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I submitted my master thesis two years ago and I got a passing grade. Now I got a call from the university stating that my supervisor has found plagiarism in some pages of the thesis. They told me that they will send me a letter and I have to give my statement, and then the case will be submitted to the committee and they will decide what to do.

My question is: what are the criteria for grading a master thesis? If the supervisor already passed me two years ago, did he not check for plagiarism then?

I don't know what to do.

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    @Zabia It may not be possible to know what parts you are going to be accused of plagiarizing, but if it's your own work you should know that you plagiarized. Did you?
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 22, 2023 at 16:26
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    I'm compelled to point out that the comment interaction so far resembles any of the thirty or so plagiarism cases that I deal with each term. Mar 22, 2023 at 17:15
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    "If the supervisor already passed me two years ago, did he not check for plagiarism then?" -- If you drive past a police car, and the cop does not pull you over, then that does not mean that you cannot later be arrested for driving without a license. Mar 22, 2023 at 20:40
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    @Dr.Snoopy That's a red herring. The main point is that the OP doesn't outright say "But I didn't plagiarize!" He is beating around the bush and bringing up points like "they didn't check 2 years ago, why are they checking now?" Anyone familiar with this kind of stuff already knows what happened.
    – Nelson
    Mar 23, 2023 at 1:42
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    @Polygorial That is only true if you interpret the question as "what process will the university follow?", but the question just asks "What now?" and says "I don't know what to do", so it's reasonable to interpret the question as asking for advice on what the OP should do in this situation. In that case it absolutely matters whether they are guilty or innocent.
    – kaya3
    Mar 24, 2023 at 1:24

6 Answers 6

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What happens next depends on the policies of your institution. However, it's likely within their power to revoke a degree for substantial academic misconduct; they may also have options for lesser penalties. No one but the committee evaluating your case can make a determination of what your consequences will be.

If you didn't plagiarize, you will have to make a strong case in your favor.

If you did plagiarize, then that's your fault. Just because you got past your advisor the first time without being detected doesn't absolve you of misconduct. You can argue that you made a mistake, or didn't understand what you did was plagiarism, or that the plagiarism was a minor part of your whole work, but it's up to the committee to decide if they believe you and if it matters.

It's important to know that plagiarism means taking the words/ideas of others without credit. Plagiarism is not a "similarity score" or similar automated document comparison algorithm. If words/phrases in your thesis overlap with another document because they are standard phrases in your field or coincidental matches, that isn't plagiarism unless you actually took the phrases without credit (citations, quotations). Similarly, if you took another document and edited the sentence structures or replaced words with synonyms but did not credit the original document, or simply failed to acknowledge the source of ideas in your thesis, it's possible to plagiarize without any text overlap.

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    While it’s true in principle that coincidental overlaps do not constitute plagiarism, the practical truth is that plagiarism is what the investigating board decide it is. It is by no means unheard of for people to have their degrees revoked based on coincidental similarities, sometimes with works the person wasn’t even familiar with when writing. In such cases, that person did plagiarise, because that’s the ruling the university arrived at – regardless of whether they actually plagiarised anything. Mar 23, 2023 at 14:13
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Sure, errors occur, of different levels of seriousness. I've seen a couple plagiarism cases here at Academia.SE where the ineptitude of the accusation led me to believe that the degree itself should have no actual value (e.g., instructors who believe that plagiarism==similarity index). I believe it's far more common that cases of quite obvious plagiarism are ignored in order to not create a "fight". The value of a degree relies substantially on trust in the institution that issues it, and that trust includes the institution competently investigating plagiarism.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 23, 2023 at 14:25
  • I asked the supervisor and he told me that there are some pages which I didnt put the sources and when I saw he was correct but these pages are not directly relates to my thesis. I took these things as to ubderstand the Reader the background but didnt claim as my own work or not it is relates to my thesis work. So now my question is that what should I write as he asked me to give my statement and then he will decide what to do.
    – Zabia
    Mar 24, 2023 at 12:32
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    @Zabia I'm having trouble understanding your comments. I don't see how pages in your thesis can be not directly related to your thesis: all of your background introductory/discussion content is as much part of your thesis as your results. If you've provided tables and images from someone else without a citation that seems quite bad to me.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 24, 2023 at 13:12
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    @Zabia There are no magic words to "get out of it" - why is it so hard to recognize that your misconduct has consequences? Likely the best you can do is to admit that you did something wrong and ask for the opportunity to correct it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 24, 2023 at 14:07
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what is the criteria for grading the Master Thesis?

