8

The question is not about plagiarism, it is about its aftermath. I am presenting the whole situstion.

Three years back, in my undergraduate years (summer after sophomore, to be precise), I did my first major project with a professor in India. The project came out well and we had two publications next year.

Obviously happy with my work, the professor offered me another project, next year, which was entirely different and of higher level of difficulty (he had his graduate student working on it). He asked me to do simple simulations and mostly literature survey so that he could later use it. He also proposed some survey papers (all by same author, call him X) to start with. I wrote the survey section based on the papers mentioned in the citations by X, and added reviews of another dozens of paper. I cited all survey papers by X and cited others too. I also did certain simulations.

Meanwhile, he provided me references to land into a Masters program at one of the top 5 electrical engineering programs in the USA, and I will be forever indebted to him. After I came to USA, he had his graduate student worked upon the project and submitted a paper (I was surprised to be listed as co-author) including the survey section and simulations I did an year ago.

One of the reviewers pointed that the survey section has been almost a replica of X's works. The reviewer added that, although X's works has been cited, word plagiarism is still relevant. I got disappointed and wrote my mentor and email apologizing for letting him down. He didn't reply.

Now, it's been six months since the review came, and I really wish to reconcile with him. What can I do ?

few clarifications

The plagiarism was using 3-4 sentences from various papers without double quotes but properly cited. Also, half of my citations were same as X's works. It happened because, my survey was about major techniques in a field while X's surveys were about techniques in a subfield of the field.

I emailed the professor only once. He didn't reply and I never emailed him again.

I never knew how my section was going to be used because the project-work was incomplete. When his graduate student finished the work, he immediately submitted the paper and informed me after the submission. I should have got time to review something I did an year back.

  • 2
    Your title says (unintentional), but your last paragraph sounds like you copied the text. Did you copy the words or not? – user-2147482637 Jun 19 '15 at 3:52
  • I believe I copied a few sentences without double quotes and cited the source. However, my question is not about plagiarism. Rather, it is about how to get back to my old mentor. – GKS Jun 19 '15 at 3:57
  • 4
    the reality of what you did is very relevant to how to get back to your mentor. If everything you wrote was original and unique, except one line was written without quotes, the way in which you need to approach your mentor is very different than if you had copied the entire structure of another paper as well as not quoting multiple parts. How you explained your work being finished is also relevant. If you made it seem you had checked your work before leaving, it is different than if you thought you left unfinished work. – user-2147482637 Jun 19 '15 at 7:17
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    Remember, proffessors are often very busy, and receive a lot of emails. Just because he didn't reply to one email doesn't mean he's snubbed you: its entirely possible (and even likely) that it simply got lost and/or forgotten in his inbox – Landric Jun 19 '15 at 11:36
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    reading the title, i thought the accusations (not the plagiarism) were unintentional and you directed them at your prof. – henning Jun 19 '15 at 15:08
18

Nobody is going to mention that the OP's old mentor put undergraduate work directly into a publication (i) without checking that it met professional-level standards of academic honesty and (ii) without informing the undergraduate that this was being done or that he was being added as a coauthor? In my view, these transgressions are equally bad or a bit worse than including a few sentences without quotation marks from sources that have been cited in a survey paper.

In my opinion there is a good chance that the mentor is embarrassed that these lapses of his own have been exposed, which complicates the OP's situation. I am surprised that other answers seem determined to pin this all on the OP. @Scott Seidman suggests that the OP contact the editor:

I think an email to the editor involved, cc'ed to your mentor, taking responsibility (without qualifiers) and stating that none of the other authors were in a position to recognize or correct this prior submission,

In my view the mentor was in the position to recognize and correct academic cultural errors made by his undergraduate mentee, and since the OP was not involved in the preparation or submission of the manuscript in any way, the responsibility for this clearly lies at least partially (and I would argue, primarily) with the mentor. Sending such an email to the editor could just call attention to his poor mentorship and supervision: i.e., it could actually make it worse. (Pro tip: don't contact an editor about something unless you're sure all your coauthors are on board. If there is any real doubt, clear it with them explicitly. If someone is not returning your emails, you can't do this.)

