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Background: I completed my PhD last Christmas and received it later on in the year.

My supervisor was very absent (there in person, but not at all a mentor)/not very supportive during my PhD. Early on during my PhD I wrote a paper with one of my fields world leading professors, who was a friend of my supervisor.

My supervisor regularly discussed my work with this individual and suggested that I send my unpublished manuscripts and thesis to them to get feed back. The professor also visited the group, where they read my draft thesis. They did give goodfeed back and I considered this professor a friend and a mentor.

During last year it came to my attention that one of this professors PhD students has produced a near identical thesis to my own. They do reference my first paper however, and then go on to tackle the same problem using the same method (devised in my paper). At that time, I spoke to my supervisor, who had a conversation with this professor. They claimed that there was no plagiarism and that it was simply a coincidence. My supervisor was happy with that explanation and said it should be dropped. I'm convinced that it is more than that (even the chapter topics are the same), and I have email proof of sending works to this professor. But have not proof that it made it to their PhD student.

My PhD department was terrible with lots of shady stuff going on (I complained, but it all fell on deaf ears). After landing a job I just decided to put it down as a bad experience and thanked my luckly stars that I was done.

  • However I've been recently thinking about this, what is to stop this person of turning this situation around and trying to accuse me of plagiarising them? How do I protect myself?
  • Should I bring this up with somebody else at the university? If so, who? Would emails (forwarded on to an auxiliary gmail account) be sufficient evidence? At no point did this professor state that their student was working on something similar. (nor did I know of this students existence)
  • Would they wonder why I hadn't brought this up sooner? (its been several months) It annoyed the hell out of me, but I was just glad be done and focus on my future career. I had complained about other stuff going on in the department, but no one was interested and so I figured that this too would be ignored.

I'm so glad to be away from this toxic group, but am now worried that this could be completely turned around and add insult to injury.

Allow me to clarify: I took the method that I devised in my first paper (with which the professor was a co-author) and applied it to a very specific problem. I then wrote this up and sent it to the professor and asked him to review it (as it is/was quite an important contribution to the field and as stated above, over the years they we happy to review my work. I had also hoped that they would be a co-author again, as it extended our first paper in a significant way). I then completed my thesis (said professor read my draft) and the aim was to apply this method to other specific problems, however it turned out not to be possible (as I proved/discussed with said professor) and so this manuscript (and first paper) became the cornerstone of my PhD. I planned on publishing the second manuscript after my PhD submission was out the way. It turns out that this work is also the basis of his PhD students thesis, which was submitted only a few months after my own. They do however reference my first paper (as, obviously, do I) but then go on to do the work in my second manuscript. When you compare the thesis, it is the same chapter lay out as my own: first paper broken into several topics each forming a chapter. Manuscript broken into several topics each forming a chapter. Each of there chapters covers the same topic (in the same order and very similar chapter structure) as my own. This is what I mean by "near identical".

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    There's a huge gap between "attacked the same problem using the same method" and "plagiarism". What makes you think this gap has been crossed? – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '18 at 22:04
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    @NateEldredge: If the method is newly devised by the OP, then it's much more likely plagiarism than someone accidentally stumbling upon the same method after getting the OP's thesis. – aeismail Jan 14 '18 at 22:18
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    @aeismail: The "method" was devised and published jointly by the OP and the other professor, so the student would legitimately have known about it. I don't think anyone suggests the other student accidentally "stumbled" on it. If the student learned the method from the paper and/or from the professor, chose to apply it to the same problem as OP, and then independently solved the problem, there would be nothing wrong with that. – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '18 at 22:24
  • OP: Can you be more specific about how this other student's thesis is "near identical"? Is it only that it attacks the same problem by the same method, or is it more than that? Have significant amounts of the text of your thesis been copied? Do you have reason to doubt that the other student actually carried out the work described in the thesis (that would make it not only plagiarism but also research fraud)? – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '18 at 22:27
  • @NateEldredge At the very least it sounds as if the other student has written a PhD thesis that shouldn't pass, since they haven't furthered the knowledge in the field, taking a known procedure and applying it to a known problem, yielding known results, especially if all that is done in one single paper already. Taking a procedure without giving due credit may not be plagiarism, but it still isn't good academic practice. – sgf Jan 15 '18 at 21:13
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The best course of action would be if you can somehow elevate this to the journal/conference paper level. Was your newer research (the one they have plagiarized) published in a journal or at least at a conference? Is perhaps their (plagiarized) research published in a journal, not only in PhD thesis?

Monitor the student in question and his publications for a while. If he tries to publish that stuff that he lifted from you in a journal, then it is the time to start the action, and simply notify the editor of the journal or a conference about the suspected plagiarism. This way, it will be handled by people not connected to your previous lab and indeed plagiarism in paper is considered to be really bad stuff for one's reputation (often PhD theses are not publicly accessible, papers are).

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Your defense against plagiarism is the records you produced as a graduate student—any emails you sent documenting your work, the record of having submitted it to the professor in question, any work you've submitted since the first paper, and so on.

If you believe that the work you've done has been plagiarized, and you're willing to go through the effort, then you should talk to someone about this. The question is to whom you should talk. I would consider an email to the chair of the department in question, the graduate chair (if you can determine who that is), the advisor of the person whom you feel plagiarized your thesis, your advisor, and the chair of your department. Explain in detail what you believe happened and why you think it's plagiarism. You should have a very convincing case, and will need to persevere if you think it's serious. (If they have published papers based on your work, then you may also want to contact the editors of those papers.)

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Plagiarism is defined as "wrongful appropriation" and "stealing and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions" and the representation of them as one's own original work. (Copied from the first line of the Wikipedia page on the topic.)

This doesn't seem to apply here: The students cites your work and simply repeats what you have already done, but a careful reader would understand (and be able to find out) that you came up with the idea first.

It is not illegal to repeat something someone else has done. In fact, science works through repetition of experiments, for example. It may be dubious that someone gets a PhD -- or a paper published -- by simply repeating something someone else has already done, but it's not illegal nor by itself odious: It may only be a sign of low standards at the other university of by the journal in which it was published. But it's not plagiarism unless the thesis or article claims that they came up with the method without citing your prior work.

  • Please note that I (OP) have added additional information since your answer was posted. Hopefully the situation is more clear. Many thanks for your answer. – RandomGuy Jan 14 '18 at 23:23
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    The important part of the definition of plagiarism is "representation of the work as one's own original work". If they cite your work in a way that makes it clear that they simply use a method you developed, even if applied to a problem you had also considered, then that's not plagiarism. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 15 '18 at 0:42
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    I also don't think that comparing the structure of theses is not a good approach. Theses have sort of a standard layout (or draw from a very small set of standard layouts). What's important is the content, not what structure it is pressed into. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 15 '18 at 0:43
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    Citing or otherwise crediting the publication is not enough. Every major style guide describes correct ways of crediting unpublished disclosures -- in this case the experiment design and methods in the thesis drafts -- and doing so is necessary. – Ben Voigt Jan 15 '18 at 2:04
  • OP clearly states that they cited his early work, and then went on to plagiarize the rest of the thesis, with even chapter titles being the same. This is hardly a coincidence. I had the similar experience - our less relevant early paper was cited by the plagiarizer, the newer one (where they lifted the stuff from) was not. First excuse was "we cited you". "No you didn't... not the relevant stuff" was my answer. – xmp125a Jan 15 '18 at 2:26

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