I'm a master's student, and over the course of my studies I've conducted a few independent studies in which I investigate specific research questions that I formulate on my own. Those independent studies have culminated in final papers, and I then use the material in those papers as part of articles I publish and presentations I give at conferences--am trying to build up a public profile on these topics.

Recently, a professor of mine asked to see research I had done for one of those studies, ostensibly to use as background for something the professor was working on. I'm not this professor's employee or otherwise under contract for a project of the professor's. I'm conducting independent research during classes that I pay for as part of my degree. The professor is in other words just my adviser and teacher.

I provided the professor my research and presentation materials, and then heard the professor use my work--word for word--in a subsequent presentation. The professor had not sought out my consent before doing this, and I was not cited.

The same professor again asked for a full, unpublished paper I had written to use as background for a different project the professor was undertaking. I declined to provide the paper because I did not know how it would be used (though I didn't say that).

Am curious about whether this is accepted and/or common practice in academia. And if it is, should I just send my paper to the professor?

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    I would publicly shame him (and anyone who still does this) on whatever social media he favors or Academia.edu. Apr 6, 2018 at 3:16
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    There’s something I don’t understand: you say you’re not under contract for a project with this professor. But he’s your adviser. So: is your research performed under his tutelage? Is he advising you on this research? In other words: are you performing research in his group? Because this will change the answer to your question drastically. Apr 6, 2018 at 9:25
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    @JayFromA It changes whether it’s acceptable to present such results. It’s customary for group leaders to present (and thus disseminate and advertise) the results of their group. “I was not cited” sounds problematic but maybe OP was mentioned in the acknowledgements? If so, this is entirely OK and common practice (although I prefer when presentations mention individual contributions, but this is a lot less common). In fact, I’d even argue that it would be unethical for OP to refuse to share results in this case. Apr 6, 2018 at 10:35
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    @KonradRudolph If OP is part of the group he deseves coauthorship, if he is not part of the group OP has to be cited. The only setting this could be overloked IMHO would be talks in a internal/private/non-official setting (and still at least mentioning OP, e.g. in the acknowledgements, would be the right thing to do here).
    – asquared
    Apr 6, 2018 at 10:42
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    @KonradRudolph The professor is currently advising an independent study of mine -- that I pay for as a class for my degree. I'm not part of a group. I sought out this professor to advise me on this given the professor's expertise. This professor was asking to see research that I had done in another independent study with a different professor. (And fyi--OP is a she) Apr 7, 2018 at 0:02

7 Answers 7


No, this not accepted and/or common practice in academia. (Your use of the plagiarism tag was correct.) It is of course unethical and not right to copy other's work and not mention them.

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    It’s always a gray area when it comes to mentors using students’ data, but your case is clearly in your favor. This is not appropriate in any way.
    – HEITZ
    Apr 6, 2018 at 5:22

This seems like pretty direct plagiarism to me. It is also all too common in academia.

In your case, this is a little more straightforward, as you never have been employed (i.e., received money) for your work under this professor. Your professor may feel that he or she has a "right" to your work because the professor believes he or she oversaw your work. (Some advisors thing they have tacit advisory privilege on all work a graduate student produces). What becomes tricky is when your advisor actually paid you to be a research assistant, yet contributes nothing intellectually to the project.

If you are still a current student, there may not be much you can directly do about this. At least in my experience, many universities will stand behind their professors unless given a heaping mound of evidence otherwise. I would defer any requests for your research as long as you can, insofar as it does not hamper your ability to produce a thesis, final project, etc. I knew of two students in my department where they had the choice of blindly handing their research over to their advisor and graduating, or standing firm on their intellectual contributions and being denied the chance to defend their dissertation. Their advisor felt he had "ownership" of their research because he had paid their stipends. Advisors usually have almost all of the leverage in these cases.

