While writing the literature review for my doctoral dissertation, I picked up a few recent dissertations on similar topics from the library to get some pointers on references and style. As I was reading some of the articles cited in one of these theses, I discovered that this person had lifted large blocks of text from the cited works verbatim. Although the original works were cited, the borrowed text was not presented as a quote, but used directly in the thesis.

I checked a few more, just out of curiosity, and realized that basically the whole literature review by this author (who graduated with a PhD two years ago) was cut-and-paste verbatim quotes strung together (and who knows how much more of the thesis is plagiarized - I only checked this one chapter).

This really ticks me off, as I (and many students like me) spend a great deal of time reworking cited information into proper coherent explanations for our projects. I happen to know the offending author's advisor pretty well, as we currently work together outside of my graduate program.

Should I say something or should I just let this person get away with plagiarizing large parts of their dissertation?


I still don't know what I will do about this -- no-one wants to be a tattle-tale, and it really isn't any of my business how other people go about getting their doctorates. However, as I am currently writing my dissertation, it really irks me when I see someone else getting away with this, as I know from experience how much hard work goes into writing a PhD thesis.

I just have one more comment -- I ran the chapter in question through the TurnItIn software, which I have access to as an instructor at my institution. The thesis came back as 52% unoriginal. Turnitin only counts exact matches, so the 52% figure doesn't even include some of the paragraphs that I caught, where the author has changed one or two words but kept the sentence structure.

I doubt that there would be any legal consequences, even if I report the thesis for plagiarism -- it is more a question of academic dishonesty and what steps the institution that awarded the degree would take. I will show it to my advisor and see what he says before I do anything.

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    If you know the author's advisor pretty well, starting with an informal chat might be a good way. If you don't want to talk to him directly ... Well, there's this other question I see, that might be, um, 'interesting'. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/10733/…
    – hunter2
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 8:39
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    If you do not want to put your name to the accusation there is nothing to prevent you from contacting the relevant person or body anonymously. Disposable e-mail addresses are easy to come by or you could simply post an anonymous letter to the relevant person. Commented Aug 3, 2013 at 11:09
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    You should prepare yourself for a possible extremely hostile reaction from the offender's adviser, since this reflects very poorly on the adviser. If the adviser knew about the problem, the adviser is complicit in the plagiarism. If the adviser didn't know, it suggests that the adviser supervised an entire dissertation without having read the relevant primary literature. For someone in your position, just starting out in an academic career, it might be safer to notify the victims of the plagiarism and let them take action.
    – user1482
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 4:43
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    I'm assuming, although you haven't clearly stated it, that the thesis author is not a co-author of any of the work reused in this fashion. It probably also makes a difference if the earlier work came out of the same research group, as permission for such use may have been obtained (of course it should have been somehow disclosed, but perhaps not directly adjacent). I did obtain permission from my lab director to reuse some problem-defining text from grant applications, although I ended up not using it. Please clarify the connection between the authors of the thesis and cited works.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 14:50
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    I would recommend to act annonimously since you are in a weak position. I think it would help others who are now in the same scenario as you were to know how this story ended.
    – user39373
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 3:21

8 Answers 8


This is of course a sensitive issue. However, the ethically correct behavior is to notify someone responsible about the problem. Etiquette says to go to the advisor first, as the advisor is the person who, after the author who committed the plagiarism, stands to lose the most from the accusation.

However, if you feel squeamish about doing it by yourself, you can talk to your advisor about the best way to proceed.

The main issue on your part is if you will need to rely on the plagiarizer's advisor for recommendation letters. Then you should definitely proceed with caution, and with the support of your advisor, department administrators, or both.

Of course, make sure that you've done your due diligence before going public with your charges, and to have the evidence with you when you meet with anyone about this matter.

