40

A few years ago, I discovered that someone (Mr. A) had copied almost the entirety of his master thesis report from a course report I submitted to the same department two years earlier. Mr. A copied my report word by word including the figures and the captions. He defended his thesis, graduated and now has an engineering job with a good title at a large respectable company, which he probably wouldn’t have gotten without the degree. I confronted Mr. A on one occasion and he confirmed that it was intentional.

I have solid proof of my work and the figures.

Mr. A worked on his thesis under the supervision of the same professor and TA who supervised my coursework, two years before. Three years ago, I contacted the professor and provided him with my proof of Mr. A’s plagiarism. However, the professor had merely asked him to rewrite the chapters using his own words. The TA informed me separately that Mr. A obtained access to the source code I submitted as part of the coursework. So I suspect that he plagiarised my code. When I asked the professor for Mr. A’s code, he refused.

I would like some guidance and help with deciding the right thing to do in this case. I am obviously concerned about my own reputation as I don't wish to harm my chances with this company. I am also concerned about the legal repercussions, even though I am in possession of solid proof. These were the main reasons I haven't taken actions until now.

I have been considering reporting him to his superior at work, but I am also open to other suggestions.

Some minor details that may or may not have a weigh in the case:

  • The university in question is a top engineering school in the EU.
  • Mr. A and the professor come from the same country (both speak the same language).
  • About six years have passed by since the incident.
  • The professor in question didn't reply to a request of recommendation I sent him a while ago (for a different purpose). I suspect it has to do with the plagiarism issue I brought up to his attention.
  • Just to be clear, this is not driven by any revenge thoughts or personal vendetta. My concern is that there is an anomaly, an unfairness, an unjust situation that touches me personally that needs to be corrected.

Updates

  • 13/04: I sent a formal request to the officer in the Ethics Committee asking to be connected with the right people who can investigate this case impartially and independently from the department's sphere of influence.
9
  • 16
    Just so I understand this correctly: Your only attempt at contacting the university was through the professor who supervised the thesis (and the TA)?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 11, 2023 at 14:46
  • 4
    Related, though a less extreme case: When to give up seeking justice after you've been plagiarized?
    – cag51
    Apr 12, 2023 at 3:19
  • 11
    I consider that work a personal property which I put considerable effort and thoughtfulness to get it done. It took time from me, that I could've spent on other equally or more meaningful matters. It is a work I've done with integrity and I'm proud of it. To see somebody else steal it coldly and claim it as their own material to get a master degree can only affect me. As I wrote in my comment below, chaos begins with a broken window that doesn't get repaired i.e. the route to corruption starts often with the "let it go" mentality. I feel that it is my obligation as an individual to fix it.
    – Theo
    Apr 12, 2023 at 11:19
  • 3
    Did Mr. A publish his report publicly? In some cases and locales, this might go beyond plagiarism into the realm of copyright infringement (particularly if source code is involved).
    – bta
    Apr 13, 2023 at 2:06
  • 1
    Do you have some contacts with your classmates? Maybe some find themselves in the same situation as you and you may be more powerful together. (And maybe some in the situation of Mr. A.)
    – dominecf
    Apr 13, 2023 at 8:36

4 Answers 4

54

As the professor in question is obviously supporting Mr. A, your report to him was void and at worst helped them to cover their tracks. Therefore, I would suggest that you report the incident to some uninvolved authority at the university. Ideally this would be an academic-integrity officer or similar, but it can also be the responsible department or faculty, etc. Importantly, this should be nobody with ties to the professor – when in doubt, go one level higher. Also, unless you are contacting an academic-integrity officer or similar, first make sure that you got the right person before you reveal any details.

When you report something, mind that you are merely presenting evidence or hinting at things to look at and it’s the university’s job to figure out the truth. There is little point in getting overly accusatory, emotional, etc.; focus on the evidence.