But, nevertheless, what you have described is blatant plagiarism. So, yes, this is plagiarism. And yes, it was common at my university. And it is accepted because departments do not want to admit that their faculty may be taking advantage of graduate students' work. This is why I got out of academia.

  • 39
    While I think we agree that such behavior is absolutely unethical and inappropriate, to say that it is "common" based on anecdotal evidence seems unjustified. For that matter, in my own observation (in mathematics, in the U.S.), such behavior is very rare. Apr 5, 2018 at 19:26
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    I hope after you got out of academia you took steps to inform the jounals where these professors had published and the people who built on their work. Apr 6, 2018 at 0:17
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    @paulgarrett Agreed. I have edited my answer to reflect this. At another university I attended, such plagiarism was unheard of. I misrepresented the general whole of academia in this regard.
    – Vladhagen
    Apr 6, 2018 at 1:12
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    @Vladhagen, good to not tar everyone with that same brush... :) Apr 6, 2018 at 1:34
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    In my country, plagiarism is quite common. Professors and research group leaders often thrive on it. Many of them act as if this is their God given right. But, then again, our universities and research institutes have hit the rock bottom long ago.
    – user21264
    Apr 6, 2018 at 11:01

Your case is blatant plagiarism. I saw this many years ago (at Harvard), and it still happens. As the others have implied, though, it is partly a cultural phenomenon that varies by university and department.

One suggestion that might help you is that research donors, and journals, have gotten much more sensitive in the last 10 years about illegal behavior. I would confidentially go to the legal department at your university, and sound them out. It could be, for instance, that this professor has created a legal liability for the university with the professor's funding agencies, which the lawyers will either want to hush up, or go after on their own so that the university can claim clean hands. In the former case, if they are smart they would find a way to refund all your tuition.

What gives you some leverage is that you are in an MS program and don't much depend on this guy, or the department, in the future. But that depends in part on where you see yourself working in 5 years, and whether the relevant work/academic community is small, or large.

Another technique that may work better than in the past is to threaten to write journal editors. So far, he has not published anything that uses your work. But if he ever does, then depending on how important your material was to his publication, he could get seriously embarrassed. (And by then, you will have graduated.)

This is sensitive, and it might blow up depending on personalities and local culture. You may therefore want to work through an intermediary who keeps your name, and his/her name, out of it at first. But I encourage you to seriously consider complaining. That is necessary for academia to progress.

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    I would like to add: Make sure you can prove your case. The important thing is have a verified dated copy of the paper somewhere. Apr 6, 2018 at 10:59
  • @StigHemmer e.g., committing LaTeX files to GitHub or using some online services such as overleaf or gdoc can be useful to proves dates. Apr 7, 2018 at 22:50
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    Overleaf would be better than Github, since you can change a repo's history. Proof of Existence is another good measure. arXiv is another excellent possibility.
    – Richard
    Apr 8, 2018 at 18:16
  • Stig's point is excellent. It's always possible that your perception is not going to be shared by others. (Thought it does not sound likely, since you have interacted with this person several times on these issues.) You should certainly run this past a few friends before you say anything to someone in an official position.
    – Roger Bohn
    Apr 9, 2018 at 7:02

Regarding your final question (possibly provided in an update): DO NOT hand over a second paper to this professor. Or, if this is within disciplinary norms, you may want to consider posting it a respected repository (e.g. Arxiv or SSRN), thus time-stamping it and showing your priority. You could choose whether or not to then share the link with that professor: "I'm so glad you're interested in my work! I just posted a copy on Arxiv!"

As for the first paper: in a comment you say you wrote it in an independent study with a different professor. Do you trust that professor? Do you think that professor would be willing to help challenge the rascal? You may want to consider asking the other professor about these norms and how to navigate the issue. If the original problem happened in an informal setting (e.g. an on-campus talk), the other professor may be able to set the record straight there, in a smooth way. Or, if it was a more external venue, especially one where you're thinking of accusing the professor of plagiarism, then the other professor could be even more valuable in corroborating your account and suggesting politically wise options.


