'My work has been plagiarized. Now what?'

I received an email from reader Doug Blank (who gave me permission to share it here and to identify him by name) about a perplexing situation:


I thought I'd solicit your advice. Recently, I found an instance of parts of my thesis appearing in a journal article, and of the paper being presented at a conference. In fact, further exploration revealed that it had won a best paper prize! Why don't I feel proud...

I've sent the following letter to the one and only email address that I found on the journal's website, almost three weeks ago, but haven't heard anything. I tried contacting the Editorial Advisory Board Chair (through that same email), but he doesn't have any specific contact information anywhere available on the web, or elsewhere. He is emeritus at [name of university redacted], but they won't tell me how to contact him. I asked a secretary there to forward my contact to him. I emailed website maintainers. Nothing yet.

Some questions from this: can one have a journal without having someone easily contactable for such issues? No telephone numbers? Who is responsible for catching this kind of thing? Reviewers? Could the community rise to the challenge? For example, could we build a site where papers that are ready for publishing get scrutinized for plagiarism? People would love that more than wikipedia!

Am I in any risk for even sending such accusatory emails? Should I contact the perp? What would he do? What can he do?

I hope to follow this through to the end. Feel free to use any of this as material. If you are interested, I'd be glad to update you. More importantly, I'd be glad to hear of advice.



Doug appended the email message he sent to the elusive Editorial Advisory Board Chair (which I present here heavily redacted, just in case the guy turns up and makes an effort to set things right):

Dear "[Journal name redacted] and Editorial Advisory Board chair, [Name redacted]:

I am writing to you to report a case of apparent plagiarism. The paper:


listed as published in:

[link to journal online redacted]

[Journal citation redacted]

whose abstract is listed at:

[link to abstract redacted]

and full text available at:

[link to PDF of full paper redacted]

has entire paragraphs lifted wholesale from my PhD thesis, "Learning to See Analogies: A Connectionist Exploration."

For example, here is a paragraph from [author's name redacted] from your URL above:

"A connectionist network, sometimes called a parallel distributed processing (PDP) network, is a model which is based loosely on neural architecture. Connectionist networks attempt to capture the essence of neural computation: many small, independent units calculating very simple functions in parallel. These networks are composed of two basic building blocks: idealized neurons (often called units) linked via weighted connections. Each unit has an associated activation value, which can be passed to other units via the links with the connection weights mediating the amount of activation that is passed between units."

and the same paragraph from my own writing:

"A connectionist network, sometimes called a parallel distributed processing (PDP) network, is a model which is based loosely on neural architecture. Connectionist networks attempt to capture the essence of neural computation: many small, independent units calculating very simple functions in parallel. These networks are composed of two basic building blocks: idealized neurons (often called units) linked via weighted connections. Each unit has an associated activation value, which can be passed to other units via the links with the connection weights mediating the amount of activation that is passed between units."

Every single letter is identical---even the italics (in the PDF version) have been copied. Worse, there is no attribution, not to my work, nor to anyone else's in this section of his paper. Furthermore, my work is not mentioned in the References of the paper.

There are many more paragraphs, or parts of paragraphs, that I recognize as my own words. Additionally, I see other phrases that come from other papers by other people for which there is no attribution nor citation.

I can't really imagine a scenario other than plagiarism as the explanation. As I wrote my words in 1997 and the above article was published in 2007 it also seems clear in which direction the words and ideas flowed. I do support open publications of this kind, but they must, of course, follow professional ethics.

I would appreciate some action in response to this. For example, I would be happy if the author provided an updated paper in which all copied text (mine and other's) were attributed to their original sources with references provided. Please let me know if you need additional information from me, or if you have additional information for me.

Thank you,

Douglas Blank

Here's the initial advice I sent back to Doug:

Hi Doug,

I don't think there's a downside to calling out clear instances of plagiarism (except, of course, for the time and effort involved in calling them out).  If the ideas of a field are worth taking seriously, they're worth citing properly.

