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About a month ago, I read a new article published by my previous advisor and three other researchers in a top journal. I noticed that part of it uses part of my master's thesis, only written as if they are the ones who did it.

It is the second time he is doing that, only that last time I didn't know my rights. I wrote them, asking them to add a citation to my thesis. My advisor refused. He was claiming to "forget" citing me and that it was too late to make any changes. When I reminded him of the first time he "forgot" to mention me, he said that he paid me a scholarship, so my work is his (meaning he will do it again and again). Of course, I was not very happy with this disrespectful answer. I was also very unhappy to understand that he didn't let me finish my masters (he kept me for 4 years!) because he knew that my work will become "his" one day.

Just a little background - I come from a small country, and my field is very specific. One bad word from this professor can ruin any chance to build a career at a local university. My current head of the group (I am doing a postdoc in another country) told me to write to the journal editor, but she also said she doesn't think I will get any reply.

I wrote to the editor, along with a link to my masters' thesis and the parts that he copied. I didn't expect any answer. However, he replied very quickly and told me he and the other editors see it as a very serious case – They want to contact my advisor and change the article. I got panicked and asked him not to do that, explaining that it can ruin my possible future career. He proposed a Zoom meeting. Then, he proposed that I speak with other past-students of his, and that we write a letter together, so it will not be personal, only from me. He emphasized that he can't leave the article like that because it is a significant plagiarism (3 paragraphs + graph). I agreed.

The problem is that most of his students did not finish (they either changed an advisor or left before finishing). The one who did finish managed to do it because another professor pressured this advisor, so there was nothing serious he could use.

I am currently in an advanced stage of getting a research position in another local university. I try to postpone the action from this journal as long as possible, hopefully, to be after somebody from the other university will surely ask him about me. But:

  1. It is not serious not answering for such a long time
  2. I don't know if I can postpone their letter to this past advisor long enough

I know I should not have written this message in the first place. However, I did, and now it is too late. So the question is – what can I do?

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    "I know I should not have written this message in the first place." Incorrect, you did the right thing. Dec 3, 2022 at 13:31
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    Ethics aside in your f-ed up situation, what did you hope to achieve by contacting the journal? I can only see two outcomes: what happened which was quite likely as it sounds like serious plagiarism, and to be ignored. If you haven't yet, discuss with the PI who made you do this, and ask her for advice as she's surely closer to the situation than people here. Dec 3, 2022 at 16:03
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    Perhaps the rogue professor will have less power when their actions are revealed. Bullies need to be stood up to.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 3, 2022 at 16:07
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    @gnometorule > "what did you hope to achieve by contacting the journal?" sounds an awful lot like victim-blaming. Maybe the OP needs to make the situation clearer to the editor - these days all sorts of things are on-line (including theses: "a link to my masters' thesis"): the journal doesn't need to identify the complainant to the perpetrator, maybe it was flagged up by a plagiarism search-bot...
    – Lou Knee
    Dec 3, 2022 at 21:40
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    Are you sure that your adviser will be able to trace the journal's action back to you? If your thesis is publicly accessible, in principle anyone (perhaps even an automated plagiarism checker) could have noticed the plagiarism. You could ask the editor of the journal to keep your involvement confidential.
    – ajd
    Dec 4, 2022 at 1:31

3 Answers 3

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First, I think you have done the right thing in bringing this to the editor. A serial plagiarizer and abuser of students should be stopped.

Second, you can't control the situation anymore. The editor might not be convincible to delay an update and the article needs to be corrected.

Third, the only people that can protect you from this professor either have the same power over them that the professor has over you: a department head or dean, perhaps. But you would need to bring the case to them forcefully.

Fourth, while the power of that professor might be enough and the system corrupt enough to deny you a career at that "local" place (which is what I think you are concerned about), I'm guessing that a career there would be one of your worst options. If they have power to stop your entry, they still would have power afterwards. The best case is that you are mistaken about that, but no one here can say.

Finally, your best option might be to explore options elsewhere using resources such as the PI you mention in a comment. If an institution is made aware of the entire situation from people (the PI, the editor...) that can be trusted, then the professor's attempts would probably fail and they would face disgrace. Their actions can only succeed in darkness.

Good luck with this. You are, at the moment, a bit stuck. Use what options are open to you and don't depend on things that you don't have control over.

