I did my master thesis last year and recently I found out that a group of four faculty members in my department, including my thesis advisor, have published an ACM paper based on that. (A publish subscribe system based on SDN)

I will be honest. The problem statement was put forward by the faculty. The implementation (design of algorithms and coding) was completely done by me in my thesis. Then they further extended it to a distributed SDN controller environment.

In the paper, an entire section is devoted to the algorithms and implementation. Where they have almost ripped off from my thesis. The sentence structures have been changed and some beautification done to the algorithms to make it look concise.

However, I have not been given any acknowledgement or citation. Anyone who'll read that paper will have an impression that the authors were the only brains behind the project.

The university holds the copyright of my thesis. So I am not sure if this qualifies for plagiarism. But certainly, I feel it is not fair to brush someone's contribution under the carpet.

What can I do about it ? Or am I mistaken and they have every right to do how they feel as I am no longer a student there and the copyright is with them ?

  • 9
    What do you mean, "the department has published a paper"? Departments don't publish papers, people do. Do you mean a student/faculty from your department published the paper? Was the student/faculty who authored the paper involved in any way with supervising your thesis?
    – ff524
    Sep 22, 2014 at 5:41
  • 16
    Your supervisor is not automatically a co-author.
    – user10636
    Sep 22, 2014 at 10:17
  • 6
    What does "The university holds the copyright of my thesis" mean? They might have the right and even the exclusive to publishing/commercializing it, but I doubt even a pro-Corp system such as the US one, allows someone to completely foreit credits to his own work... now does it?
    – o0'.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 13:37
  • 2
    If they do cite your thesis, this won't do you any good anyway. You need to have a published article. Publish an article, and in this article mention that your work has led to further publications --- and cite the paper in question. When your article will be reviewed, the journal reviewer will automatically have to investigate the issue. Once it gets published, then see if you still have a problem. Don't worry about "punishing" them. I actually had a "coauthor" who had to be included (a professor), who made the paper worse ;-) But I have other things to worry about.
    – user14102
    Sep 24, 2014 at 1:10
  • 2
    If they do cite your thesis, this won't do you any good anyway — [citation needed] Prior work is prior work.
    – JeffE
    Sep 30, 2015 at 13:51

8 Answers 8


Whether or not the department holds the copyright to your thesis is irrelevant. Using someone else's ideas without appropriate attribution is plagiarism, period.

So, if your advisor used your original, non-trivial scientific ideas (or your non-trivial description of those ideas) in his paper without attributing them to you, then he has committed misconduct.

The only thing that may be questionable is whether or not your original intellectual ideas were actually used in the paper. What you describe definitely sounds pretty damning, and the more information you add, the worse it sounds; but as strangers on the Internet, we don't have the whole story.

For example: Given that the idea for the thesis was the advisor's, and the paper describes a non-trivial extension, it's possible (though perhaps not likely, depending on the scope of the work) that your advisor was working on the extended version himself independently of your thesis.

It's also possible that he considers your work to be a straightforward implementation of his idea, and not an intellectual contribution - that is, he believes you were doing the work of a staff programmer, not a scientist or engineer. In which case, an acknowledgement would probably have been appropriate, but it's not necessarily plagiarism to omit it.

The degree to which your work constitutes an intellectual contribution to your advisor's paper is impossible for strangers on the Internet to judge.

I suggest you email your former thesis advisor, tell him you've seen the paper, and ask (in a non-confrontational way) how it relates to your thesis work. Then decide how to proceed from there.

Note that pursuing the matter beyond that (i.e. formally accusing him of plagiarism) may involve some serious negative consequences for you, so consider this carefully before proceeding. The morally just course of action may or may not actually be in your best interests.

