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Recently, after the acceptance of a paper, the journal said some sentences were exactly copied in my manuscript. I was shocked as I was the first author. Later, we found that during the preparation of the revised manuscript, one of the co-authors exactly copied two sentences from a reference. This brought fear in my mind if I had ever been a co-author in an unintentionally plagiarized paper. I got access to the Turnitin from a friend at a different institute and checked all my previous papers.

I realized that 8-10 years ago, a visiting student in my lab had significant portions of the published papers plagiarized. The data and analysis were correctly done in my supervision, but significant parts of introduction, methods and some places discussion were plagiarized. I had read and edited the drafts of the papers, but I didn't realize that he had copied text from other papers. Generally, most sources are cited. The student already earned a PhD based on the work.

At that time, no-one in our country had access to the plagiarism detection software from institutions.

What should I do now?

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    How bad is it? What are some sentences? – Buffy Jan 25 at 22:18
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    Overall 25-30 %, but literature review is 50-80 % copied words. One source is 10 %, second 4 % and third 4 %, in overall paper. – DR A Ali Jan 25 at 23:00
  • What did the first journal request that you must do because of the plagiarism? – Jeffrey J Weimer Jan 26 at 0:20
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    The problem in the first paper happened before publishing. The editor mentioned that the referees have accepted the paper in the current form and we found exactly copied text which should be updated before acceptance. We updated the two sentences and the paper is published now. The issue is in the past papers. – DR A Ali Jan 26 at 6:03
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    Sorry if this is stating the obvious, but given this issue is in a paper from a number of years ago, have you checked that the "plagiarised" papers were indeed written before yours? Or whether the material was "plagiarised" from the student's own thesis, which is often acceptable? – user2390246 Jan 27 at 10:57
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Move on. In the abstract, of course, we should care about these things but, in reality, a paper that has been out there for 8-10 years has passed the statute of limitations. It is exceedingly unlikely that anyone will go back and check papers that old -- indeed, even if someone finds textual overlap with other sources, it will require quite a lot of work and human intervention to determine who copied from whom.

The point for you to take away is this: You learned a lesson to be more careful in the future. That's a good thing from your perspective, and it will make sure that you won't get into a potentially embarrassing situation again in the future. In the meantime, relax.

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    Wasn't there a German minister where they identified plagiarism offences in a thesis from 30-40 years ago? I think many felonies have a shorter statue of limitations. OP is right in being concerned. – Captain Emacs Jan 26 at 22:51
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    @CaptainEmacs: I think there's a difference between a thesis and some random publication -- one among many the OP's likely has. For a thesis, there is no doubt about authorship, and the result of a thesis is also a title ("Dr"). Finding plagiarism in a thesis leads to revokation of the title, and that leads to a downfall in a public servant's career. The (unlikely) retraction of a single, decades-old paper is unlikely to have the same effect. The case you cite is that of Guttenberg, who had received his PhD in 2007, with plagiarism found in 2011. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 27 at 2:34
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    The other case you are thinking of is probably that of German minister Schavan, who lost her 1980 PhD in 2013. Her case was particular because she was, at the time, minister for Science and Culture, i.e., she was responsible for exactly the sort of integrity she was found to have violated herself. That certainly made her position untenable. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 27 at 2:46
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    This answer is wrong. Ethics do not have a "statute of limitations." The chances of getting caught are also irrelevant. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 27 at 3:49
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I don't disagree, but ethical transgressions also have a "severity" associated with it, and the severity often has consequences for the punishment you might expect. I'm not trying to excuse the issue, I'm simply saying that for all practical purposes, the consequences will likely not be too grave. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 27 at 3:59
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You should contact the official at the visiting student's PhD institution who is responsible for academic integrity. They should investigate the student's thesis for plagiarism, potentially leading to the revocation of the PhD degree.

For the visiting student's publication, you should contact the journal and let them decide what to do. I would guess they would decide to issue a correction.

