I am just writing this to share my experiences with the murky world of academic plagiarism. For reasons I am sure you can understand I am not going to be specific other than saying that I am in a UK university and my subject is a humanities one.
Brief background: my topic is one that was a novel one that had not been researched at all in depth. Any work that had been done was unsubstantiated and not thoroughly researched. As part of my research I discovered that an academic in the same university (different campus & faculty) had written an article about 4 years ago that touched on my area (the only research I could find actually). So I arranged to meet this person after my 100 day viva and provided them with a copy of the material I presented at it. We had a friendly meeting and I explained my research to them. They got very excited and said 'I wish I'd thought of that' - I remember it distinctly. So we parted and I went about preparing for the confirmation viva. Then a number of months later I discover an article written by the person, published about 6 months after we met, in which the middle section bore more than a striking similarlity to my own research. In fact it was almost identical.
I brought this up with supervisors who upon reading this and discovering the facts of the meeting were extremely concerned. As I have had experience with working in bureaucracies (many years in public service) I knew and understood the complexities and dynamics of making a complaint and I did not do it lightly. In fact it took about 5 months for me to make a complaint. In the meantime, my superivsor contacted the authors and asked them to clarify the situation: they sent back a very aggressive reply and stated that the article had been written about 2 years previously but not published until recently.
I went to a solicitor and got him to read over everything, including the university's rules and codes of conduct. There were 2 scenarios:
1) the article was written before I met the author - in which case why did they not tell me? Even an indication that they had been working on something similar to my PhD would have been enough? If they did not wish to say on the day then they could have checked with the publisher when the article was going to appear and then let me know, better still, forwarding me a copy of it. The did not do this. Neither during the meeting or at any time afterwards did they let me know about the article. Not a word. If I had any idea that this was in the works I would not have complained.
2) a draft of the article was written in 2008 and then after meeting me the author plugged my material into the middle section of it. This in my opinion, is the more likely scenario.
According to my solicitor either option was misconduct on the part of the staff member concerned: by not informing me about the article they had already written was a breach of the integrity guidelines for staff that they have to adhere to.
I made a formal complaint to the university authorities asking for an investigation into the matter.
I heard nothing from the university for months until recently when I received an email from one of the people investigating the complaint asking to meet with me - this was done on a Friday afternoon and a reply demanded by Sunday as they were going on holidays. I asked him directly who would be there and what was the purpose of the meeting. He stated that it was a Q&A session about the evidence i had presented for the complaint (emails about the meeting with the author, my 100 day viva material etc).
The meeting arrangements were communicated to me again on a Friday afternoon with it taking place first thing Monday morning. I attended the meeting alone; an agenda was presented to me then. They then presented me with the evidence they had collected in response to the complaint. The main plank of the evidence presented was a statement on the part of the journal editor that he had received the final draft of the article in 2008. He provided no supporting correspondence or emails to support this - it is just his word. They also said that they had a word doc of the article provided by the authors with an electronic datestamp showing it was made in 2008.
Based on this evidence they said that there was no grounds for the complaint and the university would not be pursuing the matter further.
Their tone throughout towards me was dismissive, bordering on open contempt.
I requested copies of the material collected by them to examine (statement from the editor, the word doc etc). They were reluctant to provide this and said that they would need to seek legal advice before giving it to me.
In response to my repeated assertions that I was shocked that the author had not mentioned this article when I met them, they said they could make no comment. In their view it was not misconduct and nothing untoward had happened.
This is the current position; a number of questions arise for me in response to the way the university has handled this. Why are they so reluctant to show me their evidence? If everything is above board then why keep me from examining it? Similarly, why all the attempts to intimidate me with their last minute meeting arrangements? Surely this is a serious matter and the university would have to take it seriously and behave in a manner that was appropriate. Why all the fun and games?
This whole affair has me thoroughly disgusted at the conduct of the institution and academia in general. Based upon the response of the university, I would surmise that this kind of thing happens a lot and that the university has a standard response in hushing this all up. That is my opinion after seeing how they deal with this kind of situation.
I am aware that other people have different experiences and different views on the matter. I make no claims as to the merit of my complaint as that is something that is impossible for me to convey to you; I am disappointed by the university's response to my complaint. They clearly are not taking it seriously and have decided to dismiss it without conducting more than a very cursory examination.
In my view, my entire PhD has been tainted by the entire affair and is now utterly defined by the complaint.
Universities close ranks. You've just learn't the hard way.
If you've original material, it's probably just as well to keep some cards close to your chest.
Certainly I was aware that universities (like all bureaucracies) close ranks and would attempt to cover up and conceal such behaviour. I am not naive. I have seen how it operates in many other institutions and was well aware of the potential strategies that could (and would) be adopted by the university in response to this.
Another aspect of this whole thing that is not addressed adequately is the issue of the complainant's integrity; the momentum of the situation is such that my integrity was becoming under question because I was not making a complaint.
And believe me, I thought long and hard about all the implications of making a complaint.
The secretive and intimidatory processes used by the university both condone and encourage such behaviour on the part of academic staff. Why bother doing your own research when you can see your colleagues ripping off things left, right and centre and getting away with it? But woe betide the student who would do such a thing....
What does strike me as a former bureaucrat used to dealing with controversial issues is the sheer flimsiness of the response from the university. Within such systems (speaking from experience) the employee's first course of action is to cover your own ass in any situation like this. That is the ONLY priority for employees operating in such a system. Even more so in the case where they know that a solicitor will be looking over everything they have done in order to pick holes in it.
For me, this really indicates a level of hubris on the part of university staff (academic and clerical) which is staggering to behold.
wow that is quite outrageous.
i am embarking on a phd on a humanities topic which is significantly under-researched. this has made me weary of consulting with academics who may have been of use at my previous university. grim times. how far along are you?
Hey Whistleblower, what a rubbish situation to be in. I can only try to imagine how frustrated you must be. Unfortunately I am not totally surprised by the response you have received- I have never been witness to a plagiarism case but I am aware of a number of formal complaints that have been made against a particular professor in my own department, which just get swept under the carpet, and several other occurrences where the law has been broken that have been brought to light and then ignored or defended in some bizarre way. From what I have seen, usually the complainant is treated as a trouble-maker and inconvenienced to the extent where they might just think about dropping the issue. The world is full of people covering their backs, whether it's medical companies, insurance companies, academics, you name it....I can think of so many experiences where the same thing happens as a matter of routine. Good on you for pursuing it- I hope you get some sort of satisfactory response. Personally, I tend to wimp out of making formal complaints for reasons described above! Best, KB
Its a weird unaccountable world that academics live in. One that is governed by an honour code, codes of conduct and guidelines that to my mind are mere words devoid of meaning. If a member of staff wishes to transgress it appears that there are no repercussions for them at all.
Silence is what allows this kind of behaviour to thrive because we, as well as the university, have a vested interest in keeping it quiet (because it might devalue our own PhD's if word gets around, potential job offers, reprisals from the university etc etc).
In my opinion, (and I can only give my views based on what I've experienced) its instituitional abuse cloaked in a facade of scholarly ivory-towerism.
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