I found that a Ph.D. student, recently graduated, plagiarized over a dozen passages from a book I based on my own Ph.D. dissertation of some years ago. Their dissertation is on the Internet, which is how I became aware of the plagiarism. I am in the US, I should say, while the student’s university is in another country (not a third-world country, as someone asked, and it is one with rules similar to those in the US about plagiarism).

In most instances the student cited me as a source at the end of sometimes long, closely paraphrased passages. I believe this still constitutes plagiarism in the form of "excessive paraphrasing."

As UNC-Chapel Hill notes, for example:

Even if you cite your source, paraphrasing can still be plagiarism if all you do is rearrange the author's words, delete a phrase or two, or insert a few synonyms and claim the passage as your own.

When I reported the student to their dissertation committee chairperson, nothing happened. The chairperson did not even report the matter as required to the administration.

Dissatisfied, I took the matter to the university's director of student ethics, who told me I had a strong case not only for plagiarism, but for unprofessional conduct. The director assigned a random professor to investigate, who to my surprise absolved the student of wrongdoing. The only reason given was lack of evidence of intent to deceive.

Again dissatisfied, I took the matter to the president of the university, who agreed to hear my concern. Once I revealed the nature of that concern, however, the president no longer responded to me. Even the president's assistant, whom the president had included in the discussion, no longer responded.

I have been careful not to come across as a loon (between the president and his assistant, for example, I sent a mere four emails, only two of which were follow-ups saying "I haven't heard from you: can you confirm receipt?") In short, I think I have responded as any rational person might in such a situation.

I should add I am an experienced scholar widely known in my field. (Granted, it's a narrow field.) But because I am no longer affiliated with a university, I have no one to represent me. (My publisher did contact the student formally and threaten legal action, but, again, only if the student should publish the plagiarized text.)

I was told by an attorney friend there is no point involving attorneys because there is no material loss on my part. If, however, the student publishes the dissertation as a book, then an attorney could be involved, even if the loss involved is negligible. (We aren't talking Harry Potter, after all, but obscure academic works.)

My question is: at what point should I give up seeking justice? (I would have been content with the student merely rewriting the paraphrased material – but discussions never reached the subject of remediation. That's all I really want to achieve, and I think having been caught and having to revise the text would have been punitive enough for the student.)

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    Realted, possibly helpful: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/121181/… Feb 6, 2019 at 22:42
  • Answers in comments and mostly obsolete requests have been moved to chat. Please post new comments only if you expect them to result in the question being improved or if they contain relevant references (see this FAQ). If you want to suggest alternative channels to seek justice, please do so in chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 7, 2019 at 10:57
  • Let it go, dude. You're going to ruin some kid's life over a few sentences? Totally deranged moral priorities. Feb 11, 2019 at 14:47
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    @ Parseltongue I have let it go, as I noted last week below to einpoklum. And I do concur with you that the response need not be extreme. This being said, should we never entertain the idea of reporting a transgression because we might "ruin some kid's life"? Actually, the person in question is decades into adulthood and they didn't borrow "a few sentences," but passage after passage after passage - enough to fill four printed pages single-spaced. Also, my goal is not to ruin the student's life: I merely wanted the affected passages to be rewritten. I don't think that would be asking much.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 12, 2019 at 17:47
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    @ Alone Programmer "By contacting president ... and an attorney perhaps your goal is not to ruin the student's life?" It does not affect the student for me to informally ask an attorney friend about my options. As for contacting the president, I did so not to complain about the student per se but to question the outcome of the investigation, which I found suspect. "make sure your actions at least are in the level of alleged misconduct" Likewise, the university should respond in proportion to the level of alleged misconduct. If the student did no or little wrong, the result will stand.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 14, 2019 at 2:08

6 Answers 6


As you know, there are two separate issues with plagiarism:

  • Claiming ideas as one's own
  • Claiming words as one's own

You have a legitimate concern about the second -- if this student is going to directly use your words, he needs to use quotes. Attempts to get around this by making one or two insignificant changes are not appropriate.

That said, I can understand why the president of the university didn't want to get involved -- as academic crimes go, this one is quite minor. I agree that the "lack of intent to deceive" ruling was erroneous, which is unfortunate; getting the student to re-write the content, with no other penalty, would have been a far more appropriate outcome.

At what point should I give up seeking justice?

