I wrote my PhD thesis a few years back. After I finished, my supervisor found another researcher and continued research with the apparatus I built, but along a different line of study. I met this student a few times and gave them advice and help when I could. They always had a hard copy of my thesis in the lab for reference; I also provided a PDF copy at the student's request.

The student recently finished their PhD and I looked at their thesis. The lit review, results, and findings are the student's own work. But, particularly in the middle section (describing the apparatus I built):

  • Many paragraphs of their text is copied and pasted from mine, some without checking so that it makes false references;
  • In other instances, the student has substantially copied paragraphs, but changed a few words here and there;
  • One that particularly annoyed me was the copying and awkward re-hashing of my acknowledgements to my supervisor, very personal words;

I informed my former supervisor (with whom I have a good relationship) and he seemed not to want to know. He said that as long as it wasn't the results then it wasn't too important. He reckoned as the student was a good guy, he may not have known what plagiarism was, and perhaps did it by accident. He did offer to acknowledge or include me in subsequent journal papers.

Given that only some of the background text (rather than the results section) was copied, is it reasonable to pursue this further? What is normally done in such cases?

In particular, I was thinking to quantify the level of copying involved and ask my supervisor to withdraw the thesis until copied material is removed. However, I risk jeopardizing a fairly good relationship with my supervisor and possibly also with the small network of colleagues.

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    That supervisor is not competent, the excuse that the student did not know what plagiarism was ... The supervisor must have been able to recognize your work... – Solar Mike Dec 6 at 20:00
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    @SolarMike That bit on "might not know what plagiarism is" was disturbing. – Vladhagen Dec 6 at 20:03
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    I was also disappointed with my supervisors response. To say that a PhD student wouldnt "know what constituted plagiarism" was to fob me off. – Creed Dec 6 at 20:14
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    Also: did they cite your thesis? They shouldn't copy-and-paste in any case, but it's particularly egregious if they didn't even cite you. – cag51 Dec 6 at 20:34
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    It seems to me that an adviser who honestly thinks that his Ph.D. student "may not have known what plagiarism was" has an obligation to explain plagiarism to the student. – Andreas Blass Dec 7 at 2:35

12 Answers 12

up vote 84 down vote accepted

You have two options:

  1. Not care about plagiarism enough to warrant getting involved.
  2. Care about plagiarism to the degree you get involved.

There are arguments for both points here.

  1. It would be an obvious matter of record as to whose thesis was written first if anyone else happened to notice the similarities. Why get involved further? You notified the adviser, let him deal with blowback from letting a student plagiarize. Pushing the issue further would just compromise your relationship with your adviser. Whistleblowers rarely get rewarded properly anyway. And, cynically, some universities may not even care about a student plagiarizing parts of a thesis. It's more paperwork and labor for them to deal with and it's easier to just hope (from an administrative perspective) that the problem goes away.

  2. Based on what you have told us, it seems reasonable that your thesis was plagiarized from. You have contacted the adviser about this and he declined to do much about it. The graduate college and university administration, however, may not concur with your adviser. Plagiarism should be stopped on principle alone. I would report the offending thesis to the graduate college and see if they are willing to investigate it further. If you really wanted to do some nasty damage and the university declines to investigate, notify the local newspaper and see if they'll send over some junior journalist to write a spot on how your university is allowing plagiarism to occur.

Part of writing a thesis is learning to articulate in your own words what your research is about. This has to do with much more than just shoving original data in a table.

If your adviser told you the student "might not know what plagiarism is" then.....wow.....No one reaches graduate school and is completely oblivious to what plagiarism is. Let's be honest here.

For me personally, I would let it go. The network with my adviser is more important to my career right now. This is pragmatism, not principle, speaking.

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    @Creed. Pragmatism is a survival skill. No shame in that. We do not always have the perfect leverage to right all wrongs. It seems that, yes, you were likely plagiarized, and yes, you should let it be. – Vladhagen Dec 6 at 20:44
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    @Creed To add to the pragmatic take here...if your field is one where thesis chapters are "re"-published elsewhere and those are the publications that "count," you could ask for authorship there given your obvious contribution to the work (assuming they are not already submitted). I wonder if one reason the advisor doesn't particularly care about the plagiarism is that it's in a thesis they expect no one else to read. I disagree with them that that makes it unimportant, but I can understand nonetheless. – Bryan Krause Dec 6 at 20:53
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    "No one reaches graduate school and is completely oblivious to what plagiarism is." I actually think this is growing more common. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 6 at 21:17
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    @DanielR.Collins Nevertheless, ignorantia juris non excusat. I can see that a student may not understand the nuances of the plagiarism of thoughts or fuzzy property, but I've known since grade school that directly copying someone else's work is plagiarism. It's not an advanced concept. – Vladhagen Dec 6 at 21:53
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    @BryanKrause Yes different people/fields/cultures seem to have rather different views on what a thesis should be, from a good piece of writing that people will read to just a document produced to fulfill a university requirement. – Kimball Dec 6 at 23:23

