57

While working on a paper, my PhD advisor (at a prestigious school, if that matters) sent revisions that included three pages plagiarized from a book. Thankfully I caught this before the paper was submitted, but otherwise it could have had terrible consequences.

The past year of the pandemic was quite hard on me, and this happened just as I was starting to get better. Now I'm back at feeling uncertain, isolated, and this is literally giving me terrible headaches. My semester is completely off the rails, my mood has been affected, and it's hard for me to perform right now.

I've brought up the issue with my advisor, who claimed it was an accidental mistake. We only talked once besides a few emails, and I'm dreading to have another talk about this and next steps. Whether or not this was a mistake, I feel hurt, cheated, and I have lost trust in my advisor. Actually I've lost trust in most of academia at this point — sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded with people that are very unhealthy and maybe a bit crazy.

Am I overreacting to the situation? I know I was in a vulnerable state before this happened, so it's definitely hitting me hard. But I'm also trying to not overreact.

My options at this point are to:

  1. quit my PhD
  2. change advisor and research field
  3. find a co-advisor and stay in the same field

Option 1 is very appealing, since I have a nice life outside of my PhD. However job opportunities are not as good as they could be at this point. Option 2 is scary to me. I'm afraid that very few faculty act with decency and integrity and I don't want to end up in a bad situation. Option 3 would be easiest in terms of finishing my PhD, as long as I can get my productivity back up while regularly interacting with my current advisor.

Any outside, objective opinion on this would be very helpful to me. I haven't yet talked about the issue to anyone in my department, even though it's hard to avoid talking about it with friends.

Edit: People are speculating about the gravity of the incident and the consequences for me if I take one decision over another. The most important things here are that:

  • Trust with my advisor was broken and it will be difficult to work with them and trust their advice in the future. Some people are trying to find ways that it could have been "ok" to plagiarize three pages, but here what matters is that it certainly wasn't ok for me.
  • It is a serious enough incident that both me and my advisor are very careful navigating the situation, and I cannot talk about it freely at my school without that causing problems or risking an investigation taking place.
  • I will not make any decision based on internet advice. I have mentors I can talk to and many people I trust in my life. The answers provided here help me gain different perspectives from my own and help me process what is going on. No answer here is going to "cause serious harm to me" or anything like that.

Edit 2: Some people seem to think that quitting my PhD would be flushing my career down the drain. That is not the case. Most PhD graduates in my field go on to work in industry. It's not uncommon for PhD students in my field to quit after being recruited by a famous company. I have many options. Regarding changing research subject, again this is not uncommon in my field which relies on a strong set of core knowledge and skills, and where everything can be tied together in a thesis. There are downsides to doing this in terms of networking, overhead, and continuity, but I've done it before and I know I can do it again. Regarding finding a co-advisor or changing advisor, again that is not uncommon in my field. I'm not helpless, I'm just distraught by what happened.

Edit 3 (conclusions): I've concluded that what happened is absolutely unbelievable and amounts to incompetence and/or research misconduct. However, I am also over-reacting in the way that this is affecting my mood and productivity. Realizing the latter should help me work on the mental health issues that I'm facing. Regarding issues with my advisor and next steps, this is something that resources at my university will help with.

New contributor
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  • 34
    It's someone else's book. The three pages were almost copied verbatim, with only slight changes to fit in our paper. As I was working on improing the text, I noticed that some of the language didn't really fit with the rest of our paper, so I googled a few sentence bits. I found it was copied from the book. A plagiarism detection tool then showed that three whole continuous pages were plagiarized.
    – Jason
    Oct 11 at 4:14
  • 15
    Copy and paste 3 pages?? This is really and seriously terrible. Btw, is this a journal paper or your dissertation??
    – Frank Cat
    Oct 11 at 14:33
  • 52
    You're not overreacting. That is one of the craziest things I've heard. Oct 11 at 17:56
  • 48
    Keep copies of all those documents and emails! Away from the institution's systems/servers. Oct 11 at 17:57
  • 13
    If it helps I had a similar experience where I realised my original PhD supervisor was a complete fraud and didn't know what was going on. It's a scary experience, especially if they wield quite a lot of power. The best immediate solution is to change to a different supervisor as soon as you possibly can.
    – Tom
    Oct 11 at 21:07
68

At a minimum, you should change advisors

It seems highly implausible to me that a person would accidentally plagiarise three entire pages of another person's book. While I won't entirely rule out the possibility of some innocent explanation, it would be extremely unusual for such a thing to occur by accident. Such an incident strongly suggests research misconduct by your advisor, which could have had an extremely damaging effect on your candidature and your future in academia if you had not caught on to it before peer-review/publication.

