A year ago a professor at my department and her grad student had plagiarized a journal paper and published it. The paper was retracted, and the journal published a clear notice that it was due to serious fraud, as several paragraphs and the results were stolen (verbatim) from a previously published paper.

However, it seems that I am still the only one at my department who knows about this misconduct, probably because people do not follow that journal.

The retracted paper is still listed in the publications of both researchers in the university database and in their CVs, and what is most appalling, the grad student looks like he will get his PhD degree in a few months, based on the work of someone else. In short, it looks like no one will have any consequences, and moreover that they ignore the retraction.

As an academic I find it as a duty to expose this case, but I don’t know how to proceed, and if it's worth pursuing this. The thing is that I am not in a developed country in which universities have a firm attitude about plagiarism, and also people here at universities are politically connected and protect each other.

If notified, the head of the department (and anyone else high in the organization) probably wouldn’t like to mess with it in order to avoid conflicts and degrading the image of the institution, and since I am low in the hierarchy I cannot do much myself, and moreover I am risking my own career. But this is not something that can be swept under the carpet...

What should I do?


Thank you for the response, I did not expect this question to be so popular. While I was thinking what to do, the grad student suddenly quit. The professor did not know about the plagiarism and did not try to cover up the retraction. I don't know the details because there are only rumors, but I suspect the student was forced to quit after the professor (and co-author) became aware of this.

I am surprised with the positive outcome. I would like to underline vsz's comment: "Many people in the West underestimate how much corruption there can be at universities in less developed countries." Such turn of events is not typical for my country, so questions like mine should not be surprising...

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    NOTHING! not your mentor, not your group, not your business, – SSimon May 3 '16 at 11:11
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    On the contrary, it's certainly your business. This is not a subtle or debatable case: there's no excuse whatsoever for copying results verbatim from a previously published paper. Every academic has a duty to oppose outright fraud, regardless of whose mentor or group it involves. The only issue is how to do it in a way that could be effective, won't be a burden on you, and won't jeopardize your career. – Anonymous Mathematician May 3 '16 at 12:03
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    Exactly. It's your department, too. If the reputation of your department is at stake, then that also affects you personally. So it is your business. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 3 '16 at 13:01
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    from: anon@gmail.com, to: department_head, dean, president, Subject: Please take a look at this. – WernerCD May 3 '16 at 14:53
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    @WernerCD : Many people in the West underestimate how much corruption there can be at universities in less developed countries. There are places where the deans and most department heads are put there as puppets by the political elite, and it is an open secret that they did not do almost any work by themselves, but hired or coerced others. – vsz May 3 '16 at 19:58
up vote 56 down vote accepted

If you were in a position of more influence (e.g. a faculty member) or if you were a student at a university where you could be confident that the general attitude coincides with your own (such as most universities in the USA or Europe, at the very least), then I wouldn't hesitate a moment to notify the dean, and escalate the case further as necessary. No respectable institution would turn a blind eye to this, not least because of the eventual embarrassment when it comes out in the press that they graduated a student whose thesis was known to be plagiarized.

It's hard for me to say what you should do in your situation, because I've never been affiliated with a place that didn't "have a firm attitude about plagiarism". But given that the indictment of plagiarism is already public, you might approach this from the angle of protecting the institution. That is, you could cautiously approach the department chair and explain that you're worried about the negative publicity the department (and the university) may be subject to based on what is happening. You don't need or want to suggest that you're going to approach the press and create that publicity -- everything is already out in the open, anyway! You also shouldn't suggest what the consequences for the plagiarists should be. You're only working to protect the good name of your institution. In this way perhaps you can address the problem with someone in authority such that you are both on the same side.

