how to report plagiarism
April 19, 2020 1:23 PM   Subscribe

But not by a student. Elaboration below.

13 years ago, as an undergrad, I wrote a senior thesis as partial fulfillment for the requirements of achieving my degree in my major. I am obscuring details as much as possible here to avoid identifying anyone outright so forgive me if it's too vague and I'll be happy to respond with more clarity if asked.

I majored in a humanities field and my thesis was considered a big deal because I was one of the first students of color in the department and my thesis topic was the very first in the history of the college (a prestigious east coast SLAC) to address a non-Western aspect of our field. It was perceived as ground-breaking in the department and school, I got an A+ on the result and graduated with distinction (my school eschewed using cum laude levels to categorize graduates but let's assume I at least achieved cum laude).

Unfortunately my thesis advisor was up for tenure while I was writing my thesis and she abandoned me about halfway through my project to focus on her tenure application process. Frustrated, I sought out advice from other professors who had knowledge of my field in order to gain some semblance of guidance as I finished my work.

One of these professors was a young visiting adjunct who was still finishing her PhD at another school. She and I shared the same ethnic background and she had an interest in my topic. I bounced several ideas off of her and she was very encouraging, saying that I really was breaking new ground in my topic.

This professor did make me a bit wary in some ways - she was barely three years older than me and her other students and she was the thesis advisor for one of my housemates. Over the course of his year working with her she displayed a tendency towards inappropriate boundaries with him and with several other of her students - she cared more about being friends with her students than teaching them, was the impression I got, and according to my housemate frequently overshared aspects of her personal life that I felt was unprofessional, and forced her students to reciprocate in kind. By the end of the year, our three other housemates had deemed her not dangerous per se, but someone we were very uncomfortable around. That said, I was grateful for the guidance she provided me and was careful not to play into her agenda of over-closeness with her students.

This professor went on to marry one of her undergrad students about three years later. She had already left the school by then, but this was another thing that me and my former housemates filed under "problematic" "perhaps unethical" (we know the relationship started when he was still a student of hers, and it obviously makes us deeply uncomfortable).

I recently came across a paper she has published - which is eventually going to turn into a chapter of a book about my field. I was alerted to this paper by one of my former housemates who went on to graduate school (I did not). They obtained a copy for me. In this paper/chapter, she has ripped off my thesis topic almost in it's entirety. It is blatant plagiarism - I pulled up my thesis to compare and she has lifted entire paragraphs from my writing. My thesis, once completed, was bound and filed in our department library where any student or professor could "check it out". She taught at my college for another two years after I graduated, she knew what I was writing about, and she obviously had access to my thesis.

I am unsure as to what to do, if anything. I did not stay in academia after undergrad, and so have not kept up with scholarship in my field, which has presumably advanced considerably in the last 13 years. That said - she lifted whole paragraphs from my writing. I count at least 20 instances of this, and I haven't even gotten through the whole paper yet.

This makes me very angry, especially since she rang a lot of alarm bells for me when I was a student there interacting with her. She never gave me written feedback on my writing - I never showed her what I was writing when I was writing the thesis, only bounced ideas about my argument back and forth with her verbally as I was structuring my paper, so I cannot imagine there is a way for her to accuse ME of plagiarism (but who knows?)

I work in industry and haven't really given college a lot of thought over the last 13 years. I was very unhappy in college and don't have many positive memories aside from the acclaim I received for my thesis. I was very proud of my work. Now I feel that this has been taken from me, and I am livid.

Do I have any recourse? If so, what would be the steps I could take? I am in the dark here, having no clue how academia really works except thirdhand from my friends who went to grad school. What should I do? Or do I let this go, and just feel bitter about this forever, which hardly seems fair but maybe that's just the nature of the game? Help me.
posted by nayantara to Education (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Contact the Dean of the school or the Chair of the department. Attach your thesis and her paper and also highlight the paragraphs that appear in both.
posted by saturdaymornings at 1:44 PM on April 19, 2020 [40 favorites]


The most effective thing you can do is probably to contact the editor(s) of the journal where this paper was published.