I strongly advise against contacting the company. The problem with such a case is that your evidence very likely hinges on data on university servers and similar. Thus only the university has the means to reasonably investigate this. Also, you can contact the university solely to report a strong suspicion (which should be legally safe), whereas a report to the company can be considered libel or similar. Consider the possible cases of the company reacting to your report:

  • They do not act on your report because they cannot evaluate the evidence and wait for the university to do so. In that case your report achieved nothing.
  • They do act on your report and the university revokes Mr. A’s degree. In that case, your report only made things happen a bit earlier.
  • They do act on your report, but the university does not revoke Mr. A’s degree for whatever reason. In that case, you may be in legal trouble.
10
  • 17
    @Theo Two identical reports by itself is not very meaningful. Maybe you copied from them. Maybe it was a joint project and you each contributed but together decided to submit each separately for your individual purposes at different times. Of course you know none of these things happened, but someone investigating has to consider alternative explanations to make sure they don't take the wrong action, and it can be a high burden of proof.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:50
  • 8
    The quality of the evidence is not a concern. Luckily the university keeps records of submissions. I submitted my report two years before Mr. A's thesis report. There is even a witness, e-mail exchanges, etc. The source can be easily confirmed.
    – Theo
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:59
  • 4
    @Theo: Good for you. But mind that this only applies to the university. As I said, they have to evaluate the evidence. (Also beware that they will delete their records eventually. It’s already been eight years since the first relevant submission, IIUC.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 12, 2023 at 5:42
  • 2
    @BryanKrause The very clear sequence of events is strong evidence of the plagiarism here. Of course, if the university tries to hide it, there is not much OP can do. Apr 13, 2023 at 11:24
  • 3
    @BryanKrause Grad students must complete a course on research methodology before starting their degree projects. This course includes material about the ethics of conducting research and writing reports. Students must even sign documents in which they commit to respect rules including avoidance of plagiarism. I doubt that it is a unique procedure. So at this point, it should've been crystal clear to all parties what it means to continue on some prior work to improve it or to use it as a reference point. It's not the professor's job to teach them the difference between good and bad practice.
    – Theo
    Apr 13, 2023 at 13:55
14

Since years have passed since the incident, it may be that nothing you do will have any effect. And you should take care not to have claims of slander made against you, even when not warranted.

But, you could, at least, inform the department at the university at which this occurred, probably through the current department head. It is their responsibility to address this.

You could also let it go, realizing that the world in general and academia in particular has some ethical issues.

However, if you inform the university, use documented evidence only to back up your claims. Conversations from long ago are too easy to discount.

Once you make such things public, however, the fallout can't be predicted. You will have little, if any, control over outcomes once you start the process.

2
  • In Germany there seems to be a tendency to check whether politicians (that someone doesn't like) commited acts of plagiarism years earlier to get their PhD, for example. And sometimes someone gets found out. Twenty years later or more, with bad consequences.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 11, 2023 at 10:39
  • @gnasher729: And more often than not, with no consequences.
    – user111388
    Sep 13, 2023 at 12:28
9

You can escalate with your university - that might mean contacting a department chair or someone in charge of your former graduate program, or might involve contacting a third party at the university that can help you with ethics complaints (such as an "ombuds").

From your story, at this point it sounds like your advisor is defending the student. That might be because they're "in on it", that is, that they've known all along, or that they're just covering for the former student because they don't want to deal with the hassle. Either way, you should be aware that your accusation is likely now to become an accusation against both of them. Hopefully you're now sufficiently secure in your current position that you aren't reliant on recommendations or mentorship from this former program.

It's also quite possible that your accusation will be seen (unfairly to you) as an indictment against the entire program or university; this is very unfortunate, because it puts the people who are supposed to investigate these things on the side of the defense. If that sort of corruption shows up, it's unfortunately probably not worth it to you personally to pursue it, sad as that is; if there were more systematic evidence it might be worth getting others involved, but there's likely no legal benefit to you (you'd have to show that you are harmed, not that someone else benefitted).

I wouldn't hold out a lot of hope that much will happen, as unfair as that is. Provide the evidence you have, not your emotions and feelings. You are likely overattributing the importance of this work for Mr A's current job: the degree might have helped them get the job initially, but most likely the content of the thesis was not important and if the company they work for likes their work, they'll probably see this as all some academic trivia far from their concern. I certainly would not raise it with them directly.

If it were me, I'd be more concerned with the masters supervisor's role, and that's where I'd want any investigation to focus.