As far as dealing with this particular case, where the journal that published the plagiarized work is effectively incommunicado (and thus unresponsive to requests that they address this problem), that's a more challenging problem.  I'm a little surprised, emeritus or not, that his department wouldn't share *some* sort of contact information; chances are *they* know how to get ahold of him.  In the meantime, a little Googling gives this address:

[Address redacted]

If it were me, I'd try contacting [Editorial Advisory Board chair name redacted] via the department mailing address and the address Googling turned up, using certified mail (which costs more but provides proof that someone has actually received the letter).  Basically, you want to lay out what you did in the email, possibly including a printout of the article with the plagiarism and a photocopy of your actual thesis, highlighting the lifted passages.

And, I'd indicate in a CC line at the bottom (and actually CC) the faculty member who supervised your thesis and the official university office that received it when you put it on the acid free paper with all the signatures.  The point here is to put [Editorial Advisory Board chair name redacted] and his journal on notice that the university involved in the thesis (arguably also an injured party here) is being kept in the loop.

Best case scenario is that you are successful in making contact with him, and that he pursues either the remedy you outline or another remedy that you deem adequate.

If he is unreachable, or if you succeed in making contact with him but he does not pursue a remedy, I think it might be reasonable to lay out the evidence of the plagiarism (and of this journal's unwillingness or inability to address it properly) and submit it for publication to either another journal in your field, or to the newsletter of the main professional organization in your field, or to some other outlet of this sort.  (Science reporters from Science or New Scientist or a similar publication might also be interested in a story like this, especially in terms of its implications with regard to journals that don't take responsibility when such problems are brought to their attention, or who can't because there's no reliable way to contact them and alert them about such problems.)

I suspect that there might be enthusiasm for better screens to prevent plagiarism, but I'm not entirely sure how to get the ball rolling on that.

Since my readers often have very sensible advice, I'd like to blog this, with your permission.  (I'll redact the identifying details, just in case [Editorial Advisory Board chair name redacted] ends up being reachable and honorable -- no need to shame him until he's clearly dropped the ball.)

Now, with Doug's permission, I invite you to share your sensible advice on what other steps Doug might take to respond to this plagiarism of his work.

More like this

Hello Janet,

There was a plagiarism session at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing symposium this year. Skip Garner (http://casw.org/users/skip-garner) from the University of Texas Southwestern Med Center presented a fascinating talk on a software his team built to scan literature and find similar passages. Very damning stuff.

He's reported a lot of these cases to editors, so Garner may be a good source to hit up for advice. Hope that's helpful!

Is there any reason to not also CC the chair of the plagiarist's department, and someone at the university level, as well? I'm surprised this wasn't mentioned yet.


If the editor continues to be unreachable, perhaps try contacting the journal's publishing company (assuming the journal has one). They might be able to apply some pressure to the editorial staff.

If the author of the latter pieces is in academia, then contact the head of their academic unit - department head or dean - and ask for them to investigate. Most universities have formal process for this, and many take it seriously. If it is a large university there may be a direct contact point, electronic or phone, to an "academic integrity office", or similar, which can deal with the issue directly.

The interesting question is whether the authors in question signed a copyright agreement confirming that the work is theirs and if not it's been properly referenced?

A similar thing happened to me though not quite as bad. I noticed some papers that used paragraphs from my own papers. I found out because, ironically, I had to referee one of these papers. I wrote to the authors to stop the shit. They apologized, and did rearrange these paragraphs. I should add they also cited my paper, though they didn't quite make clear that they just copied parts of it. Unfortunately, my paragraphs were the only parts of the paper that were in remotely understandable English (okay, I'm somewhat exaggerating here). Long story short, the papers never got published. I can however very well relate to how Doug must feel about that.