If it was published in an academic journal (which it sounds like from your description), the journal's website will list its editors somewhere; these are usually academics at a university somewhere. Write up a description of the similarities between your thesis and the published article; include your thesis as an attachment. Ask what can be done, and what other information they might need from you. A good-quality journal will take action on this, probably retracting the article; but unfortunately there are plenty of lesser journals out there who might be less proactive about your concerns.

Similarly, it's pretty common in some fields to take a published article and turn it into a chapter of a monograph. If you can find out whether she has the book under contract with a publisher (usually this would be some kind of academic publishing house), contacting her editors there might be in order.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:47 PM on April 19, 2020 [33 favorites]


Your options range from:
0) Do nothing - she benefits from your work unfairly, probably continues to plagiarize.
1) Contact her, tell her you found it, ask her to retract the paper.
2) Contact the journal and provide your thesis, ask them to retract it.
3) Contact her current department chair.
4) Contact her current university's office of research - there will be something on their website for reporting misconduct - research integrity is basically the name at my university.

In a just world, 2-4 could all end up with her losing her job. On the other hand, her university might protect her.
posted by lab.beetle at 1:50 PM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


You need to do something.

Because if you don't, there's a risk someone else will notice the plagiarism — I'd guess even your former housemate has already mentioned it to others — and the plagiarist might respond to accusations by accusing you of plagiarizing her.

And while I don't doubt that you would ultimately prevail, you'd start on the defensive, and outside observers might well have greater ambivalence about who really did what than if you'd struck the first blow.
posted by jamjam at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2020 [10 favorites]


but this was another thing that me and my former housemates filed under "problematic" "perhaps unethical" (we know the relationship started when he was still a student of hers, and it obviously makes us deeply uncomfortable).

this is, as I think you know but if you want extra outside confirmation, absolutely unethical, no perhaps about it. waffling around with "problematic" is for when the younger party is someone else's student. anybody who wants an undergrad at an undergrad institution can have one, they are there in great numbers. anybody who ends up with their undergrad did so very much on purpose.

As to the pressing part of your question: if and when this plagiarized article is published as a book chapter, it will be reviewed. if I were you I would write to the publication housing that review reporting the plagiarism in extremely unemotional tones but with excessive detail and documentation. if a third party in the field could write it instead of you, or in addition to you, even better. this could be a good couple of years away but would humiliate her at a good time for it in her career, assuming the letter was read and published.

or you could simply send such a letter to the place that published her paper, now. I don't know what the chances of having it noticed and acted on might be. but I would definitely do it. if you aren't in or seeking a job in academia and don't have to worry about retribution, I can't think of any reason not to.

I would not do nothing even if the chances of justice are slim. because A. she stole your work and B. people like this get worse over time.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:19 PM on April 19, 2020 [21 favorites]


Contact the journal; contact the publisher of the forthcoming; contact her current school's professional standards office, whatever that might be (they might pass you on to the department, but I'd start someone less likely to be stocked with this person's cronies to make a record). Make sure you provide the clearest possible citations and quotations.

In a way, it's good that you're not in academia anymore--you have no academic career to jeopardize. So you can pursue this wrong-doer (and academia does not need people like her) without fear.
posted by praemunire at 2:20 PM on April 19, 2020 [21 favorites]


I obtained my PhD in a sciences field, and am now in industry. This is a pretty scandalous situation, and no matter what you decided, you should NOT let this go.

I think the two courses of action that would be most likely to result in would be to contact the publisher, and her university's professional conduct board, enclosing a copy of your thesis. Did YOU publish your findings? If so, enclose that publication as well. Do not contact HER, as that could make life unpleasant for you and any mutual acquaintances.
posted by Everydayville at 2:22 PM on April 19, 2020 [9 favorites]


oh also -- I don't think you specified that she didn't cite your thesis anywhere but I am assuming she did not. Obviously plagiarism is plagiarism either way, but double check to make sure she didn't slip a footnote in somewhere, and if she did, note that in any report you make so as to demolish it as a possible defense. don't give her any escape hatch by letting her suggest that it was just an issue of inadequate or incomplete citation.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:30 PM on April 19, 2020 [6 favorites]


The fact that you're not currently in academia actually makes this, imo, an easier decision because there's really nothing retaliatory she could do that would possibly matter to you. Report, report, report.
posted by augustimagination at 2:32 PM on April 19, 2020 [29 favorites]


Agree with a lot of the advice already posted. This is serious! Here's some advice from the editors of RetractionWatch, which basically sums to:
- Contacting research integrity officers, or the equivalent, at the institutions where the author[s] work is the best first point to start at (per saturdaymornings' comment)
- Contacting journal editors can sometimes be less productive depending on how shady the editor is
- Not recommended to contact the author themselves.

"My thesis, once completed, was bound and filed in our department library where any student or professor could "check it out"." I wonder if it was also published with ProQuest or is also somehow available online to people from your institution... that could make it easier for her to copy.
posted by Paper rabies at 2:35 PM on April 19, 2020 [6 favorites]


I'm sure it doesn't need to be said, but just in case:

When reporting, stick only to the plagiarism issue. All the other personal stuff, as serious as it is, is irrelevant in this incident and would paint you as someone who has a (valid) personal issue with the plagiarist.

The plagiarism alone is enough. Be thorough and impassionate.
posted by acidnova at 2:36 PM on April 19, 2020 [57 favorites]


I agree with those saying you need to speak up, and can likely do so with little repercussion to yourself. The timeline suggests that this professor may be up for tenure shortly.

However, when you contact the journal and office of professional standards at her school, leave out the stuff about her being young, her tendency to overshare, and the fact that she is married to a former student. The first is irrelevant; the second is skeevy; the third was probably prohibited by the faculty handbook if their relationship began while she was teaching there. But they are not part of your complaint, which is about plagiarism. Also, if she was never part of your thesis advisory committee, "I chatted with this person a few times" is no excuse.

Stick to facts: "I was a student at [SLAC] and graduated with distinction in 2007. My thesis, on XYZ topic, was advised by [your actual thesis advisor] and is shelved in Campus Library. Professor Plagiarist's recent article (attached) bears a marked similarity to the arguments I made in sections 1, 2, and 7 of my thesis (attached). In particular, the following paragraphs from my thesis are reproduced verbatim without attribution: [table with page and paragraph number from your thesis against page/paragraph number from the professor's article.]"

And then ask what they are going to do about it.
posted by basalganglia at 2:38 PM on April 19, 2020 [58 favorites]


The meat of this is that a supervisor has lifted a student's work (your work) wholesale. Easy questions first. Are you attributed at all, i.e. can the author reasonably claim that just a few extra citations over and above what is already there would be sufficient credit to you? Can the author claim that these are their words that you used in your thesis? From what you write, no and no.

There are wise words at ReactionWatch Want to report a case of plagiarism? Here’s how and the linked paper, and publicationethics.org.

Personally my preferred outcome would be co-authorship of the paper and at least the chapter of the book. YMMV

I once peer-reviewed a paper that had been lifted wholesale from a PhD that I had a copy of. Things were complicated by the home country of both authors and the subject matter, all delicate. I wasn't sure of the background, so I simply stated the facts as I knew them to the editor who thanked me by return email (I think the key word he used was 'insightful'). The paper was never published and I never heard of the author again.
posted by StephenB at 2:41 PM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


I'll add only that it is extremely relevant that the plagiarist professor is someone who you knew during college, and who was aware of your work, and you should include and explain that fact in any complaint you file (and I agree that reporting is the right thing to do). Without that context - it would seem extremely unlikely for an academic to have ever seen or read an unpublished undergraduate thesis.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:49 PM on April 19, 2020 [37 favorites]


kickingtheground has an excellent point. You must include facts about your relationship (advisory relationship) with this professor in the case you make. If it's possible to back this up through copies of correspondence (email, etc) proving that you met to discuss the paper, do so.

Yes, you need to report this. She's using your work to gain tenure, which means salary and employment.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 2:54 PM on April 19, 2020 [16 favorites]


Yes you should contact the journal and professional standards office and include a copy of your thesis, the published version if at all possible (contact the library for a pdf if needed, or search the various thesis publishing places online). Plagiarizing isn't unheard of, but she is very stupid and reckless to have done this and it's possible she destroyed the physical copy in the library, so any evidence you have of your final published, graded work you should include. And yes mention that she was an informal mentor when you were writing and aware of your thesis. They will take this seriously, even a shady journal will take wholesale unattributed paragraphs seriously. I personally would also cc my thesis advisers and my board, if you had one as back up that you did the work independently and first.

