A guide for plagiarists

Published on 01/03/2010

A number of you have called us to express your indignation when someone has directly accused you of plagiarism.

The following is the brief guide that we use to respond to your complaints and fears.

1 – What do I do if I am accused of plagiarism?

The day you receive a letter form an author, editor or one of their peers accusing you of plagiarism, you should remain calm and not reply immediately.

You should first qualify the facts by checking whether you have simply made a copy-paste of a text, translated an article or text from another language, borrowed ideas from another author, eliminated a co-author form an article you have published etc.

All these facts are serious in terms of academic deontology, but they are considered differently from a legal point of view.

• Our advice: Call on a lawyer as soon as possible. He will give you good advice on the attitude you should adopt during the months to come.

2 – What do I do if I am accused in the press?

Certain unscrupulous journalists get hold of a minor case of plagiarism, such as self-plagiarism or the simultaneous publication of an article at a conference and in a scientific journal. The problem you face is that most newspapers put their articles online and years after the supposed facts, your name will always be linked to words like “plagiarism” cheating or “fraud.”

From blog to blog, you might end up paying throughout your life for an error of judgement about the seriousness of the situation.

 Our advice: Whether you are guilty or have simply been careless, you need to refer the case to the authorities of your institution. After all, the whole establishment suffers through damage to the reputation of one of its professors or doctoral students. Also, only an institution would have the power to ask that online articles be withdrawn. Furthermore, if you happen to be in France, you have a right to your university’s legal protection paid for from the public purse.

3 – What do I do if I am accused via the Web?

Occasionally, the person you plagiarized or one of their peers decides to publish the incriminated text on the Web, or talk about it on their blog. Here again, you can ask, through your lawyer, to have the site closed.

Nevertheless, since it is a very small world, everyone will know what you have done. And throughout your future career, whenever you are asked to undertake a new function, as Dean, director of studies or chancellor, or even if you get a job in a new institution, there is a good chance that the affair will reappear online.

• Our advice: We strongly advise you to search your name on Google every day to keep up with your e-reputation. It is a nuisance but it is the only way to avoid your name becoming the subject of an unenviable buzz.

4 – How can I measure the damage?

It is normal for your first reaction to be one of denial. You were a “professor,” “director,” “doctoral student,” and then overnight, you have become a “cheat.”

You are at the mercy of the plagiarized person or anyone who discovers the facts, and then all the other people who will be informed.

A few simple guidelines can help estimate the extent of the rumor and how far it will spread:

– The higher your position (thesis supervisor, establishment director) compared to that of the plaintiff, the further the rumor will spread.

– The worse the offence (e.g. translation of a whole text vs. copying ten pages of a book, covering up sources etc.) the further the rumor will spread.

– The more you represent an icon of the system, the more quickly and further the rumor will spread.

• Our advice:

Ask the ad hoc authority (e.g. an institutional ethical committee) for a balanced analysis and an objective assessment of what you risk. At most you will be officially reprimanded with an administrative punishment, but at least you will have paid your debt towards the community. It is then up to the community to protect you for the future.

5 – How should I define my line of defense?

Among all the possible reactions, some are effective, others highly risky.

  • A common reaction of doctoral students is to say that they didn’t know they were committing plagiarism: there is no institutional framework for learning the appropriate skills when you start your doctoral studies and no prevention campaign. You give the example of what happens in other establishments and by comparison, you suggest that the responsibility lies with your establishment and your direct supervisors. It is always possible to see a young researcher as naive, especially if you are considered to be modest and unassuming.
  • Young doctoral students often declare that their superiors did not pay enough attention to their excesses and thus encouraged their errors. This “Jerôme Kerviel” technique works quite well in our academic system especially if you do not expect any future favors from your superiors and if you will not meet them in any learned society. This line of defense gives good results especially if your superior is not known to be a paragon of virtue. It is true that thesis supervisors are supposed to warn students of the risks of plagiarizing and critics and their peers will turn to them for an explanation.
  • Young researchers sometimes spontaneously lie to their superiors or thesis supervisors. These will first react by defending their students body and soul, for their reputation is also at stake. But if they then see the factual proof of plagiarism, they will be humiliated. We therefore advise against this attitude for your mentors will dislike you twice, once for plagiarizing, and then for exposing them to ridicule.
  • Senior professors’ classic reaction is to say that a student wrote the text in their place and that they did not check. Even if nobody is duped by this excuse, it enables peers to say that you were negligent and avoids their having to raise questions about their own behavior. Everyone would prefer to have a careless peer than a fraudulent one. You should, however, be prepared for the incriminated student to take revenge on the Web.
  • A characteristic reaction of fraud addicts is to be upset when caught red handed. The spontaneous reaction is to insult the accusers, calling them “informers.” Be careful, for emails just like telephones, keep a record of everything you say.
  • A specific reaction if you are in a conflict situation. Since accusation is the final step in a series of nuisances, you tell everyone that the proof of your guilt was established incorrectly: they searched your office or your computer, they used your assistants, or even bought the proof, or someone other than the victim made the accusations. Unfortunately for you, all this changes nothing once the facts have been established. Plagiarism is plagiarism.

6 – How do I formulate a defence?

Keep it simple: argue your loyalty to the journal/conference/institution, accept the facts keeping clear of emotion, show proof of your loyalty and formulate a specific apology.

Formulating a specific apology and asking for the texts to be modified – for example adding the name of an « omitted » co-author deprived of appearing in international databases – demonstrates your determination to change your behavior.

Furthermore this concrete proof of good faith will be useful for the lawyer you may be obliged to consult if people seek to spread the affair.

7 – Is there life after plagiarism?

One thing is sure, if you have plagiarized, even five or six years ago, you can be discovered at any time for more and more texts can be found on Internet.



We strongly advise you to seek guidance from a cognitive psychologist who will help you to understand why you plagiarized in the first place. You will finally feel better about yourself.

This is the only way for you to face the future, able to speak calmly of your offense and face up to any attacks that you may encounter.

Michelle Bergadaà
Geneva, 1 March 2010


© Bergadaà 2010