Hmm. I've never had this situation come up. But what I would probably do is send a letter like the one to the journal editor above, but also cc'ing the plagarizing author(s) and all of their deans & department chairs at their various institutions, as well as my advisor, etc. And, of course, I'd cc risk management at my current institution, as well as the institution where I trained. I'd also definitely call my advisor, my current risk management, and my current administrators to let them know that this has happened and that I'm taking these steps.

Practically, I suspect that the deans/chairs where the plagarizing author(s) work will have more power to make a retraction happen than anyone else.

I would also talk with risk management to see what my other options would be before taking it to the publicly-shaming-before-a-national-organization step. I suspect there may be steps that the lawyers will want you to do before you go with public shaming ... and, as we've learned from RIAA, a copyright violation lawsuit can be quite humiliating and expensive, which is even better than a nasty note in a newsletter.

Good luck Douglas- what a frustrating situation!

Thanks, Dr. Stemwedel for invitation. I can give an example of my own efforts to get an obviously plagiarised paper retracted by the journal. My impression is that the success entirely depends on the weight of the powers involved. On my web site - http://www.universitytorontofraud.com - I copied my email correspondence with the journal Editor and with the organisation (Committee on Publication Ethics) that is supposed to watch what the editors do. Please, see for yourself this correspondence.

My recommendation is, if the offending journal and/or author continues to refuse to respond, to post the entire story, with names and email addresses, to Pharyngula.

By theshortearedowl (not verified) on 25 Nov 2009 #permalink

iThenticate is a professional plagiarism/duplication screening technology offered by iParadigms, LLC. The company offers an array of software products for different industry, but iThenticate has seen significant adoption among global scientific, technical and medical journal publishers. iThenticate also offers researchers an inexpensive option to evaluate originality of a single manuscript. As a final note, iThenticate can also facilitate a document-to-document comparison. This has proven helpful in many investigations of misconduct.

I've run into a couple of plagiarisms over the years and I'm an advocate of zero tolerance. Doug should not treat this as a personal matter to be settled in private. He needs to handle this through official channels in broad daylight. Plagiarism is not only a violation of professional ethics, it is a violation of copyright law.

As regards the professional issue, I'm not sure what sort of contact Doug made with the plagiarist's university, but, at the very least, he should take it up with the head of the plagiarist's department. He needs to ask for a formal investigation. If the department is no help, Doug should also report this to his field's professional association. Most associations have an ethical code and a grievance process. Since the apparent violator is an emeritus, there is little of substance that they can do to him, but formal recognition of the violation through some form of censure is worth something.

As a legal issue, the journal is very vulnerable. Doug needs to get a lawyer to send a registered letter to the journal editor and to the publisher demanding an investigation and, at the very least, a published correction if the investigation goes his way. A registered letter from a law firm has a way of getting people's attention. While the editor might continue to blow Doug off, it's less likely that the publisher will. In ignoring the issue, the journal is committing an ethical violation as bad as the original plagiarism. The field's professional association might also be of some help here.

If none of this works, I agree that going public the final resort. However, Doug does need to go through the other steps and create a paper trail before he goes public. Many people are afraid to go public with things like this for fear of being accused of libel. That's a misplaced fear. One of the foundations of libel law is that it's not libel if it's true. If it comes to that, I'd also recommend the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It seems like it will be tricky to get anything done, since this is in an international journal and the paper's author is based in another country. A similar thing happened to my PhD advisor, with some journal based abroad, and despite his best efforts, nothing came from this and the offending paper was never retracted.

I have a story similar to Bee's: some authors copied several paragraphs verbatim from one of my papers into a manuscript I was asked to referee. I brought it to the attention of the journal editor, with evidence, and he handled it from there--the paper was rejected and the authors informed that he would not accept any further papers from them. Unfortunately, the authors were not deterred; within two weeks of getting the rejection notice from that journal they submitted substantially the same manuscript to another journal, which accepted the manuscript (I was not asked to referee the paper for the second journal). Upon discovering the publication some months later I contacted the editors of the second journal with my concerns.

