Can you plagiarize in a draft copy?
July 6, 2006 6:47 AM   Subscribe

In academia, is it plagiarism if you haven't finished writing your document, and you give it to a colleague/professor to review for content changes/problems and they find uncited sources?

A good friend of mine is finishing his Ph.D. He is just a few months from having his disseration completed, but he hasn't completed writing it yet. He recently gave a few of his chapters to his committee for comments (the normal process before you submit a final version for review). To his surprise, they found 5 references (out of 650+ in the document) that were not cited.

When they found this, instead of pointing them out to him (normal procedure) they submitted them to the graduate school citing plagiarism.

My friend has been an exemplary student. He has taught classes at the university, and actually brought charges against his students for plagiarism. He takes plagiarism very seriously, and had no intent to plagiarize.

The thing is this though. The document wasn't completed. He had not scrubbed it for sources. He had not proof read it. The formatting was off. It was definately a working draft, and everyone on his committee knew this and has acknowledged it. Yet, they cited him anyway.

The plagiarism "references" were not material to the central question. He did not steal any arguments from anyone. All the references in question were in the literary review portion of the document, citing sources that had been read as a build up to the central theme.

So, I'm looking to understand the word "plagiarism." The definitions are very loosely defined throughout the internet, so its hard to lock down.

Can plagiarism occur in draft versions of the document?

Can it be plagiarism if its a working document and there is no intent to plagiarize?

Is intent relevant at all, or is plagiarism just plagiarism no matter what?

Any thoughts, especially from Ph.D. students or people with Ph.D.s would be appreciated.

posted by anonymous to Education (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What was the motivation for handing in the draft, was it to be approved to continue with study/continue on PhD level rather than be submitted for a lower degree? That would act as a motive for plagiarism (specifically in the eyes of the examining board). When you say there were 5 refs not cited, does that mean chunks of text without an appropriate ref, e.g.( Anon, 2006) attached to them and with corresponding data at the end/in the footnote? That might create a problem depending on the extent of the text used. Still if the form of the document makes it clear, eg italics or use of quotation marks, that a quote was being used it seems harsh to me.

It's a pity you don't say where you are, these things operate quite differently in different countries.
posted by biffa at 7:07 AM on July 6, 2006

As a Ph D. student who TA-ed student ethics courses I think this is really lame and unusual. I've seen papers submitted to conferences that get sternly worded notes about missing citations, but never anything harsher than that.

These were his committee members reading his draft? Isn't his advisor supposed to be his advocate against things like this? This does not speak well for the faculty. In fact, if he has no history of cheating, this stinks.

Not to diminish plagiarism at all, of course. Forgetting to cite sources is a big no-no, and there can be plagiarism through negligence. However, in a draft situation his committee should just point them out and give him a sternly worded note and a frowny face. Turning him in when he hasn't even proofread the document is really uncalled for.

He should fight this as hard as he can. There should be some internal judicial process and a student advocate who will help him log his protest.
posted by Alison at 7:14 AM on July 6, 2006

When they found this, instead of pointing them out to him (normal procedure) they submitted them to the graduate school citing plagiarism.

The school will probably convene a "review board" to evaluate the merits of the accusation. The review board will look at the circumstances of the submission and the ethics record of the student, and — if it is genuinely a rough draft that was submitted for editing — will likely make a judgement based on common sense.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:19 AM on July 6, 2006

It seems to me- and keep in mind I'm in no way truly qualafied to comment- that the whole idea behind submitting and unfinished document might be to FIND things like this. If he has a good track record, I see nothing to suggest that he plagarized. At worst, he got a little lazy in early drafts.

