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I am a new assistant professor, and I just started my faculty career. I encountered a problem when collaborating with a tenured associate professor from an American University. I am a new faculty, and I need good collaborations and networks. However, I also know that bad collaborations can be a potential career-killer (e.g., Ranga Dias case). My research community is small, so I want to handle this issue properly, and I don't want to be percieved as an unreasonable and mean trouble maker by other professors who may reject to collaborate with me in future.

My research area is modeling and computation, and I collaborated with this tenured professor from America for 2 years. I completely admire and acknowledge his modeling and programming abilities, he is an absolute programming genius and can solve complicated problems, and we have published 2 high impact peer-reviewed papers already.

We are in the process of finishing a review paper, and I am the lead author. He forwarded his manuscript last week, and told me most of them were directly from his PhD dissertation. After putting mine and his part together, I used anti-plagiarism software (Turnitin) to conduct a full check. I do this out of habit, plus the fact that it is a review paper.

I found that there were two parts (around 11 lines in a word file) from his writings which were really sloppy verbatim copy and paste. Even if they are cited, I still feel it could be problematic, someday people might point this out on PubPeer. I double-checked all the data and algorithms immediately for our previous 2 published papers, and they didn’t have problems.

Out of curiosity, I used Turnitin to check his dissertation, and I found that his literature review part has surprisingly high similarity rate (>35%), and there are several verbatim copy and paste problems as well, even if they are cited. To be objective, the real part of his dissertation is absolutely high-quality, 100% original and creative, and each chapter generates high-level peer-reviewed publications. I know that in the science and engineering world, nobody is really interested in reading dissertations, and I also know the dissertation could be the worst publication in a researcher’s career. But I still feel a bit down about this.

So I wonder if I should point out this problem politely and ask him to revise, or if I should stop collaborating with him now? I know plagiarism accusations are serious in academia, and I have no intention to report this issue at all. Especially, he is a really amazing math and programming player, and I don't want his name on the internet, on sites such as "Retraction Watch". I know there are so many high-profile plagiarism cases more severe than this, and they all get away. Especially as his problem is just in the Introduction part.

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    Where are the 'two parts (around 11 lines in a word file)' from? Is it from some other paper written by your collaborator or is this from some paper/ textbook written by someone else?
    – quarague
    Commented yesterday
  • @quarague They are from someone else paper, and they are from his dissertation. Verbatism plagiarism Commented yesterday
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    You write that these passages are cited. Do you mean the sources are cited, or that the passages are quoted? Commented yesterday
  • @Tobias Kildetoft Yes, they are cited, but literally copy and paste, and not written as quote style Commented yesterday
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    "He forwarded his manuscript last week, and told me most of them were directly from his PhD dissertation." -- Suggest this needs clarification, as I can't tell what's being said here. Commented 21 hours ago

5 Answers 5

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If the manuscript has not been published yet, then I think it is absolutely acceptable for you to bring it up politely: "thank you for sending me the literature review. You mentioned that it is based off of parts of your thesis; out of an abundance of caution I ran the manuscript through Turnitin and it looks like it registers some parts as plagiarism. Shall we revise those parts prior to submission just to be safe?"

In this way you're "blaming" Turnitin for the issue, rather than saying you don't trust this person, and not accusing them of anything.

Regarding the thesis: if the main part of the thesis is original work then I would let sleeping dogs lie. To be clear - it is objectively academic misconduct, but I do not foresee any good coming out of you raising this issue. The thesis has been submitted years ago, and the issue has not been caught by the advisor or any of the committee members. You could raise this issue to the academic honesty board (or equivalent) in that professor's Alma Mater, which would cause this person some discomfort and hassle. However, if the main body of work in the thesis is original and of good quality, their PhD degree won't be revoked. At most they'll ask him to submit a correction, but again, this won't have any effect on him except aggravate him or make him rewrite the lit review in his thesis. Worse still, if he realizes that it was you that raised the issue, then you have gained yourself an adversary over a relatively minor issue.

Regarding continuing collaborations with this person, that is really not for me to say. If this is an ongoing issue with this researcher (e.g. their publications have similar issues) maybe it's best to not to work with them. If it's only in their thesis, then perhaps they had a single lapse of judgement.

What you can do, however, is educate and mentor your own students. Bring up this as a story of how academia is an exercise in trust, and how easily that trust can be broken over relatively minor issues. In particular, if you are co-mentoring people with that professor, make sure that they are taught appropriate standards of academic honesty and integrity.

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    out of an abundance of caution LOL. Nobody believes that lie.
    – Walter
    Commented yesterday
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    "What you can do, however, is educate and mentor your own students. Bring up this as a story of how academia is an exercise in trust, and how easily that trust can be broken over relatively minor issues." -- This. Commented yesterday
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    Appreciate your advice. I don't have any intention to report this at all. To be honest, I admire that professor's research ability, and besides this problem I mentioned, he doesn't have any other problems Commented yesterday
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    So I’d chalk it up to a human failure on his part, recognize it for what it is and move on.
    – Spark
    Commented yesterday
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    @Walter "out of an abundance of caution" is an odd phrasing but OP did make clear in the Q that they used Turnitin out of habit and not due to any suspicion.
    – Joooeey
    Commented 13 hours ago
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You should only collaborate with people who you feel comfortable doing so. I think this case you describe is a very grey area. For example, were those referenced lines deliberately plagiarized by your collaborator in their thesis? Was it an honest mistake where they felt referencing was sufficient? Were those lines even added by your collaborator, or by someone they were collaborating with, or an advisor on a paper which your collaborator then used in their thesis?

It is hard to say, but I think it is enough of a grey area that levelling a strong accusation of misconduct at this point is not warranted.

For the work at hand, I would personally just return a Turnitin report and use that as a starting point to rewrite those suspect lines. If after that you no longer wish to collaborate, simply move on.

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  • I really appreciate your advice. Thanks for your time reading and giving me some advice. Commented 22 hours ago
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You have two decisions to make short and long term.

Short term: How to save your paper?

  1. Rewrite the section (not just rephrasing or mixing in synonyms) by yourself. Search for two or three new sources and add some value to your changes. Than your collaborator won't reject.
  2. Confront him and ask him to rewrite it. Tell him what you told us about the paper. Leave out the dissertation, non of your business.

Long term: Keep collaborating with him?

  1. After the paper, talk to the collaborator and ask him to not copy & paste passages into papers where you are an author.
  2. Look for new collaborators and decline future joint work.

Both decisions are difficult to judge from distance and the information you shared. Do you have trusted person you can ask and who are familiar with your field and the actual person?

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  • Thanks for your advice! I really appreciate you can take your time reading and posting your advice here! Commented 22 hours ago
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If I am correctly reading your description of the nature and extent of the material that worries you, I disagree with most of the other answers. Eleven lines of properly cited paraphrase (or even word for word copy, if between quotation marks) is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is unacknowledged reuse of words or ideas.

You should suggest rewording anything you find sloppy, whether it's a paraphrase or original work. That's just making sure the paper is well written.

As for your coauthor's dissertation, I would expect a literature review to contain summaries, even paraphrases of what's in the literature. That's the whole point of a literature review.

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It seems that the plagiarism you mention can be most easily attributed to negligence. For instance, the partially plagiarized part of the dissertation is the literature review, writing which is sometimes looked upon as a tedious chore. Such negligence can complicate the process of collaboration, but I would not call it misconduct.

As a personal anecdote, my Ph.D. supervisor has once copied and pasted the first few paragraphs (about 500 words) of an introduction of one of his papers with another student into the manuscript he co-wrote with me.

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