Most reviewers will not detect plagiarized content on their own, unless they are the ones the authors of the manuscript are ripping off. In my case I did find text which they plagiarized from a third party, but that's because (1) they had already aroused my suspicions by ripping off my text and (2) I had a good idea of where to look for the original text published by said third party.

As for unreachable journal editors: The only conceivable excuse for that is if the guy is dead. Doug definitely needs to hire lawyers and be prepared to follow through with a lawsuit. Yes, the perp's department should be contacted at some point, as should the conference prize committee and the publishers of the journal in question (if it's not a private company, it's a scientific society, and they will want to do something about it). Document everything.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'm surprised at the non response unless the email is just borked. Is this a journal with an established publisher?

A quick google found me Elsevier's ethical guidelines which discuss plagiarism. I would think that if an editor was unresponsive then bubbling up to the publisher should work.

While the journal should, pretty clearly, retract the paper, the authors are almost certainly in violation of their institutions code of contact. You could contact the author(s), or the author(s) and their supervisor (e.g., the chair of the department). If that felt uncomfortable, you could contact the chair or a dean about the issue in a general way ("Hi, I suspect someone in your institution has plagiarized work of mine in a journal paper. What is the procedure I should follow to initiate an investigation? Can I discuss this with someone?") As it's a very serious accusation, it pays to be rather careful with your tone.

I'd like to say that with a case so blatant it will sort it self out easily. Unfortunately, it may not be so. People get defensive and sorting things out is annoying, painful, and otherwise repellent.

BTW, the redacting isn't effective as searching for the text gets everything pretty easily. Poking around, I'm not sure this is respectable journal by any means. I did try to find rankings or warnings and came up pretty empty. But I strongly suspect that it's a load of rubbish (if only for the coming up empty). (I, of course, could be wrong! Poking around isn't sufficient. I looked at some of the associated conferences which seem rather squishy, but tracing through some of the participants (e.g., Keynote speakers) didn['t give me any obvious bogosity. You could always try contacting one of them and seeing what's up.)

(Trying to track down the plagiarist didn't look that fruitful, so the "contact the school" angle might be pointless.)

So, I suspect your chances of retraction are low. And I don't know that it's worth pursuing further. Google Scholar shows no cites for it and the paper itself, frankly, seems like a pile o' crap. "Best paper" just means "in the top 10% which automatically means incorporation in the journal" (afaict...which is pretty broken...in my area if papers are invited for special issue submission they must include at least 30% new material.)

Good luck.


Hiring lawyers seems likely unproductive and hugely expensive, if the intent is to go to a lawsuit. If one feels strongly about it, perhaps some sort of threatening letter would feel good.

But (as a wrote in a comment still in moderation), I think this is likely a bogus conference/journal and that the organizers don't care. While I would prefer that this be dealt with harshly, I have experienced cases where even though the organizers (and plagiarists) were otherwise respectable (and colleagues!!!), that often people get nutty about such things. After a while, it wears you down.

Given that this seems to be theft of expression* (not of ideas), in a very bad paper, in a suspect conference...the likelihood of substantial damage is pretty low. So a cost/benefit analysis might reasonably yield a "Crap, this sucks." and move on rather than legal action.

*That is, the *content* of the above quoted passage is not novel to Doug (it's an expression of common knowledge circa 1997). Thus, he's in no danger of not receiving proper citation for his scientific contribution. This doesn't make it less awful, but it does mean that the harm is less. If you plagiarize my encyclopedia article for the intro of your paper, it doesn't change my general scientific rep. If you plagiarize my encyclopedia article for your (competing) encyclopedia article, then you are more likely to cause substantive harm.

Getting a lawyer to write a few letters should be a step preliminary to actually retaining the lawyer and initiating a lawsuit. I agree that there is virtually no chance of actually getting financial damages and I don't think that Doug should go that far. However, a registered letter from a law firm has a way of getting people's attention. The goal should be to get a retraction from the journal and credit for the original work.