I think even if this does go through, he should be okay provided that the comittee aren't a bunch of lamebrained goons.
posted by GilloD at 7:22 AM on July 6, 2006

I agree with Alison. Isn't the committee's job to help the student become an exemplary researcher in his field? This help might take the form of challenges to his arguments and approach, but calling him before a review board over a draft seems absurdly hostile. Have there been high-profile instances of plagiarism at his institution recently? I would have thought they'd just get out the big red markers and written "CITE!" in the margins.
posted by Songdog at 7:27 AM on July 6, 2006

One would think that the review board would find in his favor. He may want to consider putting together a new committee if at all possible after this process is done.
posted by edgeways at 7:32 AM on July 6, 2006

Well, strictly speaking, you can plagiarize at any time--but I don't know anyone, myself included, who would turn a graduate student in for problems with a preliminary draft. As other posters have noted above, however, it's not clear what your friend did. Direct quotations without quotation marks or citations? Direct quotations with quotation marks but without citations? Something else?
posted by thomas j wise at 7:34 AM on July 6, 2006

I agree with Alison too, but having had experience with nasty grad school committees, I can't say I'm all that surprised. Your friend should fight this.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on July 6, 2006

I agree that this seems unnecessarily harsh. But trying to see it from the perspective of the committee, the fact that he had 650+ sources properly cited and 5 not cited at all might have indicated to them (wrongly, your friend claims) that he didn't intend to ever cite those remaining sources.

But they might have asked him what was up, rather than throwing the book at him first and asking questions later.
posted by BackwardsCity at 7:41 AM on July 6, 2006

As for the question of whether or not this is plagiarism, I think that's going to depend specifically on the culture of your friend's university. He should definitely be looking into the academic integrity procedures and how he can best head this before it get ugly/uglier. Some academic integrity procedures allow you to circumvent the academic integrity board in favor of intervention with the dean of academics, which depending on the tenor of the board might be his best bet.

He should be talking to friendly faculty about this and asking them what he should be doing.
posted by BackwardsCity at 7:44 AM on July 6, 2006

Is this some back-handed way of your friend's committee sending him some sort of message? Generally, in as much as you are able to pick members of your committee, you pick people that are on your side. It sounds more than a little harsh to me, though I'm fairly sure your friend will prevail if it goes to review.

If the material from the primary source is in quotation marks or otherwise formatted (say, a block quote) to indicate that it comes from somewhere else, but only lacks a citation, I'd say it's obviously just an oversight. But if it's a direct quotation without anything to indicate it's origin, then that's clearly plagiarism--inadvertent or not.
posted by wheat at 7:52 AM on July 6, 2006

As you tell the story, I see no reason for the committee's actions -- they do seem really over the top. Turning someone in for plagiarism is serious, even more serious when it's a PhD student, even more serious when it's a dissertation, draft or otherwise. They are doing something which will end his career before it's started. I can easily see finding one (maybe two) hardass souls out there who would want to do this to a student to make a point, but a whole committee? I have to wonder what else is going on here (and the review board will wonder as well). My immediate questions would be: 1) do they want to get rid of him for any reason? 2) are the plagiarized passages minor parts of sentences or major chunks of text (I'm guessing the second option)? 3) is he a non-native English speaker where borrowed (well-written) text sends up signals that other work isn't his? 4) are these chapters for a defense, like biffa said, since your friend's idea of acceptable roughness might not be the same as the school's for a formal stage? Regardless, this is serious business, and the review board will take it very seriously. If the board rules in his favor he needs a new committee, and I would suggest thinking about a new school. If the board doesn't rule in his favor, you have to at least consider that you don't have the whole story.
posted by dness2 at 7:54 AM on July 6, 2006

WTF? This sounds absurd to me. I thought the point of giving things to colleagues and committees was to catch things like this, as others have said.
Even if we are missing some context here, and the uncited sources appeared to be being passed off as the student's own work, an appropriate response would be to tell him he must cite these sources.
I think "Jeez, it's only a draft; thanks for catching this missing citations for me." is such a strong defence that nothing will come of this except a lot of bad feeling and a need for a new committee.
Is it possible that your friend has made enemies in his crusade against plagiarism by other students? Has he been so sanctimonious about it that even his committee hate him and want to take him down? It's hard to believe this is happening.
posted by nowonmai at 7:55 AM on July 6, 2006

This isn't plagiarism! At least not in my field, history. It is sloppy work, but that is all. Plagiarism is taking the exact words or unique ideas of another person and presenting them as your own. Not the same thing at all.