The OP is not blameless in the situation: he made a mistake, and a mistake involving what sounds like a borderline instance of academic dishonesty. He should apologize to his old mentor -- which he has done -- and move on. I would recommend that the OP continue to treat his mentor like an old mentor: i.e., send him occasional emails keeping him up to date on his current academic life. I would certainly not assume that someone never wants to hear from me again based on a single unanswered email. But ultimately the mentor should know that he made mistakes as well, from a position of far more experience and responsibility. It does not fall on the OP to take any kind of heroic or (especially) self-abnegating measures to remedy the situation. One hopes that eventually these two people can move past one negative interaction amid many other good ones.

  • I agree, although my answer is based on lack of knowledge in the situation. It seems strange the advisor would actually do this, and I only can assume it is more likely that the undergrad was considered a researcher on the project and expected to be fulfilling duties as a co-author (or maybe this is how the advisor felt) and as such, chalking it up to a misunderstanding on the undergrads side of lacking responsibility might just be a safer approach – user-2147482637 Jun 19 '15 at 16:43
  • An interesting perspective. However, I believe, he had some confidence on me because of the first project (original idea, no survey kind of thing) which resulted in two good publications. Hence, I don't want to blame my mentor. It just turned out that I am not as reliable as he thought me to be, and this makes me sad. I am going to send an email to him, probably a long one. And even if he doesn't reply, I will be sending him info about my academic life in future. – GKS Jun 19 '15 at 17:06
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    @GKS: I'm not asking you to blame your mentor and certainly not suggesting that you allude to such matters in any contact with him. But the truth is that he bears some responsibility here. Whenever you include material from coauthors you have some responsibility to check that it is correct. If you can't directly check the work to your satisfaction then you need to have careful conversations with them about what they did. – Pete L. Clark Jun 19 '15 at 17:53
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    Grabbing someone's work and putting it in a paper without contacting them about it at all is really not acceptable, no matter who the person is. In my opinion it's worse if it's an undergraduate -- by definition this is someone who is still getting training at the most basic level -- but that's really a matter of degree (pun not intended). – Pete L. Clark Jun 19 '15 at 17:56
  • Absolutely agree with this answer. It's not okay to submit a paper without a coauthor's consent or knowledge. – Jim Conant Jun 19 '15 at 18:27
6

If you are in the US and you professor is in India, I don't think a viable option is to visit him (at least for now). That leaves you with email and phone. If your professor doesn't answer emails, you could try to call him. However, that might be really awkward, given that he doesn't even send you an angry/disappointed/indifferent email. I don't know how many times you tried to email him, but I would try at about 2-3 times. If you get no response, leave it be, you won't get any benefits from spamming him.

If you get the chance, visit him and try to work it out eye-to-eye. Ultimately, though, I wouldn't go out of my way to reconcile with him at all costs. Some people just don't forget/forgive some slight, regardless if it was intended or not. In my opinion, if you already reached out and explained your "unintentional mistake", that's as far as I would go. Now it is your professor's turn to reply. If he doesn't want to, you can't force him, nor let that fact run your life.

  • Thanks for the reply. I just added a few clarifications. – GKS Jun 19 '15 at 11:31
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    "Ultimately, though, I wouldn't go out of my way to reconcile with him at all costs." This is very important. Sometimes, we screw up and everything we can do is learn from it and move on. True for all kinds of relationships. – xLeitix Jun 19 '15 at 11:42
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    It is possible the e-mail didn't reach the professor, or it could have been automatically sent to the spam folder. It's also possible that the e-mail address is no longer valid. – Joel Reyes Noche Jun 19 '15 at 12:11
4

It is hard to know for sure how 'bad' your plagiarism was without personally reviewing it, but from what you explain, I do not think your situation is that bad.

As others have mentioned, professors are busy, and as you emailed once, it could be that he does not have time to reply, is working on something before replying, or just forgot.

If you would like to follow-up, I would suggest apologizing while giving your explanation you gave here. As long as it's honest, and how it sounds to me, you can apologize not for plagarizing only, but more about misunderstanding the situation and the work you left behind.

Explaining it as you have here, something along the lines of (but in your way, I'm not the best at writing these letters, nor understand the cultural nuances you will have to include):

Dear Professor,

I am sorry to find out I have caused problems for you with the literature review I had done. At the time, I had not felt it was completed as there were outstanding issues such as the lack of originality and the heavy reliance on past reviews. I was surprised to find I was being included as a co-author on the submitted manuscript, and realize I should have mentioned the problems with my review at that time. I hope you do not feel I had done this intentionally. If you would like me to redo the review properly in order for it to be submitted again please let me know.

Sincerely,

GKS

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