In science it might be that expression has little value, but in the rest of the world, that's not the case. Theft of expression is still theft and protecting expression is just a much the point of copyright laws as is protecting ideas.

A mere theft of expression is still something that should not be tolerated. While Doug's scientific reputation and right to receive attribution should be his top priorities, taking a stand against plagiarism is also a goal worth pursuing.

I do think it's important to call out plagiarism by academics, plagiarism in remotely reputable journals, and plagiarism at genuine conferences. If the plagiarism is unlikely to harm either the original author or academia at large, however, there is not much to be done.

To illustrate: I had a similar thing happen to me a couple of years ago. An article of mine was republished more or less verbatim in an obscure foreign journal under someone else's name. I could not find any information suggesting that the plagiarist was an academic or held an academic position. I was unable to get a response from anyone involved. But I did blog about the experience, and my blog entry is still the first google hit if you search for the name of the plagiarist.

So, I second your advice of giving the perps a chance to come clean and shaming them if they don't.


My point wasn't that expression was valueless and thus theft of expression not theft. What occurred was, in fact, plagiarism. It is, in fact, wrong. It should be, in some sense, not tolerated. If a student handed me that paper, I would immediately report it as plagiarism to the appropriate committee.

Then what? It's not clear that this is a copyright violation. While one might argue plagiarism entails copyright violation, I don't see how that's so, since one can plagiarize ideas, not "merely"* expression. Fair use doesn't seem to require attribution and violations of fair use certainly can be non plagiarism.

I don't think the person violated has an unlimited duty to police the violators. I've had to deal with this when policing academic violations of students: I can only do so much given the rest of the system. If I think a student got off too lightly for the offense (given our expressed policies), I can't go vigilante, nor will I press it too hard. At some point, achieving perfect justice for a specific case becomes so not worth it.

While I agree that taking a stand against plagiarism can be worth doing, it's still not clear that it's worth doing in this case and for Doug. It's also unclear that things that cost substantive amounts of time/money are justified by the worth of the stand in this case and for Doug. My prima facie estimate based on my looking at the journal/conference/organization and trying to find the author is that it's probably not. This is a far cry from Eric's "definitely needs to hire lawyers and be prepared to follow through with a lawsuit". I don't see that it's a definite need at all.

I hope I can argue this without be "soft on plagiarism"!

*I use "mere" here not to denigrate expression, but to indicate that it is only expression that was stolen. I do think that in a lot of academia, but perhaps especially science, theft of idea is far more damaging than theft of expression, esp. at this level. Again, if you steal my textbook, you may have only stolen expression, but then you've stolen my substantive contribution as well.

Two other thoughts:

First, what if challenging a plagiarism threatened one's position? E.g., one's boss plagiarizes you to roughly the same degree as this case. The boss is prominent in the field and well loved. Is it worth it to take a stand there? Is is required? (Note: If the work was all work for hire (e.g., you were a post doc) then there's no hope of copyright based legal settlement.)

Second, Janet, you posted the material "heavily redacted, just in case the guy turns up and makes an effort to set things right", but given that you didn't redact all identifying material...what was the point? Is it sufficient that it's not immediately linked (so people searching on the name of the guy won't immediately find a plagiarism accusation)? If there is no satisfactory resolution within a reasonable time frame would posting the unredacted versions such that, as with P.D.'s case, this incident is prominent in normal searchers for the plagiarist and enablers? Or should professional bodies set up policing functions so that, in the last resort, they can have a wall of shame that is more neutral than arbitrary web pages?

Oh, and thinking about cost/benefit and looking back at Janet's original recommendations (certified letters, involving the degree granting university etc.), I have to wonder if all that is worth it. Again, it's a very poor paper in what I believe to be a substantially bogus conference/journal. The bits I've seen plagiarized are of the expression of (more or less) common knowledge. Let's stipulate these things (obviously, if any of them change, the calculus might turn out differently).

