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I committed plagiarism at the end of my PhD. My psychiatrist found that the plagiarism is related to a psychiatric disorder (mental health problem). I have published many papers in top journals and this behavior was clearly out of character.

I was asked to voluntarily withdraw from my PhD program. However, I have a psychiatric explanation, and I have a psychiatrist who can vouch that my mental health issues have been resolved and there should be no further incidents in the future.

After taking time off to get treated and to recover, now I am considering applying to PhD programs again.

However, I am facing a question from most universities that I am applying to. Is there any hope for a student who committed misconduct that is related to a disability?

I am nervous about this application. Can anyone help me figure out how to deal with this issue in a proper way?

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    This conversation has quickly veered off-topic. This conversation has been moved to chat. Please keep comments related to the question itself. – eykanal Oct 10 '17 at 15:32
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    Psychiatrists are famous for having pet, unproven, theories. Unless you can get several corroborating diagnoses, I don't see why anyone should accept that you have a condition which forces you to plagiarize. – Carl Witthoft Oct 13 '17 at 15:37
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    The question does not state why you did this. It is also unclear if the psychiatric reason is genuinely felt by you or just a convenient excuse. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Oct 14 '17 at 10:13
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    @Carl Witthroft I have two psychiatrists who agree. Is that good enough? – J. Doe Oct 14 '17 at 22:32
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    You should formulate it more thoroughly. It's the first time I hear about a psychiatric condition that causes plagiarism. That sounds like BS excuse, sorry. – Pierre B Oct 15 '17 at 20:49

11 Answers 11

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It's not easy to understand how a mental health issue can lead to plagiarism, and it's less clear still how a medical practitioner could reach the conclusion that a specific instance of plagiarism was a consequence of a mental health issue. Unless those things can be documented and explained in a credible way, it is unlikely people will overlook the circumstance.

If people can be convinced that the plagiarism was a consequence of a mental health issue beyond the plagiarist's control there remains the issue of convincing them that it will not be repeated. Since plagiarism is professionally unacceptable, its cause, while relevant in a moral sense, is not relevant in a practical sense; someone who plagiarizes cannot work as an academic professional, whether or not that person is morally responsible for the plagiarism. Consequently, even people who have accepted the difficult to believe claim that the plagiarist could not control committing the past plagiarism will have to be convinced that he/she can always control him/herself in the future.

Summary: people have to be convinced the plagiarism resulted from a mental health issue, and people have to be convinced that the mental health issue will not recur. Convincing an admissions committee of either seems difficult. There are many people trying to get into PhD programs, and those deciding on admissions generally are reluctant to dedicate resources to candidates who they judge to be at risk of not completing the program. The slightest hint of a lack of forthrightness or an unwillingness to accept responsibility is likely to condemn the application of a candidate who has already failed to complete a PhD program for the reasons described.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 15 '17 at 3:12
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You can't really hide the fact that you were dismissed for plagiarism. If you do, and it comes to light later, that can be sufficient grounds to have your admission revoked (or to be expelled).

If you're asked, then you need to be straightforward about it—explain the entire situation briefly and cogently. Explain what happened and why it happened, and why the universities to which you're applying can be certain that it won't happen again. If you can't make that argument, your chances of success will be quite small.

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    I agree about being upfront about it. I wouldn't want to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. I was wondering if there was any advice about how to explain it briefly and cogently. I've seen a few doctors, and all agree an undiagnosed illness explains it. The only thing I can say is that I've undergone therapy, it shouldn't happen again, and doctor(s) say I can return to pre-incident levels. Do I need to show performance at pre-incident levels as well? – J. Doe Oct 9 '17 at 17:10
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    @J.Doe I think it is difficult to answer without knowing the details of your disease. Perhaps the most relevant factor is how understandable it would be for non medical personnel: to give a ridiculous example, you'd have a hard time explaining that skin cancer was the cause; but be more understanding if you had a severe depression. – Davidmh Oct 9 '17 at 21:02
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    @J.Doe You are mixing up your terminology again. A psychiatric illness is not the same as a disorder which is what you said in your OP. And if everybody accused of doing something wrong was retrospectively diagnosed with an illness that made them do it - well, isn't that just too convenient to be a believable story? Even if in your case it is actually true... – alephzero Oct 10 '17 at 0:16
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    @alephzero What source are you using to define the distinction between a mental illness and a mental disorder? In modern parlance the two terms tend to be used interchangeably. – Pharap Oct 11 '17 at 15:01
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    "You can't really hide the fact that you were dismissed for plagiarism" -> he wasn't. Officially he withdrew voluntarily, that is what is on the official records. I do agree on transparency, but it has to be balanced by a medical right to privacy. – Fábio Dias Oct 12 '17 at 3:32
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One way of thinking about this is that your plagiarism was an effect of your mental problems, something that you weren't able to control.

