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John P. Lesko, Editor
Department of English
Saginaw Valley St. Univ
University Center, MI
USA 48710

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Advance Online Version Volume 2, 2007

Responses and Letters to the Editor

Submit responses to papers and perspectives published in Plagiary in the form of a letter to the Editor (see contact details to the left). Letters on other issues and controversies are also welcomed. Responses and letters may be edited for clarity and/or conciseness.

Publication of such letters is at the sole discretion of the Editor. Authors will be given an opportunity to reply in the case of critiques involving a particular article.




After Finding Evidence of Plagiarism, PhD Student Fights Back


In May 2007, I found a paper on PubMed that seemed very familiar. One third of this paper (1200 words), including one table, was copied almost paragraph for paragraph from Chapter 3 of my PhD dissertation. I was astonished as I saw scientific omissions, contradictions, and even false statements. Looking up, I recognized the name of the sole author—none other than my former PhD advisor. I was acknowledged at the end, right next to the lab technician.

Briefly, this is my story of how I fought back, how I challenged conflicts of interest, struggled with university bureaucracies, and learned about copyright laws as I sought to protect the integrity of science and the proper use of my research on the terrible disease, cystic fibrosis.

I first learned of this in May 2007, a year after I completed my PhD. I had avoided my former advisor since I graduated. I did so because in those last three months, I felt harassed and intimidated by his demands that I complete a side project unrelated to my dissertation. I was terrified of either option: committing to my advisor’s project, thus risking not finishing on time and losing a solid job offer; or committing solely to my dissertation, possibly risking not graduating if he retaliated. I know I made the right choice because after I defended (on time, thanks to other faculty), my advisor e-mailed me, calling me “destructive,” “manipulative,” and “snarky.”

As I read a draft version of this paper on the journal’s website, I was alarmed because

• In the Results section, I saw my paragraph about a novel method I developed to evaluate cystic fibrosis fluids, but could not find the method text.

• In the “Methods” section, I found my paragraph on another novel method I developed, but I could not find the results text.

• I read the conclusion which promoted the potential of this new drug for cystic fibrosis due to the data. That data, not mine, were actually the “old methods” in our lab. Then I saw my paragraph explaining why the “old methods” were unreliable, which contradicted the paper’s conclusion. I didn’t understand why that paragraph had been copied.

• I noticed the drug was made by a startup company founded by the journal’s guest editor. According to Yahoo Finance he owns $4 million of their stock.

• I saw a paragraph describing image analysis of three biomacromolecules. The sentences about two of those biomacromolecules were almost exactly mine; almost, because the p-values matched my dissertation, but the sample size number (n) had been omitted. I did not analyze the third biomacromolecule, so I did not understand why it was in the same paragraph.


What I saw next convinced me these problems were not accidental. I read about a correlation involving <certain measurement>. It was followed by my sentence about the Bueche theory of polymers; with one word changed. The word “viscosity” had been replaced with “certain measurement,” thus making the correlation seem far more significant than it was. I did a Google search of “Bueche theory viscosity” and found 17,000 hits. I tried “Bueche theory, <certain measurement>” and only found 3 hits, all pointing to this paper and another recent paper, authored by my former advisor and the editor. In fact, the “Discussion” of that paper was similar to this paper, and the “Results” had the mysterious third biomacromolecule data, whose sample size was different than my data.

This paper was not just copying my work and forgetting to put it in quotation marks or properly cite it. His mismatch of the methods and results confirmed what I always knew: he never understood or cared about the new techniques I developed. Moreover, this paper did not present any new data, but rather combined data from my dissertation with another paper. Including a sample size would clearly show this discrepancy. The other data, not my data, was used for the key conclusion, a conclusion based on methods deemed unreliable by my dissertation. My advisor had changed scientific theories so the data seemed more significant than it was. Furthermore, no one noticed, perhaps because of the editor’s financial interest and because this paper combined engineering and medicine in ways few people could critically evaluate. These problems went against everything I stood for, as a scientist, engineer, and graduate student.

I learned from the U. S. Copyright Office website that anything, once bound or put onto a website, is copyrighted, regardless of whether an author writes “Copyright.” Proquest had published my dissertation online and on their website said it belonged to me and only me. While the university where I did my doctoral research takes ownership of patents, the university does not take copyrights. Unfortunately, since I registered my copyright after the infringing work was published, I could not recoup attorney fees, limiting my legal options.

