After Finding Evidence of Plagiarism, PhD Student Fights
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
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,
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
• 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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org