In view of that, I recommend ---at a minimum--- that you change to another advisor. You have some options in terms of how you go about doing that, depending on whether or not you wish to report the (possible) plagiarism incident. If you want to report this incident then you can go directly to your Head of Department and explain the matter, and if you do not want to report the incident then you will probably need to speak directly to your supervisor and have him/her take the lead in moving you to someone else. If you are not satisfied with your supervisor's explanation of the incident then you certainly have grounds to go and speak to your Head of Department. (Also, make sure you thoroughly document the incident and save all relevant documents and emails; send these to your own private email so that you have access to them outside of the university servers.)

Plagiarism of this kind is a big deal in its own right; in this instance it would also be a serious breach of duty towards a higher-degree candidate, since it occurred in the context of a joint publication with you. If you decide to report the matter, it is likely that the university will investigate the circumstances of this to see if (attempted) plagiarism has occurred. Unless there is an innocent explanation for the whole thing, it is likely that they will assign you a different advisor. If the incident is confirmed then the university will likely feel some duty to you for the damage to your candidature, and they ought to do their best to find you a suitable advisor with minimal disruption to your research topic. You might be able to work with other members of your supervisory panel, or they might find you someone who has not been on your panel previously.

Whether or not you wish to quit your PhD candidature entirely is something you will need to determine, but I would suggest you first talk to one of the senior staff in charge of the program and see what other options you have. It would probably be worth trying another advisor first, to see if things improve.

13
  • 11
    It seems highly implausible to me that a person would accidentally plagiarise three entire pages --- That was my first thought. I then wondered just how someone could say something like this and expect to be believed. Are they that clueless about the optics of saying this? And if they are honest with their claim, doesn't this suggest a basement level of competence (which adds to the optics clueless alternative, if they are not honest)? I guess if you copy 3 pages and get caught, then there's not much you can say. Oct 11 at 7:10
  • 6
    @DaveLRenfro Yes the excuse was definitely weird (there's more that I won't get into). But if it was an actual mistake (e.g. switched up reading notes with manuscript text), then the whole thing would have been handled very differently by my advisor. Rather, when I made it clear that I knew the text was copied from the book, things very quickly went into damage control mode. That made me feel even worse given that I gave plenty time for them to fix the mistake, and I was very careful not to make any accusation or use accusatory language.
    – Jason
    Oct 11 at 16:48
  • 12
    The funny thing about the given excuse is that it's exactly what my community college freshmen students write when I catch them plagiarizing code. (Maybe there's some anti-SE site where that's the selected answer.) Oct 11 at 18:00
  • 2
    @Jason: I was at the comment character length, so my last sentence was a bit brief. In case it was too brief, what I meant is that if your advisor did intentionally copy the 3 pages, then there doesn't seem anything better to respond with (assuming your advisor doesn't wish to admit to copying the 3 pages). For example, a child who did not do a required school assignment could say that the dog ate the assignment, but I can't think of anything like that your advisor could have said in this situation -- why I said "not much you can say". Oct 11 at 18:36
  • 11
    I don't agree that this answer is speculative. The OP has disclosed sufficient circumstances to warrant a high degree of suspicion of plagiarism, and the excuse offered for the incident is grossly insufficient at this stage. The circumstances described would be more than enough to warrant a formal report and a request for change of supervisor. As to it being a "single incident", if made out, a single incident of research misconduct can be a very serious matter in its own right.
    – Ben
    Oct 12 at 21:14
56

Other answers are dealing with your academic options, but I want to highlight two things that you said which jumped out at me for other reasons:

The past year of the pandemic was quite hard on me, and this happened just as I was starting to get better. Now I'm back at feeling uncertain, isolated, and this is literally giving me terrible headaches. My semester is completly off the rails, my mood has been affected, and it's hard for me to perform right now.

