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I published my PhD thesis three years ago.

I have just come to know that a master’s student has copied three chapters from my PhD thesis half a year later. My PhD supervisor was also the supervisor of his master’s project. Each and every word and mathematical symbol is exactly the same. That person is now a PhD student himself. I’m obviously extremely shocked, angered and hurt by this. But before I take any action I wanted to ask the community.

How serious is plagiarism in a master’s thesis? I suspect that my PhD supervisor also had a role to play in this. He either tacitly ignored this blatant plagiarism or even actively suggested it. How should I deal with this given that my relations with my PhD supervisor will become strained if I report this?

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    The answer you are seeking is different. "How should I behave? ". And this is difficult to answer given to the fact that you are caring of your relationship with the phd/master supervisor. I personally would talk to him first. He should be aware but perhaps not. Particularly brilliant student get lot of freedom and get trusted. Trickery can go on even between writing/correcting anf final submission. Check it out first. – Alchimista Jul 2 at 9:43
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    Many good answers on here. I just wanted to add: at no time, publicly or privately, accuse anyone of anything: especially your supervisor. It is the job of the authorities to assign blame, if there is blame to be assigned. It is not your job. All you need to do – at a high enough level, and verifiably so that it can't be ignored – is to say "My work has been copied; plagiarism is one possible explanation; I am asking you to investigate". – Martin Kochanski Jul 3 at 12:27
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    Your post and comments here sound a bit "soft" to me, so ... In addition to what other people tell you here, I want to add that anything bad that happens to them after you report it is nor your fault. If this person loses degree, job, and whatever, don't tell yourself afterwards you're to blame because you reported some paperwork stuff. You're not. It's completely that persons own problem. ... Had an almost-neighbor that went to prison because such things (his offenses included what he did with his unearned degree in the business world), I don't pity him either. He "earned" that on his own. – deviantfan Jul 3 at 20:28
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    It may be worth checking if the other chapters are plagiarised from other sources. – Richard Telford Jul 4 at 12:20
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    Plagiarism is a very serious form of fraud, report it. It sounds a bit weird but whether your supervisor had something to do with it or not is really not relevant, since the student that copied your work is ultimately responsible. If your relationship with your PhD supervisor becomes harmed by this, I think in that case you have reasons to question his integrity... – Jeroen Landheer Jul 4 at 12:59
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Edit based on subsequent info by the OP...

This has to be raised with the relevant department / committee / Dean so that it can be addressed in a manner they see fit.

They could demand changes, or they could leave all alone.

If you don't report this, then if the Master's thesis gets published first YOU will be accused of plagiarism...

So you have to report this, but how you do that is going to be a difficult choice.

  1. you could see your advisor first and get the master's student to change those chapters.

  2. If that is not successful, then you have to go further, as the possible consequences of leaving it could be serious for you.

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    Some time has passed already. It's been 3 years since my PhD thesis was published and about 2.5 years since his Master's thesis. – yaska Jul 2 at 8:16
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    @yaska making that clear in the original question would have helped. Plagiarism has a habit of catching up with people, sometimes many years later... So, see the relevant people at the university. – Solar Mike Jul 2 at 8:18
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    Sorry about that. But that's what I'm wondering now. Is it now just a moral dilemma for me and that I should just swallow my feelings and let it go? Or is it my duty to report this to the institute? – yaska Jul 2 at 8:22
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    since the OP's PhD dissertation is "published" (in the library of the University, at least) and time-stamped half year before the offender's Master's thesis, I do not think that an accusation of plagiarism against the OP will stick. and such an accusation by the offender would be dangerous to the offender because a record exists. likely the offender will never bring up that plagiarized result in a paper or in a presentation and claim it as his/her own. likely the offender will sit low about this. – robert bristow-johnson Jul 3 at 21:28
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    @Spark can't say I have the experience.... – Solar Mike Jul 4 at 11:05
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How serious is plagiarism in a master's thesis?

In a word - very.

If someone knowingly copies verbatim three chapters off of another thesis (within a group or not), this is cause for severe disciplinary action.

You have graduated, but this puts you in a bad position as well - if you published your thesis after them, then your work will appear to be plagiarized, which may come back to haunt you.

First of all - do your research: your advisor may not be aware that this happened (they may have inadvertently given access the student to your thesis), and such a heavy accusation should be well backed up with timestamped details of both your thesis and the masters student. A person who will lift three chapters from another person's work may easily turn this into a I-said-they-said situation. For example, did you submit a draft to your review committee? Did you send a copy to a friend/colleague to read through?

Next, talk to your advisor immediately; raise the subject directly and politely, with the evidence you have collected.

If I were your advisor - I would immediately check the details of the case and see what happened. It could be a simple misunderstanding (the student took the chapters as reference and meant to completely rewrite them in their own words, and hadn't had a chance to do it), sheer stupidity/incompetence, or malice. Depending on that, I would act. If it were a simple misunderstanding, I would alert the dean of graduate studies (or the equivalent) and demand that the masters student apologize in writing to you (so that there's a timestamped email describing the incident, just in case). If the student is doing a PhD in the same institution, I would require that their studies be suspended/terminated/put on disciplinary review (they misrepresented themselves to the selection committee). If something unethical went on, I will push for both the masters degree and the graduate studies now to be revoked and terminated, respectively.

If your advisor protects your intellectual rights, you're fine.

If not (e.g. the advisor doesn't care enough, which is unlikely honestly if you are indeed correct in your assessment), you need to bring this up with an ombudsman or student affairs in your school. One of you won't be able to publish your thesis (in particular whomever publishes last). You must understand - the advisor and the school's prestige is at stake as well; having students publish plagiarized work is not something one wants to be known for.