This is an unpleasant and complicated problem. Here's one possible course of action. Whether or not it's appropriate under the particular circumstances depends on details and subtleties that go beyond your question.

Perhaps contact the student directly. Let them know that you have noticed the plagiarism and that it disturbs you - particularly the acknowledgment! Say that the cut and paste is unacceptable academic behavior even if you are cited (you don't say). Conclude by saying that you have discussed this with your common advisor, that you don't yourself plan to take any further action, but want to let your future academic colleague know so that they do not transgress again in their career.

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    Definitely contact the student directly. I would even say: Try to meet them in person, if they're in your physical vicinity. This would have a stronger psychological effect. Make your talk something pedagogical more than just a complaint. – einpoklum Dec 7 at 8:42

Depends where you are. At my university (in the UK), plagiarism or breaking any other academic integrity rule is a thing that can get you kicked out.

I would get it reported. The supervisor is not acting appropriately, considering that your work is something you put effort into for years. Even if your relationship with him may suffer, this is not something to just dismiss on the basis that you were his students.

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    You don't seem to have considered any of the pros or cons of taking this matter further. – David Richerby Dec 7 at 16:01
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    @DavidRicherby The right to free speech was earned by people speaking up and suffering the consequences... All that is needed for evil to triumph is good men sit and do nothing... – Solar Mike Dec 7 at 20:36
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    @SolarMike Free speech is irrelevant: nobody is having their freedom of speech impinged upon. And I'm not asking you to tell me the pros and cons. I'm asking nuym to edit their answer to weigh up the benefits, as they see them, against the disadvantage of, presumably, hugely harming the asker's relationship with their advisor. – David Richerby Dec 7 at 20:40
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    @SolarMike And David Richerby's point is that your point is just one aspect to consider. Like with most non-trivial situations in life, there are other aspects too, and the OP should reach a conclusion (which is personal to him) based on balancing all of the pros and cons. That's the rational approach to problem solving. Fixating on just one aspect and ignoring the rest, is the emotional approach. – JBentley Dec 8 at 0:40
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    @SolarMike There's a lot to be said for standing on principle, for doing the Right Thing™ even if it's unpopular or personally costly. But it's also important to be sure that a fixation on principle and bright-line morality hasn't made you myopic. Is a stand on principle really a principled stand, or is Principle the name of the hill you've decided to die on? – FeRD Dec 9 at 5:54

I would argue that you could end up in trouble of your own for not reporting this after it can be proven that you have knowledge of his plagiarism.

If he is discovered to do the same thing later to someone else, or even if someone else reports what he did with your work instead of you reporting it, it's possible that your integrity might be called into question. After all, he is riding off of your own coattails.

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    Important point. By choosing to ignore it, the asker could become complicit in this potential case of plagiarism. – Trilarion Dec 10 at 11:58

In general, this makes thesis plagiarized:

Many paragraphs of their text is copied and pasted from mine, some without checking so that it makes false references

Unless you quote and reference block of text, you stole and claimed that you've wrote it. The student obviously did just that. You can talk to the University ethics/research integrity committee or department to make sure you understand their stance correctly.

Now the question is what you want to happen next.

Given that only some of the background text (rather than the results section) was copied, is it reasonable to pursue this further? What is normally done in such cases?

OK, that new student made a mistake. Now, you need to ask yourself what do you want to achieve.

Given that only some of the background text (rather than the results section) was copied, is it reasonable to pursue this further? What is normally done in such cases?

First, note that this plagiarism makes no damage to you. You had graduated before (s)he started. There would be no question about who was the plagiarizer. The plagiarized text is in the background, it doesn't rob any credit that belonged to you.

That means you would gain nothing personally.

Your advisor's response is understandable. He was probably too busy (or lazy) to read the theses. He would know for sure that the new student was doing wrong. But if the plagiarism is discovered, he will be in a lot of trouble.

