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Stop Plagiarism

Forensic Psychology Practice
Henriette Haas, PhD • Contact

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What is at stake when you have been plagiarized?

Many scholarly publications get plagiarized and often it is not worth the trouble to file a complaint. However, when young researchers become victims by their mentors the situation is different. If they do not announce the facts to the authorities in charge in due time, this can lead to a situation of lifelong dependency and exploitation as a "statistics-slave" or "lab-slave". Young researchers whose work has been stolen by a reputed scholar, by the director of their thesis or by the director of the institute, also face the problem of having been slandered. Once the perpetrator gets his hands on their research tools (data bases, computer programms, technical instruments, lab journals, biological material etc.) in the creation of which he/she has had no part, the situation of proof concerning the breaches of academic integrity has been reversed. It now looks as if the cheating professor were the first or even sole author of the victim's work and the victim on the other hand were the one having used his/her senior colleague's or mentor's work without properly citing him/her. Thus, a young researcher can become an easy prey to extortion by an academic perpetrator.

Preventive measures - how to protect yourself

As it is an academic custom to share results with colleagues before publication in order to advance scientific progress, you should not refuse to do so. However, you can protect yourself writing the very words: "to be cited as: "Source: your name & exact date"" right next to any results that you offer to somebody. If you should already know where you are going to publish the results in question, this information can be added next to your name and the date. On the same day, you want to send a photocopy of all material to yourself by registered mail. Keep the receipt together with the unopened envelope as a valid proof of first (and sole) authorship, in case there should be a need to go to Court.

You can also take the file and date and have a cryptographic hash calculated on the material that you can store to prove when you wrote what. Tools to do this can be found on FilesLand Advanced Hash Calculator and My Digital Life

The Association of Senior Lecturers and Associate Professors at the University of Zurich (PD Vereinigung) recommends that its members join ProLitteris, the Swiss copyright society for literature and art. All printed articles and books (scientific or other) can be registered there, and the revenue from users' fees will be returned to the author on a yearly basis. ProLitteris also offers legal advice.

Red flags of scientific misconduct against young researchers

Scientific misconduct is one type of white collar crime, committed by well-renowned researchers and tenured professors who try to steal the work of the younger generation of scientists in order to stay ahead. All members of a scientific institute who are not tenured - such as assistant professors, doctoral students, lecturers and researchers - are vulnerable to such exploitation. For obvious reasons, those who lack certain necessary skills of their trade (such as statistics, computer programming, ancient languages etc.), in spite of having been promoted to an important position in their field, are much more likely to become perpetrators of plagiarism than those who are fully competent.

How can you tell if you have been cheated in the academic competition? Here are some red flags:
  • Your professor's work (e.g. the book he/she is working on) seems to make progress at the same pace as your own work: when you need more time he/she seems to stall, when you are under time stress, he/she also seems to have a need to speed up.

  • While your professor has always been pushing you hard at the beginning and in the middle of your work, his or her attitude seems to change dramatically when you get to the final phase. All of a sudden, he/she seems to want to block you or he/she drowns you with other tasks, so that you have difficulties to complete your work even though it is almost finished.

  • Your professor was always very happy with you at the time when did the design of the study, the experiments, and worked out the software etc. But as soon as you have succesfully finished, he/she becomes disgruntled and critizises you a lot without any good reason.

  • Your professor has asked you to give him/her some of your results to cite. After handing them over, you never hear from the publication again, and you never get to see the reference.

  • Freudian slips by your professor reveal that he/she seems to worry that he/she could be accused of breaches of academic integrity.

  • Your professor is misleading you in terms of getting tenure, pretending for example that everything is alright, when in fact nothing has been done.

  • Your professor is very eager to get your software, databases, lab journals, and puts you under pressure to give it to him/her at a time when it is difficult for you to refuse.

  • At a time when you get praise for it or when you make excellent progress, your professor implies that you are "too attached" to your work or he worries you might become a "single-issue-person". He therefore wants you to work on some other project where you would have to start all over again, presumably to offer you a "second leg to support you".

  • Your professor all of a sudden sends in one of his graduate students to work with your software, databases, lab journals, etc. and has issued directives that all their raw materials must be handed in together with the thesis / paper of a graduate student.

  • Your professor demands that you give him your password (e.g. on the telephone under the pretence of some "emergency", or when you are abroad).

  • Your professor wants to engage you in a joint project on the basis of your work. Sometime later, he/she demands that an agreement be signed, giving both partners the right to "inherit" the intellectual property of the other under certain circumstances - such as leaving the institute.

  • Your professor has lied to you before, is generally insincere, has organized a "mutual exchange" of academic honors with a colleague, or else has been cheating in financial matters.