You'll have to refer to the rules of your university. There are no universal criteria.

If the supervisor already passed me two years ago, did he not check for plagiarism then?

Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't really matter. The author of a thesis would be liable for plagiarism in it, no matter how or when it was discovered.

I don't know what to do.

I would recommend finding someone to advise you who is familiar with the disciplinary process at this particular institution. Something like an Ombuds or Student Affairs office might be able to connect you with someone. Or if there is another faculty member or administrator there whom you trust.

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    I think this is the most constructive advice. The OP has to find out what the detailed rules are they are accused of breaking (and the institution should provide that to them if asked). They also need to wait for the details of the accusation - they'd can't defend against a vague claim and it's a bit farcical sending someone a notice they're accused of something without any detail, but such is bureaucracy everywhere. Mar 23, 2023 at 14:05
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I have been involved in a similar situation. A student plagiarized portions of their thesis in ways that should have been obvious to the major professor, but this professor likely didn't carefully read the thesis and the committee passed the student. I'm not really sure how this happened because the thesis was a bit of a mess and had numerous other problems unrelated to the plagiarism, but somehow they passed the student. A couple years later the plagiarism was noticed and an institutional ethics committee from the university requested a meeting with the student. They required that the thesis be revised to remove the plagiarism and the student was given a two-month deadline to submit a revised thesis. This was difficult for the student since they had moved on to another job, but they did complete the revision and, later, a second revision requested by the committee. Finally, the committee accepted the second revision and the student kept their degree.

As others have said, this procedure will likely vary among institutions, but this is one example of what can happen.

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This can be scary. You need legal advice from an attorney who has dealt with such cases, preferably at the same university.

You need at least two items from your university. You need to review their definitions and standards for plagiarism. You also need to review their procedures for reviewing cases of alleged plagiarism. Both of these should be obtainable from a Dean's office or other administrator.

Don't try to second guess the specific claims. Wait until you get them and review them yourself and then with your attorney.

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    You have entered a policy driven process. This means your faculty must follow the policies and procedures of the university exactly. If they deviate from those then you have a cause of legal action. Do not rush into anything without advice of your attorney. Mar 23, 2023 at 22:42
  • 1/2 This may or may not be a good idea based on location and culture. I am a research fellow in Germany. I have been part of the review board numerous times. We do not accuse students of plagiarism lightly because A) we want our students to succeed (statistics) and B) sheds a bad light the normal evaluation procedure (reputation).
    – Hermann
    Mar 25, 2023 at 17:59
  • 2/2 Sometimes a student works sloppy, makes mistakes, does not cite properly. During the review process, student is questioned. It them may become obvious that i.e. a paragraph should have been quoted instead of cited. The accusations may be dropped. However if the student involves an attorney or even threatens to take the case to court, we strongly believe in malicious intent rather than negligience.
    – Hermann
    Mar 25, 2023 at 18:02
  • My response is for American universities. No one has to threaten to take a case to court, universities are accustomed to this happening. Universities that do not follow their own procedures are likely to either lose the case or simply be ordered to go back and do so. Mar 26, 2023 at 18:10
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I have my own views on plagiarism and they are not universally shared.

I believe that true plagiarism needs to be an intentional act. I read something and decide that I want to present it as my own original thoughts. That is pretty hard to prove. But it must be avoided if scientific principles are to be followed. Among other things, it breaks the chain of context provided by the original, which can lead to errors later. That is independent, however, of whether sanctions are warranted.

This follows a general rule that ethical transgressions require intent.

One reason that it can be hard to prove is that it is about ideas, not words. It is possible to plagiarize using exactly none of the original words. The intention can be invisible. So, in particular, paraphrasing an original doesn't make plagiarism go away.

But there are also two kinds of "apparent" plagiarism. They are problematic, but don't involve the same sort of intention. And they may be sanctionable or not.

The first is not knowing the rules at all and so not knowing that you have broken them, even if you do something so bold as to copy-paste actually expression (which can also fall afoul of copyrights, but that is a different issue). In reality, if this is the case, someone has failed in teaching you the rules. It is a "we don't know what we don't know" sort of situation. Some people just grok the rules, but others assume that everyone groks them and so this sort of unintentional, obvious, "apparent" plagiarism can be easy to charge and hard to avoid.

And note that copying words can easily make this sort of apparent plagiarism look like a blatant, intentional, act, when, indeed it was, but the "intention" wasn't actually to break an unknown rule, just to copy words blindly.

This sort of thing is what plagiarism checkers look for - copied words, never mind the ideas.

