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A friend of mine has told me that his Master student (Chemistry) defended his thesis sometimes ago and everything went alright and he graduated. He recently realized that in the acknowledgements part the student has copied practically (word by word, line by line) the acknowledgements of another thesis available on the Internet by replacing the name of my colleague with the name of the supervisor of that thesis. He added that he was hurt by the fact that the student has not tried to say his 'thank you' words by his own words.

My first question is that can this be considered as a plagiarism?

My second question is that is it necessary to inform the student about this possible (if any) misconduct?

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I would say that your friend is "making a mountain out of a molehill." –  Mad Jack Jun 29 at 21:39
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It seems to me that the number of reasonable ways to thank one's thesis supervisor is far smaller than the number of theses. So I would expect lots of theses to contain the same formulation of thanks to the supervisor. –  Andreas Blass Jun 29 at 22:25
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@AndreasBlass Of course, many acknowledgements (just like love letters) are conceptually similar. However, word-by-word copypaste is still quite different from taking an effort of saying the same things in your own words. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 29 at 22:33
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@DmitrySavostyanov: Unlike love letters, however, acknowledgments are both public and meant to be lasting statements about someone else. A statement that could be, for lack of context, interpreted the wrong way by a 3rd party, or a miswritten statement that should better be forgotten and can be corrected in a follow up are not an issue in a love letter, but can seriously distort the intended impression about the person referred to in the acknowledgments of a publication. Therefore, in the acknowledgments case, it's maybe better to play safe and restrict oneself to standard formulations. –  O. R. Mapper Jun 30 at 9:14
    
I would be more worried about the possibility of other parts of the thesis being copied. The student in question might just have been uncomfortable with writing the mushy part on their own - or it could be just one instance of a more damning pattern... –  thkala Jul 1 at 0:44

3 Answers 3

He recently realized that in the acknowledgements part the student has copied practically (word by word, line by line) the acknowledgements of another thesis available on the Internet by replacing the name of my colleague with the name of the supervisor of that thesis.

I'm slightly confused: I assume that in order to discover this, the advisor must have run the entire thesis through some plagiarism-detection software. But the question indicates that this took place after the student's graduation. I don't understand that: two reasonable times to run your student's thesis through plagiarism detection software are (i) at some point before you sign off on them and (ii) never. Would one really do this after the fact out of idle curiosity, or did the advisor have some other reason to suspect that plagiarism took place?

Is line-by-line copying of someone else's acknowledgments a form of plagiarism?
Well, plagiarism has a sufficiently precise definition that I don't see how the answer can be "no". The better question is whether this is viewed as unacceptable enough to do anything about.

I think that part of that question depends upon the writing quality and originality of the purloined acknowledgments. As @Andreas Blass points out, if you've seen 10 different thesis acknowledgments, you've seen 1000 more: such acknowledgements are formally part of the thesis but they are not part of the academic / intellectual content of the content. So they are not vetted in any way, and there is no expectation of intellectual originality. There is more than one way to phrase "Thanks so much to my parents, my friends and my thesis advisor", but the number of standard ways to phrase that is so much smaller than the number of theses that the pigeonhole principle applies to show that many people are writing the same sentences in their acknowledgments. If the purloined acknowledgments contained many clever and original turns of phrase, then it looks worse: the fact that what you stole has nothing to do with the intellectual content of the thesis cannot excuse the fact that you are taking credit for someone else's distinctive writing. That's a really icky thing to do in acknowledgments to your own thesis.

Unless the purloined acknowledgments contained several paragraphs of poetry or something similarly egregious, I would not consider a formal plagiarism inquiry. This runs the risk of getting the degree rescinded, which to me is clearly too harsh. But there is a real problem here:

He added that he was hurt by the fact that the student has not tried to say his 'thank you' words by his own words.

Ça y est. The student's former advisor has discovered that the student has cut corners and compromised some academic integrity just to get out of thanking him in his own words. What a slap in the face! I think that if something like this happened to me, I would have to bring it up with the student (though it would be painfully awkward) just because I would feel like I have to be honest with them about the change in my opinion of them resulting from this discovery. Without some kind of sincere apology / explanation of this, the future of this professional relationship is at risk. The student, alas, may need to be informed that he should look elsewhere for future recommendation letters and so forth.