As you also guess, if you pursue further, you will lose the relationship with him, etc.

I do not encourage scientific misconduct, but in this case you will lose something and gain nothing.

If the new student works in industry now, he would not care less about the PhD thesis. If he is in academia, this plagiarism will haunt him forever.


Answers to comment of @cag51.

I was with you until your last paragraph. If OP reports this, the student could have to do revisions or risk losing their PhD (or maybe they will lose their PhD outright); even someone in industry would not want their PhD revoked (as then they could not claim it on their resume). Conversely, it's not clear how this would "haunt him forever" in academia -- if this is settled quietly, and especially if OP doesn't speak up, no one is likely to know that there was ever an issue.

From the time someone starts working in industry, his/her PhD becomes irrelevant. Suppose the new student is working in company X, will he be fired if his PhD is revoked? No. Will his next company care if his PhD is revoked? No, they only care how many years he has worked for company X with which title.

I'm working in the US, where companies always hire a third-party to do background check on new employee, and you can get a copy of the report. I have never been checked for education background. They just do not care.

On the other hand, if the new student is working in academia, the consequence of the plagiarism being discovered is catastrophic. It likes sleeping with a bomb. Even if you know the bomb is very unlikely to explode, you can't stop worrying about it.

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    I was with you until your last paragraph. If OP reports this, the student could have to do revisions or risk losing their PhD (or maybe they will lose their PhD outright); even someone in industry would not want their PhD revoked (as then they could not claim it on their resume). Conversely, it's not clear how this would "haunt him forever" in academia -- if this is settled quietly, and especially if OP doesn't speak up, no one is likely to know that there was ever an issue. – cag51 Dec 6 at 22:24
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    I think saying that it's a "mistake" is a rather bold understatement. Copying whole parts of a PhD thesis is about the biggest ethical mis-step you can make as an academic. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 7 at 0:09
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    @WolfgangBangerth Yes, and I don't buy for one second that someone who has got all the way to the point of completing a PhD "may not have known what plagiarism was". That is complete nonsense. – JBentley Dec 7 at 0:21
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    With regard of non-academic work, it highly depends. There are quite some politicians who lost their position when it became clear they heavily plagiarised in their PhD – Darkwing Dec 7 at 10:58
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    "Your advisor's response is understandable. He was probably too busy (or lazy) to read the theses." How is it "understandable" for an advisor to be too busy or too lazy to read their student's thesis? How is it "understandable" for an advisor to "advise" a student through a whole PhD without ensuring that the student knows what plagiarism is? – David Richerby Dec 7 at 15:59

What do you value? Do you want justice at the expense of your relationships? Do you want relationships at the cost of easing your moral fortitude? People are creatures of habit. Those who pay attention to detail are known for their attention to detail. Those who are lazy and sloppy are known as well. If he doesn't change his behavior, it will catch up to him eventually. If he does change his behavior, then he had some slack to grow on his own. You could always reach out to him and point out your observations... This seems like a good middle-ground approach. It would let him know his laziness was discovered,and give him the opportunity to choose how to handle the situation without pounding him into the dirt for crossing the line.

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    How's this dishonest behaviour going to "catch up to him eventually" if everybody selfishly ignores it for the sake of maintaining pointless relationships with other dishonest and incompetent people? This is how the world burns. We all have a responsibility to be vigilant and ensure the integrity of our field. In some industries more so than others -- do you really want someone like this going out into the world with a PhD (or equivalent), being taken at face value based on work that they did not actually do? What sort of damage do you imagine they could do? It should be stopped, at source. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 9 at 22:34
  • Bunch of logical fallacies there, Lightness. Its not 'everybody', it is the OP. How do you know if the relationships are pointless? That is the OP's decision, which is why I put the question to him. If these relationships represent a network of potential employers or references, they are far from pointless. This sort of fist pounding rings hollow delivered on the internet. I would be curious to see how you would fare if judged by that hammer you're swinging. – Brien Malone Dec 12 at 1:15
  • If your advice is solely for the OP and you don't think anyone else should take it, then you should clarify that in your answer. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 12 at 1:43
  • Also "fist pounding" "that hammer you're swinging" watch your tone. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 12 at 1:43

It's very likely that the view of the professor ("not that much of a big deal") did reflect on the working habit of the student. And that the student really did do it without thinking about it. Than it was obviously only done because -until now- nobody told him whats good citation is.

Contact the student, tell him what he did wrong. Ask him to fix it.

