A guide for victims of plagiarism

Published on 13/01/2010

Many of you have contacted us for advice, sending us documents so that we can determine whether plagiarism has occurred and tell you what steps to take.

Before taking any steps, the information below should help you decide on some measures appropriate for your situation.

1 – How do I prove it?

Whether you discover that you have been plagiarized in a published article or in an article that is still in the review process, the first thing to do is NOT to talk about it.

You should first use similarity detection software to demonstrate proof of the offense.

According to the saying, « you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb ». So nine times out of ten, if you have been plagiarized, you will discover that you are not alone: the offender has also plagiarized others.

This will help you make your case.

2 – Who should make the accusation?

Officially, if you are the victim, you must file the complaint, even if you are a young author filing a complaint against senior researchers.

Of course, you have to make sure you have solid proof – and this is also true for senior researchers who are plagiarized by juniors.

In all cases, you will first have to put up with the systematic denial of those you accuse.

If you are frightened to make the accusation yourself, ask a third party, recognized as a peer by the authorities, to do it for you.

3 – When should I make the accusation?

As soon as possible after you discover the offense.

– For one thing there is no point in living for years with a buried grudge and making yourself unhappy each time you have to reference the author who plagiarized you.

– For another, there is no point in making this your obsessive subject of conversation with your friends and colleagues at association events– it is better manners sense to lighten up the atmosphere rather than weigh it down with your problems.

If reading this makes you realize that you want to make a complaint now for an offense that occurred a while ago, remember that there is prescription after ten years. In any case, after so long, your plagiarist will have had plenty of time to benefit professionally from his or her misdeed.

4 – How do I choose a sponsor?

Before lodging a formal complaint, you need to make sure you have one or two solid supporters inside and outside the system.

A « sponsor » could be a senior researcher, someone from another discipline or from the legal department of your university.

Your sponsor will listen to you over the long weeks (or months) that the process lasts.

The person you choose should be completely objective with no interest in power games. This person role should also be prepared to act if you do not obtain satisfaction.

Remember, the authorities you complain to will often react to the talk and rumors that may be unleashed if the process lasts too long. These sometimes have more effect than any considerations of truth or ethics.

5 – Where do I file the complaint?

• For published chapters or articles: The Scientific Committee or Editorial board of any reputable journal – do not only complain to the Editor in Chief.

• For Conferences: The scientific directors of the conference and the presidents and vice-presidents of the relevant conference association if there is one.

• For books or chapters: to the editor with a copy to your institution’s authorities.

• For Doctoral theses : to the university authorities or ethics committees, where these exist.

6 – What should I expect?

You will be surprised by the reactions of your peers who do not have the same mentality as you.

You must understand that you think of yourself as a knowledge creator – all those you speak to will reason according to their own role within the system and they may see a totally different dimension of academic reality.

The legitimate question of someone who defends the system would be “How can we do the least damage to our « community”?
(“community” may be a lab, an association, a journal etc. ).

7 – How do I formulate the complaint?

You have to send a letter, by post or email. You need to attach the proof of plagiarism as demonstrated by detection software or according to the protocol we suggest.

– Make your loyalty to the journal/conference/ institution clear,

– State the facts in unemotional language,

– Show proof,

– Put the situation in context,

– Request specific action.

8 – How should I act during the process? 

Do not get obsessed with it.

Do not get obsessed with it. Of course you feel terrible after being « robbed » of your creation, but there is no point in allowing yourself to be affected psychologically to the point of not being able to do your research. Your hierarchy might blame you.

In fact, you should be prepared for pressure from other parties to withdraw the complaint because it will harm the reputation of the journal/conference/ institution/association where the offense took place.

Remain calm, think of this ordeal as an experience that will help you better understand the academic system:

– When people tell you that “you should be flattered to be plagiarized”, think of them as imbeciles who are too lazy or politically influenced to bother to think properly.

– Beware of others who say “How incredible! I’m going to talk to X and Y about it” – they may well be opportunists who will use your problem to their own advantage.

– Etc.

9 – If I get what I want, how should I act?

If you obtain satisfaction, congratulations!

Say thank you and say no more about it. Remember, it is not up to you to break the confidentiality of the person who behaved badly. This is the job of heads of conferences, journals, scientific associations or establishments where the event took place.

It is up to them to apologize for not having prevented the offense and to reassure their members that measures have been taken to avoid any recurrence of such behavior.

10 – If I don’t get what I want, how should I act? 

If you fail to get satisfaction, do not let it ruin your heath!

Any good psychologist will be able to help you get over the ordeal. You will understand that your peers/elders are not there to protect you – the academic system is not your family and in any case, no family is perfect.

11 – And what if I decide to go to court? 

If you decide to take the matter to court, your only solution is to hire a lawyer. However you should know that in many countries, plagiarism is not recognized as such, but is seen as part of the law on counterfeiting.

Your lawyer will explain whether you should sue the plagiarist, the instance where the offense took place or even, in case of harassment, specific people.

Your lawyer will be able to obtain dossiers from the relevant authorities that you would not be able to get by yourself.

A great advantage of the legal procedure is that the lawyer takes care of you and thinks in your stead. Your role is to continue with your research, teaching and publishing.

12 – Is there a life after plagiarism? 

One day you will decide to turn the page. When that time comes, “go back and live in peace in your libraries and laboratories” (Louis Pasteur, 1892).

Good luck!