As you said, you weren't expelled of the program for plagiarism, you voluntarily quit for health reasons. That's the official line. There is a big difference there.

Notice that I'm not saying you should hide what happened. I just believe that, given your phrasing, you don't fully believe that you weren't at fault. You didn't plagiarize anything, you shouldn't bear the "guilt" of something that wasn't your fault.

To the question, personally, I would compartmentalize the information. In general, CV and documents, sent widely, I'd say "health reasons", which is true enough, if anything at all.

In the case of a more serious interview, I'd mention the health reasons and explain that it has been solved, details on demand. When things get really serious, but before signing, explain the whole thing.

I said that because on one hand, your health is not really anybody else's business, but it may impact the school and professors. Transparency is good, but you still have to respect your own privacy. Tricky balance there.

What does your previous adviser thinks of this whole thing? It should be an interesting point of view.

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    +1 Excellent point about the previous advisor's perspective --- if s/he can stand up for OP in a letter of recommendation, that would go a very long way. – Rose Hartman Oct 10 '17 at 2:52
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    +1 for noting the OP said "I was asked to voluntarily withdraw from my PhD program." and suggesting that this is the way to handle in the CV and statement of purpose. Stating, "In 2015, I voluntarily withdrew from X for health reasons, which have been subsequently resolved." would be appropriate in the SOP. You may also want to check that your transcript supports this statement. – Dawn Oct 10 '17 at 16:57
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    " You didn't plagiarize anything, you shouldn't bear the "guilt" of something that wasn't your fault." The degree to which the OP is responsible for the behavior is a matter of opinion, but it is a fact that they did plagiarize. Given that they were given the option of voluntary withdrawal, they likely will be able to avoid disclosing the plagiarism, but they certainly shouldn't affirmatively claim to have not plagiarized. – Acccumulation Oct 10 '17 at 17:54
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    @Acccumulation Yes, I definitely agree. There is a difference between fact and fault. – Dawn Oct 10 '17 at 17:56
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    @J.Doe Talk to the profs at your former university. I believe they chose to ask you instead of expelling not only to avoid the "embarrassment", but also to give you some wiggle room. Regarding the plagiarism itself, from what I could understand from the medical opinions, he wasn't mentally competent at the time, at least not fully. The scope of that particular discussion is not here, but between medical professionals. Everything I wrote on this thread assumes these medical opinions as fact and goes from there. Either way, medical conditions make everything tricky, it is not that black/white. – Fábio Dias Oct 10 '17 at 19:50
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So the psychiatrist that you paid found that you aren't responsible for your actions... That's garbage. He gave you the answer you wanted to hear, so you can excuse your own actions, because you paid for it.

I have ADHD and have done a ton of stupid stuff in the past. That condition is "ME", not some alternate person that I have no control over. Once you take responsibility for your actions, you can truly gain control over yourself.

Until you own your actions, I do not believe you should try again. The next time you are faced with an easy choice you will just take it again, and blame your condition.

The university intentionally left you a way to save face by allowing you to voluntarily withdraw from your program. It wasn't accidental. They left you a means to try again. If asked you can honestly say that at the time you had documented mental health problems that caused poor performance and the university asked you to voluntarily withdraw. Its a grey line. Depending who follows up and what records the university maintained it could go bad. However, the worst they can say is NO. That's better than not trying if you really want it. At least you can tell yourself that you tried your best.

Good luck.

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    You are assuming bad faith of two medical professionals and that all mental conditions are the same. Unlikely and just untrue, respectively. I do agree with your last paragraph tho. – Fábio Dias Oct 12 '17 at 2:58
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    Why not? I'm playing "Given this set of hypothesis, what is the conclusion?". And I do prefer to err on the side of caution regarding medical issues, especially ones supported by medical documents. I understand the impulse to think this is some sort of scam to avoid responsibilities, but in that case, why would the OP bother to ask this question here, anonymously, where he blatantly says he did plagiarize? – Fábio Dias Oct 12 '17 at 3:28
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    @FábioDias bcs if this happend, why OP didnt sue? – SSimon Oct 14 '17 at 14:13
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    @SSimon OP never said they were from the states. Suing as a casual first reaction and expectations of suing history in proving one's effort to establish innocence are extremely uncommon behaviours outside the US. – Tasos Papastylianou Oct 14 '17 at 18:17
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    As for the essentially "psychiatry is hippy bullshit" argument, there are countless cases of organic disorders having provable (and often reversible) psychiatric manifestations including sudden unexplained behaviours and urges atypical of the individual's beliefs, including improbable things like pedophilia, and serial killing. One having ADHD does not make one an expert in all things psychiatry. People with depression get this crap a lot. – Tasos Papastylianou Oct 14 '17 at 18:30
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I think all you can do is be honest about why you were dismissed.