  • 5
    Thank you for the explanation. Firstly, my ideas are definitely used in the paper. Even after leaving the University, I used to help them occasionally in their extension work. Second, the write-up of that particular section in the paper is just an english-to-english translation of my wordings. Third, it might or might not be trivial, that's kind of subjective. Anyways, I will try to contact them. Thanks.
    – gaganbm
    Sep 22, 2014 at 6:05
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    @ff524: Even disregarding non-trivial ideas, if sentence structures line up etc. that would be plagiarism no matter how simplistic the ideas presented within. Additionally the serious negative consequences tend to apply to people still working in an academic environment. If he left the academic world for good I don't believe he should worry much about that. Sep 22, 2014 at 7:57
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    @David that would be the "non-trivial description" I mentioned. I'm not in a position to judge the degree of overlap. And, even if he's not in the academic world, he may still want recommendation letters, etc from his former supervisor. Just something to think about.
    – ff524
    Sep 22, 2014 at 7:58
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    "... may involve some serious negative consequences for you, so consider this carefully" -- every time I read something like this (knowing that it's true) I get a little sick. That is on almost every "what should I do about misbehaviour X?". Tenured guys own everybody else's asses so they can get away with anything. Hiring faculty of moral integrity also seems optional these days.</rant>
    – Raphael
    Sep 22, 2014 at 21:49
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Plagiarism is orthogonal to ownership/copyright concerns. If you copy work that is under copyright and attribute it to its author, you have violated the copyright protection but not committed plagiarism. If you copy work and do not attribute it to its author, you have committed plagiarism irrespective or whether you have violated copyright protection or not.
    – ff524
    Sep 24, 2014 at 0:20

The plagiarism in any type would be discouraged and you can claim that plagiarism. The journal will investigate it and will find if it is plagiarism or not. The theses is not the property of your supervisor as it's your effort and you may publish with or without your supervisor.

IEEE Introduction to the Guidelines for Handling Plagiarism Complaints. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2014, from http://www.ieee.org/publications_standards/publications/rights/plagiarism.html

  • 1
    Those guidelines are for the editors of the journals ... so the proper procedure for someone who believes they've been plagarized would be to contact the editor of the journal that published the paper, and inform them of the apparent plagarism.
    – Joe
    Sep 23, 2014 at 20:00

Without knowing the whole story in detail, I would just say that if you contributed significantly to the work that has been published then you should be a co-author. If you are not, this may count as plagiarism (look at misleading attribution at iThenticate).

It would be wise, however, to contact them to subtly enquire about the issue before throwing any accusations. Throwing false accusations can be more harmful to your future career than losing credit for some work you did.


There are many possible explanations. It might be that they considered the algorithm to be easy to find and that they just didn't think of citing you. On the other hand, if they were quite surprised by your algorithm, it's surprising that they would neglect to mention your contribution.

Either way, I would try asking them, in a friendly way.

  • 1
    Thank you. Will contact them. Whether the algorithm was pretty trivial or not is subjective. Moreover if they wrote a long section just on that algorithms, then probably it was not trivial.
    – gaganbm
    Sep 22, 2014 at 6:08
  • 1
    Most likely they didn't think that much about the issue; they were just worried about getting another publication for a "checkmark". If you use the right strategy when contacting them, you should be successful. Just be wise. Talk to someone old for advice, perhaps to a woman.
    – user14102
    Sep 24, 2014 at 1:15

First off, your understanding of copyright is flawed. The original author retains original copyright, and in your case, your university has, by virtue of being your university, been granted by you (look it up...it's in there) an unlimited LICENSE to use your copyright, and possibly/probably some first publication rights.

They do not own the copyright.

This is the same with patents. You discover something? You have the patent, which is assigned to the University. Your name is still on it, even though they own the rights to it.

Now, on to attribution: An unpublished work is generally not "citeable." It adds no credence or credibility. The appropriate structure here (assuming all the writeup at face value) is that you should receive an attribution as a contributor. i.e. "implementation and algorithm concepts are based on the thesis work of gaganbm." If your work was actually published in a journal or such, a citation would be very appropriate.