I wouldn't contact her and I'd ignore any attempts she made to contact me after it all goes down, except to document the attempt.
posted by fshgrl at 2:57 PM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]


One of the problems here in establishing your case is that your thesis wasn't published. Is there someone on the faculty at your old university who remembers you and would be willing to check your thesis against her article? Someone who can attest that she was there, who can even make copies of any page that mentions her as your adviser, as well as any of the pages she directly plagiarized. Someone you trust? That person could then also contact the plagiarist and the plagiarist's publisher, and her department.

Oh and I agree that you shouldn't bring up any of the personal crap.

Good luck, I hope you get some satisfaction. At the very least she should apologize and withdraw that piece from publication. Let us know what happens, please.
posted by mareli at 4:07 PM on April 19, 2020


Forgot to add: I am a fan of signing off with the somewhat passive-aggressive "Please let me know what the next steps would be." Like of course their position is to uphold academic integrity; you are merely inquiring about protocol.

(And yes, the fact that she knew that you were writing this is definitely relevant; it just may be harder to prove if there wasn't an official advising relationship... unless you have access to your undergrad emails or something?)
posted by basalganglia at 4:20 PM on April 19, 2020 [12 favorites]


Did your thesis include an acknowl3dgements page? If so, this might be evidence of the advising relationship, assuming you acknowledged her.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:25 PM on April 19, 2020


I'm part of the research integrity process and I would advise to contact the RIO of her school and the journal editor. Go ahead and do both; likely they will both run inquiries simultaneously. You may also want to contact the RIO where you did your thesis. They may not be able to do much for you but will consider you one of "their" people and help you if they can.

Do not start with the department, Dean, or anyone but the RIO. The RIO has authority to sequester records and demand information, and they can do that best and most successfully if no one else has been notified first so no one can circle wagons or panic and delete anything.

The time passed since your thesis is going to make this hard to tackle, and any records you can provide will bolster your case, but it's okay to reach out with a basic notification now and say that you are looking for records and will follow up with them soon.
posted by Stacey at 6:31 PM on April 19, 2020 [13 favorites]


You already have what you need above, but I just wanted to add a personal note of thanks in advance and some encouragement. I was the Publication Board Chairperson for a journal that published a plagiarized paper. The situation was very similar to yours. A supervisor swiped a chapter out of a grad student's thesis after he'd moved to another uni in another country, changed a few words, and boom. The graduate student emailed me. We looked into it. I had to be very methodical and verify everything which took some time and effort on the former student's part because she was in Iran.

The plagiarist had denied at first. When faced with clear evidence he then asked to retract it quietly himself. But we retracted the article and left it online with a big red "Retracted" across every page and a note that is was plagiarized so it would show up in search results...forever.

I contacted the Dean at the school he moved to. No action was ever taken by that university. I notified other journals where he was on the editorial or advisory boards. Some removed him--some didn't. I felt those notifications were our responsibility as the publishers of the plagiarized article--not the victim's responsibility.

I am really grateful to the student who stepped up and named the dishonest professor.
posted by Gotanda at 8:17 PM on April 19, 2020 [16 favorites]


Clarification: she did not advise me, she was not my advisor, there was no student/advisor relationship, and I did not acknowledge her anywhere in my thesis. She was my housemate's advisor for his thesis project and I had a total of two conversations with her about my thesis, all theoretical, no writing was shared, all I basically wanted to know is if my argument made sense, which she assured me it did.

That's a huge part of what is pissing me off about this - I barely had a relationship with this professor, much less one where I considered her a valuable advisor, I haven't thought about her in years and probably would not recognize her in the street if I saw her, and she stole my work. It wouldn't be ok if any of the former were true, but it feels more violating, and more calculated somehow, for this to have
been done by someone I barely knew in any capacity.
posted by nayantara at 4:55 AM on April 20, 2020 [6 favorites]


"she lifted whole paragraphs from my writing. I count at least 20 instances of this"

This would seem to be a copyright infringement. So, besides warning the academic officials, you could also consider the possibility of legal action.
posted by Pechorin at 6:36 AM on April 20, 2020 [1 favorite]


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