Added: A lot of people seem to be suggesting that parts of this answer are an overreaction. I tried to make clear that I don't find the premise of the question completely plausible or understandable, but after discussing that I did what I think is the appropriate thing on Q&A sites like this one: I assumed the premise, in some form which made sense to me. Yes, if the "word-by-word, line-by-line" copied acknowledgments constitute five lines thanking the student's family, friends and advisor, I see no problem at all -- and I don't see it as a reason to run the text of the acknowledgment through an internet search. Nor would such a search turn up a unique antecedent; it would turn up hundreds or thousands of cognate passages, as Andreas Blass pointed out. Thus to assume the premise I had to assume that the purloined text was much more substantial and distinctive. To be more specific, imagine the text was:

I feel greatly honored to be able to add, in some small way, to a subject founded by so many [Field Xers] whose work I so deeply admire; among them are [My Advisor], [Person A], [Person B] and of course [Person Whose Name Appears in the Thesis Title], the richness of whose ideas seems undilutable by time.

I thank [Professor C] and [Professor D] for suggestions directly relevant to the material appearing in this thesis. I thank [Fellow Student E] for helping me – quite a while ago now – with some results of [Somewhat Technical Theory] that appear in the appendix.

I thank [Postdoc F] for helping me calculate a fistful of [Something] (I regret that none of these calculations appear in this thesis) and for generally being so free with his technical and [Field X-ical] insights. I am grateful to [Recent PhD G] for making his own as yet unpublished thesis work available to me.

The graduate students in the [University Y Department of X] have been without exception intelligent and friendly, and it has been a pleasure to learn from them and with them over the years.

Thanks to [Old Girlfriend H] for providing comfort in the sad days of [a few years ago]. Her kindness will never be forgotten.

I am indebted to my thesis advisor [My Advisor] for more things than I can list here, but most recently for a careful reading of an early, ugly draft of a certain lengthy [Field X-ical] document.

My father would have been proud of this thesis beyond all moderation. My mother has long made and continues to make me proud of her strength in the face of all the challenges life has to offer. I thank them both with all of my heart.

Imagine that the advisor read this the first time around and was happy to be thanked along with so many other people who made a difference in the student's life. Then later, for whatever reason, he does an internet search on or including this text and discovers that it is lifted word-by-word, line-by-line from this 2003 PhD thesis. The specificity of the stolen text would be downright creepy. Is it really an overreaction if the advisor is upset by this??

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Yes, many peculiar premises to the question... I am still wondering how it happened that the copy, if it was so, was observed. The sameness of more things than acknowledgements are inevitable, as you say, by pigeon-hole, if nothing else, and/but the detection requires effort... For that matter, one could argue that taking the trouble to find a really compelling acknowledgement wording is better than writing one's own crappy one. Do we want one of the great symphonies, or an all-new one? :) –  paul garrett Jun 30 at 2:18
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"... the advisor must have run the entire thesis through some plagiarism-detection software." Not necessarily. He might have just read the text and found it familiar, especially if the phrasing was distinctive. Or the style of writing may have changed dramatically, prompting the advisor to do some Googling. –  David Richerby Jun 30 at 9:28
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Is anyone feeling what is described in the last paragraph not a gigantic overreaction? Such that I would actively worry about them having a normal reaction to anything. Not to mention misinterpreting the action; your own slap dash acknowledgments is almost certainly easier than looking through templates to find one that sounds right (much like buying a birthday card; a scap of paper with "today is birthday" written on it is definitely easier) –  Richard Tingle Jun 30 at 12:14
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Plus one for concluding that this is not part of the academic/intellectual content. Almost minus one for taking it so personally. When I read "Ça y est" I thought you were going to criticize the motivation, not jump on the bandwagon. Too much thin skin in academia. –  Aaron Hall Jun 30 at 15:56
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Without wishing to exaggerate my psychic powers, the author has probably thought "what's a formal, polite, appropriate way to phrase this?", and plagiarised another thesis in much the same way that one might look up how best to phrase a wedding RSVP. Sucks, but I strongly suspect not that the author has tried to "get out of" thanking the advisor in his own words, but that the author has overlooked the opportunity to write something personal. As do many others, since as you point out these things are generally bland and samey. Which is why RSVPs sprang to mind. –  Steve Jessop Jun 30 at 23:21

Formally, the copy-pasting of the Acknowledgements section is stealing the other author's language, expressions and maybe even ideas, that fits into the common understanding of plagiarism. Therefore, it might be a good idea to discuss this with the student.

