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While writing the literature review for my doctoral dissertation, I picked up a few recent dissertations on similar topics from the library to get some pointers on references and style. As I was reading some of the articles cited in one of these theses, I discovered that this person had lifted large blocks of text from the cited works verbatim. Although the original works were cited, the borrowed text was not presented as a quote, but used directly in the thesis.

I checked a few more, just out of curiosity, and realized that basically the whole literature review by this author (who graduated with a PhD two years ago) was cut-and-paste verbatim quotes strung together (and who knows how much more of the thesis is plagiarized - I only checked this one chapter).

This really ticks me off, as I (and many students like me) spend a great deal of time reworking cited information into proper coherent explanations for our projects. I happen to know the offending author's advisor pretty well, as we currently work together outside of my graduate program.

Should I say something or should I just let this person get away with plagiarizing large parts of their dissertation?


Edit:

I still don't know what I will do about this -- no-one wants to be a tattle-tale, and it really isn't any of my business how other people go about getting their doctorates. However, as I am currently writing my dissertation, it really irks me when I see someone else getting away with this, as I know from experience how much hard work goes into writing a PhD thesis.

I just have one more comment -- I ran the chapter in question through the TurnItIn software, which I have access to as an instructor at my institution. The thesis came back as 52% unoriginal. Turnitin only counts exact matches, so the 52% figure doesn't even include some of the paragraphs that I caught, where the author has changed one or two words but kept the sentence structure.

I doubt that there would be any legal consequences, even if I report the thesis for plagiarism -- it is more a question of academic dishonesty and what steps the institution that awarded the degree would take. I will show it to my advisor and see what he says before I do anything.

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If you know the author's advisor pretty well, starting with an informal chat might be a good way. If you don't want to talk to him directly ... Well, there's this other question I see, that might be, um, 'interesting'. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/10733/… –  hunter2 Jun 25 '13 at 8:39
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If you do not want to put your name to the accusation there is nothing to prevent you from contacting the relevant person or body anonymously. Disposable e-mail addresses are easy to come by or you could simply post an anonymous letter to the relevant person. –  Jack Aidley Aug 3 '13 at 11:09
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You should prepare yourself for a possible extremely hostile reaction from the offender's adviser, since this reflects very poorly on the adviser. If the adviser knew about the problem, the adviser is complicit in the plagiarism. If the adviser didn't know, it suggests that the adviser supervised an entire dissertation without having read the relevant primary literature. For someone in your position, just starting out in an academic career, it might be safer to notify the victims of the plagiarism and let them take action. –  Ben Crowell Feb 16 '14 at 4:43
    
I'm assuming, although you haven't clearly stated it, that the thesis author is not a co-author of any of the work reused in this fashion. It probably also makes a difference if the earlier work came out of the same research group, as permission for such use may have been obtained (of course it should have been somehow disclosed, but perhaps not directly adjacent). I did obtain permission from my lab director to reuse some problem-defining text from grant applications, although I ended up not using it. Please clarify the connection between the authors of the thesis and cited works. –  Ben Voigt Dec 12 '14 at 14:50
    
I'm not condoning this sort of thing, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that plagiarism of lit review sections is pretty common. When I was doing lit review for my own dissertation, I found an article's lit review that was a sentence-by-sentence paraphrase of another's. Not a word-for-word copy, but citing the same papers in the same order and saying essentially exactly the same things about them. I can sort of understand why somebody would do this; writing a lit review is really tedious compared to writing about one's own research. Even so it's a bit of a cheat, I wouldn't recommend it. –  Paul Mar 14 at 20:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 48 down vote accepted

This is of course a sensitive issue. However, the ethically correct behavior is to notify someone responsible about the problem. Etiquette says to go to the advisor first, as the advisor is the person who, after the author who committed the plagiarism, stands to lose the most from the accusation.

However, if you feel squeamish about doing it by yourself, you can talk to your advisor about the best way to proceed.

The main issue on your part is if you will need to rely on the plagiarizer's advisor for recommendation letters. Then you should definitely proceed with caution, and with the support of your advisor, department administrators, or both.

Of course, make sure that you've done your due diligence before going public with your charges, and to have the evidence with you when you meet with anyone about this matter.

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Thank you, that is a good point. The evidence is indisputable - large blocks of text, in some cases several pages, are copied and pasted (and duly cited (!) so easy to find in the original), but I do work in the same area as the dissertation adviser, and I don't want to embarrass him. –  IndyJ Jan 2 '13 at 0:25
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I'd strongly recommend going to your advisor first. –  Suresh Jan 2 '13 at 1:12
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Just for further emphasis, take it slow, and be cautious. Also prepare to be disappointed and angered, there's a non-zero chance that the first response will be to ignore you and hope it all goes away. –  Luke Mathieson Jan 2 '13 at 1:53
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@LukeMathieson or even get angry with you for exposing them... –  Paul Hiemstra Jan 2 '13 at 14:19
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Etiquette says to go to the advisor first. There is no etiquette for this situation. IndyJ is in an extremely vulnerable position. If IndyJ thinks the adviser is ethical and wants to help the adviser salvage his/her reputation, IndyJ could notify the adviser first, anonymously, then wait a month and anonymously notify the victims of the plagiarism and let them take action. –  Ben Crowell Feb 16 '14 at 4:47

The person did provide the citations, so for me it is not clear if legally this person did something wrong. I would first try and find this out before taking any steps. Ofcourse, I would not accept this kind of verbatim copying if I where a supervisor. The angle on takes in an article is always a bit different than in the cited work. In addition, paraphrasing the text shows that you have understood what was written.