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    I'd strongly recommend going to your advisor first.
    – Suresh
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 1:12
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    Just for further emphasis, take it slow, and be cautious. Also prepare to be disappointed and angered, there's a non-zero chance that the first response will be to ignore you and hope it all goes away. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 1:53
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    @LukeMathieson or even get angry with you for exposing them... Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 14:19
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    Etiquette says to go to the advisor first. There is no etiquette for this situation. IndyJ is in an extremely vulnerable position. If IndyJ thinks the adviser is ethical and wants to help the adviser salvage his/her reputation, IndyJ could notify the adviser first, anonymously, then wait a month and anonymously notify the victims of the plagiarism and let them take action.
    – user1482
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 4:47
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    OP - agree with this. It doesn't really affect you. It won't change anything, and its going to piss people off. If you are so inclined, mail the dean of the school after you graduate. Focus on getting out instead of crap like this (i've seen it too).
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 20:18

My institution has a commitee in charge of this, does yours not have anything similar? There you can report such findings (even anonymously since the evidence is not depending on the person providing it). They will then decide upon the procedure to be followed.

Revoking a title is not an easy procedure in any case, also as there are large numbers of personal relationships entangled in it. I just know that almost any case where something like this happened, it ended in court.


The person did provide the citations, so for me it is not clear if legally this person did something wrong. I would first try and find this out before taking any steps. Of course, I would not accept this kind of verbatim copying if I were a supervisor. The angle on takes in an article is always a bit different than in the cited work. In addition, paraphrasing the text shows that you have understood what was written.

And be carefull how you deal with this, some people would not appreciate you being a snitch (in their view). However, I agree with @aeismail that it is the scientifically ethical thing to do to at least report this. And do get some backup from your own supervisor/professor.

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    What do you mean by "legally"? Copyright violation? I don't think the law is the right framework for looking at this (if it's legal, that doesn't make it ethical, and if it's illegal, it's certainly not at a level where anyone would try to enforce it in court). Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 16:39
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    One outcome of this is that the person in question is going to lose their PhD if the plagiarism is proven. Then, it will be important that in a legal sense plagiarism can be proven. If it is going to be a warning of some sort, the legal part may be less important. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 16:55
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    Hmm, I wonder whether this is country-dependent. In the U.S. I don't think there are laws governing plagiarism except for copyright law, and the decision of revoking a degree is based on university policies rather than law. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 17:19
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    AFAIK, copyright law doesn't care about attribution: you can't copy substantial passages verbatim, with or without citation. However, copyright violation would have to be pursued by the copyright holder (the original author), and this would be independent of any actions the plagiarist's institution might take. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 18:48
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    @AnonymousMathematician: "the decision of revoking a degree is based on university policies rather than law": True, but the person whose degree is revoked might well decide to sue, claiming the decision was unfair, malicious, etc, etc. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 18:49

One possible course of action is to talk to the student's advisor about a "hypothetical," that is, ask him how he would feel if he were told that someone had plagiarized a PhD thesis in such-and-such a way.

One possible result is that he is entirely surprised, or better yet, indignant. Then you can follow up with your secret and tell him the truth about his student.

Another possibility is that he winks and then says something like "yeah, these things happen from time to time." If that's the case, he "knows," and then it's up to you to decide (from a political point of view), whether or not to bring it to his official knowledge.

This idea came from a novel, "Strong Medicine" by Arthur Haley, where a young doctor went to his hospital CEO to inquire about how he should advise a "friend" to report that a senior doctor (his boss) was operating under the influence of drugs. The CEO said, "I don't want to deal with problems from another hospital, but tell your "friend" to keep his mouth shut," then winked at the young doctor and told him how valuable the boss was to his hospital.

The young doctor had his answer.