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    My reading is that the OP is also a co-author on those papers, so yes they can contact the journal, but it might make sense for the OP to be write the "correction." – Kimball Jan 27 at 21:42
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    This is a terrible suggestion. At no point did the OP state any evidence that the student's PhD contained any plagiarism. Before making such serious allegations against someone, for their (former) institution to pursue, at the very least one should have some evidence to justify it. This approach would seem like enacting retrospective and disproportionate vengeance upon the then-student for their apparent (and quite possibly completely unrelated) plagiarism on the paper. – Michael MacAskill Jan 28 at 21:27
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    @MichaelMacAskill The question says "The student already earned a PhD based on the work." The question clearly implies the plagiarism is in the thesis. I advocate for accountability, not vengeance. Even if the plagiarism were not also in the thesis, notification would be appropriate. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 28 at 21:58
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    > "Before making such serious allegations against someone" @Michael MacAskill neither half of this is an allegation. That the PhD recipient plagiarized is fact not allegation. And telling the issuing institution of that is notification not allegation. – Swiss Frank Jan 29 at 6:11
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    @VladimirF Your comment completely misrepresents the situation and this answer, and your comparison to gestapo methods is deplorable. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 29 at 15:08
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I strongly recommend to contact the editor of the journal involved and explain the situation. Yes, this may lead to a retraction or expression of concern, but that is still better than to sit on this information, and ( more likely than not ) someone else finding out. For guidance you can check the retraction policy of the publisher. Certainly the larger publishers ( Wiley, Springer, Elsevier, etc ) have this information online. Full disclosure - I work for a publisher.

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  • Seems fairly unlikely anyone else would find out. Especially since the OP (an author) who read the paper more thoroughly than most will didn't know for years. – Michael Mior Jan 28 at 0:35
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    @MichaelMior OP used a software to check their publications for plagiarism. Anyone could check a large number of publications that way. The further OP progresses in their career, the more likely it becomes that someone will check. – Roland Jan 28 at 6:51
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    Precisely correct. All it needs is someone who wants to hurt the OP and has access to Turnitin or similar. – Stephan Kolassa Jan 28 at 10:49
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    I should add that I think from an ethical perspective, it doesn't matter if someone else is likely to ever discover that it happened or not. – Michael Mior Jan 28 at 14:46
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No, there's no "statute of limitation" on plagiarism. It's a lot like murder in that way. I've had people complain to me that they had their work plagiarized by papers that were published 10 years earlier - it happens and the likelihood increases with time as the papers are there forever. You report it to the journal where your work was published; that's it, no other options. If in doubt, check out this web site: https://publicationethics.org/guidance/Guidelines The editor will evaluate the level of plagiarism and if it exists, will determine the appropriate course of action. It can range from publishing an erratum to a full-on retraction of the paper. In the future, before submitting a paper, always run it through plagiarism detection software or at least do a literature search on your abstract to see what else is out there. You'd be surprised how much plagiarism gets caught by very simple means.

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Check if your institution have guidelines on plagiarism and follow them. If not, maybe discuss with some of your colleagues how you've been duped and recomend them to check their coauthored work. After all, your primary concern is about not falling victim of a plagiarism accusation in the future, so the best insurance for that should be some moral grandstanding.

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The fact that you ask the question at all after all this time is impressive and speaks for itself. I would go with the advice given by @Wolfgang Bangerth although, of course, strictly speaking it would be the right way to report the issue and accept the consequences.

Let's say you would have commited some sort of offence in the 'real world', like shoplifting something small 10 years back without having been caught. Let's further assume you know it has been filmed by a camera, so there definitely is evidence and you were only not caught because for some reason nobody looked at the video. Would you report it? You maybe should, but many people would say it would not be wise given that the consequences of what you have done are small. Additionally, as far as I know, such as 'minor' issue falls under the Statute of Limitations after five years in Germany (where I live). So you could talk about what you have done without fearing any (legal) consequences. I am not sure if such a concept exists at all in academia, but this concept makes sense so me. Nobody was hurt, and the damage is also rather small. Staying in this picture, something more severe like murder would be a totally different story.

So the answer to your question is given by answering another question: Where would you put your case? Do you think it is so severe that after such a long time it is still necessary to report it yourself, without anybody else even taking notice? Does it press so hard on your conscience? If so, go ahead and report it. However, my advice is different. We are all humans, and we all make mistakes.

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