Case 10: Professor Purloins Student’s Work: Her Recourse?

Joelle Smith wrote an elaborate research proposal that was to be submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her doctoral dissertation research. Her dissertation supervisor signed off on the proposal indicating his support of the project and his willingness to supervise Smith's work. The project was funded for a two-year period.

Smith went into the field and at regular intervals sent copies of her field notes and other written data, along with preliminary analyses of her field problem, to her dissertation advisor. At the completion of fieldwork, Smith returned to her university for one year to write her dissertation.

During the writing period, she regularly read the journals related to her area of specialization. In one of the journals she read a paper published by her major advisor and was shocked to find statements taken directly from her letters, field notes, and data reports, with no credit given to her in the footnotes or elsewhere.

Angered by this discovery, Smith was nonetheless fearful that a direct confrontation with her advisor would result in him becoming tyrannical about her dissertation and impeding her graduation. At the same time, she realized that other members of her committee might have read the article and expect her to cite it in her dissertation, and further to accuse her of plagiarism because she had used the same [her own] data in her dissertation.

Smith's Dilemma: Should she confront her advisor directly? Should she go to the department head with her discovery? Should she just keep quiet about the matter and "stew in her own anger" (as one person suggested)? Or, were there other tactics she could use to settle this problem?

Smith's Decision

Smith decided that the best approach was to confide in one committee member whom she felt might prove to be a friend. Although a junior faculty member, this individual was willing to set up an "arbitration meeting" as he called it. During the meeting, when the senior faculty member was asked by the student why he had used her field materials, he replied, "You would not have gotten the grant if you had not used my name. I am entitled to reap some of the rewards of my name's use and chose to do it this way. Not a bad article, wouldn't you say?" Smith replied that she felt her name should have appeared as coauthor, or at least in a footnote acknowledging that he had used her materials. The senior faculty member scoffed at this and said he did not think it was "such a big deal." He stated further, "Why don't you worry about finishing your dissertation and keep your mind off such petty matters. It's only a little scoop of your research materials, after all."

Smith left the meeting just as angry as she had been before the so-called "arbitration" began. Friends advised her to see an attorney and sue her mentor for plagiarism. Smith decided to let the matter drop, finished her dissertation (which included a citation of her advisor's article) and has since enjoyed her career as an academic anthropologist. She is, however, diligent in checking references when she is asked to review journal articles, in an effort to catch plagiarism cases.

She confides that she is still angry about her professor's blatant disregard for the ethical principles which state: "In relations with students . . . an anthropologist . . . should acknowledge in print the student assistance he uses in his own publications, give appropriate credit (including coauthorship) when student research is used in publication (Principles of Professional Responsibility, 4g). . . . [and] should not present as his own work, either in speaking or writing, materials directly taken from other sources" (3d).

Reader's Response

An anonymous reader wrote:

"Smith had little recourse once the situation had developed. Direct confrontation with the advisor is not advisable. He will, predictably, laugh at or ignore the protests. Complaints to the department head are futile. A chair has the responsibility to be aware of the ethics of the different faculty members. In Smith's case, the chair was either ignoring the problem or indifferent to it. Other faculty members will hesitate to support Smith since an accusation of plagiarism against one member can reflect on the department as a whole. Once the advisor's article was published, there was little positive action Smith could take other than replacing her advisor.

"There are several steps she could have taken to minimize the possibilities of the situation ever developing. Actually, it is surprising that Smith, at a PhD level, would be so naive. She should have shared all correspondence, data, and ideas with all committee members. Including an influential committee member from another university can be beneficial. Departments obviously like to avoid situations where they can be accused of poor ethical standards by another university.

"Smith could have arranged for all materials to be stamped by postal authorities, and particularly important papers to be notarized. Officialdom is a good deterrent to plagiarism. With dated proof of prior acquisition of data and prior development of ideas, Smith should never have been required to cite her advisor's article.

"During the course of her research, Smith should have been sending semiannual or annual progress reports to her grant sponsor. These should have included discussions of her hypotheses, data, and preliminary analyses. She could have published abbreviated versions of such progress reports in appropriate journals, and arranged for brief summaries of her research progress to be read or displayed in a poster session at scientific meetings. All of these reports could subsequently have been cited in her dissertation and would have definitely predated any publication by her advisor.

"It is unfortunate that a student has to incorporate such considerations into a graduate program, but it is pretty much up to the student to safeguard against being a victim of unethical practices.

"One more thing: the `Smiths' in the universities do graduate and go on to responsible positions in academia, government, and industry. Recently, a `Smith,' citing his personal knowledge of poor ethical standards, refused to recommend a large grant for his alma mater. The particular university will never know why it lost the grant, but that's the way things work. Unethical practices don't pay."