."

Her statement is wrong on two accounts. First, it is not a natural thing to steal, or to use deception in obtaining a college degree. Most students who cheat in college do so with full knowledge that it is wrong and often agonize about it. Second, telling a joke does not imply that the joke has been created by the person telling it. Everyone knows that jokes are shared without attribution. Only when the jokes are claimed to be original when they are not is the re-telling immoral. But the purchase and use of term papers without proper attribution is an immoral act, and the writer of such papers is guilty of immoral behavior by openly and notoriously acting as a source of such papers.

It is interesting, however, that while some 20 states have made the sale of such papers illegal (punishable by a civil penalty), not one state has outlawed the purchase of the papers, although the entire industry would collapse if there were no buyers. The students who purchase the papers are also guilty parties in this sorry business.

Similarly, James is the truly guilty person in this case. It is his responsibility to conduct himself in an honorable way, and if he perceives that he is being unfairly helped (by having Professor Brown tell him what is on the comprehensive exams, e.g.), then he should stand up and refuse such help. This requirement differs little from that of a student who is offered a term paper for sale. We all recognize that the moral thing to do is to refuse to purchase the paper. Similarly, James should refuse to accept Brown's assistance. By cheating his way through graduate school, not only does James paint himself as a scientifically incompetent person, but also as an immoral one. It might be, that, as in the scenario, James could not hold a job; the problem with the job was not that he could not perform in the laboratory, but that his co-workers soon discovered that James could not be trusted. That second conclusion is far more damning than the first. If James were simply incompetent, he could always find a job cooking French fries. If he was a cheat and liar, then no one would hire him.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University.

While this case presents many ethical questions, the problems stem from two fundamental issues: responsibility and trust. I make this assertion because an underlying assumption in the academic community is that each professor and student will be responsible in his/her respective position. Similarly trust has been established between the faculty and the outside community, both scientific and lay.

If we focus first on the responsibility issue, we need to be careful in how we approach the problem. At first glance many would say that the responsibility lies with Dr. Brown. It is apparent that Brown has committed a number of gross violations. He has given an unfair advantage to his student on exams in addition to falsifying authorship to a peer-reviewed journal.

There can be no doubt that both of these acts are egregious, but to place blame solely on his shoulders is to miss the more pervasive, and more troubling problems. As culpable as Brown is, James and the other faculty members are also responsible for the situation. James is responsible for letting his professor know when his studies aren't going well. Rather than be proactive, or even reactive, James exhibits an apathetic attitude. This attitude creates a situation in which Brown must either allow James to fail or take extraordinary steps to ensure his success. And while these circumstances do not mitigate Brown's actions, they certainly provide a backdrop for them.

More importantly, the faculty's failure to provide honest criticism to Brown and James is the worst violation of responsibility. By failing to address Brown's actions with respect to the exams, and then by passing James, the faculty is creating an atmosphere in which merit and work no longer predominate in student evaluation. The faculty's failure of responsibility is dangerous because it creates a situation in which students can be awarded a degree they did not earn. The obvious result is that unskilled, and perhaps incompetent, students are released into the general community.

Coupled with the issue of responsibility is the issue of trust. All students who matriculate assume that they will be treated equally and that the requirements for graduation will be uniform. When Brown creates a differential, he is not only being irresponsible to the university, but he is violating other students' trust in him and the faculty. In addition, industrial employers trust that the university will teach students a certain skill set that they can utilize. When Brown violates this trust, he endangers other students by creating a situation where they may not be hired given James's performance.

Many more issues are at work in the case. The discussion questions should facilitate the exploration of some of these questions. However, I would argue that the case at its heart is an investigation into the expectations of the graduate experience. Also very important are questions about what actions are appropriate to ensure that those receiving degrees have mastered a skill set and are responsible and trustworthy enough to be employed.