When a PI Plagiarizes

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In the October 1, 2014 New York Times Magazine, celebrated author Marilynne Robinson paraphrases John Wycliffe as saying, “If you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens.” However, I can attest to the reasons why so few subordinates do this—or why you have not heard of them even though they may have tried. If you are not a Pulitzer Prize winning academic, things can go very badly for whistle-blowers and rarely badly for their superiors in the academy, protected as they are by university legal counsels whose job it is to prevent public disclosure and its consequences.

Based on my ethnographic research and publication history, I was hired as a research anthropologist on a large grant by a PI with a proven track record of co-authorship with prior junior colleagues in my position. Within six months of being hired to conduct research among a different population than that studied by the PI, I wrote my first article based on a paper I had given at a national anthropology conference. Since my paper described patterns that disagreed with the PI’s previous findings, she rightly asked for evidence, which I gave her from numerous examples in my research notes that I routinely uploaded to a shared folder online. As part of our employment agreement on co-authorship, I gave her multiple iterations of that first article and then other drafts with different emphases, but the PI never worked on them. She told me she was “burned out” from working for decades on this topic and was “having writer’s block.”

Yet, when I attended a university lecture given by the PI, I was taken aback that her talk incorporated without acknowledgement all of my new ideas. Perhaps a different person would have confronted her then. Instead, I excused her by imagining the pressure she must have been under to produce this talk, and by remembering the many high caliber co-authored papers she had written with previous junior colleagues. Yet the PI would never engage with my first authored draft articles I sent her, asking me instead to work on her draft articles where my name was prominently displayed as second author.

Fast forward three years spent working very happily with my research population while experiencing utter frustration that I had not been able to get a single one of my first-authored drafts onto the PI’s agenda for editing toward publication. She held me off by saying that my “ideas were brilliant, but [my] writing needed extensive editing” – precisely what co-authorship in research institutions is intended to help with. And, what I was doing for hers, I thought rather bitterly.

One day, while taking an EndNote workshop in the university library, I entered the PI’s name to get her previous publications into my grant reference section and was shocked to find that she had four recent publications that used my language word for word in some places, with paraphrases in others. In her publications, she claimed sole credit for my original findings and conceptual analyses taken from the draft articles I had given her, even though the data was from an entirely different population than she studied. Nowhere were my contributions cited or acknowledged in any way. I took my concerns to the dean, who contacted the PI. The PI immediately offered to contact the journals to give me first authorship on the first publication and second authorship on five others (as it happened, she had two more articles using my ideas under review). I agreed to these conditions.

But then the university’s chief counsel stepped in. Unfortunately, the scope of the ethical breach made it impossible for the dean to not involve the university’s legal team, given that it received numerous grants from the national funding agency that had sponsored the PI’s research. Six peer-reviewed articles published in as many journals would be far too much exposure: should the funders discover these “irregularities” the institution could be censured and its research programs jeopardized. The university’s senior counsel demanded that I sign a nondisclosure agreement with draconian consequences if I broke it, while stating that our previously brokered authorship agreement would not be legally binding. The PI, protected by the counsel, reneged on her proposal to transfer authorship. I requested “outside” mediation that would be legally binding on the PI, but it failed. I lost the authorship of my ideas as well as the possibility of continuing to work at this institution, along with the chance to receive a recommendation from anyone closely familiar with my contributions to the field from three and a half years of research and writing as a research faculty member there.

Because of past ethical breaches, anthropology has become attentive to the ethical protection of human subjects and the imperative to “cause no harm.” We teach our undergraduates how to cite the ideas of others to prevent plagiarism for which they may be expelled. However, graduate students and junior researchers have minimal or no protection when faculty superiors plagiarize their work. The enormous pressure on faculty to develop new ideas and innovative approaches makes creative and energetic graduate students and junior research associates vulnerable links in the professional chain. Given the hierarchical nature of the academy, the people who are dependent upon tenured faculty for their degrees and research employment have much in the way of intellectual and professional capital to lose. Yet, little or no institutional support exists to protect them against theft of their intellectual property or to ameliorate the professional consequences of its loss.

15 Responses to “When a PI Plagiarizes”

  1. This kind of thing is unfortunately all too common. I think you signed that non-disclosure under duress. Is there any counsel you can get that can advise you on consequences if you report this to the journal? What if you called up the editor of the journal anonymously and told them that you knew that the author had plagiarized a “colleagues” work? Or called the granting agency? I have personally experienced very senior people at very prestigious universities write up articles and publish them from conversations where I’ve shared my observations on a topic and use my words and ideas verbatim; I’ve seen fieldwork conducted and books published modeled after on one of my articles where my work was never cited; and even one person–who also knew my work because we had several conversation before she went to the same field site–proclaim herself to be the first person ever to study this topic at this site. And this was even after I had already published an article based on this work at this site and could prove I had been there years before her. It is really unfortunate that some people have so few original ideas of their own they have to steal others’ ideas in order to make a name for themselves. People like this need to be exposed. Until there are some serious consequences for this kind of behavior, those in power will continue to get away with this kind of thing and make their living off the backs of others.

  2. Two points:
    1) An agreement signed under duress is normally not binding.
    2) Under some conditions, an exchange of promises — even oral ones, such as a promise by one party to list someone as a co-author if that party promises other things in return — is legally binding.

    Seek legal counsel.

  3. You’ve made a lot of mistakes, but your biggest one is not publicly naming this serial plagiarist and fraud.

  4. So sorry to hear of your story. I became a whistleblower, advising my superiors of over $200,00.00 in fraudulent charges billed to a federal education grant. The outcome? I was placed on leave and brought up on garbage discipline charges. None of the charges was sustained and I eventually obtained a generous settlement, but the professional and psychological pain still lingers. There are no words to describe the frustration and agony of experiences like this, and the bitterness and cynicism that arise as a result. Too many people collude, remain silent, or otherwise impede the disclosure of truth.

