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Given that you just read your supervisor's dissertation because it is important for your research. As you have already conducted a fairly broad literature review about the subject some time ago, you start to notice that your supervisor's work appears familiar to you. While skimming through the relevant papers, you are able to identify some large parts of your supervisor's dissertation that were invented before. Those parts are not properly marked, and/or your supervisor's (suggested) improvements seem to be fairly trivial and insignificant - at least in your opinion.

Would you suggest to approach the supervisor with your findings?

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    From your description it is hard to say whether this is actually misconduct. It is quite common in science for results to be "rediscovered" - I think this is not misconduct but rather academic negligence. Are you sure your supervisor knew about the other work? Are you sure you understand all the subtleties in your supervisor's work and the previous work you are referring to? – Bitwise Aug 22 '13 at 19:08
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Misconduct is of course a very serious thing. The problem you face is that you do not know the circumstances when your advisors work (or lack thereof) was made. It will also be hard to start digging into it to find out so I am afraid there is probably not much you can do. I do not think it would be wise to start spending time on this as a student either since it could seriously affect your thesis by distracting you and waste your time.

So what can be done? I would try to bring the question up with others. Discussing the different works and see if others pick up on the problem. Making people aware of what might be a problem can help you further assess the issue. I would tread carefully, however, unless you feel secure in opening up a can of worms.

I fully realize that this is far from a satisfactory answer from a moral point of view but it is pragmatic and I do not think it is your burden as a student to carry such weight. So the best you can do is to carefully expose the issue and perhaps later do something about it, if you still feel it is a serious breach.

  • Great advice, and yes just to add to the tread carefully advice - it could be Pandora's box you end up opening, when you do not need that distraction. – user7130 Aug 22 '13 at 18:40
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    I have only one thing to add: this discovery might be a reason to change advisor, if this is possible in your situation (e.g. early enough in grad school, if you can argue a better taste for another subject) – Benoît Kloeckner Aug 22 '13 at 20:57

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