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Here's a not so hypothetical situation. International student x is very talented but comes from a background where technical writing is not taught or understood very well. She writes a great thesis with a good literature review and nice results. However, the results are based on two key papers from previous students in the group. She decides to give credit to the papers in a special chapter, which she starts by saying "I need to give credit to this and that paper" and proceeds with copying paragraphs wholesale to describe what those other students did.

This was a few years back; X is now faculty at a good school and she contacts me (past advisor) in teary-terrified voice to let me know that she plagiarized in her thesis. I am now in a panic as well. How could I miss those? And how could she do that?? We both risk losing our jobs, and she is at risk of losing her degree as well (which, by the way, was a very strong thesis with a good number of top journal publications).

As far as I know there's no process for revising a thesis after it's been submitted and I don't know what else to do short of turning ourselves in - which I feel morally obligated to do.

Please advise.

Edit Thanks all for weighing in on this. I spent the night going through the thesis and there appear to be three more sources that are suspect of being plagiarized, all in the same wretched chapter; one is a thesis of a colleague, the other is a textbook and the third is a book I wrote a while back. So this is more serious than I thought.

She has unfortunately not used quotes for the material, i.e., instead of saying "[paper i] says ," she just went on with "[paper i] says this and that."

She has not been accused of plagiarism by anybody. I am guessing that she has finally come to grips with good writing standards and upon looking through her thesis she realized that her "summary" was actually plagiarism. I have every reason to believe that she did what she did in good faith (she has proven her honesty on many occasions).

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    Any text which is attributed is not plagiarism. If I write, 'John Smith wrote "<whatever>"', then <whatever> is not plagiarism. What is going on here is alleged plagiarism. Fight the allegations. Find out how they are substantiated and strike at those arguments. Simple as that. – Kaz Jun 24 '13 at 3:51
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    what makes her -after few years- think that she plagiarised? I can't see the plagiarism. – seteropere Jun 24 '13 at 5:05
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    Ideally, what is needed here is to obtain a version of the paper from the accusers which is properly annotated with clear indications where the alleged plagiarisms occur, down to the starting and ending word of each one. Each one should be given a number or identifier, and then discussed in attached notes. There should be one final version of this annotated paper which everyone involved signs off on, so that the accusations of plagiarism are not an unfair, moving target. Then the instances of alleged plagiarism can be dealt with calmly on a case-by-case basis. – Kaz Jun 24 '13 at 7:15
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    So, I know this isn't very constructive, but .. As you say, how did you miss this? You read your student's thesis and didn't notice material plagiarized from your own book? I mean, I'd think you might recognize the work of your colleauge or 'other students in the group', but your own work ... Did you actually read the thesis before it was submitted? – hunter2 Jun 25 '13 at 8:27
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    Out of curiosity, how did the tale end? – Marc Claesen Oct 10 '14 at 13:00
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Did any of the plagiarized material make it into journal papers, or was it all literature review that was never published outside of the thesis?

If some of it made it into papers, then it's important to contact the journals and publish corrections. This is more straightforward and predictable than dealing with the thesis itself. If the plagiarism is confined to background material, then I don't think retracting the papers would be necessary. Instead, I expect it would be possible to publish a correction that indicates the plagiarized portions and provides citations. This would be embarrassing and would hurt her reputation a little, but it would solve the problem as far as the papers were concerned. It would also strengthen the student's case for dealing with the thesis if she can say she voluntarily corrected the publications and did not need to retract any of them.

If none of the plagiarized material was published elsewhere, then it's trickier. Once all the original results are published in research papers, I doubt anyone will read the thesis and discover the plagiarism. Even if they do, they might take pity on the student and ignore the plagiarism. (I once ignored some mild plagiarism of my writing in the background sections of a thesis at another university. The student had already graduated, and I found no evidence of plagiarism in any of his research papers. If I knew for sure he could just file a correction to the thesis, then that would make sense, but I wouldn't want to potentially destroy his career over this mistake.) So she might well get away with it if she doesn't say anything. Still, I'd advise her to officially confess to the university. Turning herself in is likely to lead to a much better outcome than being caught by someone else. Plus it's the right thing to do, and it will save her from years of worrying about getting caught.

We both risk losing our jobs, and she is at risk of losing her degree as well (which, by the way, was a very strong thesis with a good number of top journal publications).

Unless your university is extraordinarily strict, I don't think your job is in jeopardy. On the other hand, the student's degree or job might be, depending on how the university handles the situation. Based on your description, I think it would be unfair for her career to be ruined, but I can't predict what will actually happen. I hope your administration's sense of fairness is the same as mine, in which case a correction will suffice.

The hardest situation will be if she decides to remain silent. In that case you probably have an obligation to turn her in, and it would look terrible if anyone found out that you knew but didn't say anything. On the other hand, turning her in would be a tough decision. Much better for her to turn herself in voluntarily.

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    Good points, Anonymous Mathematician. The plagiarism was limited to background information. None of the material made it into publications. It really wasn't the literature review (which she did in earnest), but the chapter after the literature review, where she specifically cited the initial papers on the topic. I agree that coming clean is the only thing to do and realistically her thesis is very strong otherwise. I would just hate to see her career ruined since she did very well as a PI so far. – jalal245 Jun 24 '13 at 3:13
  • I'd be surprised if this ruins her career, I think it could be a very valuable and hard-earned learning experience. – user7130 Jun 24 '13 at 3:26
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First off, just to make it clear, this is plagiarism. Providing a reference and then long string of text implies that the text is YOUR description of ideas of someone ELSE. To give full credit to someone else requires some sort of formatting distinction (typically block indentation or quotation makes). Potentially the plagiarism was accidental, but it is still plagiarism.