I think it would be appropriate to reach out to the student (I would have started here, personally), their advisor, and the university's ombudsperson (in that order), just asking them to rewrite those sections and to not do it again. If they refuse, it would probably take a lawyer to get them to listen -- but you don't have any damages (not even to your reputation), so that seems a bit excessive in this case.

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    Actually, paraphrasing is a legitimate way to cite, in which case quotes aren't needed. But quoting without indicating it is a quote is wrong, And, again, if it is cited, then it isn't an attempt to claim it as your own.
    – Buffy
    Feb 6, 2019 at 20:04
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    Paraphrasing is fine, but this student seems to have copied a long passage word-for-word, made one or two trivial changes, and then said "oh, I made some insignificant changes, so I don't need the quotation marks anymore." This would not be appropriate -- paraphrasing entails a non-trivial re-write of the material, ideally to place it in a novel context. By not using quotes, the student is (inadvertently) claiming to have done this. But yeah, if the student did make non-trivial changes to the text, then there is no issue at all.
    – cag51
    Feb 6, 2019 at 20:39
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    @Buffy There are acceptable and unacceptable forms of paraphrasing. Clearly, many universities feel it is possible to excessively paraphrase. One need only google excessive paraphrasing or paraphrase excessively plus the suffix .edu to see what I mean.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 6, 2019 at 22:19

You seem to be confusing two things. Copyright is about words. Plagiarism is about ideas. If you have something copyrighted (almost anything you write and publish) copying your words is possibly a violation. The other paper may be have overstepped the bounds of copyright here.

But if they credit you with the underlying ideas behind the words, then it isn't plagiarism and is probably why people stop responding when you explain what happened. If the other person says or implies "these are my ideas" when, in fact, they are yours, they have plagiarized and that is true even if they use none of your words to express the idea.

But if you are credited, it just isn't plagiarism. A reader of the other work seem to be able to go to your work to find a more complete context of the idea and the original words.

You may, however, have a copyright claim or not, but it is a completely different issue. It is possible, also, that in publishing a book, you gave your copyright to your publisher. In that case it is up to them to make the claim.

Note that I'm not saying that what was done was ok, just that it better to be accurate in a claim of wrongdoing than to be inaccurate and confuse things.

And to be honest, I'm not close enough to the problem nor do I know enough to be able to say definitively that there is wrongdoing here or not. So I reserve judgement on that.

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:31
  • @Buffy For instance, imagine you wrote a proof that the Halting problem is undecidable. Then in my paper I also write a proof that the Halting problem is undecidable. This is not plagiarism, because this proof is so well-known and taught and studied in every computer science class that nobody will worry about misappropriation of the proof's idea. But now imagine that in my paper I include this poem, and claim it as my own: lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/loopsnoop.html . Now this would be plagiarism because of the words used in the proof (the ideas are still the same as when it wasn't plagia)
    – Stef
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:32

Since my comments were not addressed and have now been deleted, I will post an answer.

I don't really know what you are hoping to achieve here. I suspect the university also doesn't know what you are hoping to achieve and that explains why they aren't responding.

You say you are seeking "justice", which is a vague and ominous term. You later clarify that your goal is just to have the student rewrite the offending passages, but that you never discussed this with the university.

Generally, once something has been archived (such as a thesis being accepted by the university library), it cannot be edited. To do so would undermine the integrity of the archive. Errata can be published, but the original item remains. My own PhD thesis contains some typos that I would like to fix, but I am not allowed to.

I have heard of a story of a PhD thesis that became crucial evidence in a large lawsuit. Even the typos were scrutinized in court. A librarian was flown around the world to swear to the integrity and availability of the archive. This stuff matters.

Hence I think your desire to have the passages rewritten is not realistic. It may be physically possible for this to be done, but that does not mean it is allowed.

Thus I can only interpret your quest for justice as a desire to see the student's degree revoked. I don't see what other action the university could take. That is a very drastic step and not one the university would take lightly.

It sounds like the university conducted an investigation and concluded that there was insufficient grounds for degree revocation. That does not mean that they absolved the student of wrongdoing, only that the wrongdoing was not sufficient to merit that punishment.

While I do not know the details, it sounds like the plagiarism was on the minor end of the scale. The original source was cited. The passages were paraphrased, rather than direct quotes. Your original question stated it was "over a dozen passages", which sounds like it is only a small part of the thesis.

