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My Master's thesis instructor has copied a chapter of my thesis draft into several publications, sometimes listing me as an author and sometimes not. They said it won't cause me any problems so I gave permission in one case but not the others, where I was just informed afterwards. As they were my boss and instructor, was in a hurry to submit the publication and insisted there will not be problems I didn't feel like having another choice.

After consulting with my supervisor I'm starting to feel doubtful, especially if any automatic plagiarism checking is involved because searching for various numeric results and phrases from my thesis in Google returns results with the exact same text and without my name in the list of authors.

I'm supposed to hand in the finished thesis this week and don't have time to rewrite the affected chapter. My supervisor said I should at least include a footnote explaining the situation. What should I write? I wouldn't want to cause trouble for the instructor either, they're a nice person in a difficult situation.

The other publications are all reports or conference proceedings available free of charge from government sources or the university's website so commercial publishers' copyright claims should not be an issue.

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    Just to be sure we understand correctly: are the 'instructor' and the 'supervisor' two different persons? What is the relation between them? – Federico Poloni Nov 30 '14 at 15:40
  • The instructor was my boss at the time and works for the university. The supervisor is a tenured professor. They don't actually know each other. – User21436587 Nov 30 '14 at 15:43
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    He's a nice guy, in a difficult situation, who decided to exploit you. How nice! – o0'. Dec 1 '14 at 10:11
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Too long as a comment so I am submitting as an answer.

While I like the principles of jakebeal's answer, I would like to advise against citing someone committing a misconduct in a permanently archived document without a proper investigation. I am sympathetic about your situation but to any future investigation committee you're simply another party of interest, and it's fully likely for you to accuse the other of misconduct. That's drawback number 1.

Drawback number 2 is that the world comes and goes around. Just because the instructor is no longer in a position to harm you does not mean he cannot do so in another occasion. If you've decided to use the footnote approach, I'd recommend saying a human error was made rather than a misconduct was committed.

This is not to say I would always cover for unethical people, this is to say that without a proper third party's investigation, I will not accuse anyone especially if I am involved in the issue.

And I also think rewriting, as suggested by aeismail is also a good approach if you don't feel like hurting the instructor in any way.

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    Would it be sufficient to state in the footnote that this is all original work and it also appears in such and such other publication, with a complete reference in the bibliography? Without any explanation how it got there. – User21436587 Nov 30 '14 at 16:38
  • @User21436587 that sounds like an aseptic, objective approach. No one can dispute it, no problem with that being on record. To be completely covered, perhaps you should speak with your supervisor in private and get his assessment of the situation. – Davidmh Nov 30 '14 at 16:46
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    @User21436587: I think the reference goes in the footnote, not the bibliography, lest it appear that you used the reference, and not the other way around. Also think about writing, "this is my (not all) original work," so as to leave no doubt. In any case, compose your footnote, ask your thesis supervisor, and do what the supervisor says. – Bob Brown Nov 30 '14 at 17:35
  • @User21436587, yes I agree that is a better alternative to explain a lot by saying nothing. What other comments are valid; you need to coordinate with your current supervisor. – Penguin_Knight Nov 30 '14 at 19:37
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Your instructor has committed serious academic misconduct several times: if it is your words or your work being published, you should be one of the authors and your permission is required for publication. It's also not clear from your post whether the same material was published multiple times, which would also leave you vulnerable to accusations of self-plagiarism.

It sounds, at least, like you are no longer working with this instructor, which is a good thing. You should always look to separate yourself from seriously unethical people, lest you be tainted by association or involvement in their crimes.

Now you are faced with a problem of cleaning up a toxic mess, because your instructor has also lied to you about this "not being a problem" for you. There are three different aspects of the cleanup that I can see:

  1. What should you do in your thesis? I think that your supervisor's suggestion here is good: put in a footnote at the beginning that explains where else the various pieces of the chapter have been published (both with and without you as an author), and note that due to misconduct on the part of the other author, you were not listed as an author. Note that I am assuming the instructor is not required to sign off: if they are, this may be a problem.

  2. What should be done about the papers? Once you are safely graduated and are secure from retribution in another position, you can contact the publishers and request to have the record corrected. The note, signed off in your thesis by your supervisor, will be useful here. If material was inappropriately reused in multiple publications, you might instead ask for some of the publications to be retracted. Don't be surprised, however, if the publishers fail to take action, as many publishers are not very responsive when asked to correct the record.

  3. What should be done about your instructor? It is very difficult for a student to accuse their instructor of misconduct. Fortunately, it sounds like you have informed a responsible senior individual (the tenured supervisor), and it would now be appropriate for you to pass the responsibility of deciding how to proceed to that person. Unfortunately, it sounds like this person may not actually take any action, so you may wish (again, once you are away and secure from retribution) to contact people who actually have authority over the instructor and may be willing to act.

Finally, be prepared to simply walk away if you need to: fortunately, this is happening only at the Masters' stage, and so all of this mess can likely be rendered irrelevant by your future work as long as you take precautions (like the note in your thesis) to avoid it coming back to bite you.

  • Note that he may not be qualified to be a full author of the paper if his contributions were not sufficient. – Davidmh Nov 30 '14 at 16:47
  • @Davidmh Which "he" do you mean, in instructor or the OP? – jakebeal Nov 30 '14 at 16:52
  • The OP, the one that is not an author in the paper. – Davidmh Nov 30 '14 at 16:54
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    @Davidmh I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which a large amount of a person's writing is included in a publication, but that person is not qualified to be an author at all. – jakebeal Nov 30 '14 at 17:02
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In addition to jakebeal's fine answer, I want to note that this problem would have been entirely avoided if your instructor had simply included you as an author, as virtually all publishers allow published journal material to be "recycled" in master's and doctoral theses, and vice versa. (It would make life exceedingly difficult for graduate students if they couldn't reuse material from work published during their careers in their thesis!)

The other issue is that you should maintain a paper trail of all of your correspondence with the instructor regarding the papers that were submitted (and I hope you did maintain such records!) Without them, all of the allegations will be much more difficult to sustain, as it will become an "X said, Y said" allegation.

One other thing to inquire about: will your university offer you an extension on turning in your thesis? Many universities allow students to petition for a short-term extension (usually a few weeks). If so, then this might give you time to revise the affected text to remove the plagiarism allegations. This might be the best option for you to avoid future problems.

  • Further to this comment, even if you don't have a paper trail of the correspondence, it is really important for the OP to back up any and all previous drafts of the thesis. If it comes to it and s/he is accused of plagiarising the instructor's papers, these earlier drafts should definitively prove the case otherwise, exonerating the student (and potentially putting the instructor in hot water). – Joe Corneli Aug 21 '16 at 18:08

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