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One of my student’s MA thesis is very well done. I know him and I worked with him enough to notice that something is going on. I talked to him and he always seemed confused about what he was doing and he did not seem to know the source so well.

Is it possible that he just translated and paraphrased another thesis from his native language, which is Spanish? How can I find it out?

The thesis contains citations and everything but it’s too accurate and I have some doubts.

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  • "Too accurate." What does that mean?
    – Compass
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:30
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    I talked to him and he always seemed confused about what he was doing and he did not seem to know the source so well.. I know it is not ethical but he gave me reasons more than once to doubt about him.. how possible is that international students taking advantage of the native language do something like copying from another thesis done in their own language?
    – James
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:41

4 Answers 4

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Your question suggests that you are not sure which of the following is true:

  • Your student worked hard and produced an excellent thesis
  • Your student plagiarised a thesis from another language

In either case, this warrants extra attention from you.

The first step would be to discuss the work with him further. If he was able to discuss said work intelligently, this would be an indication that he did write the thesis. However, you said that you spoke to him, and he seemed confused about what he was doing, which raises legitimate suspicions.

To find out whether he can (and has) produced good written work, but finds it hard to discuss said work in person, you can ask him to edit his written work. Unless the thesis is 100% perfect in every way, you can identify a potential area of improvement that should not place an undue burden on the student. For example, you can ask him/her to

  • add some extra detail to one section
  • compare to another related work in the literature review section
  • etc.

If the student did the work and independently produced a great thesis, this is positive attention that will help improve the work. If the student did not do the work, it will become evident when he tries to improve it following your suggestions.

Of course, if you know someone who speaks the student's language and who can be counted on to keep your request quiet, you can (without sharing the student's name) ask him/her to search the web in the student's language for publicly available theses on the subject, and see if a match turns up.

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I'm just adding a small idea which was not contained in the other answers.

If his work contains references, you might try to check which articles in the student's language have the same or similar references.

I'm not aware of a tool that automates this process, but you could use e.g. Google Scholar to get a list of all works which reference a particular source. Add those to a list. Repeat for every reference and note down the repetitions of each item.

Finally, you will have a (hopefully not too long) list of works with similar references. Those with the highest count are your best bet to check.

Obviously, more 'obscure' references are more useful in this process, while very widely cited sources add no value and can be omitted. If the work only cites widespread sources, this 'fingerprinting' approach is unmanageable without writing an appropriate automation tool first.

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It is not unethical "to be suspicious on your student because he has done his job very well." It is called having a reasonable doubt. The student obviously has not demonstrated an appropriate intellectual level during the course. That is why we have Turnitin. Nothing unethical about it.

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  • However, Turnitin wouldn't be able to determine whether this was a translation into English of someone else's work. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 23:51
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Apparently, the professor's concern is that the student's "brilliant" thesis is too far out of line with his other work. It's possible, of course, that this student excels at one academic aspect, i.e. prepared writing. But the possibility ought to be considered that the student hired a "professional" to do his work for him.

The first thing the professor should do is try to get a sample of the student's other writing. The most obvious source is an in-class test (not a take home). Of course it will be less polished than a thesis, but even so, there should be clear badges of common authorship. Otherwise, the professor might even ask to see one of the student's other papers. Perhaps this could be co-ordinated with one of the student's other professors.

Perhaps the best possibility is to consult an expert in "Spanish," and specifically the "kind" of Spanish where the student comes from. Such an expert would know how a "native" would likely translate his sentences into English, and whether it is at least possible that the translation came from him, or from a "different" Spanish speaker. Perhaps the Spanish expert can also quiz the student in Spanish to see if he understands the material in his native language to the degree implied by his submitted thesis.

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