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    The analogy is interesting, though there is certainly a gap between a PhD student copying work about the usage of commas in ancient French between 1743 and 1792 in Toulouse, and a doctor operating while high. I understand that this is obviously a novel and everything but the young doctor, in the second case, may commit a felony by not reporting that (IANAL but it looks quite so). The first case surely reduces our knowledge about comma usage in the past but the risk for current population is somehow limited.
    – WoJ
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 16:01
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    "Hi, random professor, I want to know your opinion on this completely hypothetical scenario, that is totally invented." Sounds to me as convincing as "a friend of mine that is totally not me has this embarrassing question about drugs"
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 23:15

If I understand you correctly, the only place in which text is known to have been lifted was the literature review. While it is inappropriate to do so, it's possible that only the phrasing can be considered as plagiarized (and even that, like @PaulHiemstra states, is not exactly the case since the author did cite the sources).

In other words, you do not have evidence that the actual research presented in the thesis is original and not lifted from anyone. That means one cannot claim that "large parts of the... dissertation" are plagiarized. Now, in theory, some other content could be plagiarized as well, but I would avoid suggesting this is the case.

Anyway, based on what you know there is nothing which merits a reconsideration of the awarding of the title. At most, the Ph.D. candidate should have been chided for failing to cite clearly enough, and require to resubmit his dissertation so that the literature review is less copy-pasty.

However, the dissertation's readers / examination committee should have picked up on this. They weren't doing their job and that's actually a different problem, which is even more important to address (among other reasons, because of the possibility they may have missed a more material plagiarism)

With that said, I think it is your duty as an academic to act here. My suggestion for the order of actions is as follows:

  1. Inform your own advisor of this matter, letting him know you're going to talk to the dissertation author's advisor. Don't ask for his permission or anything - but he might have some relevant cautionary information.
  2. Talk to the dissertation author's advisor. Tell him that the dissertation needs to be corrected, or at least an erratum added on all relevant pages in the physical and on-line copies. Ask him to contact his previous advisee (is that a word?) about it, as though he (the advisor) noticed it himself, to make the advisee feel less uncomfortable and more obliged to act.
  3. If the advisor agrees, you're done with this part (well, you'll need to check up on him). Stop reading this list
  4. Tell him you intend to continue to pursue this despite his refusal.
  5. Contact the dissertation author and ask that he address the problem.
  6. If the author doesn't agree, write the both of them and threaten to report them (now they're both at fault; maybe the advisor already knew and didn't care).
  7. If that doesn't work, try your grad student union / junior researcher union, and specifically your department's union rep. Don't have one? Too bad... anyway, the union might have some ability to apply pressure and the interest to uphold academic professionalism; and ratting someone out to his union is not as bad as ratting him out to the university authorities.
  8. Talk to someone like the vice-dean in charge of graduate researchers, or a corresponding relatively-low-level official in charge of oversight of Ph.D. candidates' academic progress. (I mean someone in an academic capacity, not an administrative one).
  9. Talk to your dean / department head.
  10. If all else fails, publish an open letter. Make sure it's very polite, vitriol-free, makes no unfounded assumptions and does not demand anyone's head on a platter, merely that the issue be addressed and that the principles of professional academic behavior be better adhered to.

With this resolved, consider trying to talk to whoever in your university is in charge of appointing dissertation reader / examiner committees for Ph.D. candidates. There should be some kind of effort on his/her part to ensure committee members understand they need to notice such things.

