44

Last year I came across a student in our department (we are both PhD students) who copied a journal article in her final paper. To be sure, she didn’t copy the article word from word but did use the exact same research design (variables, data, methodology, mechanism part). The two abstracts therefore look extremely similar, as the student replicated the journal article without citation. She almost got away with this since the journal article is in another language that the instructor doesn't know. My advisor considered this as borderline plagiarism and supported me in reporting. Eventually the faculty regraded the paper but didn’t term it as plagiarism.

Several months later the student and her friend posted this incident online and attacked me personally. I heard mixed opinions from fellow students. Many people say that even though the student is guilty, I should not report her in the first place.

I am confused. Was I wrong in reporting academic misconduct?

5
  • 3
    I am going to suppose that a decision on such an event is not possible without a lot more investigation. It would require, for example, carefully examining the work the student handed in and comparing it to the source article. Also looking at the specification of the work that the student was working under. Probably this isn't going to happen completely in this forum.
    – Boba Fit
    May 15, 2023 at 16:27
  • 32
    Full support to you, the scientific community needs more people stepping up against poor quality content. So many papers are not correctly reviewed nowadays that it feels like very little things makes sense anymore. Plagiarism is part of this low quality content I am referring to.
    – KrKAlex
    May 16, 2023 at 9:05
  • 9
    I don't understand how this can only be considered as borderline plagiarism (or not even plagiarism by the other faculty).
    – Kimball
    May 16, 2023 at 12:56
  • 2
    For that part I also didn’t understand… I didn’t have a chance to know about the inspection process. The faculty showed the paper to different people who understood the other language and they may have different opinions on plagiarism. Or maybe the faculty only wanted to educate the student by giving a lighter punishment.
    – Kayla
    May 16, 2023 at 15:06
  • 3
    Regardless of whether or not it was the ethical thing to do, many people believe that snitches get stitches.
    – Drake P
    May 16, 2023 at 18:16

4 Answers 4

71

It's common that people caught cheating are upset they are caught.

It's unfortunately also common that people who act unethically feel like consequences for their unethical behavior are the fault of someone besides them, the person who decided to behave unethically.

There is sometimes an "us versus them" mentality, where it may seem to other students that you've somehow "betrayed" them by revealing evidence of cheating to the authorities. However, if they simply had not cheated in the first place, they would have no consequences to bear because you'd have nothing to report. The social stigma behind this is designed to protect cheaters.

I don't think you did anything wrong here. It seems you were especially careful in that you consulted with your advisor, and the paper was reevaluated with your information taken into consideration. Once you report, it's not really your responsibility anymore. There's nothing much you can do if people want to blame you for their own misconduct.


Here's a story of someone who has decided to become basically a professional detector of cheating in academic publishing: Meet this super-spotter of duplicated images in science papers. Specifically, she finds cases where people have manipulated and duplicated images to falsify data, or to represent old work (sometimes by completely different authors) as new work.

“At some point, I am afraid people will sue me,” she says. She tries to keep her critiques to research papers, rather than accusing their authors. Bik has not faced a lawsuit, but has been harassed and has sometimes taken time off Twitter. One person e-mailed her former colleagues at Stanford arguing that she had abused her research grant funding by pursuing image integrity investigations during work hours. (Bik says this was untrue.) Another posted personal information on PubPeer (now removed). “I’ve been called a bitch a couple of times,” she says. “It comes with the work I do.”

4
  • 11
    Your latter example shows that, when one does such a reporting, one should be careful to have extra clean record. Secondly, I am quite surprised that OP's name appeared at all in the investigation. The evidence of plagiarism is either objective or it is not. It does not depend on OP's witnessing. OP solely pointed out that there may be a problem. I am surprised that they were dragged into this at all, and as a vulnerable person, they should not be exposed to to the blowback from the process. May 15, 2023 at 20:07
  • 7
    @CaptainEmacs Agreed - the best practice here is anonymity from OP, and everyone on the other side (advisor, instructor, etc) should do their best to protect OP's identity to prevent any blowback. The example I give is a bit different because this is public commentary of work in public, I included it only to show that people doing good work to expose frauds are often targeted, and it is not a good indication that sharing the information with the people who need to hear it was wrong.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 15, 2023 at 20:18
  • 25
    The advisor and instructor did protect me in their investigation. The student and her friend found out it was me because there were few students who took the same class and understood the other language at the same time.
    – Kayla
    May 15, 2023 at 20:23
  • 22
    @Kayla That's quite unfortunate. In any case, you did right. Do not get intimidated. Don't engage, tell them that, in the end, it's the process which decides whether they plagiarised or not and that's the institution's responsibility. If they bug you, tell them that, if you had been wrong, they would have been exonerated. People do not like (what they like to call) "cheats" because they expect your personal loyalty (which they have no entitlement to) over loyalty to an abstract system of values. You chose values. You took the difficult route. You have my respect. May 15, 2023 at 21:38
39

Was I wrong in reporting borderline plagiarism?