I strongly suspect that there is more to the story than your friend is telling you.
posted by LarryC at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2006

When I'm working on a paper and don't want to worry about citing I will usually write, in parentheses "CITE!", so I don't have to go through the process of correct citation and mess up the creative process. In drafts I've asked teachers to look at I always write, in large letters, "ROUGH DRAFT, NOT CORRECTLY CITED", to avoid such confusion. I also repeatedly tell the teacher that I have not reviewed all citations and may have missed some but at that point am more worried about the content and the flow. No one has ever given me guff for it, but I am not a PhD student. By anecdotal experience I would say this is somewhat odd, but I've had really overzealous teachers (including one who submitted my paper for plagarizing when she wanted Chicago style and I gave her MLA style -- don't worry it was dismissed). Unless there are some circumstances you and the rest of us are unaware of, this seems ridiculous.
posted by geoff. at 8:05 AM on July 6, 2006

Short answers:
Can plagiarism occur in draft versions of the document?


Can it be plagiarism if its a working document and there is no intent to plagiarize?

Yes. The lack of intent might be a mitigating factor, but it's still plagiarism.

Longer answer:
Whether or not the reaction is out of proportion depends on the nature and extent of the plagiarism -- and we don't have the information to make a judgment here. (The fact that 650+ sources are cited properly tells us nothing about the severity of the offense.)

It sounds to me like the readers flipped out because they've lost their trust in the academic integrity of your friend; they felt that the uncited sources rose to the level of dishonesty. (My guess as to what happened: the readers smelled something fishy with an uncited passage -- recognized the language or something. They then found the original. This set them on a hunt to check other suspicious passages, and they found a few others.) It doesn't matter whether or not the document in question is a draft; if the advisor and readers have lost trust in the student's academic integrity, it's game over.

Again, whether the response is too severe depends entirely on the nature of the offense. The appropriate response can range from noting it in red ink, to giving the student a talking-to, to dropping the student as an advisee, to a full-on academic integrity hearing. Bear in mind that accusations of plagiarism are a serious pain in the ass to the faculty members who level them. Is it possible that your friend doesn't really understand the severity of what he's done?

I suspect that your friend's best bet is to have a heart-to-heart with his advisor or another ally on the faculty. But I suspect that, rightly or wrongly, he's already lost the advisor's backing, which probably means that he's screwed even if he is exonerated by the official hearing.
posted by cgs06 at 8:20 AM on July 6, 2006

Seems to me like there are other bigger issues here. I submit half-baked drafts to my committee/advisor all the time with a bunch of place holders like (Insert appropriate citation here; something from an aquatic system). I'd say he should really have a talk with his committee and see if there's nothing else going on.

On preview, I agree with cgs06
posted by special-k at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2006

Plagiarism is becoming an even bigger problem than it once was with undergrads especially using internet searches to 'research' their work, so it might be that his committee is on a heightened state of awareness anyway. Still, it is imperative when one submits anything (especially in draught form) to note where one hasn't cited. As others have said it is never up to the reader to guess the writer's good intentions. Having said all that, I agree with others though that there seems to be more going on. Indeed I don't think it's good for academic departments to cite a grad student for plagiarism. Still, if this is an honest mistake I hope that the graduate school sees common sense.
posted by ob at 8:46 AM on July 6, 2006

Doesn't plaigiarism require some amount of intent or bad faith? Forgetting to drop a footnote is negligent, but not dishonest. There must be more to this story than is presented in the post.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:20 AM on July 6, 2006

Definitions of "plagiarism" that you find on the internet won't matter a jot. What matters is your University's definition of plagiarism, and what their policies are on it.

Do some research. Find out what your University's academic dishonesty policy is; it should be in some kind of student handbook. Talk to the student ombudsman, if your University has one. And talk to friendly faculty and/or the department chair, to find out what the department's policy is — it may differ from the University's policy, since in my experience departments are given huge amounts of latitude to treat their students as they see fit.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:36 AM on July 6, 2006

If it was given as a draft and there are errors, that's the point of the process. If the draft was submitted for some form of examination, eg as an upgrade, then that's different. The definition of plagiarism is rather incidental.
posted by A189Nut at 9:54 AM on July 6, 2006

I don't understand what was done here. "5 references that were not cited" doesn't make sense to me. Does that mean that, out of 650+ references in the footnotes or end bibliography, there were 5 numbers that appeared nowhere in the text in superscript, meaning that there were 5 superfluous references in the bibliography?