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    There is no such thing as "only" a part of a dissertation is plagiarized. It is one indivisible piece of work! If they plagiarized in one section, how do you know that the others are not, if they have demonstrated a willingness to cut corners? You just don't know! It is bad academic practice to just copy someone elses literature review without reading the literature yourself. The person you are copying from may have made mistakes that you are propagating. The opiod crisis, for example, is partially due to a heavily copied reference that was quite wrong. Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 17:46
  • @DeboraWeber-Wulff: "It is one indivisible piece of work!" <- Not only is it divisible, it is already divided into chapters and sections. "If they plagiarized in one section, how do you know that the others are not" <- I only know what OP knows; and we know that the thesis has been reviewed by knowledgeable experts who did not notice any plagiarism. Still, you have a point and I'll edit my answer accordingly. As for the US opioid crisis - I am not aware of what you're referring to and we'd probably better not discuss that here in the comments.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 17:56
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    in case after case of German law, courts have found that a thesis is submitted in one piece. That is, you can't say: Oh, but the rest is fine, because you don't know about the rest. The copying of references without checking what they say is discussed here nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1700150 with reference to this letter to the editor nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198001103020221 stating that opiods are not addictive. One should always check a reference and never just copy it. Commented Dec 24, 2020 at 23:05
  • @DeboraWeber-Wulff: 1. OP has not suggested they are in Germany. 2. German law does not decide what's true in principle and what isn't - only what's legal in Germany and what isn't. 3. The fact that a thesis is "submitted in one piece" does not mean that there is "no such thing as only a part of a dissertation is plagiarized."
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 24, 2020 at 23:27
  • my point is, that you just don't KNOW if there is plagiarism in the rest of the thesis! Software cannot find all plagiarism as it does not have access to all sources (and can't deal with translation plagiarism anyway). But if someone has demonstrated a willingness to plagiarize in one portion, why would you believe that the rest is okay? Where there is smoke, there is fire. Commented Dec 26, 2020 at 9:34

A lot of posts have already touched on the delicacy of this issue, and the vulnerable position the OP is in. I agree whole heartedly, especially if your field intersects with this other person's field, as it presumably does.

Ethically, I think you're bound to report this; at the same time I don't think you're bound to make your own career path more difficult over it. The obvious solution to me then, is to do it anonymously.

Create a random free email address somewhere without any identifying info involved, address your letter to a few appropriate people, and explain nothing about how you came upon the info. Simply report exactly what you found, then be done with it. I don't think it's your duty to make sure action is taken once you've appropriately reported it. I do think one of the places you send it to needs to be an impartial university body though, like the registrar.

You don't go straight to the advisor who oversaw it, or only to your department, because worrying only about damage control isn't ethical either, and you would be potentially placing them in ethical conundrums as well. I also don't think you go to your advisor, because then you're just punting a difficult thing that has a clear right answer on to someone else. You're also potentially attaching your name to it; most departments are talkative places.

As you described it, it seems like several people did something wrong and there probably should be consequences. If you help them avoid any consequences, are you complicit when it happens again? I would think so.

Edit: I just noticed this is a necro'd old post, so hopefully this is useful for others besides the OP

  • 1
    I agree with this answer. Please, if you report it, do it anonymously. I was in a similar situation and I reported it. After it was determined that the two students in question did, in fact, plagiarise in their theses, I lost my faculty job due to the bad feeling toward me because I reported it. After several years, one of the former PhD students is still working there after several years, and the other is continuing his career elsewhere. Neither student even had to issue an erratum for his thesis. My career, on the other hand, is in ruins. If you can't report it anonymously, just let it go. Commented May 17, 2017 at 12:28

I strongly advise not to contact the supervisor of the other student directly. I have seen my share of scientific misconduct while i was in research and most of the time when a student crossed the line so hard the supervisor was either ignorant to it, tolerating it or outright encouraging it.

While i would have trusted my supervisor to do the right thing (i informed him about shady things and he reacted appropriately) this is where it gets tricky: If your supervisor and the other supervisor are friends it could end up not so well, but you should know your supervisor good enough to know.

So you could try go via you supervisor, inform he ombudsman or corresponding committee anonymously, or you could wait after you have your PHD until you notify the institution.


I'd recommend you to stay anonymous since your professors will be hostile to anything that reflects poorly on them and their institution. For example, they've been unable to just use Turnitin as a basic checker.

There are plagiarism hunters online who dissect theses for fun and entertainment. This might be a place to start.

In addition, you should contact the plagiarized sources.

Lastly, let chatgpt write all of your anonymous emails, so you don't give away your personal writing style.

It's important to point out academic misbehavior and you should have no second thoughts about doing so. Just take care of yourself in the process.

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