Good luck!

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    "It could be a simple misunderstanding" I think you are being too charitable. No one cuts and pastes three chapters from someone else's thesis into their own because they "hadn't had a chance" to fix it. You may as well say that someone who, given the keys to a car to test drive and simply drove off with it, "hadn't had a chance" to return it. Being pathologically absent-minded is not a defense. – Pete L. Clark Jul 2 at 17:51
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    The question has been clarified to say that the OP published his thesis 6 months before the other student. So the OP is unlikely to be accused as the plagiarist – Barmar Jul 2 at 19:09
  • @Peter L. Clark, of course! I am trying to think of a best case scenario of some sort – Spark Jul 2 at 23:47
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    @PeteL.Clark - It could be as simple as forgetting to attribute a quote. – Valorum Jul 4 at 20:18
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    @Valorum THREE chapters? – Andrés E. Caicedo Jul 5 at 19:10
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To answer your initial question: plagiarism of that degree (three chapters copied from a PhD thesis into a master's thesis) is a career ender. In contrast to PhD theses, masters' theses do not have similar dissemination and reference value, so the likelihood of this blowing up tends be quite less than when plagiarism occurs in a PhD thesis. Nevertheless this is sufficient for having a degree revoked.

You state "every symbol is the same". That makes it likely that the text in question was not even typed off but that electronic copy has been used, meaning that the student in question committed his fraud with the aid of people with access to the electronic copy of your thesis.

You write:

How should I deal with this given that my relations with my PhD supervisor will become strained if I report this?

but that is quite underestimating what you are dealing with here. If this is dealt with according to academic standards and properly investigated, your PhD supervisor may well no longer be in the position to supervise either PhD students or master students for a significant amount of time if ever since it is rather likely that he was involved with handing electronic copy of the thesis to the master's student and with having his thesis be accepted.

So before you start anything at all, build and collect and corroborate your evidence to a very high standard since if push comes to shove, it is rather likely that your PhD advisor will prefer shoving you under the bus over ending there himself: after all, having to change careers is much easier for someone at your stage of life than for him.

It is unlikely that your case is a singular exception to how things do or at least can work at this institution, so having this dealt with will be a service to science. But you will make no personal friends by dealing with it, only enemies. It's still the right thing to tackle this rather than leave it to "someone else" but you really have to get your ducks in a row before anybody gets sufficient wind of what you are doing. If anybody checks back with the advisor before you have everything pinned down (of course, having properly published your thesis is a very solid reference point, but they could still claim that you stole your material from the master's student unfinished work), you could well end up being the one who gets his degree revoked since it may end up being the word of several people against yours.

So be sure to have the hard evidence you need, and be sure that there will be certifiable copies of it safe from tampering.

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    My own dissertation was many years ago, and there's an electronic copy in ProQuest and another copy in the university library's database. Access to an electronic copy does not necessarily indicate, or even suggest, that the plagiarist had "inside" help. – Bob Brown Jul 3 at 11:44
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The other answers are correct. This has to be reported. Doing so both protects yourself from accusations of plagiarism and protects the value of your degree. An institution that allows academic fraud quickly gets "a reputation."

Other answers have suggested that wholesale copying means that the plagiarist had access to an electronic copy, and that's quite likely. However, that does not indicate that the plagiarist was aided by someone in authority. Isn't your doctoral thesis available electronically in a database like ProQuest or one operated by your university library?

The real question is not whether to report; you have to. It is how to report. The question says, "I suspect that my PhD supervisor also had a role to play in this." That would be bad. My guess, based only on what's in the question, is that it was a passive role; your supervisor either didn't recognize the plagiarized text or chose not to do anything about it. You don't want to antagonize your supervisor by going over his or her head, but neither do you want to give the supervisor a chance to choose independently to do nothing about the matter.

So, pick someone in authority, like a department chair, dean, or university ombuds. Write to that person and your supervisor in the same message. Request a meeting with the two of them. Explain that the purpose of the meeting is that you have come to believe that a portion of your doctoral thesis has appeared unchanged in another student's master's thesis. Go to the meeting armed with the proof.

Most important, do not accuse your supervisor, who will surely deny complicity and will in any case be embarrassed at not having caught the plagiarism. Just present the facts and let others decide what, if anything, should happen to the supervisor.

There are three potential outcomes. First and best is that appropriate action is taken against the plagiarist. Second, the university either recognizes the problem but declines to take action or decides there really is not a problem; the latter seems very unlikely. Finally, your request for a meeting could be declined.

In the case of no meeting, you probably want to insist on seeing individually someone other than your supervisor so that you get your case on record. In the case of no action, you will have to decide whether to escalate to a higher authority in the university.

  • One point: when I finished my PhD a few years ago, I had the option to block electronic access to my dissertation for 2-6 years. For people who had done this, I could see the record for their dissertation in ProQuest and in the library database but could not access a copy. Only someone with back-end library access or someone sent the dissertation by the author or as a part of their approval system would have a copy. Given the six month gap between the PhD dissertation and master's thesis, the original asker would know whether the other student should have had electronic access. – TaliesinMerlin Jul 16 at 12:43
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Someone at that level has been warned repeatedly about the dangers of plagiarism. Someone can't accidentally commit plagiarism to that degree any more than they could accidentally shoplift a book from a store.

If the problem is not addressed, the problem could get worse because the person has already been rewarded for "getting away with it."

Many universities have an ethics department (or something similar). I suggest you start by reporting it there to ensure it's handled appropriately and not just ignored. They may just bring the matter to the attention of the supervisor, but if it goes through the proper channel, then it will receive the proper due process and University control to ensure it's handled correctly.

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