Supervisor

A doctoral dissertation is generally a single author piece of independent work. Plagiarism in a dissertation should have little direct impact on the career of the supervisor. It might have some indirect consequences like people questioning how you can be so unfamiliar with your students work that you do not catch plagiarism, but I think most people would be pretty understanding about this. If the thesis was not single author or if the work was published with your name on it, that is a different story since co-authorship implies you have BOTH plagiarized.

Failure to report academic misconducted (whether it is your student or not) can impact your career. At my university we do not classify failure of a student to report academic misconducted of another student as academic misconducted. I don't know the disciplinary process when faculty are involved. Personally, I would say that we all have a responsibility to the scientific process to report ALL cases of academic misconduct that we are aware of.

Student

At my University, the penalty for plagiarism by a current student is zero on the piece of work. This would mean the student would have failed her dissertation. As a department we would deem this penalty too severe and push that she would be able to re-submit a new dissertation that reuses the non-plagiarized material. The University would push back and ask for a completely independent dissertation. I have never experienced this with a PhD student, but this occurs regularly with our final year undergraduates and about 70% of the time the student is allowed to reuse the non-plagiarized material.

I don't know what would happen if the plagiarism was found after the degree was given. My guess is the University would have to retract the dissertation from the library and any electronic database. They may revoke the degree, but they could also look at other work and count those towards the dissertation.

The current university may try and fire or penalize her, but this seems harsh compared to the typical penalty of plagiarism in a dissertation of not getting/delaying a degree.

  • "people questioning how you can be so unfamiliar with your students work that you do not catch plagiarism, but I think most people would be pretty understanding about this." its not Master's fault ;) – NPcompleteUser Jun 24 '13 at 12:40
8

Take what I say below as a perspective, I am by no means an expert in how to deal with plagiarism.

I will say (as someone who has been plagiarised before), detecting and preventing plagiarism is the responsibility of all involved. But, having said that, we are human and we make mistakes - is it just that special chapter that has the plagiarism? How much did she copy?

I think being open and upfront is the best (and most probably, the only) course of action, as it would be far worse for both of you if it was detected by another academic, or worse still - the authors of the papers plagiarised. It may be best to be honest about both of your mistake, rather than being perceived in trying to cover it up.

Perhaps, find out what options are available in terms of resubmitting the thesis, or even the chapter in question. The original research in your former student's papers may also be in both of your favour in that it would show no malicious intent.

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    Thanks Damien.. that's what I thought but there seems to be no pre-defined mechanism for submitting corrections. The Dean may need to assemble a committee, etc. for which the result is completely uncertain. She copied about 10 thesis pages worth of material and there's some ancillary material in an appendix as well. Worse still, the papers were from our group. – jalal245 Jun 24 '13 at 1:59
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    The papers were from your group? There is a chance that this may be a saving grace of sorts. – user7130 Jun 24 '13 at 2:58
  • By the way, the academic who plagiarised me initially tried to hide it, but owned up - it was a small part of my research and they had done it on purpose. They had a temporary sanction placed on them (similar to what Layla mentions in her answer), but that was temporary. The academic apologised to me, and nowadays all is good for all concerned. – user7130 Jun 24 '13 at 3:03
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    The papers were from the group and I was a co-author. I am working on the thesis now to make sure that there isn't anything else fishy about that chapter. – jalal245 Jun 24 '13 at 3:10
  • As you were a co-author, then you were plagiarised as well. I hope that you get no more unpleasant surprises. – user7130 Jun 24 '13 at 3:17
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Well, here is the responsability of two persons: the advisor and the student, but the amount of responsability is somehow lesser for the advisor. I am pretty sure that your past student has signed a non-plagiarism form or put an statement that she was not plagiarizing anything in her thesis work, so she was doing that on purpose. It seems harsh my opinion, but it seems that way.

The only solution is to tell the truth to the Dean and for what I know, the penalty will come sooner or later. According to what you reply, that person plagiarized about 10 pages and also parts of the appendix, so in that case the only way out is to inform about the accident.

I do not think that she will lose her degree, remember the scandal that happened in Germany a few months ago?. The worse thing that could happen is that she get somehow "banned" from the journals that she has been cited, but only for a certain amount of time. About your case, I think that is not so probable that you will get into trouble.

Wish you the best.

  • good point about the student signing the declaration. The key word here is 'accident', it is clear that there was no malicious intent. I also agree with Layla, in that I would be very surprised if she loses her degree and even more surprised if you both lost your positions. – user7130 Jun 24 '13 at 3:00
  • So any experience on how such cases are handled in the US vs Germany? – jalal245 Jun 24 '13 at 3:15
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    In fact, in the scandal in Germany, several people lost their PhD degrees. It's very well possible in the German system, even decades after the PhD was awarded, such as in the case of the former minister of eduction and research en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Schavan – silvado Jun 24 '13 at 8:31
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Um, I'm not sure it is worth bothering about. She gave credit for the results, it was in the context of describing other people's work, it seems to only involve the language. This is not a literary topic, so I would tell her to not worry about it but learn how to write.

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    An author owns both the written ideas and the language they used to express those ideas. Failure to identify the original author of the ideas and/or the language is plagiarism and should be treated seriously. – DQdlM Jun 24 '13 at 15:27

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