Potentially the student didn't know that this is not allowed. Such misunderstandings of academic ethics are not uncommon. For a degree to be revoked, there needs to be much more than a minor mistake or misunderstanding.

  • Perhaps I should have said upfront what I wanted the end result of my complaint to be (revising the pertinent text) - but that is the sort of determination easier seen in hindsight or with experience in such issues -- neither of which I had the luxury of drawing on. I reported the transgression, as I thought proper, and while I wish I could show examples of the plagiarism, I cannot: I can only assure you the instances of plagiarism are extensive and blatant . . . and yet the only reason given for exoneration of the student was lack of evidence for intent to deceive.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 7, 2019 at 17:21

You've unfortunately equated justice with a conviction rather than with recognition of wrong

There are two issues with that PhD candidate (call him X)'s thesis:

  1. Did it contain inappropriate excessive paraphrasing?
  2. If so, is X culpable (legally/in a disciplinary sense)?

It seems you've demanded that (2.) be answered positively, and mostly ignored (1.) - so much so that you haven't even mentioned whether the investigator found that the thesis did include excessive paraphrasing.

I have been careful not to come across as a loon (between the president and his assistant, for example, I sent a mere four emails, only two of which were follow-ups saying "I haven't heard from you: can you confirm receipt?")

Perhaps, but it seems you may have come off as a revenge-seeker.

In short, I think I have responded as any rational person might in such a situation.

  1. People are not rational; or rather, it's a problematic concept.
  2. Many "rational" people would have behaved differently; some would not care about the excessive paraphrasing at all.

I should add I am an experienced scholar widely known in my field.

Then it reflects poorly on you to pursue this too far - regardless of whether you've been wronged or not. This, as opposed to someone whose sole significant contribution has been thus plagiarized.

My publisher did contact the student formally and threaten legal action, but, again, only if the student should publish the plagiarized text.


I was told by an attorney friend there is no point involving attorneys because there is no material loss on my part.

You needed an attorney friend to tell you that?

Bottom line:

My question is: at what point should I give up seeking justice?

At this point.

You've not damaged your reputation so far, except perhaps mildly with the president and his assistant. But if you continue pursuing this - you probably will.

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    Your points are well taken. Before taking action I showed the passages in question to several academic colleagues in various disciplines at various US universities, and with one exception they concurred the plagiarism was serious. Then the director of ethics at the student's university said the matter was (quote) "serious" and that I had a "strong case" for proving plagiarism and unprofessional conduct. I filed a formal complaint and, inexplicably, lost. Up to that point I merely followed the school's procedure. Only the appeal to the university president went beyond standard procedure.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 8, 2019 at 0:13
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    "except perhaps mildly with the president and his assistant. But if you continue pursuing this - you probably will." I think you're right, and based on the aggregate of the replies here I think there is nothing more I can or should do.
    – Grinnell
    Feb 8, 2019 at 0:20
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    @Grinnell: I sympathize with your predicament. There are certain offenses which are very easy to carry out, but very difficult to have the perpetrator of which made to face any consequences. While I don't see how the plagiarism is that serious, I know that if I had, I'd be extremely exasperated.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 8, 2019 at 7:19

There are two kinds of plagiarism:

  • of ideas / scientific plagiarism (fully solved by a citation of the original work). Buffy's answers here and on a followup question have some good insight into why this is such a big deal (e.g. for future scholars wanting to know the scientific context in which something was written).

  • of the wording. Taking credit for the wording doesn't hurt the scientific value of the work (and thus is less serious), but still makes the author look like a more skilled wordsmith than they are. (Unless they do it badly/clumsily; see @Ben's answer on the followup.)

    Aside from plagiarism (taking false credit), this also violates the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rights of the creator, specifically the right of attribution of your wording. Some countries give legal weight to the moral rights of the creator beyond just the usual fixed-term / dollar-value copyright. (And if the work was published, could also be traditional economic copyright infringement)

Citing and then slightly paraphrasing instead of quoting with quote marks implies that the idea is from the cited work, but the wording is fully original. If that's not the case, it's a violation of the moral right of attribution of the original author for the wording, as well as plagiarism.

And if published, also becomes an issue of traditional copyright violation and suing for damages. If that's not the case, and only the moral right of the author have been violated, I'm not clear on what if any legal penalties there might actually be. And it's still plagiarism, which is a separate thing.