If he only copied your text, I would assume it was "misinterpretation" of the academic rules. He likely thought, since your are on "the team", its not needed to apply the citation rules. Talk with him. You can have some impact (in a good way) on his future behavior.

If you have the impression that the student does not care after you talked to him, you still can take the official route. If the student copied unrelated peoples text as well it may be done intentional, in this case I would point out (likely in writing, depends on the culture) to the advisor that you did talk to him and what the outcome of the meeting was.

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Since you know about this plagiarism you need to report it. Avoiding reporting it just because it might jeopardize "a fairly good relationship with my supervisor" should not be part of the equation. Then you are just as bad, letting plagiarism occur just because it is helpful to your career to not do anything about it.

You have already talked to you advisor, now talk to his/her superior. Make sure to document all communications. Keep going higher until someone cares and make sure you also report those who do nothing about it. If going as high as you could within the university still didn't result in a retraction of the thesis and action against those who did nothing you should contact local a newspaper/a relevant journal.

Ethics is incredibly important in science, taxpayers pay us to do research and society then trusts our results. Unethical behaviour like in this case needs to be firmly stopped before the line of what is acceptable moves and we lose both funding and trust.

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The lit review, results, and findings are the student's own work

So to be fair what we have here is laziness. They haven't stolen or laid claim to your ideas or concepts or results. They've cut and pasted text. Certainly that text required some effort to produce, but is it what you value here and is this really worth going to war over ?

Arguing the point is likely to cause you problems. Right or wrong making an accusation of plagiarism could ruin the student's life. Is their sin worth the potential damage proving it will cause ?

If the authorities declare your accusation is wrong (or said to be wrong) this could be very damaging to you professionally. And they may do that simply to avoid having to ruin the student. Even if the agree with you, you are certain to make enemies doing this.

I'd suggest the sin is not worth the trouble reporting it will cause for everyone, including you.

But, particularly in the middle section (describing the apparatus I built)

Now the student did use your apparatus in this sense at least. Did this warrant a reference in his thesis ? Did you get acknowledgement that way ? If so that's potentially valuable and you can take the view that you don't need more.

So overall, do you really need more ?

If you feel you deserve an acknowledgement in their thesis and did not get it, can you speak quietly to them and ask them to add one to later revisions prior to publication ? And I mean ask, not demand - be a diplomat, not a lawyer.

So rather than going to war over this, maybe try some quiet diplomacy that may make you more friends than enemies.

What do the copied sections add to their thesis? You state that these sections describe the apparatus you built. Do you consider this to be intellectual property? Do they still make it clear that you built the apparatus? Are you acknowledged? If not, do they make it seem that they built the apparatus? Do they gain anything from doing so? In other words, will they be getting credit for work that they did not do? And will you be losing credit at the same time? These are the things that I would be thinking about.

It seems likely that it is important, to the thesis, that the apparatus is described in some way. It also seems likely that the review, results and findings of the thesis are enough to stand on their own, without needing credit for building the equipment. With that in mind, I would speak to the student yourself, explain your concerns, and offer to work with them to include the content that they need in a way that acknowledges you, and does not claim credit for work they did not do. Decide exactly what you want changed before you start this, however, so that you can be clear about exactly what you want and why.

I would try to avoid the p-word as far as possible. I find it hard to believe that this person does not know what plagiarism is. It seems more likely that they don't consider what they did to be plagiarism. In which case, they should be perfectly happy to work with you on this.

Report them if you need to, but since you've already worked with this person, you should definitely try to sort this out amongst yourselves before going down that road. If you have a good relationship (with this person and your advisor), then this should be enough, and you needn't be concerned about destroying it. If not, and no one is willing to listen to your concerns, perhaps it wasn't worth keeping anyway.

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To answer your bolded question: probably nothing, and accepting their offer of acknowledgment seems best.

From what you have described, I don't think they intend any malice, but simply

  • don't have a better description for the apparatus than you provided
  • don't have any personal words for their advisor

As they have offered to acknowledge your role, I'd try to see that you are properly credited for your part in their apparatus and otherwise not try to damage them. The former will benefit you, while the latter is unlikely to.

If they replicated your apparatus, it seems logical to describe its form and setup as similarly as possible. If they have done independent work otherwise, then the line around plagiarism gets fuzzier - they are not passing off your work as theirs, but pushing ahead with new findings!

Re-hashing your personal words, however, means they did not have any of their own, which seems like a personal failing you could also help them with if you have the time.

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