While plagiarism is supposed to be a mortal sin, I know of at least two academics who are now in tenured positions after they were dismissed (or resigned) from other universities because they plagiarised some of their work.

I don't think this is a deal-breaker for you, provided you have, as you say, addressed the medical condition that caused it and have taken steps to not have it repeat.

  • Hmm... a mortal sin would be one that eventually dies, right? Which is what happened here? – Mehrdad Oct 9 '17 at 22:34
  • Is there anything that can be done to help my case in addition to being honest about why I was dismissed. – J. Doe Oct 9 '17 at 22:56
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    @Mehrdad mortal sin is here a colloquialism that can roughly be translated as "extremely serious bad act" - it comes from the religious idea that certain acts are punishable by a sort of spiritual death (in this case, social death or ostracism), unlike lesser bad acts which are just damaging to a relationship. Theologically, a person can repent and seek forgiveness of even a mortal sin (compared to an unforgivable one), which in this case is quite apt if a person can in fact continue in their career, and thus effectively win a kind of absolution. – BrianH Oct 10 '17 at 1:16
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    @BrianHall: rather than a colloquiualism, "mortal sin" here is a term of art in Catholic theology. – Tom Church Oct 11 '17 at 22:38
  • I know professors that still keep position :D – SSimon Oct 12 '17 at 3:16
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You have been asked to withdraw voluntarily from the PhD program. If you did, that's the official line on it.

However, you don't actually take responsibility for your own acts in the manner you describe what happened, like a parent that declares "it wasn't us, it was the devil" when a child turns out wrong.

There aren't separate histories for "bad you" and "good you". Drugs will shift the balance of your motivations but not section off a part of you. Whatever was it that made you do your misconduct, you need safeguards and procedures and checks in place that go beyond "I am taking medication now, nothing like that will happen again".

Because it "happens" to people without a medical condition, too, and they, like you did, have an untainted history as additional incentive to steer clear of plagiarism.

The "my psychiatrist found that I plagiarized because of a psychiatric disorder" line will not work to convince the responsible persons that you aren't a high risk candidate for their reputation: psychiatric disorders don't magically disappear. So don't flaunt it. Don't be seeing to hide essential information, but don't make it a source of pride either.

  • What if I was asked to voluntarily withdraw. Is that different from "I voluntarily withdraw?" I just don't want to misrepresent myself. – J. Doe Oct 10 '17 at 19:01
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    @J.Doe asking someone to voluntarily withdraw is informal action. Formally, it never happened. If you agreed, then formally what you did was "voluntarily withdraw" and that's it. Very generous, they gave you a way out without making any more mess in your papers that plagiarism already did. That said, do not hide you were asked to when you talk to people. They might know and you do not want to be caught a liar, in addition to being plagiarist. You don't have to offer that information, but do not hide it, either. – Mołot Oct 10 '17 at 21:32
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    @J.Doe Do you realize that being asked to voluntarily withdraw and then choosing not to do it means you're basically forcing them to kick you out for plagiarism? – Mark S. Oct 11 '17 at 13:17
  • @J.Doe There are many reasons why someone might "voluntarily withdraw" - anything from becoming so disillusioned with their PhD topic that they have no motivation to finish the work, to family problems which mean they can't afford to continue or need to move back home. On the other hand there is only one reason for being kicked out - and that is because you did something which is wrong enough to be unforgivable. Which one do you really want to be branded for life with? If it's the second one, then your mental problems are far worse than "something that caused me to plagiarize". – alephzero Oct 11 '17 at 13:39
  • @alephzero probably that you were suspected / accused for doing such a thing, yes. Not necessarily that you actually did it. – mathreadler Oct 13 '17 at 16:39
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Not sure how I stumbled into this site but as long as I'm here......

In short yes, there is hope. However, without knowing the context of your situation I can offer perhaps some suggestions -mostly echoing a lot of the solid advice from others.

I have a PhD and have served on both pre-doctoral internship and post doctoral residency admission committees. While the selection criteria and processes that I am familiar with may differ substantially from those used in the academic selection processes for entrance into a doctoral program (which may be more heavily weighted toward quantitative variables and initial algorithmic cuts (rather than research and clinical work), I think several suggestions offered by previous posters are important.