As an aside, I've had student not know some things that seem blindingly obvious to others and that should have been taught. In this case the student's misunderstanding was also reinforced by other factors. But at base, it was bad teaching that led him to error. He hated me for a while for correcting his issues, thinking I was lying to him. And it took me a while to understand that the underlying problem wasn't his.

The other sort of "apparent" plagiarism is just sloppy research practice. "Yes, I know the rules and intend to follow them, but messed up in my writing (focused on other things) and missed the necessary citation. Oh, expletive, I messed up." Sloppy research is, in my view a somewhat (not a lot) lesser offense than deliberate plagiarism. It leads to other issues as well as this one, of course.

I don't know, of course, what you did, or what is being charged. Whether it is deemed serious enough to cancel your degree or not is up to the committee. I expect, however, that at a minimum you might be asked to re-write the thesis taking better care to avoid sloppiness and to follow the rules.

When some publication appears to contain plagiarized material, even if that was unintentional, it needs to be corrected. Sometimes removal is required, sometimes editing might suffice. But, even with "benign" cases, it is important that the public record itself be corrected. But, as I said earlier, it is vital that the "chain of context" be maintained in scholarly writing and even unintentional and "apparent" plagiarism requires correction.

However, and this is why I write this post, I think it is incumbent on any research advisor or supervisor to assure that their students understand the rules. It is simple enough to promulgate them, but students don't coming into a degree program knowing everything that others think they should know. Make a specific point of teaching the rules of the game before you start to play.


There is also another possibility that doesn't involve plagiarism of any kind, but might be misinterpreted as such. That is, the author had no knowledge of the earlier work at all, and reproduced it independently and innocently. That is pretty incredibly unlikely in case the words match, of course. It is also possible that it is a case of sloppy scholarship. "Ah, I shoulda, coulda found that if I'd looked harder."

Independent simultaneous work is pretty common, since the state of the art in a field advances on a front that is known to many. So many might be asking the same questions simultaneously.


Some commenters have suggested that I make a recommendation about what you should do in this situation. It is hard to be definite, since we don't know what is actually being charged or whether it meets the definition of true plagiarism or not.

Once you know more you have some options.

If you did (intentionally) plagiarize you can beg forgiveness, and (hopefully) honestly promise to do better. But the judgement may be harsh if the evidence is strong.

If you (honestly) didn't know the rules you can state that, though whether it would be accepted or not is up to the committee of judges. In that case, they may share blame, but are unlikely (sadly) to acknowledge that.

If you were sloppy in your research or writing, then you can admit to that and it may (or not) gain you a bit. Sloppy research isn't terribly rare, sadly.

In any case, you need to correct the thesis, though that may be moot if the committee rejects any appeal.

You may just have to accept the consequences. Sorry. But you have little control here.

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Assuming that you did not plagiarize, it's best to not engage with this process at university and instead start a legal process against the university. Years after students have left university, they cannot be expected to take part in any proceedings at university. The university should be required to have a far greater burden of proof to take away your degree than a mere suspicion that you committed plagiarism and you not willing to take part in their proceedings.

While this should be a slam dunk legal case, it's best to consult with a lawyer. The lawyer can write a letter to the university making the threat of legal action against the university should they go ahead with their proceedings and take away your degree.

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    I am not a lawyer, but I am not sure there is grounds to start a legal proceeding until they have revoked your degree. At which point, this whole thing will be much more difficult. Second, you recommend that you shouldn't "be expected to take part in any proceedings at university [sic]" but instead spending time in legal proceedings. This sounds much more complex than just engaging with the academic proceedings (for free!). Mar 24, 2023 at 22:19
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    This is very dangerous advice. There is a good chance the university has greater proof and the case may not be as clearcut as one thinks. A university absolutely can expect cooperation in an academic process involving your academic degree and the cut off times are very long (at least ten years in my neck of the woods). If you go the legal route as suggested you have burned all bridges without even knowing where they lead to. Mar 25, 2023 at 6:56
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    It is also an advice based on next-to-no information: OP did not tell us the name of country (or the State, if it is in the US). Assuming, for concreteness, that the university is located in the US, the laws and court decisions on revocation of advanced degrees vary greatly state-to-state. Calling such a legal case a "slam-dunk" is irresponsible. Lastly, large universities tend to have deep pockets and numerous lawyers to handle legal cases. Even if the case is "slam-dunk" as you say, in the end the plaintiff (who might be a PhD student) might loose the case simply due lack of funds. Mar 26, 2023 at 14:42

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