The student has violated your moral right of attribution for your wording of the explanation. This is probably a large part of what's bothering you so much, not (just) the plagiarism.

Perhaps you didn't get anywhere when contacting people if they weren't clear you were not talking about "scientific plagiarism" (lack of citation), which is the much more serious issue that would definitely warrant contacting people up to and including the head of the university.

In hindsight you might have had better luck if you could start fresh after reading these answers, but at this point I think the ship has sailed on getting the passages actually quoted, or more fully rewritten (at least as an erratum). Or at least an apology, which might have been all that was feasible given the restrictions on (not) modifying university archives after the fact, even to fix errors.

(I wrote the rest of this answer before looking into moral rights as something separate from copyright and plagiarism.)

Plagiarism of wording is a different kind of offence from copyright infringement: the victims are people that are tricked into being impressed by the person's ability to express ideas with words, when in fact it wasn't actually their word-crafting ability that resulted in the clear explanation found in the work they wrote.

In copyright infringement, you would be the victim, and suffer damages from someone else profiting from your creative work. (Presumably instead of you, this is the main point of copyright law.)

Since they cite the work they're paraphrasing, they're not trying to hide the source. Anyone who looks will see that their wording looks like yours, but yours must be the original because they cite you.

The student has done something wrong, but it's hard to find any way to say that they've wronged you directly. Their writing doesn't diminish your reputation, it just makes you unhappy with them for trying to take advantage of your work to achieve their goal (getting a degree?) with less effort than they should have needed. i.e. trying to cheat the system, not cheat you.

Keep that in mind when pursuing "justice". It's obviously more personal to you when someone passes off your words as their own, with only minor rephrasing, but in terms of any academic or legal consequences this is probably not too different from pursuing a random stranger for littering in a public park. Or maybe for running slightly inside the lines in a race (which you weren't competing in) at a sporting even. Or pick any minor offense where society / the public is the victim.

I'm talking about plagiarism of wording like you discuss, not of ideas / scientific data / results. Again that's similar in that the original source isn't damaged in a legal sense by the plagiarizer, but it does much more damage to science as a whole than passing off someone else's wording as your own.

To help separate plagiarism from copyright infringement, consider a case of someone trying to pass off a piece of old public-domain work as their own.

It's still plagiarism even if nobody knows who wrote the original passage. e.g. an anonymous work, or something like a folk tale / oral tradition.

Let's take Shakespeare's writing as an example (and pretend that it wouldn't be recognized right away by someone). They aren't harming the bard. (Well you could imagine slight indirect harm if they end up associating Shakespeare's phrasing of something with clumsy un-enjoyable work, so people enjoy the original less when they read / hear it.)

But even if they directly harming Shakespeare's reputation, that's not what plagiarism is about: it's about taking undeserved credit. It's not solely up to the person who's words were copied to enforce anything, it's up to anyone who notices or is made aware to call out the plagiarizer. If the plagiarizer is working on behalf of anyone (e.g. a speechwriter), they might be fired for making the person giving the speech look bad.

(Or before publishing, up to their editors or anyone else to stop them from trying to commit accidental or intentional plagiarism.)

In your case, the people you contacted should have got the student to rewrite or actually quote the passages. I think you've done your part by calling attention to the plagiarism. If you want to publicly call attention to it in some way, that would be the last step that would be worth taking. But honestly it does sound like pretty minor plagiarism, and making too much of a stink would (unfortunately) be more likely to make you look petty and vindictive in some people's eyes.


To answer your question: "now".

You've been thoughtful in the process. And your question is well written-rings true. I buy that the plagiarism was blatant.

Unfortunately, it is a fact that academic "policing" can be weak in many aspects. You've done the responsible thing to bring it up. This is better than just turning the other cheek (would bug you if you hadn't done it). But obsessing on it, given a process has run is not worth it either. At this point, will just distract you.

Hopefully just having the process run on the miscreant has put a scare in him.

Unless there is some serious ongoing situation of continued theft (future behavior versus you), I would not pursue it further.

The obvious ways to pursue it further are legal (expensive) or social (e.g. blog posts, Youtube videos with you reading the passages, etc.). Personally I wouldn't bother. Think you have done enough and the ongoing danger (of new thefts) seems low. Also the impacts are really not that serious financially--not like plagiarism in personal training and nutrition writing. It's not like the guy is becoming a rival to you based on his writing. Not even in a journal. (Note, I'm not excusing the sin.)

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