However, before you do this, you may wish to double-check your internal motivation. Do you do this to help student realize that even if they copy a small piece of text like this (not directly related to the academic content of theses), it still can be considered as a breach of ethics and negatively impact their future career? Or do you do this because you feel for your friend and have some hard feelings about the ungrateful student?

The situation is definitely very delicate, and should be carefully dealt with. It touches the field of academic ethics in two separate points: copypasting the text, and expressing gratitude. It is crucial to separate these two in the discussion with student.

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It is very unlikely that there's much more than one or two lines of text per acknowledgement per person. A google result "author wishes to thank * for his help" gives more than one million hits. I'd say any discussion with the student would be absurd, unless the acknowlegment text is a whole paragraph. –  mmh Jun 30 at 15:06
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@mmh We do not know how long the acknowledgements section in question is. You may wish to check with the author of the question, whether it is a whole paragraph or less. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 30 at 16:19

You should really take a step back and put this into context. This is just the acknowledgement section.

My first question is that can this be considered as a plagiarism?

The acknowledgements are not really part of the academic work. In general, it's the only part of a thesis where the writer has a larger degree of freedom regarding style and content. This should certainly not be academic plagiarism per se.

There's also the secondary question of copyright infringement, but in all likelihood, the text is too short for this to be clear cut. I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect this could fall under some sort of fair use (although some form of citation would be good I guess). Nevertheless, the one who could be upset about this should be the initial author of these acknowledgements, if they care. Of course, if a court of law decided this was indeed copyright infringement, this would have an impact with respect to the plagiarism policy of the institution.

I'll just assume that no one felt this issue had to go outside the scope of academia.

It sounds like this is more an issue about causing offence than about actual plagiarism.

My second question is that is it necessary to inform the student about this possible (if any) misconduct?

You can have a quick word with the student, since he or she visibly caused offence, but I wouldn't call this misconduct.

Putting things back into context, the acknowledgement section of a thesis will be ignored by 90% of the 0.00000001% of the world's population who will have read the thesis (I might be generous there).

Acknowledgements are mainly a name-checking exercise:

  • You thank your parents so they can be proud when they exhibit the precious copy you gave them to their visiting friends shortly after the graduation ceremony, before gathering dust until eternity. You can also thank a few close friends for the bond of common graduation experience.
  • From a professional point of view, you also thank your supervisor and possible funding bodies who might have given you grants for the work. The latter are the points that really matter: the supervisor and funding bodies will be able to put the student's thesis as part of the achievements of their own careers and projects.

Besides that, I'm afraid to say no one really cares about the wording in general, as long as it's not offensive or outstanding in the wrong way (one should avoid things like "[...] Prof X was the catalyst that enabled this exothermic reaction inside me to produce this marvellous piece of work [...]", simply because it's ridiculous, not because it might be plagiarism). If someone takes interest in the work and want to find out under whom this was conducted, they'll have a quick glance at the acknowledgement section, look at the name of the supervisor, take note and move on.

Perhaps there is some cultural context at play here. You're not saying in which country you are or what your friend's cultural background and seniority are.

The student probably didn't mean to cause offence. Since it sounds like the text is sufficiently distinctive to be identifiable, it sounds like the student actually did make an effort to find something original to say, at least something distinct from the basic "I would like to thank Prof X for his (in)valuable advice". If anything, your friend should be flattered, by this attempt (sadly failed). The acknowledgements is probably one of the last sections that was written in a rush before the submission deadline.

As I said earlier, it doesn't sound like a plagiarism issue, but like someone who inadvertently caused offence. It's not so much about informing the student about a possible "misconduct", rather it's about defusing the situation, between the two of them. It can be tricky if your friend is seriously offended. In fact, perhaps you should have a word with your friend first to try to calm down this situation. If I was the student, I would feel really awkward having to work later (e.g. in a PhD programme for a number of years) with a supervisor who is likely to hold some sort of grudge for this.

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