9
  • I can't confirm the inner motivations of the professor. The only tangible thing is that I don't think the measures taken by the professor are proportionate to the gravity of the matter. He is highly regarded in the department and bypassing him to a higher authority is a tough decision. Plagiarism happen all the time, those who choose to report it shall by no means be seen as challenging the integrity of a whole program or institutions. The company may be oblivious to the content of the thesis. However it was effectively the step-stone to get the job. Trying to understate that is unfair.
    – Theo
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:11
  • 9
    @Theo I'm not understating the gravity of the academic misconduct, which is very serious. The advice I am giving, though, is that academic misconduct just doesn't matter much to companies. They give jobs to people who do the work they are hired to do and make the company money. They aren't generally concerned with making sure the people who most deserve it have a position, they don't hire to make the world fair. If you were talking about a CEO or scientific head of a company, maybe it would matter for reputation. Some underling with masters degree just isn't important to the outside world.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:29
  • 4
    It's important to you and is certainly understandable that it's important to you because your work was stolen. A company doesn't owe you any debt and their job is not to make sure you are treated fairly. To the company, you're likely to be seen as a nuisance if you complain. You'll be creating work for them.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:29
  • 1
    @Theo " This can have severe repercussions, once revealed, and may harm the company's reputation." he has been employed for many years at this point and are apparently the company is happy with his work. that's all they really care about. maybe they would care about obvious fraud, like saying they have x degree but they really don't, but maybe not and regardless this is many steps beyond that. they have the degree and are performing fine and most places aren't going to upset the applecart and open themselves up to lawsuits for no reason.
    – eps
    Apr 12, 2023 at 0:45
  • 3
    I wouldn’t be quite as pessimistic about the company not caring about the degree. Since this is in engineering, Mr. A. could e.g. be required by law to have his degree to do the work he does. That being said, the company simply does not have the capacity to evaluate the asker’s evidence, so it’s at best pointless to contact them.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 12, 2023 at 5:50
8

If you would like to pursue action via the University, you're likely going to need to route through a misconduct office with your complaint. You should have clear and unambiguous documented proof of plagiarism if you do this. If you like you can also route through the Department chair, though I think this is less likely to be productive. A Dept. chair doesn't ultimately have the ability to revoke degrees, which sounds to me like the commensurate penalty associated with the kind of blatant plagiarism you're describing if you can prove it.

I have been considering reporting him to his superior at work

Absolutely do not do this unless you are working at the same company and the person directly impacts your day-to-day work negatively. You probably have zero personal interest in how this organization conducts its business. Say, best case scenario, this person's boss takes your unsolicited criticism of their employee seriously. They're probably still going to want an official determination that the employee committed misconduct from an institution better equipped to assess that...that is to say, the academic institution that awarded the degree.

I am obviously concerned about my own reputation as I don't wish to harm my chances with this company.

What you're describing is that you have external incentives (a possible job, customer, good relationship with this person's employer, etc.). Nobody is going to be able to answer for you what the risks of pursuing academic discipline over this matter are or whether they're worth taking on. If you report someone committing plagiarism against you to your University, that results in academic discipline against the perpetrator, and their employer subsequently doesn't want to conduct business with you...is that an organization you'd like to work for anyway? Not an easy question, but one you have to answer yourself.

4
  • 4
    Harm doesn't always come in a direct manner. But if you and Mr. A, apply to the same position, he might get the job. If you're working in the same organization, Mr. A might get a promotion that you were expecting. I think there is prevailing culture of just let it go. But if we let it go, where does it stop? It just becomes chaos, and cheating, plagiarism, unethical methods become the norm.
    – Theo
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:28
  • 3
    Why do you insist on capitalising those words? They are just regular nouns.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 12, 2023 at 11:53
  • @Wrzlprmft I rolled back rather quickly because I saw some small chunk of material deleted that I'd like to keep. I have reasons why I think capitalizing Dept and University here are fine, but if you feel strongly about it I'm okay with you changing them back while leaving the later part.
    – user137975
    Apr 12, 2023 at 14:28
  • 2
    @AnonymousM: They should be capitalized in proper nouns, but you are using them here in their descriptive sense, not as part of a name.
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .