Was it attempted plagiarism?
April 20, 2010 9:58 AM   Subscribe

A couple of years ago I was an undergrad looking for part-time research work, and a friend-of-a-friend connected me to a PhD candidate who needed help with her thesis. I spoke to her and her request set off plagiarism alarm bells for me, so I declined the project. I always doubted whether I handled it correctly, though, and I just found out that the friend-of-a-friend who referred me is still a little ticked at me for asking the PhD student these questions and then declining the work. Did I handle this alright, or was I being a jerk?

Basically, the PhD student asked me for a 3-page written report, in polished academic prose with citations, about a particular aspect of her thesis topic. When I asked her how this would be used, she said: "It will form part of a 50-page document I am writing." (Our correspondence took place via email, so that quote is verbatim.) Now, if an undergraduate student paid an outside source to directly compose a portion of their work, that is clear-cut no-bones-about-it plagiarism. So I asked her this:

"Hi PhD student,

If what you want is polished, final draft work, then I need to make sure that I'm properly attributed for it, to prevent both of us from getting into ethical and academic trouble. I'd like to speak with your supervisor directly - I would want a written commitment from him/her that what I write would be properly attributed, and I would want to discuss with him/her how much work I am allowed to contribute to your thesis. Hopefully that's not an inconvenience to you, and I'm sure, as an academic, you understand why I'm asking.


I received a curt reply along the following lines: "That is not possible, and you're making this too complicated, and I was trying to do you a favor, since our mutual friend asked." Now, I know that the PhD student's request is 100% verboten in the undergraduate world, but I don't know anything about the way research goes at the PhD level. Is it different? Is this kind of thing allowed? Was I out of line to ask these questions, or was I being rude? I suspect I'm in the right, but I know that professors frequently employ, e.g., research assistants, who I doubt are often fully credited for their work. Learning my mutual friend is still irritated at me has renewed the nagging doubt I always felt about my response. By the way, the three page report that the PhD student wanted was just the first bit of work she wanted me to do for her - she said there was much more work she could give me, presumably of a similar nature.

(BTW, if this is indeed plagiarism, I realize the risk of getting caught was quite low, but my objections were ethical as well as pragmatic.)

Anon because I don't want this getting traced back to the PhD student, especially if I was the one in the wrong.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds to me like you were 100% in the right. Your request was completely reasonable, and the manner in which it turns down sounds like indeed the PhD student was trying to pass off your work as his.

I don't know what discipline you're in, but there are usually very specific rules about what someone has to do be considered an author on a paper. What undergrad RAs do often doesn't meet these requirements (e.g. running subjects or gels or finding references), but when it does, that undergrad is generally credited. Writing a significant portion of the text is one of the things that qualifies you as an author. For a PhD, the candidate is supposed to be the sole author, and while they often get a little more uncredited help than they would if it were a published paper (though that help should be acknowledged in an acknowledgement section), generally, they should be doing all the writing.

Even if they weren't planning on doing anything unethical, your request was completely reasonable, and the fact that the student snipped at you makes you turning it down reasonable, in my opinion.
posted by brainmouse at 10:12 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sounds like she was trying to pawn her work off onto you. Good call.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:13 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Were you being paid for this? If so, I'm surprised that the PhD asked for a polished draft - I would have thought she'd want a summary of the raw data and/or a bibliography, but would want to do the final analysis and synthesis work herself. If not, she should still have acknowledged the work you did on the project, even if it's in a foreword or some other kind of acknowledgement.

Quite frankly, to me, doing a PhD is about how well you can formulate a research project, conduct solid research, analyze the data gathered, and synthesise that into a clear, well-written document that will shed new light on a particular subject matter. It's about showing your capacity to think in new and nuanced ways about a subject. Doing a PhD (in my world at least) is not about how well you can delegate work to other people.

I don't believe you were being rude. I think your instincts were right. This whole thing sounds a bit hinky to me. Is your friend aware of the request the PhD candidate made to you?
posted by LN at 10:13 AM on April 20, 2010

Yes. You handled this correctly.

I nearly had my undergraduate career ruined by a bad research experience. It was a good choice not to get involved with a project that was clearly in trouble.
posted by schmod at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2010

Academic culture may vary by country and institution, but this doesn't sound right: I can't think of a situation where paying for someone's work, and then refusing to acknowledge it would be appropriate.

That being said, your friend and the PhD student are probably annoyed at your indelicate handling of the situation: not realizing what this work offer was about sounds rather naive on your part, demanding to speak to the supervisor only makes it more embarassing for them.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Former Phd student - just to chime in that you were absolutely in the right. And you can give yourself a pat on the back for very well developed research ethics!
posted by coffee_monster at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2010

I know that professors frequently employ, e.g., research assistants, who I doubt are often fully credited for their work.

Somewhat, but archival research assistants, for instance, usually aren't producing polished, final-draft work: when they do write it up in anything more than note form, they generally get more than just a tip of the hat in the acknowledgments. That's moot here, because it's the sort of arrangement that's accepted from professors, not PhDs.

You were right to be suspicious, and did the right thing: it sounds like she was farming out chunks of work that could be submitted under her name, and if anything, that kind of request is even more verboten at the PhD level. Perhaps it goes on more commonly than I imagine, but that may be naivety on my part: in my time as a doctoral student, I never heard such a thing mentioned, even in whispers.
posted by holgate at 10:25 AM on April 20, 2010

At least from the type of PhD programs I'm familiar with, her request is completely inappropriate.

However, you wanted to know about your own behavior, and I think you were rude when you requested talking to the PhD's adviser, especially by calling it speaking to the "supervisor directly." That's just kind of a rude thing to say, given how dissertation chair/grad student relationships work. It's the student's project, not her adviser's. It reads like you don't respect her as a researcher and instead see her like something of an employee or an underling to her supervisor. Had I received an e-mail like the one you sent in relation to my work, I'd find it rude and presumptuous. (But, then again, I also am not in the habit of having other people do my work for me.)

But, really, she was asking you to do something unethical, so maybe it's not that big a deal if you were rude to her.
posted by Ms. Saint at 10:25 AM on April 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

There are two things to be concerned about. 1) Was it clearly plagiarism. 2) Did you handle it well.

As to the first "It will form part of a" paper is a little ambiguous. It could certainly be an example of plagiarism, but then again, maybe she meant she would use your abstract as source material for part a 50 page survey of literature. The latter isn't plagiarism since presumably her take on your research would be her own work. So, you were write to be a little concerned and to seek clarification.

However, I'd say that your problem lies here. "I'd like to speak with your supervisor directly - I would want a written commitment from him/her that what I write would be properly attributed, and I would want to discuss with him/her how much work I am allowed to contribute to your thesis. Hopefully that's not an inconvenience to you,"

The request to speak with her supervisor was beyond the pale. You are essentially saying that not only do you think she might commit plagiarism, but that you don't trust her to clear up any misunderstandings nor do you believe that she is an authoritative figure in her own dissertation research. Furthermore, the claim that you hope it's not an inconvenience, comes across as disingenuous. Expecting her to set-up a meeting between you and her chair and to get written permission from him/her is obviously inconvenient. Adding a throwaway "hopes it's not too much trouble" reads a bit like a slap in the face.
posted by oddman at 10:25 AM on April 20, 2010 [19 favorites]

A charitable reading might be that she was asked to throw some work your way, didn't put much thought into it, came up with a project, and then was surprised that you took it so seriously. Even if they both regard your email as slightly pissy (and I'm not saying it is), getting one slightly pissy email a few years ago still seems like an odd thing to hold a grudge about years later. But you never know what's going to set some people off. I would say you're probably in the clear to forget about this little episode and don't let it bother you. If they continue to spend their energy on it there's not much you can do for them.
posted by amethysts at 10:36 AM on April 20, 2010

When I read the setup to your question, I thought, "Hmmm, that does sound oddly like plagiarism, I think anon was in the right to question it." When I read your actual email, I literally winced. I do think it could have been written from a place of more respect and "hey, can we clarify this" - as it stands it looks like it written with the assumption that she was doing something wrong and there is a serious lack of respect displayed in that email. (Especially the talking to your supervisor directly part, which probably made her feel like she was a fast food cashier who didn't give you enough french fries and you were trying to both catch her in something and tell on her at the same time.)

I think you were totally right to have your concerns and raise them, but could perhaps apologize for the way in which you did that.
posted by visual mechanic at 10:47 AM on April 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

A student asking for someone to write some text that would be pasted straight into their dissertation would be in major trouble, and I don't think that there's any question that this would be plagiarism if this isn't attributed.

On the other hand, it is really common to ask an undergrad RA to prepare a summary of some research, which then may or may not guide the writing of some larger project, but not be directly pasted into it. For this kind of work a footnote thank you would be sufficient and likely to happen without having to bargain for it. It is possible that a "polished academic prose" was not code for "good enough that I could have written it", but rather was a heuristic to try to get you to spend some time writing it rather than toss off the usual sort of undergrad 3-page essay -- a serious issue when working with unknown undergrad RAs. (Also, a 50 page document is not a thesis.)

If this is the intent, then "I would want a written commitment from him/her that what I write would be properly attributed, and I would want to discuss with him/her how much work I am allowed to contribute to your thesis" is a totally disproportionate response and I can see how the student would be upset and offended by it. You would have been accusing someone of outright plagiarism, and basically threatening to tell their supervisor about it. Like, "this undergrad is nuts I will tell everyone in my dept not to work with them and avoid further contact" disproportionate.
posted by advil at 10:53 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if her behavior was appropriate.

I would have been really, really irritated by your response, particularly the part about speaking to my supervisor and getting a written commitment. If I were the mutual friend I would also be upset with you for your response and the tone of it.
posted by mrs. taters at 10:57 AM on April 20, 2010

Yeah, chiming in to say that "going over the head" of the Ph.D. student was probably what cheesed her off the most. The relationship between a doctoral student and his/her advisor is nothing like the relationship you had with professors in your undergraduate days; doctoral students are supposed to be de jure independent researchers (even if their de facto independence is less than their supervisor's), and their supervisors don't "grade" on their work the way that undergraduates are. There's the thesis and the thesis defence, of course, but (to crib from Douglas Adams) they bear as much resemblance to an undergraduate term paper as a packet of mixed nuts does to the entire west wing of the Sirian State Mental Hospital.

If you had eliminated the second sentence from your e-mail, and had gotten the same response from the Ph.D. student, then yeah, my alarms bells would be blaring as loud as yours did. In the event, she might have had a challenged sense of ethics, or she might have simply been trying to help you gain experience as a favour to your other friend, and you did in fact "make it too complicated" for it to be worth her time. Or both. Unfortunately, you'll probably never know which option was actually correct; choose whichever one seems more likely to you, and chalk it up to lessons learned.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:57 AM on April 20, 2010

From the information you've provided, it's not at all clear to me that she was planning to present the work as her own without giving you proper attribution. It is also unclear that she was planning to directly incorporate your report into her work ("form part of a document" is subject to interpretation).

The fact of the matter is that undergraduate researchers frequently do shoddy work, and asking for polished prose with citations could have been at attempt to ensure that she wouldn't have to wade through a disorganized mess of poorly supported, incomprehensible notes. If one were to give her the benefit of the doubt (and unless there's more to the story), then you pretty much come off as a presumptuous jackass with an overinflated opinion of your own importance.
posted by Behemoth at 10:58 AM on April 20, 2010

Yeah, on second reading, I think that anon may have misunderstood the nature of the grad-supervisor relationship (it's not like a supervisor at work) though the whole "50-page document" thing seemed deliberately ambiguous. Perhaps if anon had tried to clarify that? But it's water under the bridge now.
posted by holgate at 11:03 AM on April 20, 2010

Basically, the PhD student asked me for a 3-page written report, in polished academic prose with citations, about a particular aspect of her thesis topic. When I asked her how this would be used, she said: "It will form part of a 50-page document I am writing."

Ph.D. student here. I've never used undergrads to write any part of my dissertation or thesis. Having said that, if I did ask an undergrad to write anything, it would likely be a quick annotated bibliography of some findings - these types of things don't involve thought or a conceptualization of the how the studies fit together - rather they just summarize what several studies found. So if she was asking you to do the latter then she would likely end up doing the "thinking" part and rewriting the majority of what you wrote anyway. However, if she was actually suggesting that she was going to do a quick cut and paste, then I would say you were right to have alarm bells going off.

Having said that, I agree that your email came off rather rude and could have been worded a bit better to convey your concerns without demoralizing said Ph.D. student.
posted by icy at 11:08 AM on April 20, 2010

In my field, people often include entire published papers in the text of their thesis. Oftentimes these papers were not necessarily written by the person whose thesis they are in. When I say written, I mean the actual act of writing, not the act of forming ideas and collecting data. They're on the list of authors of the paper but they didn't write any/all of the sentences in the paper.

If we ignore whether or not she was asking you to do something unethical, your response was unnecessarily priggish and yes, I'd use the word jerk to describe you in that email. You should have asked for more detail on how your work would be incorporated into her thesis (50 pages? really? That's insanely short in pretty much every field I can think of) instead of threatening to go to her advisor immediately.

This was years ago, let it rest: don't feel bad about it, don't worry about it.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:10 AM on April 20, 2010

Just chiming back in regarding the email you sent: as someone who has had two different graduate students try and get me to do their research work for them, I can completely understand your instinct in asking for assurance, not from the student but from their supervisor. In my case, I asked the student whether the work would be attributed, etc., and got a lot of handwaving but not much clear cut assurance one way or the other. Sometimes, you genuinely *can't* trust the student to be up front with things.

But like advil says above, asking for a meeting between you and her supervisor was kind of the nuclear option - the supervisor is basically there to act as the intermediary between the student and the administration of the university, and invoking the supervisor is basically the same as saying "I have incontrovertible proof you're plagiarizing! I'ma take this up with higher authorites!" You scared the living daylights out of her.

If you're still fretting, use it as a lessons learned: ask for clarification about deals that seem hinky before deciding whether to escalate.
posted by LN at 11:24 AM on April 20, 2010

As a PhD student who's worked with undergraduates (and has written published theses + some diss work), I don't really see how a three page paper (or even multiple three page papers) from an undergrad, who might not even be in my field, would be remotely plagiarizable. It's not like a ten page undergrad group project that you can hand everyone three pages to do and say "Have at it!" Or maybe I just have higher standards for my work than "unrecognizable pastiche."

A three page paper was probably just summarizing some work or research or an annotated bibliography sort of thing. Even if it was used word for word in some 50 page paper (doubtful), that 50 page paper probably was not the dissertation. And the "polished prose" was probably just because she didn't know you or your work standards and wanted to make sure you were giving her readable material and not just sketched out, unclear notes you'd made. (I have gotten odd scraps of notebook paper with stains on multiple occasions.) Also, I'm not at all sure that she wouldn't have credited you somehow, at least in the acknowledgments of the ACTUAL dissertation, particularly if you did a lot of helpful background research/stats/whatever for her. She never said she wouldn't, but the rest of your reply put her off so much that she terminated the relationship.

Yeah, your reply was rude. I cannot think of any circumstances where that would be warranted. Assuming someone (a stranger) is doing something hugely dishonorable and asking them to jump through hoops for you for clarification that they're NOT- from their advisor at that - no. I would've been mouth-falling-open furious at first, then my next reaction would be to laugh and possibly show my lab mates the email from the silly undergrad. I mean, you don't go to job interviews assuming the company commits treason because they want to know if you would mind traveling to China for some meetings. But at this late a date, don't worry about it. You'll most likely be prone to be more circumspect with your concerns and questions next time.

Of course, YMMV, and if she was saying "please write something that will fit neatly between pages 48-52 of this document and make sure your writing style matches mine," that's a different story.
posted by wending my way at 11:43 AM on April 20, 2010

I think she might have been wanting to use you as a reference - I did that with some stuff I didn't write myself for my thesis, I put it in the back as an appendix and mentioned when I quoted it or referred to it.

I'd have given her the benefit of the doubt unless I saw her thesis later with it as a big unedited chunk attributed to her.

Unless this is very proprietary secret stuff that could affect your whole career, I think you should consider why you were so paranoid about it...
posted by meepmeow at 12:22 PM on April 20, 2010

In defense of the anon and their email reply, undergrads usually lack perspective on the institutional structure of a university. Why should an undergrad know that a PhD / adviser relationship is any different from the relationship they have with one of their undergrad course professors? To them, a PhD adviser could be just like a faculty member who supervises the work for a class.

Anon's reply was naive, but it was equally naive for a PhD student to assume an undergrad would know any better.
posted by fremen at 12:26 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that this part--"in polished academic prose"--sets off alarm bells. That makes it sound like she's looking for text she can cut and paste into her dissertation, not detailed research notes she can use to write her own text.

It probably came off a bit odd that you asked for written commitment from the advisor rather than the PhD student herself, but I don't think your underlying request for transparency in this process was out of line or rude. She could have written back something like, "I can see you're uncomfortable with the possibility of having your work plagiarized; I'll commit to you in writing that your work will be acknowledged or, alternatively, we can turn this into a more straightforward research-for-hire situation and scrap the 'polished academic prose' part." Her defensive response seems, to me, to validate your initial reaction. And, you know, even if your reaction was unnecessary--even if you simply misunderstood this student's intentions--this isn't something worth holding a grudge about.

It's possible, however, that this PhD student may have had the experience (or know people who have) of creating written work and having it passed off as her advisor's. Obviously it varies from field to field, but power dynamics within academia can occasionally warp a person's sense of socially acceptable writing/attribution practices. What is presented as black and white to undergrads can get a little fuzzy for PhD students trying to keep their advisors happy. Whatever her intentions for your text, she may just not think of that sort of thing as plagiarism.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:36 PM on April 20, 2010

I agree with the consensus emerging above: her request was borderline ethically and could have used some clarification. Your reply, on the other hand, was arrogant and needlessly combative. It's probably a good thing that you didn't wind up working together; I'd be surprised if your mutual friend kicks any more RA work your way.
posted by felix betachat at 12:41 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is extremely field-specific. There are many things that in some fields would be totally kosher and in others would be suspicious at best. It seems most likely that this was a standard request in the field. I agree with those above that say that asking you to do this "in polished academic prose" was a way of asking you to spend some time writing it. You probably weren't to know, but asking to get the advisor involved was bad form. Still, I think that the request could have been clearer.
posted by ob at 12:59 PM on April 20, 2010

The email response definitely struck me (PhD student who's worked with undergrads on research, and has had my writing basically plagiarized before) as inappropriate. What she was asking you to do was questionable, but assuming that it was plagiarism and asking for _written consent_ is very inappropriate, especially when you want to involve her supervisor. In my field, authorship is not necessarily hashed out as soon as a project starts. It depends on who's involved and in what capacities throughout a project. By demanding written contracts immediately, you just escalated the conversation way beyond what she was expecting. In general, people don't sweat this stuff out of the gate - you assume everyone is behaving honorably because it's such a small community. If this student or her advisor actually did steal your work, you could (rightfully) raise an epic stink about it and cause big trouble for them.

This is one of those assume-miscommunication-instead-of-malice situations. You're talking informally about getting involved with her work and (from her perspective) you just jumped on her for something she was probably not intending to do. Without seeing her email it's hard to know, but I dash off emails all the time and I would be very upset if someone assumed I intended to commit plagiarism based on a single email.

I also want to underline your friend's frustration with you. You asked for them to toss something your way, they did, and you rejected it in a pretty harsh way. It's not that turning it down is a problem - that's totally fine - but your friend went out on a limb for you and you caused a bit of an incident. That reflects badly on your friend, and it's very reasonable that they're upset about it.

This question shouldn't (in my mind) be about whether it sounded like plagiarism or not. She didn't commit plagiarism and probably wouldn't have, even if you had produced the document she asked for. She took you at face value as a person who could do good work and was willing to give you a chance and you didn't do her the courtesy of taking her at face value as someone who would credit your work appropriately.
posted by heresiarch at 2:46 PM on April 20, 2010

advil is right. Without knowing what the "50-page document" was, and how what you wrote would've become "part" of it, we can't draw any conclusion about whether this would've been anything like plagiarism. The final "document" itself might not have been any form of original research for attribution to the grad student; perhaps it was just going to become part of a bibliographic survey, or a set of "recent work in this field" summary notes, or a private lab or departmental memo to orient others as they begin their own original research work, or some other such document. If so, that response would be seriously disproportionate. (The grad student still ought to have clarified this, though their reply's curtness would be understandable.)

There are also major differences between different fields' ideas about authorship and attribution. I'm honestly not sure that, in some of the sciences, even the worst-case scenario hereĀ (having an undergrad write the first draft of a paper's summary of prior research, without adding them as a named author) would be seen as out-and-out plagiarism. In the humanities, it certainly would.
posted by RogerB at 3:03 PM on April 20, 2010

The implications of this sort of work, as others have noted above, vary by the type of research that you're talking about. A lot of times, if a PhD student in my field gets a grant for a dissertation, they can do things like pay staff to assist with data collection/ entry and reviewing literature but they can't spend the money on themselves. Paying smart undergrads for this work is a time saving measure. Data entry and collection and reviews of literature are not considered to be a significant part of original research, so it's okay.

This might not have been intended to be a part of the dissertation itself to begin with. As grad student I'm doing a lot of work right now that may be associated with my dissertation but isn't actually a part of it (preparing conference presentations, writing articles, so on). When I work with undergrads I often give them small assignments like this to see what their writing/ research skills really are.

You do come across a little high-handed in the email. In the future I'd do a face to face conversation if at all possible--it's really difficult to write a tactful email about suspected plagiarism and it's generally better to give people the benefit of the doubt about these things.

At the same time, as a grad student I sort of expect undergrads not to understand what I do when I'm doing a research project or how the rules differ between what they do and what I do. While I too would have been annoyed if you asked to speak to my boss about a project that I was asking you to do, it isn't necessarily surprising that these sorts of questions would come up from someone who hadn't been involved in research before. Given vagueness of the instructions that you describe, I would have been suspicious in your position too. Again, though, you can save yourself a lot of misunderstanding with a simple request for clarification.
posted by _cave at 3:45 PM on April 20, 2010

Yep, you were a jerk. Don't worry about it too much, it was a few years ago. You did what is referred to as "burning your bridges" and after doing that you shouldn't expect any help from the bridges you burned. Next time you are in a similar situation try to act with more finesse.

You don't really know what she would have done with the report. It could have been proper, or it may have been improper, but in any case your response was over the top.
posted by grouse at 9:00 PM on April 20, 2010

Well, I can see where the "it may lead to plagiarism" path begins, but saying "it will form part of a 50-page paper" does not equal "I will be copying this word-for-word without attribution" in my head. She could have meant that it would form part of the research base for the 50-page paper.

But the plagiarism/not plagiarism part isn't really the issue here, it was your reaction. I applaud your noble ethics and refusal to be an accomplice to someone's pilfered work. Really! It's hard to say no to paid work.

However, however, your self-righteous email was insulting. I winced as well when I read it.

If what you want is polished, final draft work, then I need to make sure that I'm properly attributed for it, to prevent both of us from getting into ethical and academic trouble.

That part is fine. But you would have had to clarify that she was planning to put your words into her paper, because this is not at all clear from what you have provided of her email.

The supervisor comment was unnecessary. It's like you were asking to speak with her mom.
posted by amicamentis at 8:23 AM on April 21, 2010

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