I found a “cease and desist” letter online and sent it to the executive editor of the journal. I included the paper, with the copied parts highlighted and page references to Chapter 3 of my dissertation noted in red. I expected this reputable journal to quickly take the infringing paper down. I was wrong. In his letter back to me, the staff executive editor said my advisor claimed that he had himself phrased the parts of my dissertation that were copied, that I had been unresponsive to his e-mails, and that I had claimed that other (non-Chapter 3) parts of my dissertation had come from my advisor's books. For these reasons, the journal felt my advisor’s actions were defensible, but they offered me co-authorship.

My advisor most certainly did not phrase those parts of my dissertation as he was now claiming to have done when questioned by the staff editor. I found the very first draft of my dissertation I wrote over Thanksgiving 2005, before my advisor ever saw it, and the sentences were similar. Furthermore, his omission of the methods/results showed he did not understand the paragraphs which he had copied, ideas I developed on my own because I realized his “old methods” were unreliable. I had been unresponsive due to his harassment, but never was I contacted to approve such a draft. After this response, I promptly registered my copyright for $45 with the U. S. Copyright Office.

I sent another letter to the journal to decline co-authorship and detailed the scientific omissions, misleading science, and conflict of interest as detailed above. I also began a grievance at my alma mater. The Office of Research examined the documents and met with my advisor, who produced a new version of the paper. This version removed my text except the data, which cited yet another paper, and the methods, which cited my dissertation. The university does own the data, but they avoid issues with how data is presented. After I insisted, the data sets were placed in separate paragraphs. It turns out the “other” paper was one I was supposed to be a co-author on, but my name had been dropped. I chose not pursue this, however, and I thought the issue was resolved when the journal indicated they would publish the revised version.

For their help in pursuing my intellectual property rights, I was grateful to my alma mater. But I became skeptical as days went by and the original draft remained on the journal’s website. After a month passed, I queried the executive editor. He said that draft versions always remain online and insisted it was NOT plagiarism, but just a dispute. I again complained to the university who responded immediately. Their reply, after extended conversations with the journal executive editor, was that they understood this journal leaves article drafts online, indefinitely, unless articles were retracted. I believe my university contacts understood my concerns, and that they even agreed with me, but they had no power over the journal and they wished me the best in my future endeavors.

I was disappointed at how the journal ignored my concerns of copied work, significant omissions, and misleading science. The obvious conflict of interest with the guest editor’s startup company was troubling. My feelings toward the university were rather neutral. They did listen to my concerns and read my lengthy e-mails and responded promptly. Most of all, I felt betrayed that my advisor, whom I had trusted for at least the first three years, could do such a thing.

Luckily, none of these actions affected my career. I realized during my third year my advisor was unreliable. I independently made contacts, searched for, and obtained a job before I graduated. Before I graduated, I gave a talk at my university on my job search, and later, donated to their professional development fund and returned to recruit at my school. While a student, I built strong relationships with my academic department so they supported me when the harassment started in my fourth year. My department avoided the publication dispute, and I understand why; they made sure I graduated on time, but they still had to work with my advisor after I was gone.

Legally, I could sue the journal for retaining my copyrighted work on their website. However, since I registered the copyright after they published it, I could not sue for attorney’s fees. Fees, according to some attorneys, started at $5000, and monetary damages from a journal were unlikely. Demanding royalties was an option, but again, I would need an attorney. Through this experience, I learned that Internet Service Providers can be held liable if they do not shut down copyright infringing websites once they receive a “DMCA take down” letter. Google, Yahoo, and MSN have departments to de-list such sites. I considered sending these letters. However, because of the prohibitive costs and fear of retaliation, and since only the draft version was still up on the journal website, and also because my employment prospects were so favorable, I chose not to pursue legal recourse.

Instead, I share my story here. Perhaps someone else will find this paper and my dissertation online and notice the infringing similarities between them. What I learned is that writing letters does cause people to react. I wish now that I had registered the copyright on my dissertation when Proquest offered (for $45) after graduation. Had I registered then, several attorneys would have readily taken my case. I am glad I contacted my university, but wish I had contacted them sooner. While I could not have the online draft version removed, I did stop my work from being used in the final version of a scientifically flawed paper on cystic fibrosis. And while my portion of the work will never be published since I do not want to talk to my advisor, the hard work and job hunting got me out of a negative environment, and into a career that fits me extraordinarily well.

From a recent PhD graduate

[Anonymity maintained at author’s request. Direct inquiries regarding this student’s experience to ]


Responses and Letters Archive


A publication of the Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan
Copyright 2005-2008

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