Is My Essay Plagiarized Dissertation

Early last year, I was looking through the first book of a creative writing graduate. It was a book of poems based on their PhD, and I recognised some of the lines in it as possibly plagiarised.

Some of them came with named sources, but a handful didn’t and clearly should have done. When I looked harder, I found chunks from blogs and other websites, chopped up with line-breaks, no quote marks and no acknowledgements.

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Clearly, poetry written as part of a doctorate should not such show cavalier disregard for referencing. I knew a senior lecturer in that student’s department, so I emailed them my findings. I received an “oh dear” acknowledgement and a chatty note to say that they were “just heading over to the library now to check this out”.

I wish I’d headed over first. The PhD was withdrawn from the library shelves, and soon disappeared from the university library’s catalogue. For more than 12 months afterwards, I was unable to verify whether these plagiarisms were also in the bound PhD thesis.

I checked with the British Library because they have rights to a second copy and only need to ask the awarding university for it through the Electronic Thesis Online Service (Ethos). I asked them to request it, but the awarding university or the author said no.

My contact with the lecturer went quiet, so I made a handful of freedom of information requests to the university, asking when the PhD would go back into the library and if there was any sort of plagiarism enquiry under way. In each case it took 10 days for them to reply. Each reply would invite a follow-up question. Confidentiality needed to be respected, they said. Could they give a time frame, I replied. No. Why not? No answer.

After a year, I sent a very precise question: can you confirm if this author is still entitled to use the title “Dr” with a doctorate from your university? The university said yes. I also received an email telling me that the PhD thesis would be going back onto the shelves that weekend, and on to Ethos at the British Library.

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I checked that Monday and found that the poems in the PhD were presented identically to how they’d been printed in the book, with no acknowledgment. (I’d half-dreaded that the university would give the candidate time to add corrections as if they’d always been there).

Moreover, there was a critical component: a long essay about contemporary poetry, comprising two-thirds of the PhD. This is the part where candidates show their academic ability. But I found this prose component was also rife with uncredited verbatim sentences from other academic criticism. Sentences specifically discussing one artwork had been cut and pasted to refer to another; sentences about an exhibition of painting were applied to an anthology of poems; sentences about the specifics of one poem inspired by jazz were transposed to discuss a poem by a completely different author. It was waffle.

I vetted the thesis and found that it had 75 pages with uncredited verbatim sentences, often more than one per page. Sometimes they were from items cited in the bibliography, suggesting amateur citation skills – cut and paste instead of paraphrase (even though the candidate knew full well to use quote marks when quoting elsewhere in the thesis). On at least 10 occasions sentences were from items not cited in the bibliography at all, but from academic articles and reviews. You could make a case for postmodern ghosting in creative writing, but copying verbatim sentences from uncredited sources in a critical analysis is simply academic plagiarism.

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I wonder what will happen if I report these latest findings. Will the university remove the bound thesis from the shelves, and deny permission to the British Library for use of its copy? Will it investigate? Will it stall its response again?

This PhD sets a precedent that suggests other candidates would not have their doctorates stripped from them for using multiple uncredited texts in their creative writing. This also sets a precedent that a PhD with nearly a 100 verbatim borrowings in its critical writing does not lead to the removal of the doctorate from the doctor. Once it’s passed, it’s passed.

This creates a legal minefield, one that other universities should be concerned about.

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The problem is that the PhD system is designed for people who intend to become researchers. For these cases, plagiarism is not at all a common problem. You are expected to published your research, and you will not have a successful career unless it is widely read and cited. That gives lots of opportunities to get caught, and the penalties for plagiarism are a huge deterrent.

To the extent you find plagiarism, it's generally people who do not want a research career, but instead view the PhD simply as an obstacle on the road to a teaching (or other) career. Probably the community should scrutinize these sorts of theses more carefully, but it can be hard to work up the energy to do so when most of them are OK, and when these theses really don't matter much for the research world.

The German politicians are pretty much the worst case scenario. In the US, the stereotypical case is educational administrators. Typically, you have a distinguished person who starts to feel the need for a PhD. Perhaps it's because they associate with academics and feel looked down upon, or perhaps it's because an academic endorsement would make the public value their expertise more. This student is very smart and accomplished, and nobody suspects them of any dishonesty. However, they are also very busy, often working on a PhD while pursuing other projects as well, and academic research is not a priority. At some point, they succumb to pressure and start taking shortcuts. Probably it starts with small things, but the shortcuts gradually grow larger. They rationalize that the thesis doesn't really matter anyway, because they have no intention of following an academic career track. After all, they have the knowledge and experience, and they deserve the PhD title, so what difference does one document make anyway? Meanwhile, the advisor probably doesn't spend that much time working with the student, and has no reason to suspect anything. The advisor really ought to be extra careful in cases like this, but that would seem like an insult to the student, so it's easiest just to trust them.

So my take on this is that plagiarism is not as widespread as news stories might suggest. It's just particularly likely to happen in cases where it would attract media attention.

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