There's opportunity costs for Doug in pursuing this even up to Janet's recommendations. Plus there are annoying other people costs. You bug someone about this, they look at the case and conclude that while it's definitely plagiarism, the substantive harms are small and the chance of rectification non-existent. So Doug looks like a guy with not great judgement. I can't see New Scientist or what have you taking an interest ("Headline: Crap paper at bogus conference plagiarizes!! Goofy organizers fails to respond!!!").

It might be worth trying to organize professional bodies (like the ACM) to have a mechanism for cases like this, if Doug decided he cared enough about the issue to make it his issue. But then the goal would be to get the mechanism established, not necessarily to rectify this particular case.

I was the "victim" of an amusing case of plagiarism earlier this year:
I received an unexpected call from a company with whom I have never done any business - the guy said:
"I have in front of me a design you did for equipment X at location Y and we can't get the system to work, can you help?".
I was amazed, "I have never been to location Y and I have never done a design for your firm, although I did do a design involving equipment X about a year ago".

Amusingly, somebody had plagiarised an old design I'd done but left my name on it. Hahahahaha. I should have spoken to a lawyer....

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

I agree with Bijan -- a sense of proportion is called for here.

For example, a much larger issue in Ethics of Science is raised by the Climategate affair.

I would be very interested to hear Janet's take on Climategate.

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 29 Nov 2009 #permalink

Go to the police- really they have the powers to sort it out.


I don't think we do agree.

You are talking about whether this matter was worth a post and discussion here. It definitely was, IMHO.

I'm talking about whether the cost/benefit (both for Doug and for the profession) of an aggressive approach is worth it. For example, Chilla's suggestion to go to the police is definitely wrong. Unless it's criminal copyright infringement (which I doubt), there's no relevant police power. Civil action is possible, but likely to be expensive in time, energy, and spirit.

So, is that effort reasonable? Required? Required in what sense?

I don't think it's reasonable to require that effort of Doug or for him to require it of himself. Even a copyright issue might be sensibly slidable...(unlike trademark, copyright doesn't depend on vigorous enforcement). So if the potential loss is small, why would you spend loads to eradicate *that* loss? How does that help?

Plagiarizing a thesis is something I had covered 5 years ago in a book (Scientific Misconduct and Its Cover-up). The plagiarist was also involved in a signature forgery on an abstract submitted to the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (a thing of the past, the signature that is). The high-ups in the Society's hirarchy did everything in their power to avoid dealing with that forgery and never did. Mind you, this is the largest Neuroscience Society in the world with the highest impact factor Neuroscience Journal; a society with clear and detailed rules about misconduct and the ways they must deal with it, and yet, they ran away from their responsiblities faster then Hussain Bolt. If there are those among you who believe that a university administration will let itself get involved in a misconduct complaint against one of their faculty members just because you can prove that said member plagiarized your thesis, I say "good luck." They have no reason to do anything about it, unless such a case could cost them a lot of money or could really hurt their university's reputation.
In the case I described in my book, even the Ph.D. student whose thesis was plagiarized (dozens of pages were copied verbatim into a grant proposal in which he was not involved) was not interested in pursuing a complaint against the plagiarist, as he was afraid of retributions.

It is important, despite the difficulties in bringing such cases to their right conclusion, to expose each and every one of the culprits, no matter how small or big is their transgression. And to achieve any progress in arresting such fradulant activities, names should be named, whenever possible. By redacting names of people and places, the complainer hampers such progress. I understand the doubts and fears that a whistleblower goes through, howver, if you have an undeniable proof that your work, or someone else's work, was plagiarized, you better expose the plagiarist identity. A blog is a good place to start as any. Thus, to remove any doubt that I not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk, I am posting here the name and affiliation of the scientist who plagiarzed his own Ph.D. student's thesis in a grant proposal that was approvesd and funded.

Prof. Fred J. Roisen
Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Louisville, KY 40202

A small correction to Dr. Roisen's affiliation.

Prof. Fred J. Roisen
Department of Anatomical Science and Neurobiology
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Louisville, KY 40202