Recently I realised that with some regularity there seem to be question of people who seem to be obsessively worried about some alleged misconduct which happend many years ago. A very recent example is the following: Would these be adequate grounds for severe reprimand from my undergraduate program?. An older example.

In most of these questions, it looks like the actual problem is not an acedemic one. Is there a generic question about when to worry about alleged misconduct after many years to which these could be marked as duplicates?


In general, concern about long-ago transgressions fall into two categories.

  • Very serious ones, where the misconduct could potentially lead to degree revocation. For these, we have this canonical question.
  • Less serious ones, where there is no real chance of suffering consequences, but there may be some guilt. In this case, the issue is not really academic, but psychological ("scrupulosity", perhaps).

We should avoid playing psychiatrist: we have no particular expertise to offer when it comes to dealing with feelings of guilt. So, questions about how to deal with guilt are mostly off-topic (I would recommend leaving a gentle explanation in the comments, or a link to this discussion). This was the case with the linked post.

Similarly, we should avoid playing judge: it is not our role to adjudicate individual cases and decide whether the asker is guilty or not. So, questions asking us to judge their long-ago offense will mostly be dependent on individual factors.

But, there may be a few questions where there is an actual academic question that is broad enough that it could be useful to others in the future. In such cases, the question is viable and should be left open.

  • Note, I rewrote this answer (changing mostly the structure, not the substance) after considering Arno's excellent answer.
    – cag51 Mod
    Sep 12 at 20:13

I disagree with cag51 on this type of question being off-topic, despite agreeing that this ultimately is a psychological issue, and that we shouldn't play psychiatrist.

What we can provide for these questions is a rough assessment on how serious the potential transgression is, and whether worrying about consequences or unpaid moral dues is reasonable or not. As an analogy, everyone will perceive a clear difference between "15 years ago I stole a candybar and I'm worrying the law will catch up with me" and "15 years ago I murdered someone and I'm worrying the law will catch up with me". When it comes to violations of the academic code of conduct, it will be much less obvious for "outsiders" to judge.

Of course, being told that the worry is unreasonable will not necessarily help the asker to stop worrying; and the question of how to do that is indeed off-topic here.

A peculiarity of these questions is that whether the asker believes the answer is more of a concern than usual. For this reason, I'd be extra cautious with closing as duplicates here.

  • 1
    This does not seem consistent with the long-standing practice of closing questions that depend strongly on individual circumstances. Misconduct is very often all about individual circumstances and a "rough assessment" is not actually productive. Sep 13 at 17:19

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