Option 2 is scary to me. I'm afraid that very few faculty act with decency and integrity and I don't want to end up in a bad situation.

Both of these indicate a high degree of mental fatigue and possibly emotional distress going on in your life. One bad actor is potentially souring you to a whole class of people. This is not a healthy and proportionate response. Regardless of how you proceed academically, please seek out the mental health resources that are available to you (most Universities in the US now have something which is usually free or significantly discounted to students).

Support from a mental health provider will position you to more accurately assess your own needs and desires and evaluate which option is right for you. It will also give you the tools to persevere in that choice, once you’ve made it.

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  • 10
    “This is not a healthy and proportionate response.” — exactly my thoughts when reading this question. How much of it was framed is a very cogent sign. Oct 12 at 5:01
  • 6
    It could be that many of the members of academia at OP's institution are bad (or at least poor) actors, leading to OP's general sense of disillusionment. While I agree they could benefit from seeking help, I feel it might be unfair to assume their perspective is born only out of their current supervisor and is therefore "not a healthy and proportionate response." The question provides insufficient detail on OP's academic experiences in general to know either way.
    – Drake P
    Oct 12 at 22:35
18

tl;dr: Seriously consider continuing your Ph.D. despite your feelings

I feel hurt, cheated, and I have lost trust in my advisor.

Then you are one of innumerable Ph.D. candidates who have felt this way, most of them with good reason.

Actually I've lost trust in most of academia at this point

That is mostly relevant for what you want to do after the Ph.D. Also remember that "most of academia" is people whom you'll never hear of, from other countries, and whose work you'll never read, so it's not clear that "trust in most of academia" is all that important.

sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded with people that are very unhealthy and maybe a bit crazy.

That may or may not be true, but it is almost orthogonal to whether some of them are unethical.

Options 1, 2

Why should you punish yourself for your advisor's conduct?

I mean, if you've just started, then it's not that big of a deal. But if you're in the middle, and have an approved subject, and some to-be-published work done, and prospects of completing enough work to make a Ph.D. dissertation out of - don't throw that away. IMHO.

Option 3

I find this to be a more relevant course of action. You should, however, avoid making it seem to your advisor like you're bringing in someone else to quarrel with them over their ethics, or advisorial practices, or because you think they're unworthy of being your advisor etc. Try to find an unrelated reason to add a co-advisor. And even while you don't have one - don't just put everything on hold. At worst, you'll need to finish your Ph.D. with a POS advisor whom you can't trust... not such an uncommon experience.

10

I'm afraid that very few faculty act with decency and integrity and I don't want to end up in a bad situation.

One of the potential benefits of this site is that most of the answers and voting come from academics, which means you get to see general reaction of a set of academics to the problem you raise. We are not necessarily a representative group (e.g., we skew heavily to the STEM fields) but you can still get a basic idea of the reaction of a set of academics at different levels, working in different departments, universities, and countries.

In the present case, based on the accepted answer and other highly-upvoted answers, it appears to be the general consensus that the plagiarism is a big deal, and you should leave your present advisor. Some comments on the answer suggest that you go further and report the matter formally. I hope this goes some way towards showing you that most academics do not condone research misconduct, and would work to ensure that a student is not negatively affected by misconduct of an advisor.

One should always bear in mind the tendency of people in institutions to become "captured" by what they perceive to be the interests of the institution and their colleagues, and one should also beware of the phenomenon of "circling the wagons". While this is certainly a real thing (which sadly does occur in academia, just as elsewhere) you are starting from a position where the immediate reaction of most academics is serious concern about the plagiarism you have described.

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  • 4
    Why are you writing two different answers, rather than consolidating your response in a single answer and comments?
    – jakebeal
    Oct 11 at 21:52
  • 8
    Because this answer concerns a different subject to the other answer; in my view, it is more appropriate for it to be separate.
    – Ben
    Oct 11 at 23:13
5

I can empathise about losing faith in your supervisor – I experienced a similar loss of faith with my supervisor (but for a different reason). I was one of 2 PhD students and unfortunately we experienced different fallouts.

