A friend explains to me that a tenured senior lecturer from another university has ‘borrowed’ her PhD dissertation –acknowledgements included– and submitted it as his own research for an award. How was he found out? Just by chance: someone in the judges panel had read my friend’s dissertation… This started a very paranoiac conversation about how many articles and books must be out there published twice or more. She added to her astonishing revelation that someone told her she was a high-risk researcher for potential plagiarism, as she has published plenty and her work is easy to find.

A quick Google search reveals that a) Germany is the country where plagiarism is taken most seriously (the minister of Education lost her doctorate for that and had to resign), b) in Spain the most common case of high-flying plagiarism seems to be committed by full professors unduly benefiting from their doctoral students’ work. I’ve come across information on two similar cases with a very diverse resolution. And it’s funny that I hesitate to name the culprits even though they should be shamed for all eternity.

In one case, the Spanish Supreme Tribunal fined a full professor (‘catedrático’) 5,000 euros for plagiarising his student’s PhD dissertation twice: for an article in a collective volume, and for a booklet. He also had to pay the judicial fees and, wow, the cost of publishing the sentence in a national newspaper. To my horror, he had been previously condemned for sexually abusing the same female student –but absolved. The fine in that case was 9,000 euros. The victim was told she had not made it clear to her supervisor that his advances were not welcome and that the actual offence was minor. He is still teaching. Fortunately, so is she.

In a second case, a male student denounced his PhD supervisor for having plagiarised in four occasions research produced during the postgraduate courses he took with this person. A problem in this case is although the student could prove that this teacher (another full professor) had been plagiarising his work since the mid 1990s, the university concluded that the four offences had legally expired (they did so after only two years…). The plagiarist, by the way, argued that the student’s work had been produced following his own teaching, therefore, the contents were also his. A sad conclusion to this case is that the student never found another supervisor and never finished his doctorate.

I’ve also come across many comments on the booming internet market for BA, MA and PhD dissertations –I remember reading once that this started in Harvard about 100 years ago, as soon as typewriters started being used commonly. In the case of bought research, technically nobody is committing plagiarism as the real author, the ghost writer, has agreed to charge a fee for his or her work. This practice might explain how politicians I will not name suddenly become doctors overnight, when, as everyone knows, a PhD dissertation takes about three full-time years, usually more.

Technically speaking, the person who has presented my friend’s PhD thesis as his own research has not committed plagiarism, as this consists of inserting text from unacknowledged sources in your own work. He has committed the cheekiest theft, of a kind I thought simply nobody dreamed of committing. Even though I know of a famous case in which a candidate for tenure submitted as his own the very report written by his board’s president for her state examination. In that case, the offender got hold of a text that had been circulating, it seems, anonymously, and he simply didn’t know who he had stolen it from…

When I hear of cases like the ones I’ve summarised here I wonder with what authority we can demand that our student refrain from plagiarising. In my Department we take this problem very seriously and we’re failing students for plagiarising parts of sentences, provided, of course, we can prove the offence. Now think of someone stealing a complete dissertation… Do I need to say more?

A last comment: we, researchers, have been told that an ‘open access’ policy guaranteeing the maximum visibility and availability of our work is the only way to go in our internet-ruled times. I’m going that way myself, with the web, Academia.edu, etc. Now it turns out this increases the risk of being plagiarised… Catch 22…

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  1. I wouuld counter that going “open access” is also the readiest way of exposing possible plagiarists of your work. Just think, a limited academic print edition of a work can easily be plagiarized, and remains undetectable by a search if it’s not on the web. But if the same text is online, just Google the most characteristic terms, and, presto… the plagiarist is exposed. That is why high-quality ghost writers only contact their clients through the web (those contacts have been made much simpler now) but they wouldn’t think of uploading a copy of their essays on sale there. By the way, they often advertise those essays as trustworthy and “100% plagiarism-free”!!

  2. I know of cases, witnessed by a close friend of mine when he was a Ph.D. student in a CSIC institute, of the following kind.

    Student is strongly unsatisfied with her advisor and, finding her situation unbearable, leaves after 2-2’5 years. All the research made by Student (e.g. entire chapters of what the morning before was her future thesis) is ‘inherited’ by another student. Further, she is stripped from authorship in papers *already submitted* based on her doctoral work.

    I have also seen two cases of paper plagiarism acting as a referee. If my little experience is to be taken seriously, plagiarists tend to prey on papers of little quality and significance, and certainly not published in popular venues.

    Finally, I have been a referee for several papers whose introductions plagiarized sentences or entire paragraphs from papers of mine. That happened to me with Asian researchers who had serious problems writing in English. They (those people, not Asians in general) probably saw nothing wrong in using somebody else’s words if they’re closer to what they wanted to say than their own words.

  3. My mouth is hanging open…
    Yesterday, by the way, it was discovered that Jane Goodall, who certainly should be above this, plagiarised from 12 sources in her last book, including… Wikipedia!! She claimed shoddy note-taking for that, exactly what many of our students claim.

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