And be carefull how you deal with this, some people would not appreciate you being a snitch (in their view). However, I agree with @aeismail that it is the scientifically ethical thing to do to at least report this. And do get some backup from your own supervisor/professor.

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What do you mean by "legally"? Copyright violation? I don't think the law is the right framework for looking at this (if it's legal, that doesn't make it ethical, and if it's illegal, it's certainly not at a level where anyone would try to enforce it in court). –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 2 '13 at 16:39
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One outcome of this is that the person in question is going to lose their PhD if the plagiarism is proven. Then, it will be important that in a legal sense plagiarism can be proven. If it is going to be a warning of some sort, the legal part may be less important. –  Paul Hiemstra Jan 2 '13 at 16:55
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Hmm, I wonder whether this is country-dependent. In the U.S. I don't think there are laws governing plagiarism except for copyright law, and the decision of revoking a degree is based on university policies rather than law. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 2 '13 at 17:19
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AFAIK, copyright law doesn't care about attribution: you can't copy substantial passages verbatim, with or without citation. However, copyright violation would have to be pursued by the copyright holder (the original author), and this would be independent of any actions the plagiarist's institution might take. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 2 '13 at 18:48
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@AnonymousMathematician: "the decision of revoking a degree is based on university policies rather than law": True, but the person whose degree is revoked might well decide to sue, claiming the decision was unfair, malicious, etc, etc. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 2 '13 at 18:49

My institution has a commitee in charge of this, does yours not have anything similar? There you can report such findings (even anonymously since the evidence is not depending on the person providing it). They will then decide upon the procedure to be followed.

Revoking a title is not an easy procedure in any case, also as there are large numbers of personal relationships entangled in it. I just know that almost any case where something like this happened, it ended in court.

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On possible course of action is to talk to the student's advisor about a "hypothetical," that is, ask him how he would feel if he were told that someone had plagiarized a PhD thesis in such-and-such a way.

One possible result is that he is entirely surprised, or better yet, indignant. Then you can follow up with your secret and tell him the truth about his student.

Another possibility is that he winks and then says something like "yeah, these things happen from time to time." If that's the case, he "knows," and then it's up to you to decide (from a political point of view), whether or not to bring it to his official knowledge.

This idea came from a novel, "Strong Medicine" by Arthur Haley, where a young doctor went to his hospital CEO to inquire about how he should advise a "friend" to report that a senior doctor (his boss) was operating under the influence of drugs. The CEO said, "I don't want to deal with problems from another hospital, but tell your "friend" to keep his mouth shut," then winked at the young doctor and told him how valuable the boss was to his hospital.

The young doctor had his answer.

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The analogy is interesting, though there is certainly a gap between a PhD student copying work about the usage of commas in ancient French between 1743 and 1792 in Toulouse, and a doctor operating while high. I understand that this is obviously a novel and everything but the young doctor, in the second case, may commit a felony by not reporting that (IANAL but it looks quite so). The first case surely reduces our knowledge about comma usage in the past but the risk for current population is somehow limited. –  WoJ Mar 13 at 16:01

If I understand the OP correctly, the only place in which text was lifted was the literature review. While it is inappropriate to do so, it's only the phrasing which could be considered plagiarized (and even that, like @PaulHiemstra states, is not exactly the case since the author did cite the sources).

In other words: The actual research presented in the thesis is original and not lifted from anyone. That means one cannot claim that "large parts of the... dissertation" are plagiarized. Certainly there is nothing which would merit reconsideration of the awarding of the title. At most the Ph.D. candidate should have been chided with failing to cite clearly enough, and require to resubmit his dissertation so that the literature review is less copy-pasty.

Another comment is that the dissertation's readers / examination committee should have picked this up. They weren't doing their job and that's actually a different problem, which is even more important to address.

Having said that, I think it is your duty as an academic to act here. My suggestion for the order of actions is as follows:

  1. Inform your own advisor of this matter, letting him know you're going to talk to the dissertation author's advisor. Don't ask for his permission or anything - but he might have some relevant cautionary information.
  2. Talk to the disseration author's advisor. Tell him that the dissertation needs to be corrected, or at least an erratum added on all relevant pages in the physical and on-line copies. Ask him to contact his previous advisee (is that a word?) about it, as though he (the advisor) noticed it himself, to make the advisee feel less uncomfortable and more obliged to act.
  3. If the advisor agrees, you're done with this part (well, you'll need to check up on him). Stop reading this list
  4. Tell him you intend to continue to pursue this despite his refusal.
  5. Contact the dissertation author and ask that he address the problem.
  6. If he doesn't agree, write the both of them and threaten to report them (now they're both at fault; maybe the advisor already knew and didn't care).
  7. If that doesn't work, try your grad student union / junior researcher union, and specifically your department's union rep. Don't have one? Too bad... anyway, the union might have some ability to apply pressure and the interest to uphold academic professionalism; and ratting someone out to his union is not as bad as ratting him out to the university authorities.
  8. Talk to someone like the vice-dean in charge of graduate researchers, or a corresponding relatively-low-level official in charge of oversight of Ph.D. candidates academic progress. I'm taking about someone in an academic capacity, not an administrative one.
  9. Talk to your dean / department head.
  10. If all else fails, publish an open letter. Make sure it's very polite, vitriol-free, makes no unfounded assumptions and does not demand anyone's head on a platter, merely that the issue be addressed and that the principles of professional academic behavior be better adhered to.

With this resolved, consider trying to talk to whoever in your university is in charge of appointing dissertation reader / examiner committees for Ph.D. candidates. There should be some kind of effort on his/her part to ensure committee members understand they need to notice such things.

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