I picked up a second supervisor, got a paper published with him and managed to do enough work of my own to not need to publish with my original supervisor, getting a solo paper published. The other student did not have such luck – she didn't have enough work to publish individually and required our supervisor's co-authorship to publish, which she dragged her heels about for almost a year, endangering the student's entire doctorate.

I bring this up because, as others have said, 3 pages of near copy & paste is too much to be an accident. I cannot get it out of my mind that it might have been malicious. Now one bad academic doesn't ruin the rest and I'd very much suggest trying to stick out your doctorate, even if you don't plan to stay in academia.

However, if you plan to pick up a new supervisor ask yourself if you'll be able to do enough work with the new supervisor to be worth a PhD. By that I mean if your current supervisor said "I refuse to publish with you", could you still get a doctorate? Trying to get a new supervisor could burn a bridge – my original supervisor initially REFUSED to let her other student get a second supervisor. It had to be taken to the head of department and various university rules were trotted out by both sides. A terrible mess and I'm certain was part of the reason she then dragged her feet on submitting their original publication work till after the viva.

If you can get a clean break and feel you can get enough work done with a new supervisor to get a PhD then I'd very much recommend sticking with it – a good supervisor could really brighten your perspective on academia and can be almost parental in their support and ability to lift you up, it's a shame you've had such an experience.

But I'd be wary of any action from your current supervisor, you cannot hand someone the academic equivalent of a live grenade with the pin pulled and then just say "Oops, my bad".

3

Let's play devil's advocate a bit and try to find any plausible way it could've been a honest mistake.

I can think of exactly one: that they took these three pages as a starting point, pasted into their draft and forgotten about that.

But since you mention other red flags while going with your gut (advisor going into damage control mode etc)... Probably take it with the Department Head - they'd like to know why do you want to change advisor anyway, as per Ben's suggestion, so it's a good idea to anticipate that and go directly to them to rearrange things for you (and possibly have your current one investigated).

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  • 6
    I don't understand the starting point comment, as rephrasing someone else's work without giving credit would still be plagiarism.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 11 at 23:05
  • @GoodDeeds That's fair; well maybe for some ungodly reason they got the references mangled as well, but it's really stretching it. I normally paste references as I write text and never directly copy & paste but supposedly approaches could be different there. OTOH, three pages are a lot and there's hardly any valid excuse for that kind of behavior even in abstract math where papers can be very long... Welp. I tried. Redemption still seems very unlikely.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 12 at 13:55
  • @Lodinn: When you say "I normally paste references", do you mean that you paste citations (like bibliography entries), or referenced source text? Oct 12 at 14:20
  • @DanielR.Collins I meant bibliographic entries of course, sorry for the confusion. We're using Word internally and I hate the reference management there; gotten used to just pasting a full bibliographic entry from elsewhere and collating the reference list at the very end. So prior to that final edit pass citations are inline and regex-searchable and while there are probably better solutions, this one works for me.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 12 at 14:32
2
  1. report the guy to the appropriate authorities at your university
  2. find another adviser ASAP
  3. continue your work, but be very careful and go over everything to make sure there's not more suspicious stuff in there
  4. good work catching this, you could have got into serious trouble if you hadn't
-6

I'm only familiar with CS. When something goes into a book, it has become background knowledge for several years. When someone has a new research result, they will try submitting to a conference or journal, instead of waiting for 2 - 10 years to publish in a book. In CS, even journals are not favorable due to long review time.

Therefore, I don't think your PhD advisor, at a prestigious school, would risk his reputation to copy verbatim background knowledge from a book (I admit 3 pages background is too much for a paper). Too little to gain, and too much to loose by doing so.

This is a more likely scenario:

  • prof: undergrad A, write a survey on X
  • A: here it is (copied verbatim many pages from book)

Then he sent to you the survey to you. I'm not saying this is an acceptable behavior, but it's not something worth quitting PhD for. Saying you loose trust for academia is actually too much. You cannot find plagiarized papers even in 3rd-tier conferences.

We only talked once besides a few emails

I'm very surprised a publishable research could be done with so little collaborations. You should talk with your advisor more to understand the situation.