1) In your CV acknowledge that you withdrew (not dismissed) from your previous academic institution 2/2 medical issues. I'd be vague and omit that you were asked to withdraw; If you get to an interview stage (assuming there is one) then a more detailed disclosure will be likely required. You need to get past the first hoop.

2) You indicate a high level of competence in the program prior to the honor violation, emphasize those accomplishments on your CV

3) Speak with your major/dissertation chair or advisor; unless things have changed radically over the past 30 years, they still ask for letters of recommendation and these will be important. Let them tell your story and also highlight your strengths and accomplishments. Of couse you could always go back to the undergraduate well and ask your profs from that institution write letters again.

4) Be prepared to explain how the disorder contributed to this anomaly in your behavior; what was the functional impairment of the disorder/illness (i.e., judgement, attention). How has that functional impairment be mitigated, resolved managed etc). So if you had an episodic mood disorder that impaired your judgement, how do you manage sx now? Even if the plagiarism was really egregious but clearly linked to a significant alteration in thinking and bx, you may get a pass.

On a side note, no forensically oriented mental health expert would ever vouch "that it will never happen again." (unless you're dead or have some some other countervailing factor :-) ). No such thing as a guarantee. I'll leave you with this gem from Tommy Boy

Tommy: Here's the way I see it, Ted. Guy puts a fancy guarantee on a box 'cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside.

Ted Nelson: Yeah, makes a man feel good.

Tommy: 'Course it does. Why shouldn't it? Ya figure you put that little box under your pillow at night, the Guarantee Fairy might come by and leave a quarter, am I right, Ted?

Ted Nelson: What's your point?

Tommy: The point is, how do you know the fairy isn't a crazy glue sniffer? "Buildin' model airplanes!" says the little fairy, well, we're not buying it. He sneaks into your house once, that's all it takes. The next thing you know, there's money missing off your dresser and your daughter's knocked up, I've seen it a hundred times.

Ted Nelson: But why do they put a guarantee on the box?

Tommy: Because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed piece of shit. That's all it is, isn't it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I've got spare time. But for now, for your customer's sake, for your daughter's sake, ya might wanna think about buying a quality product from me.

  • Thank you. Would you suggest mentioning this in a personal statement, in the question prompt that asks about "institutional action," or during the interview? I also have an additional problem of the advisor reference. Because of the plagiarism, our relationship has soured. Are there ways around this? I can use undergraduate references and graduate school collaborators, but I understand that the dissertation advisor's letter will be important. What do you think about chances at top programs? – J. Doe Oct 14 '17 at 22:28
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You've lost academic credibility through the plagerism. Truth be told, you'll lose even more credibility by hiding behind a 'diagnosis'. Political Correctness obliges us to pretend to accept it. But...

Just say 'sorry, I've learned my lesson, it won't happen again'. And make sure it DOESN'T happen again. You might be let back in.

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    May you never be afflicted with such a condition. But, respectfully, please read this article to see why this kind of attitude is dangerous. I hope you don't still feel it's all just political correctness after reading it. – Tasos Papastylianou Oct 14 '17 at 18:51
  • It's certainly dangerous for the guy who does the crime! Suicide note or not, the cops are still going to shoot him. A doctor's duty is to his patient, not to the truth. Get caught, you'll always find one willing to provide a 'diagnosis' that excuses you. Probably he'll also certify that you've made a miraculous, complete and permanent recovery. – Laurence Payne Oct 15 '17 at 12:31
  • You didn't read the article. Shame. – Tasos Papastylianou Oct 15 '17 at 20:04
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    For the record, as a doctor myself, neither I nor any of my colleagues over the years (including psychiatrists) have ever been of the mentality you describe (if anything it's always protect the public and vulnerable people affected first and foremost, and the individual patient second). – Tasos Papastylianou Oct 15 '17 at 20:06
  • The public are only indirectly threatened by erosion of academic standards. The immediate well-being of an individual may well be served by letting a 'diagnosis' excuse him from truly attaining these standards. It is sometimes necessary to remind an adult in the workplace that a diagnosis of e.g. dyslexia is no USE to them now they're out of the educational 'safe space'. – Laurence Payne Oct 17 '17 at 11:48
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First, you were not expelled, you voluntarily left for health reasons.

Second, if you're diagnosed with a mental disorder, you may fall under the Americans with Disabilities act. If that is the case, you'd need to consult a lawyer on that one, you may have grounds for reinstatement with your former institution.

Now, the question is do you want to return? Personally, I think the first place to start with if you are interested in pursuing reinstatement is with your original advisor. If you choose to pursue reinstatement, you will need to get your advisor, the department chair and perhaps other professors on board. If you don't, you may be able to legally force the issue, but it would make completing your PhD very difficult. You simply aren't going to finish your PhD if you don't have an advisor and if no one will sit your boards and oral defense.