Should you discover some of the above mentioned inconsistencies, you need to investigate carefully before announcing any suspicions. Do not press charges without having found solid evidence for your case. Provided that you can prove your authorship of your own work, incomplete or indirect citations of your work can be considered good evidence, e.g. when your name is mentioned but not as the "source" of some results that you have offered (to be cited correctly). In order to determine whether you need to take this seriously or whether the mistake was inadvertedly committed, watch out for the date of the publication of the plagiarized results. Only if the incorrect citation occured before your own publication, chances are that an extortion scam has been set up.

Investigation and interpretation of evidence in cases of plagiarism committed by well-known researchers

The study published in MEDIALEX 2006/4: 200-2009 (download here), reveals the modus operandi used by academic perpetrators trying to steal the work of younger researchers. When tenured professors plagiarize, they aim at claiming first or sole authorship of the research tools created by assistant professors or doctoral students (software, experimental design, etc.). The modus operandi of academic thieves is obviously much more sophisticated than most of the offenses committed by ordinary criminals. In order to hide their true intent, they make their activities seem like a series of mishaps. However, as the perpetrator must cover the whole territory of new research tools (in which he has had no participation) with incorrect citations, he attacks the victim's intellectual property in a systematic way. He secretly publishes the copied material in the time span between the completion of the victim's work and its publication, where he can hope for he best quality of the work. To create an "official record", the perpetrator is likely to put the copied results in detail into a research grant or into an expertise, to which the victim has no access. On the other hand, in order to create a facade of openness with respect to the stolen material, the perpetrator will also want to use the results in his lecture notes, books and articles, trying to veil the lack of proper citation with various tricks. The latter records can be easily detected by the victim and used as evidence.

Due to the perpetrator's lack of specific knowledge and to his efforts to cover his tracks, the methodological description of how he obtained "his" results, must inevitably contain errors and fatal simplifications. The odds against innocence can then be established by calculating the likelihood ratio between a masterminded attack and the assumption that the given constellation is due to coincidence. Indeed, the more a perpetrator tries to minimize the risk of discovery, the farther his deeds get beyond a random constellation of slips. The "perfect academic crime" is stochastically impossible to commit.

Interpretation of forensic evidence and a summary of methodological aspects in empirical science are outlined in the paper, as far as they are needed to establish the elements of plagiarism. In addition to proving that the victim is in fact the creator of the stolen work, there are nine tasks that the victims and their lawyers must undertake in order to extract sufficient proof for their case before a civil or penal court. These tasks, traditionally developed by forensic science to analyze physical evidence, can also be applied in cases where only immaterial (virtual) evidence is available:
  1. Localization of pieces of evidence, traces and witnesses of the incident (e.g. finding old lecture notes with the Internet archive "wayback machine", searching the records of the university administration)

  2. Securing the evidence means making back-ups of old websites and of their downloads on a CD-ROM and then preserving the continuity of the evidence by retaining one copy and sending another one by registered mail to yourself, where you will conserve the envelope unopened together with the receipt from the post office, until the day when it needs to be opened officially by a judge

  3. Registration of all material in an indexed, systematic catalogue. This is done with the help of a spreadsheet (MS Excel), that is ordered chronologically and also according to different topics

  4. Identification of the (chemical or biological) composition of physical traces (e.g. specimens of different viruses suspected to be the cause of a disease as in the case of Luc Montaigner vs. Robert Gallo)

  5. Association: Establishing possible links between crime scenes, traces, corpus delicti, victims and suspects (e.g. outputs containing plagiarized results that you have given the perpetrator upon his demand)

  6. Classification of the potential sources of each trace, and if possible, individualization to one specific source only (as the perpetrator identifies himself on his publications, this task is trivial here)

  7. Reconstruction of the historical sequence of events leading to the incident(s). This can be done with a graphical illustration along a time axis

  8. Abduction of a plausible hypothesis concerning the elements of the crime

  9. Calculating the likelihood ratio, (if possible) between the possibility that the given constellation of pieces of evidence corresponds in fact to the elements of a crime, committed by the suspected perpetrator, and the possibility that the evidence collected is only the result of a coincidence.

Tools for preventing plagiarism, for investigating cases of scientific misconduct and interpreting evidence can be found in:

Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff's page at FHTW University of Applied Sciences Berlin 

Swiss Anti-Counterfeiting and Piracy Platform 

Inman K. & Rudin N. (2001). Principles and Practice of Criminalistics. CRC Press, Boca Raton

Robertson B. & Vignaux G. (1995). Interpreting Evidence. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester

Walder H. & Hansjakob Th. (2006). Kriminalistisches Denken. Kriminalistik Verlag, 7th ed., Heidelberg

Research & Teaching | PD Vereinigung | Medialex, Journal of Communication Law | Download article |

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