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  • 4
    This is not a helpful answer. Indeed it makes no rational sense for an advisor to plagiarize, and this is why I am so dumbfounded. Yet here we are, it happened, and this was for a paper in a top journal. When I said we only talked once, that is since the incident happened.
    – Jason
    Oct 11 at 23:05
  • The plagiarized pages are in the background, or in the contribution? How many pages in total? if this is true, this incident sounds like 1 over millions to me.
    – qsp
    Oct 12 at 4:54
  • 6
    I think we should take the OP's question at face value rather than telling him that what he says happened didn't actually happen. It may be 1 in a million but that doesn't mean we should only answer questions from the other 999,999. If you have doubts about the OP's version of events they would best be addressed in the comments to the question rather than an answer.
    – JBentley
    Oct 12 at 8:50
  • @qsp It is absolutely crazy, but yes this happened. Just how f*** crazy it is is part of the reason why it's been affecting me so much. How would you react if a co-author pulled this on you, and you found out about it while working on the paper re-submission? Now what if that co-author is also your funding, your recommendation letter writer, your thesis advisor, and your closest professional mentor? What if the department will throw you instead of them under the bus with no hesitation? What if the consequence of this nonsense is you becoming even more isolated after a year of lockdown?
    – Jason
    Oct 12 at 16:53
  • @qsp I haven't made any accusations towards my advisor. I haven't brought up anything that would harm them or their reputation. I haven't made a scene or caused any drama. I'm just thinking about myself: how can I best move forward in my PhD? how can I best handle the emotional impact this is having on me?
    – Jason
    Oct 12 at 16:57
-6

First, I'm wondering why you didn't mention how you determined that three pages were plagiarized. Was the source material well-known in your field and therefore easily recognized? Did something (what?) strike you as odd and cause you to carry out a standard test for plagiarism?

You refer to the incident as plagiarism when the insertion occurred in a working draft, not a submitted manuscript. That's getting ahead of the case.

In my opinion, as a former PhD student and former assistant professor, your self-description of your condition suggests that you are not well-equipped for PhD work at present. This one event, which your advisor says was not a deliberate attempt to take credit for someone else's work, has all but devastated you. I refer to these words:

Now I'm back at feeling uncertain, isolated, and this is literally giving me terrible headaches. My semester is completly [sic] off the rails, my mood has been affected, and it's hard for me to perform right now.

Have you never experienced anything disconcerting before? Compare with some things I had to deal with in a technical job after I had left academia. This is longer than a digression should normally be but without the details, it would be too easy to imagine that I just felt bad for a while. Not so. This was a life or death ordeal involving two healthy and health-focused adults. I found out I had stage 4 cancer, which is generally regarded as unsurvivable, a few weeks after I found out my husband had an inevitably lethal organic brain disease. At least 6 doctors or nurses I encountered in over a year of treatment told me I would not survive the disease. I was in my 40s. I only missed work on chemo days. I went through 9 months of treatment including total hair loss, all-day chemo every three weeks, a portable chemo pump strapped to my torso under my jacket for a total of ten days, and 20 days of morning radiation before my daily 1 hour commute. It ended with two abdominal surgeries classified as "major" performed less than 30 days apart. I told only my immediate boss and he told only his boss. Other than complimenting my hair-cut the first day I wore a wig, none of my coworkers noticed anything different about me during that ordeal. I also arranged for my husband's daily companions and medical care while I was at work, took care of our four large dogs and managed 5 rental units in addition to our home and all of the above. My oncologist advised me not to take a leave of absence so I did not. I didn't consider anything as rash as throwing away my career.

You offered some information about a conversation you had with your advisor after you detected the plagiarism:

"I've brought up the issue with my advisor, who claimed it was an accidental mistake." I doubt they used the term "accidental mistake."

A little later on you wrote: "Whether or not this was a mistake, I feel hurt, cheated, and I have lost trust in my advisor."

If it was a mistake, why would you feel hurt and cheated and lose trust in your advisor?