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    Thank you so much for your great comments! As you recommended, I will get in touch with the PI tomorrow morning. I believe she will support me. I also spoke with the editor-in-chief again, and he promised to talk with the steering committee about the potentially retaliatory behaviour of this advisor. I believe this can solve everything.
    – Cateded Ur
    Dec 4, 2022 at 20:47
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    Important: Before you take this further (and I also believe you should!) make sure that you have all relevant documentation securely archived, and easily at hand. This includes not only the links to, and copies of, your thesis and other work, and the plagiarizing articles, but also any relevant e-mails or other archived communications with this professor. Specifically, if the conversation took place in e-mail, any comments to the effect of, "I paid you, so your work is mine." That is an extraordinarily incriminating statement.
    – Anonymous
    Dec 5, 2022 at 4:11
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    @Anonymous I believe the professor in question is more likely to double down on that stance than to hide it when openly confronted. If this view is widely acceptable in OP's country, one simply does not get to both be ethical and not having their job security threatened by this kind of people. Good advice though.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 5, 2022 at 11:08
  • Can you comment on the part "I paid you for your work, so the results are mine", is this not true? Dec 6, 2022 at 7:58
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    @AndrewSavinykh, it can be true if the person worked under the close supervision and the "worker" added no intellectual content to the work. You can hire people to gather data, for example. Universities "pay" professors who do research, which is quite different. The university doesn't add intellectual content.
    – Buffy
    Dec 6, 2022 at 11:59
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(As usual for me I've written this off-line, so not taken into account your later comments. I hope it's still useful food for thought!)

I believe you have done the right thing in the bigger picture, by trying to expose your former advisor as a plagiarist and exploiter. Unfortunately, as you are finding out, the system treats juniors that raise such questions as disposable footsoldiers giving them no protection and minimal support. Thus these situations can turn into a nasty mess...

I'm afraid I can't add much to the other answer, beyond a few things to think about:

  1. You say it is a Master's thesis, and that you are now on a postdoc; what is the state of your PhD? Until that is completed (submitted, graduated, certificate in your hand) then protecting that should be your first priority.*
  2. Consider carefully and calmly what power this guy actually has over you - bullies will bluster and exaggerate. His position is probably much weaker than you think. I agree your PI is probably the best person to turn to - as sympathetic and available - but you will need to share clearly the whole situation with her. I assume she is your first reference for the position you are chasing; maybe she can mention that your former advisor cannot be relied on to provide a fair reference for you? (That's a whole Academia.SE question right there!)
  1. I've no idea what the journal is playing at: they have his manuscript, and the thesis is online, hopefully with the proper timestamp, so they have all they need to demonstrate plagiarism. Similarly, other students (published) theses are presumably also accessible on-line, so it should be easy for anyone, including the journal, to check for any plagiarism from those. The editor of any "top journal" has no excuse for being unaware of the way things are (What researchers think about the culture they work in, 15 January 2020), so I'm gobsmacked that he's apparently trying to expose you as the complainant, opening to victimisation (retribution). I doubt that's malice, more likely a badly thought-out procedure by the publishers, but the upshot seems to be that not only are you at risk of retaliation yourself but are also being used to entrap other former students. I'm not sure I'd trust the guy.

* Because even if this whole business makes you go off and do something completely different, you still don't want a multi-year gap (or worse, multi-year failure) on your CV. You don't want it and you don't deserve it.

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    "the difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no practice." The post did the theoretically the correct thing. My personal problem with academia is theoretical and practical "right things" have almost nothing to do with each other. This is a perfect example. Perverse incentives, perverse power structures nepotism, tribal warfare... It's rampant and it's disgusting.
    – user156207
    Dec 5, 2022 at 15:29
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Sometimes the right thing to do is hard, but it must still be done.

The right thing to do is report this, which you have already done, and allow the editor of the journal handle it from there. You may well end up being victimised for that at your current institution, which is a terrible situation I have been in in the past for bringing malfeasance to light. Unfortunately, you should still aspire to do what's right, and you will come out the other side all the stronger for it.

However, this says far more about the institution you work at and those other local universities who you believe would deny you work based on this. Any respectable institution would see a young researcher taking such a difficult action in the the defence of academic integrity a huge, green tick at interview stage - as long as they handled it properly.

Given that, I don't think aiming for a position at these local institutions serves your long term career well at all. If they tolerate this sort of behaviour, and even try and suppress reports of it, then they likely have, or will develop, a terrible reputation internationally. At which point your reputation will suffer by osmosis.

Get out at the earliest opportunity and try and get a job with a respectable institution. I know for some people this may not be easy, but in the long term I think anyone would be better leaving acadaemia than working at institutions like this.

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  • The institute I work at right now is beyond incredible. I feel fortunate to work here. After finishing the Ms, I left the country and did my PhD abroad. The university I aim for and even the department are entirely different from the one I left. But still, as the country is small (6 universities+ one academic institute), you can't avoid knowing everybody. But of course, if I cannot get the job I want there, I can stay abroad and come only to visit every now and then.
    – Cateded Ur
    Dec 6, 2022 at 21:00
  • @CatededUr - I don't want to invalidate your lived experience, but any university that would let this behaviour go unpunished is far from incredible. Dec 6, 2022 at 21:52
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    I left the university in which I did the MSc, right after finishing. Since then, I haven't gone back to my country. I try to get a post at another university with completely different people, which I think are more honest. My current PI, who had never even visited my country, is the one who advised me to write to the journal. I am now in Europe, where such things can't just pass and be ignored.
    – Cateded Ur
    Dec 7, 2022 at 7:54

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