Or does it mean that in 5 places in the text, ideas or concepts were stated without a citation to their source?

Or does it mean that in 5 places in the text, sentences or paragraphs were copied word-for-word from other works without attribution?

The former is a non-issue, the second is a tricky situation, and the latter is grounds for immediate dismissal from any academic program I've ever heard of. But it's not clear which one applies.

It is clear that if you're handing in work to be evaluated, it has to meet certain standards, and not plagiarizing is one of them.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:04 AM on July 6, 2006

cgs06 seems to have it right. There are a couple of situations in which 5 out of 650+ might be a big deal. If the 5 are crucial to defense of the main conclusion and/or are supposed to be part of what makes the document original work, the 5 could be a big deal. Also, if all 5 are from one particular paper or book (a professor or fellow grad student's work, even worse) then the 5 could be evidence enough by themselves.

Figuring out whether there were strained relations between your friend and his committee before this incident would go a long way towards figuring out what went on here.

I agree that something has gone terribly wrong. A committee is supposed to be on the supportive side, alerting the student to problems. So either this is a) a committee intentionally trying to smear a good/potentially revolutionary student, or more likely b) something seriously wrong happened in those 5 cites. Good people do get smeared in grad school occasionally, so I'm not writing your friend off (academics can be the nastiest of people) but it does sound like you're not getting the whole story.
posted by ontic at 10:27 AM on July 6, 2006

"To his surprise, they found 5 references (out of 650+ in the document) that were not cited. "

"He did not steal any arguments from anyone. All the references in question were in the literary review portion of the document, citing sources that had been read as a build up to the central theme."

I can't make any sense of what happened here. It seems you're saying that in the literature review in the document introduction, your friend failed to cite five sources. Based on your description, it seems that he wasn't even quoting from these sources. How did his committee know that he had read these sources? Do you just mean that he had cited sources in the text, but failed to include a full reference to these sources in the endnotes or footnotes? This seems like a trivial oversight, and precisely the kind of reason he'd have an early draft reviewed. I could see a problem if he had included actual text from these sources (especially without indicating that he was quoting), but that seems inconsistent with your description.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:38 AM on July 6, 2006

If your friend had substantial unattributed verbatim passages from other sources that were not cited and were integrated into the text as though the words were his, then it's plagiarism. Even in the penultimate draft of a dissertation chapter I suspect that this would be considered a mortal sin. If he is guilty of a lesser offense, then we enter a gray area.
posted by Crotalus at 12:32 PM on July 6, 2006

the latter is grounds for immediate dismissal from any academic program I've ever heard of

Meh. In the real world, if I were handed a draft chapter that had a sentence that wasn't cited, I'd just note it and write CHECK FOR OTHER CITES; COVER YOUR ASS in the margin.

This seems weird, and I concur that there is something going on that your friend didn't tell you. His committee is against him for some reason.

He can press on for some measure of justice and an eventual degree, but this has probably killed any chance of an academic career. Who's going to write letters for him now?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:36 PM on July 6, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe, I think that passing someone else's work off as your own is a dismissible offense - in academia, not the real world. (Who said anything about the real world?)

I concur, though, that this guy's degree committee isn't his friend and wants to get rid of him.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:45 PM on July 6, 2006

There is something else going on --- for whatever reason, we don't have all the details. Committees don't conspire to get rid of students. It doesn't work that way.
posted by about_time at 8:14 PM on July 6, 2006

5/650 means nothing. What matters is how and where the references were omitted, as ikkyu2 suggests. I also agree with cgs06 that there's much more to this than whether or not it's plagiarism.

I'd bet that unless it's really egregious (i.e. copied paragraphs or sentences that aren't demarked as quotes), he'll be given another chance by the committee. But that will just set him up for a defense that is likely to be a scorcher.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:27 PM on July 6, 2006

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