What penalties might be imposed for a postdoc taking the work of multiple graduate students (even from other institutions) and passing it off as his own without even providing an acknowledgment of their effort?

I understand that in cases where this is suspected, an email is sent out to the journal editor presenting evidence (e.g., lab notebooks, prior conference presentations, etc.).

But graduate students don't have much say-power. Even if they provide ample evidence, this is still possibly not enough because of the academic ladder and the seniority of the postdoc/PI involved. I just don't see an editor stepping in for a graduate student(s). It sounds ridiculous.

At the end of the day, what are the possible penalties/sanctions for such a practice (besides for the proverbially useless and mild "slap on the wrist")?

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    I have edited the question to incorporate your comments on this answer and cleaned up comments about the answer in its old form. – ff524 Aug 7 '15 at 14:50
  • Related academia.stackexchange.com/q/2730/10643 – Cape Code Aug 7 '15 at 15:20
  • @ff524: Since the question now asks something completely different, such that the existing answers no longer make sense, would it have been better to simply ask a new question (or encourage OP to do so)? – Nate Eldredge Aug 7 '15 at 15:25
  • @Nate ordinarily that would be the case; but I read both existing answers and they both seem to have followed along with the OP's comments. I think if the existing answers remove the references to "ghost authorship" they apply to the question the OP meant to ask. – ff524 Aug 7 '15 at 15:27

What you are describing just looks like regular old plagiarism to me. (It doesn't matter if Y is willing to let X plagiarize; it is still plagiarism.) As such, I would think the immediate consequence for the plagiarizing author would be:

At a minimum, 1. The journal editor retracts the plagiarized paper, and posts a notice in the journal about the retraction. 2. The journal editor contacts the dean of the faculty at the plagiarist's institution to inform them of the plagiarism.

Now those two consequences are already pretty bad. 1 shoots your reputation in the field, and makes people start to suspect your other work. 2 endangers your current job at your institution. Universities (rightly) don't want plagiarists on their faculties and academic misconduct is one of the ways to fire even a tenured faculty member.


After seeing that your situation concerns a postdoc stealing work from grad students, I want to add that I think you're opinion that a journal editor or PI wouldn't care is false. This is serious, career-ending stuff you're talking about here though, so you need to do two things: (1) gather and examine the evidence and make sure you can prove (in the sense of prove that would stand up in a courtroom) that the postdoc has stolen work from someone else. You need emails, or arxiv documents, or some kind of documentation that author X created the work, and postdoc Y submitted it for publication. If you don't have that, then it's going to turn in to a matter of the grad student's word against the post-docs and that will probably go poorly, for everybody involved. (2) You need to go to a senior, tenured professor in your department whom you trust completely. Take that person the documented evidence you collected, and ask him or her what should be done. This person is going to tell you one of three things:

  • "No, there wasn't wrongdoing here." (This could be a sign that your department's culture is really bad, in which the grad student should keep his or her mouth closed and simply get out as fast as possible.)
  • "Yes, there was probably wrongdoing here, but you don't have enough evidence to prove it." (This seems most likely to me. It means bringing the issue up is likely going to make the grad student look as bad as the perpetrator, so just keep your mouth shut and don't share your results with the perp in the future.)
  • "Yes this is wrongdoing and it's provable, so now you/we should . . ." (This is the best outcome, and I think probably the least likely, but what will come after the dots will be the university or the fields standard grievance procedure. Ask this professor to join you in making the accusation--it will have much more weight coming from him or her, unfortunately.)

The sanctions are usually very light. Sanctions depends on institutions' willingness to reprimand the perpetrators.

In the case where this person is copying earlier conference contributions and claiming them as their own, it's a clear case of plagiarism. If the conference contribution is archived in a way, notifying the journal will result in the retraction of the paper. This will hurt the plagiarist's reputation possibly at the cost of a prospective employment opportunity.

In the case where a person "steals work of two graduate students, passes it off as his own" in the absence of publications that shows the work is effectively the students' journals are faced with a "someone's word against someone else's" situation. Often journals defer the responsibility of investigating to the author's institution. This can be a lengthy process with disappointing outcomes for the students.

All of this is off course highly unethical and all reputable journals will want to retract papers if they learn they weren't written by the alleged authors. But it's not illegal per se and "sanctions" range from nothing (the most frequent case) to a few years of publication ban, and in extreme cases: getting fired.

Some reading on the topic:

Arizona prof plagiarizes student’s thesis, gets reprimanded, but keeps her job

Heads up: “Borrowing” your student’s work will earn you a partial retraction — and a five-year publishing ban

If besides being interested in "what are the sanctions" you are wondering what you can do about it, my recommendation would be:

  • explore all internal reporting routes: report the behavior to this person's adviser, or to the dean.
  • If all fail (i.e. if they do not ask for the authorship record to be straighten) contact the journal's editors.

In all cases, be prepared to substantiate your claims. You mentioned you have lab notebook, or even conference publications to show that the material is not original. That is good. Don't expect a harsh punishment but at least the papers should be retracted.

(This answer has been adapted to the latest changes in the question)

  • I find it quite strange that you mention "nothing" as the most frequent case of "sanctions". How is that possible? If potential "sanctions" against students usually are clearly stated in a code of conduct or similar document, I highly doubt that strict measures, including termination, are not spelled out in employment contracts in academia and enforced accordingly. – Aleksandr Blekh Aug 7 '15 at 8:15
  • @AleksandrBlekh Ok I didn't count students in my answer. Sadly, many academic institutions have no such thing as a code of conduct regarding shady authorship procedures. – Cape Code Aug 7 '15 at 8:20
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    Such power positions can (unfortunately) be relevant within an institution, but a journal is outside the institution and they have a reputation to uphold. So, if there is evidence, then I do suspect a journal editor taking steps. Within an instution things become more complex, but a postdoc is not so high up the ladder that I expect that to matter. As far as a university is concerned both PhD students and postdocs are at the bottom of the pecking order. Status is more likely to play a role when you accuse a professor. – Maarten Buis Aug 7 '15 at 9:50
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    @suka_snake What you have it mind seems to be a plain plagiarism, which is (1) highly unethical (2) criminal offence. – yo' Aug 7 '15 at 10:29
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    @yo' in which country is plagiarism a "criminal offense"? – Cape Code Aug 7 '15 at 10:45

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