No. You are never wrong to report (suspected or actual) plagiarism to a professor or department for review. You should not feel guilty about bringing this case to someone's attention. In short, you did the right thing!

Even if you turned out to be wrong, it doesn't matter: an honest, good-faith report cannot alone be used as evidence against the student, but will instead be a pointer to look into the case further and determine if there is sufficient evidence for plagiarism.

My advisor considered this as borderline plagiarism and supported me in reporting.

Talking to your advisor (or another trusted faculty member) is exactly the right thing to do here. The fact they supported it is further evidence you were not completely misguided in your suspicions.

In general: simply turning the case over to the department or a trusted faculty member is the right thing to do, rather than trying to figure out yourself whether it counts as plagiarism. They will decide how to proceed (as they did in your case), whether that be to pursue academic misconduct proceedings, or just to give a warning, or to ignore it.

Several months later the student and her friend posted this incident online and attacked my personality.

Many plagiarism reports are anonymous. I would encourage you in the future to ensure your name can't necessarily be tied to your report. On the other hand, being attacked online for this could be considered bullying or harassment. As the student and their friend are only posting one side of the story, try not to worry about what people are saying about it online.

2
  • 32
    If the online attacks continue I would bring this up to the department and/or the dean (or ombuds if you institution has them). Those actions should not be tolerated either.
    – Jon Custer
    May 15, 2023 at 21:01
  • 4
    I'll add that any thorough guide on ethics is not only going to forbid plagiarism, it will also instruct any and all to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism. If something looks like plagiarism, at the very least the person presenting it as their own work was not careful enough in avoiding the appearance.
    – EvilSnack
    May 17, 2023 at 2:37
6

To answer your question, no, reporting plagiarism is not the wrong thing to do, ever. Even if it had been a misunderstanding, checking for plagiarism is part of the system, it's nothing personal. But since the student was reprimanded, it further shows you did exactly the right thing.

I have to admit I am mainly commenting to add a strong suggestion. I am not sure how long ago those public comments were made by the student. However, such comments don't just put you in a bad light, they also inadvertently imply that the faculty reprimanding the person was in the wrong too. Students are welcome to challenge any and all judgements, but doing so publicly without the possibility for the institution to explain their reasoning is unfair and puts the whole faculty in a bad light.

If I was the head/member of said faculty, I would want to know this is happening, have a discussion with this student and unless they can prove their stance, handle this case according to the institution's guidelines.

But, of course, it is not your duty to do this. I would fully understand why you would want to avoid anything to do with this student for the rest of your career.

1

I'm not going to tell you whether it's right or wrong.

I believe you should think consciously about your own ethics. What is the basis for you thinking that something is wrong and something else is right? I think people should not rely on other people's opinions regarding what's wrong and what's right, they should have their own. (This doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to other people and potentially learn from what they have to say. Fair enough you ask this question and get some views, still try to get yourself up to the point where you have a well founded view on this yourself.)

The bigger picture here is how you think society as a whole should work and what role science should play in it. What are the implications of plagiarism, and of somebody getting a degree based on plagiarised work? Could it be a problem for society? Or at least for some people (such as those who later employ the plagiator based on their degree, or those who don't win a position because a competitor has plagiarised and looks better on paper than they actually are)? How important is this to you?

More generally you may ask yourself whether and why you think that we should generally "play by the rules" (or not)? To what extent does it depend on the specific rule, or on who enforces them, or who benefits from it, and who is maybe disadvantaged by it?

You may also ask yourself about your ideas on solidarity and relations between students. Do you see the students as a group of people that should generally help each other, also against authorities who by marking them may determine their future fate to some extent? On the other hand, you may rather have the view that ultimately students compete against each other, and the best ones should "win", so solidarity should definitely not go as far as helping others to achieve better marks than they deserve (you may also think about who, in your view, really "deserves" what for what reason, and whether you think the the marking at universities is fair in this respect, or what would make it better, or worse).

And then you may ask yourself about whether generally standing in for your ethical principles is valuable also in the face of potential backlash. You can expect that people won't be happy if you do something that damages their position, so if you so something like this there is always the chance that you get a hostile reaction. Do you think it would be worthwhile avoiding it? Why or why not?

There are probably even more aspects of this. In any case I'd like to encourage you to train your own judgement and to learn how to use it confidently.

1
  • 8
    What is the basis for you thinking that something is wrong and something else is right? - The University's guidelines on academic misconduct, probably. May 17, 2023 at 8:02

You must log in to answer this question.

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