I can practically guarantee that finishing at your original institution, if possible, will be the quickest way to complete your PhD, but you will have to jump some serious hurdles to make it happen.

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This is the rest of our life. So get serious. FORGET any mental claim.

Focus on "their" claim. This is what you must challenge, and you must challenge it on policy grounds.

Get a lawyer, preferably one matriculating from a liberal college or university. Although doubtful,you might find one "for free."

Go to your major professor and recount the following, before action.

See if that "Department" will reconsider. (Document all names and comments.)

If "they" will not reconsider, take next step.

With your lawyer,seek a meeting with the top of the chain--Dean of Instruction etc. Not the "affected" Department

Document "their" claim of plagiarism.

Discover all school policies related to plagiarism.

There WILL be a loophole.

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    My thoughts exactly. Disability discrimination is an offence in law (in the UK at least) whereas plagiarism is an offence in academia (i.e. against a non-legal code of conduct). So, disability discrimination > plagiarism (IANAL) – Bad_Bishop Oct 11 '17 at 11:53
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    I don't understand your answer, not least because of your liberal use of quotation marks. The department's claim is that the asker plagiarized, and the asker doesn't seem to dispute that claim. Are you proposing nonetheless that the asker, with a laywer, should dispute that any plagiarism ever happened? – David Richerby Oct 11 '17 at 15:23
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    Say you successfully force the former employer to recant their claim of plagiarism. You still have a record of the resignation, which is the source of the question coming from prospective employers. Even if you come up with a vague enough explanation, and your former employer is willing to be similarly vague, the fact is you resigned from a previous program at the very end and all details explaining why are clearly being hidden. Anyone who accepts you into their program would have to take a gamble with no knowledge of the risks - this puts you at a severe disadvantage, at the very least. – talrnu Oct 11 '17 at 19:07
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    Escalating this can be a can of worms. I still believe (hope) that they asked him to leave, partially, to not tarnish his record. If that was the case, a legal suit would force an escalation, involving the university's legal team, who will not pull punches. Then you end up "that guy with mental problems that sued the university" and burn a bunch of bridges in the process. I'm not saying don't do that, but it would be sensible to leave it as last resource; try first to approach the problem quietly and friendly, if only to avoid the stress. – Fábio Dias Oct 12 '17 at 2:56
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    If he failed at this suit the entire venture to cover up the plaigarism (J Doe admitted he did actually do it btw) it is a pretty depsicable angle that now he would have taken quite dishonest measures to then hide. Even if he won its not like Im obliged by law to take him. If I got any wind of it I would run for the hills personally. – Skyler Oct 12 '17 at 19:37
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In an ideal world, authorities would try to psychoanalyze a criminal and treat him and release him, rather than putting him in a place that messes him further : irrespective of whether he was responsible for his twisted mind, eg substance abuse or whether it was something else , eg. messed up childhood , substance abuse by mom in pregnancy etc. However my friend the world is not an ideal place. It that were true , you wouldn't be running after pHD degree. I am by not inferring you are a criminal, just providing analogous example. If your records do not talk about plagiarism , you just need to come up with an explanation. If not , you can still contribute to the world with your intelligence. Your degree shouldn't affect your earning if you really want to make money. And a lot of people with less wealth are often more loved and respected. A person who makes 100 times the average doesn't always do so because he has 100 times the intellect or EQ or risk taking ability. On the contrary he probably connects less with people, uses them more and is going to be forever unhappy because of his lack of empathy. I only wish you good luck and hope you still help the world with your abilities.

  • Please try not to post a gigantic wall of text, it really compromises the readability. And your argument is not really valid, "bad childhood" isn't the same as official reports from 2 licensed doctors, naming a officially recognized medical condition (Regardless of the personal opinions on the matter). Non compos mentis, would probably be relevant here, if it was criminal, but IANAL. – Fábio Dias Oct 12 '17 at 2:47
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    You cannot cannot compare "bad childhood" with either "medical report from 2 doctors" or with "substance abuse". That was only an example to tell him that he deserves another chance , but the world is not always fair, so don't get discouraged. – Rpant Oct 12 '17 at 3:06
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    @FábioDias Sure, it's only one paragraph but it's not an outrageously long paragraph. I wouldn't complain about this being "a wall of text". – David Richerby Oct 12 '17 at 19:41
  • Not quite sure why all the downvotes – user Oct 15 '17 at 23:25
  • -1'd, as a lot of this reads like a mostly off-topic rant. – Nat Oct 16 '17 at 3:13

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