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    I agree with this comment. I'd suggest that you do this anonymously, however. Send a polite, but firm email to the dean (or whichever administrator is over your department) and to the head of the department informing them about the retraction and expressing worry about the standards of your department and the negative publicity your university will likely get from allowing these faculty to continue on. – shane May 3 '16 at 12:16
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    Just like shane, I also tend to approve this answer, with the addition of anonimity – Blue_Elephant May 3 '16 at 12:30
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    If you wish to be anonymous, I would avoid the email then! A screenshot of the retraction notice, including the why, can be slipped under doors late at night, or put in an inter-departmental envelope without a 'From' line. – Jon Custer May 3 '16 at 12:47
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    I don't like the suggestion of anonymity. I feel that personal integrity means being willing to stand behind this. In some cases, such a choice may have a high cost, but in this case it seems very unlikely to harm the accuser, unless the organization completely lacks integrity. – user24098 May 4 '16 at 11:16
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    Actually, not knowing exactly who knows about the incident might provoke the dean to take a stronger stance. If you put a name on yourself you are fairly low ranking, but as an anonymous informant you can possibly be more than one person in influential positions (in the eyes of the acting party). – kleineg May 4 '16 at 18:14

This is a difficult situation, because if your suspicions are correct, then there is remarkably unethical behavior going on. On the other hand, I wonder whether it's not quite as bad as it sounds. Submitting a dissertation containing a paper that has already been investigated and publicly retracted for plagiarism would require incredible chutzpah, and it would put the student in great danger of having the degree revoked after the fact if anyone noticed the retracted paper (for example, whoever originally brought it to the publisher's attention). It's possible that the student has removed this paper from the dissertation, while still listing it in his CV with no indication of the retraction. The CV would still be unethical, but not as dramatically unethical as including the paper in the dissertation. So the first issue is to try to figure out whether it's really the case that the student "will get his PhD degree in a few months, based on the work of someone else", or whether this is primarily about the CVs and university database.

Once you have pinned down exactly what you see as the problem, I'd recommend raising the issue anonymously. That might be a little less effective, but it's not worth even a modest risk to your career. I see three options:

  1. The nice approach is to write first to the student and/or advisor, to give them a chance to repent and correct the situation (and to alert them that their behavior has not gone unnoticed). They could always try a face-saving excuse, for example that they simply forgot to update their CVs and the database. If they then do so, the problem may be solved. On the other hand, alerting them might give them more time to try to line up administrative support, if the situation is truly dysfunctional. I don't think you have any obligation to write to them, so it's up to you, based on what you foresee as plausible outcomes.

  2. Assuming you don't write to the student and advisor directly, or if they do not fix the problem, I'd recommend writing to several key administrators to raise the issue (department chair, dean, provost, whoever is appropriate at your university). It will be most effective if you describe the situation in a way that doesn't put them on the defensive or involve systemic criticism of the institution. Instead, the purpose is just to alert them to the facts. I'd recommend writing to several administrators in the same e-mail, so they can each see who has been notified. (The point is to remove the excuse of "I never did anything about this because nobody ever told me", since the dean knows the department chair knows and vice versa.) At this stage you could also alert the authors of the plagiarized paper to the situation.

  3. If you are convinced there's a major ethical problem that the administration is deliberately covering up, then you could take a more dramatic approach. There are any number of groups you could publicize this to anonymously: journalists, other faculty at your university, the ministry of education or the equivalent in your country, any relevant professional societies, etc. At this point you'll really upset people and make the university look bad, so I'd recommend holding off on this unless you reach the point where you see no better option.

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    Upon reaching step 3, one possible avenue of making all this public is Retraction Watch. – Stephan Kolassa May 3 '16 at 14:15
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    @StephanKolassa: Great idea! – Anonymous Mathematician May 3 '16 at 14:17
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    At this point you'll really upset people and make the university look bad - which is of course self-inflicted harm. – Kimball May 4 '16 at 4:59
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    +1 for "not worth even a modest risk to your career". If you are going to do any communications, @user53555, make sure to do it anonymously. And you could use a throwaway/temporary email address from a public machine. That would make it impossible to trace back to you. – Faheem Mitha May 4 '16 at 8:33

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