You seem not to believe it was a mistake. That means you didn't trust your advisor before this event. Why not believe it was a mistake? Please follow along with this analysis: Why would your advisor jeopardize tenure by pasting in 3 pages of someone else's writings given how easily journals can discover plagiarism and given that journal editors and reviewers routinely perform a check for plagiarism when evaluating new submissions?

In studying the nature and scope of plagiarism in academia, I didn't come across cases in which a block of stolen text ran for more than a few sentences. Three pages would have been a stand-out event.

Why is it impossible for the problematic three pages to have been inserted and left in place by mistake? Here are three scenarios:

• Can you consider that your advisor might have come across an article that contained some relevant facts or figures and pasted it into your shared draft with the intention of cutting it down to a sentence or two, enclosing the selected material quotation marks and citing the authors? Simply forgetting to edit and format a reference doesn't mean plagiarism was intended or accomplished. I'd call it a mistake.

Maybe the copied material was supposed to have been pasted into a different document, namely one that served as scrapbook of things he or she wanted to read and think about over a weekend? A mistake.

Alternatively, could your advisor have assigned the work he was going to do to a new student or an undergrad, and that person could have pasted in 3 pages from another paper? If so, your advisor might have decided not to discuss the incident with other students. Letting a novice work on a paper was a mistake.

What is more likely? That your advisor was too lazy to write what had to be written and too stupid to just ask you to write it, and both to the degree that he or she was risking the loss of a lifetime of income for doing almost nothing rather than handling a moment of weakness like any normal professor would?

You also wrote "...I'm dreading to have another talk about this and next steps."

Why dread a future conversation if there's no obvious reason it must take place? That is: • Why do you expect to talk about the insertion of 3rd party material in a rough draft again? • Why do you have to discuss next steps? Without any discussion next steps are unambiguous: The draft is in your hands. Determine what it needs, bounce that off your advisor, ask them if they want to meet and/or discuss anything before you get back to work on the paper. Then get back to work.

Your options and their advisability, as I see them:

  1. Drop out if you want to. It's hard or impossible to get back in.

  2. If you stay, the changes you should make are in your interpretations of the behavior of others and the intensity of your reactions to those you deem "beyond the pale." a. Don't change fields without doing that. b. Don't change fields unless you want to flush all your prior work down the drain because you don't believe some errant material in a draft was not intended to remain there when the manuscript was submitted for peer review.

  3. Don't seek a co-advisor to complicate your and their and your advisor's lives.

Do you realize that you ruled out the most sensible thing to do if one's advisor is revealed as a plagiarist? It goes like this.

  1. Discuss with the department chair or, if preferable, a campus ombudsman or -woman whose role is to help in such a situation. If these authorities agree that your advisor is a plagiarist, request a new advisor from within your department. Request one who can supervise your work in the field you're in now. You'll probably have a new advisor within days. Of course, if the chair or an ombudsperson believes you got the whole thing wrong, all bets are off.
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  • 4
    "In my opinion, as a former PhD student and former assistant professor, your self-description of your condition suggests that you are not well-equipped for PhD work at present." I seriously hope you are a former assistant professor in the sense that you are not a professor now. However you have a talent, in condensing so much bullshit in one sentence. Then I kept on reading, and instead of considering yourself VERY LUCKY for having had minimal side effects from the treatment you received, you blame others for not being so lucky as you. Curious thinking. Good luck!
    – EarlGrey
    yesterday
  • 2
    I'm wondering why you didn't mention how you determined that three pages were plagiarized. OP did. See first comment, highly upvoted, below the question.
    – henning
    yesterday
  • 1
    Also, I'm sorry you went through a lot of suffering, but the detailed description of it is completely irrelevant to the question at hand, and frankly, a bit condescensing as well. I suggest removing it completely.
    – henning
    yesterday
  • 2
    @DesdeCuando I'm not sure you're well-equipped to be answering questions on here mate.
    – Jason
    yesterday
  • "What is more likely? That your advisor was too lazy to write what had to be written and too stupid to just ask you to write it ... than handling a moment of weakness like any normal professor would?" Yes that is precisely the issue here. My advisor did no handle that moment of weakness like any normal professor would. I haven't provided much detail, but yes the plagiarism did happen and it wasn't any of the other things you described.
    – Jason
    yesterday

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