  • 3
    An unpublished work is generally not "citeable." — This is simply false. Authors are required to give proper credit to prior work, whether or not that work is formally published. People cite otherwise-unpublished master's (or even bachelor's theses all the time. Of course it would be better for OP to make their thesis available, either as a technical report, or on the arXiv, or even just on their personal web site, so that readers of the citing paper can see the work. But even this is not a requirement for citation.
    – JeffE
    Sep 30, 2015 at 13:56
  • In the case of work for hire (which is a legal mechanism by which a university may assert ownership of the copyright of a student employee's thesis) the employer (here, the university) is considered the author of the work for copyright purposes. So while it's possible that the student holds the copyright and licenses some rights to the university (as you suggest), if the student was funded, it's also possible that the university does, in fact, own the copyright.
    – ff524
    Oct 1, 2015 at 2:13
  • Adding to @JeffE's comment, in a paper I wrote, I was told to cite 7 year old slides from a small conference I did not attend because they stated a theorem I proved. And this was not in a field in which giving a talk is equivalent to publishing. Actually, this very much irked me; I had never heard of the slides until the reviewer pointed them out to me, so it seemed dishonest to cite them. But I digress.
    – Cliff AB
    Jan 15, 2016 at 1:39
  • @JeffE, I agree. One should always cite where outside work came from, even if it's unpublished. My comment, which was admittedly slightly obtuse, mentions that citing unpublished work doesn't necessarily HELP you, because generally speaking, it's not available to review, should someone want to find it.
    – dwoz
    Jan 16, 2016 at 1:58

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but one thing I haven't heard mentioned in this discussion is the fact that, in many universities, accepted theses and dissertations are at least self-published by the university, and are made available in some form to the public. This would make it citable even if it wasn't actually published in a journal. This, I should think, would add weight to the claim of plagiarism.

  • 3
    A thesis is citable even if it isn't published. Virtually anything is citable, published or not. This doesn't seem like an answer to the question to me.
    – ff524
    Sep 23, 2014 at 4:51
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    If have seen citations marked as (private communication). It's just about the honesty - make clear this wasn't your work, but someone else's.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 23, 2014 at 10:35

You need to check your university's policies on the faculty/student authorship question: your professor/s may have every right to use your work in this way, which used to be standard academic practice. Standard copyright/intellectual property rules may be waived or not applicable to your situation.

  • 9
    This is not an intellectual property issue. Publication ethics require that other people's ideas must be attributed properly, regardless of who owns these ideas. There is no university policy that exempts faculty from standard publication ethics.
    – ff524
    Sep 22, 2014 at 23:46
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    Plagiarism is the unattributed use of ideas, whether or not there is copyright involved. Copyright infringement is the unauthorized publication of creative content, whether or not attribution is given. One can waive only the latter; plagiarism is an issue between the plagiarist and the community, and the original creator cannot give away some "right to be cited."
    – user4512
    Sep 23, 2014 at 2:44

What college did you go to? Your thesis was done at a University/College under the instruction of your School. They have a clause in all Universities in England which states that any ideas you come up with/Develop at University belongs to the university itself. This is how the vast majority of Uni's make money by selling patents.

Usually the University will publish ideas/sell patents with the student in partnership. However if its for a small publication (Which no money is received its for the good of the general public) then there is no need to notify the student.

Look up the clauses of your university faculty before making wild allegations of Plagiarism. Having done a Masters you should know to carry out research before coming to a conclusion

Kind Regards

  • 24
    This is false. Ownership of the intellectual property is a separate issue; publication ethics require attribution of others' ideas regardless of who "owns" them. There is no university clause that exempts its faculty from following standard publication ethics.
    – ff524
    Sep 22, 2014 at 9:16
  • Seeing your comment I might have interpreted his question wrongly (Sorry about that). My major was Engineering therefore most ideas from Thesis are used in collaboration with the student who created them. I will still stress the easiest way to solve this is to talk to the faculty and ask them for the specific documentation about publication. Instead of allegations of plagiarism. Thanks
    – Charles
    Sep 22, 2014 at 9:30
  • I h\ave come across the opposite more often than not, when IP is too small for the University to get involved with and lets the student/faculty member to do what they want Sep 22, 2014 at 11:30
  • 6
    The situation as the OP has described it is clearly plagiarism. This does not depend on "the clauses of...university faculty". Your allegation that the OP would be making a wild allegation seems rather...wild. "Having done a Masters you should know to carry out research before coming to a conclusion." Not only is this swipe at the OP completely gratuitous, it doesn't make much sense: the whole point is that the OP is trying to find out what is the right thing to do! I would recommend that you delete your answer: it is not helpful. Sep 22, 2014 at 18:54
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    As I just explained on another answer, the "right to be cited" is not transferable; plagiarism is a violation of the community's standards, not an individual's rights.
    – user4512
    Sep 23, 2014 at 2:47

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