If the presentation that your professor gave was one that might result in a publication--like a conference that publishes its proceedings--then you have a right for credited authorship on that publication. And if it's already gone out, then it's a cause for a published correction. You'd need to go to the organizers of the conference to get this started. Have no doubt, it'll be a big deal.

  • I think "credit to the author" is just one of several reasons why plagiarism is highly discouraged.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 8, 2018 at 23:15

Simple answer: No. It is never ok in any professional (and especially in any academic) setting to present someone else's data or work without citing them. This is cut-and-dry plagiarism.

  • Doing so does not give credit where credit is due, and, worse, often leads others to falsely attribute the work to the person presenting it.

Unfortunately, this is a practice that is all too common in the STEM fields, especially between PIs and their professional "subordinates" (i.e., grad students, lab managers, undergrads, junior faculty, etc.). However, this approach to science is often a result of unbalanced power dynamics and there being no possibility for these so-called "subordinates" to challenge the PI in power. Not all institutions accept this behavior, and certainly, in many instances it is not a problem.

If you were able to effectively say "no" to additional requests from your PI without consequence, then good for you! I would suggest using the same approach moving forward and hopefully your PI doesn't implore further (to avoid that awkward conversation).

For those who are not so lucky, I recommend reaching out to your university's ombuds office (if you have one), DGS (director of graduate studies) or even to other graduate students or junior faculty to ask for advice.

  • The OP has a better-than-usual situation because/if they are in an MS program and does not intend to remain after graduating> I am inferring this; it's not stated explicitly. It does make a difference to the risks of different actions.
    – Roger Bohn
    Apr 9, 2018 at 7:03

Warning: this answer may upset the vast majority of readers.

Many universities require students to agree that all work produced while being a student or member of staff be the property of the university (not the student). This is more clearly noted when doing funding research, but is also often the case otherwise.

If the lecturer presented the work as entirely his own then he has crossed a line by claiming ownership. However if he has presented the work as from his university/department (eg. A Study in the effect of Blah on Blah, SomeName University) then he may not have done anything wrong. It is sometimes rare (feild specific) for presentations to include a full list of coauthorship, the presenter often opting to give the details of a contact at the department. This is done for multiple reason, one of which maybe continuity - a lecturer may be the point of contact as they are likely to remain at the university for longer than a student - this is specifically important when the work is contributing to a larger overall discipline the university is working towards.

I would advise you to carefully consider the outcome of your actions before speaking to the legal department of the university as mentioned in other answer. Even if the lecturer has stepped over the line you risk getting a reputation as a non-team-player, not ideal if you want a future in academia (yes it sucks to say it, but whistle blowers rarely end up well employed). A better course of action may be to speak to the professor about wanting to present the work yourself, and asking for his direct assistance in this - where to submit the paper, possibly getting university funding to go and present etc.

  • I agree that great care must be taken to understand precisely the circumstances under which the work was presented before any action is taken. In particular, it may be that, if presented at a conference, only one author (the presenter) could be acknowledged in the book of abstracts or the timetable of presentations. Apr 8, 2018 at 4:15
  • “Many universities require students to agree that all work produced while being a student or member of staff be the property of the university” — I don’t doubt that this is indeed the case. But note that, in a “civilised” country this is quite simply illegal. Giving the example of Germany (since I am most familiar with the laws there), such a contract would be “sittenwidrig” and invalid. You cannot contractually forego authorship (usage rights are a different matter but OP is asking about authorship). Apr 9, 2018 at 13:19
  • @KonradRudolph I wasn't trying to imply the lecturer can claim authorship, simply that the university can claim ownership of the research and thus decide when, where and how the work is presented. An example of this would be work done under and NDA often can not be immediately published but may be presented to sponsors by a senior representative of the university - clearly not the case in question but it's just a few steps away. Apr 9, 2018 at 21:12

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