  5. My archival research and references to unpublished sources along with ideas from a couple of my papers were adopted by two very well-known and much-honored scholars in a joint paper, with no credit to me or citation of my work. I mentioned this plagiarism to two colleagues, who let me know it was no big deal and that they did not want to hear about it. My solution was to get a reviewing assignment for the book in which the paper appeared. My review at least exposes the plagiarism, even though there are no consequences.

  6. I am sorry to read about the author’s experience but not surprised. An ethical code that has no weight of enforcement and which conflicts with the interests of the institution such as the Department and the University provides no protection to the individual with the least power in a relationship. This is a point. hat I have been arguing since 1976.since it applies not only to the academic setting but the applied/practicing branch of the discipline as well.

    There is a real legal issue here, which the university attorney pointed out. a matter of fraud if the University has, as the fiduciary agent, has expected a grant which had fraudulent claims as to the qualifications of the PI. The author states, “But then the university’s chief counsel stepped in. Unfortunately, the scope of the ethical breach made it impossible for the dean to not involve the university’s legal team, given that it received numerous grants from the national funding agency that had sponsored the PI’s research. Six peer-reviewed articles published in as many journals would be far too much exposure: should the funders discover these “irregularities” the institution could be censured and its research programs jeopardized”. The “should the funders discover …” should set off Watergate bells, whistles and alarms. This is where the University and the PI become co-conspirators.

    This is really not just a question of Anthropological ethics, it also has implication for the AAUP Code, the Journals that accepted the publications. This is Why the AAA should have an enforceable ethics code that has teeth and sanctions — to protect the profession and junior faculty and students from the slavery of the academic social structure.

  7. It doesn’t seem right for the PI to take your actual words and interpretations without attribution, though the law seems to protect your words but not your ideas. It is usually true in my experience that an institution’s counsel tends to act to protect the institution and the more senior faculty member, when there is a problem. One needs an independent lawyer in such cases, but most faculty members would not be able to afford one. This problem of the cost is why I feel our justice system is mostly for the wealthy and powerful. Sometimes, an issue is the kind lawyers will take on contingency: you pay them a percentage of a settlement if they win for you and nothing if they don’t. The idea suggested by a commenter that one might appeal to the journal is a good idea, but publishers also might try to protect their companies or be solicitous to the more powerful person. I don’t usually send around unpublished manuscripts, for all the above reasons.

  8. We live in a society which rewards brigands. As this anonymous case reminds us, this is true also of many academic institutions. Unless there are ways for charges to be made public, which large institutions instinctively block, there is little to be done. At my own institution, when a distinguished professor was reported for plagiarism, and ‘named and blamed,’ it ended his career, but it was other tenured faculty who initiated the complaints and contacted the press. It is good that Ethics at the AAA consists of education, but unfortunate that it does not have action on cases — investigation or ethical breaches, tools such as exposure and censure — as part of its mission.

  9. This is absurd. Really disturbing.

  10. “I lost the authorship of my ideas as well as the possibility of continuing to work at this institution, along with the chance to receive a recommendation from anyone closely familiar with my contributions to the field from three and a half years of research and writing as a research faculty member there.” After having been treated so badly by the university, what if the harmed party went to the funding source as a whistleblower? What more is there to lose? And, wouldn’t this at least recover ownership of the ideas? (This is not an original idea. It grew out of a comment Barry Bainton made on a LinkedIn discussion about this blog post.)

  11. I agree with all of the above. I think some people are just lazy or else they are not truly interested in ideas. I have found that very few of my colleagues are; academia has been very disappointing in this respect. Artists often seem to produce and become excited by new concepts more than academics do, but what is described here is just outright wrongdoing. I can think of no other term to describe it.

  12. Barry, great commentary. Liz, thanks for describing taking the whistleblower route. Thoughts on what might have happened had you gone directly to the funder? Our anonymous colleague whose story this is would seem to be free to whistleblow to the “national funding source” because s/he is already gone from the university where this happened. I like the idea of a legal suit on contingency as well. Neither the PI nor the university should be able to get away with this.

  13. This complaint raises, in my opinion, a serious ethical and legal question about the performance of the PI, and the University representatives.

    It contrasts with the earlier complaint “A Case of Collegial Bad Faith” which, in my opinion, is an example of sour grapes but not an unethical act on the part of the organizer of the session. The author of the complaint was not asked to have his/her paper included in a publication based on the symposium. The symposium is one form of “publication” and book is another and it is the organizer’s right to decide what should be included. The writer of the complaint did have other opportunities to publish his/her work and was not excluded from exercising them. The only real issue here is a case of a bruised ego – not an ethical breach.

    The PI, in the present case, “stole” the writer’s product and did so repeatedly according to the complaint. This is an ethical issue and one that the Association should, if it could, censure the PI and censure the department that allowed this to happen.

    One possible solution would be for the writer to seek support from the AAUP to censure the Department on the basis of a violation of the writer’s intellectual property rights http://www.aaup.org/report/statement-intellectual-property-0 . But of course, ” The university’s senior counsel demanded that I sign a nondisclosure agreement with draconian consequences if I broke it, while stating that our previously brokered authorship agreement would not be legally binding.”

    This was to protect the University from such potential action that might occur if the AAUP were brought into the case. Or so it appears.

  14. Have you ever thought about personal copyrighting of your intellectual property in your own name before handing it off to someone else? That would be one way to protect yourself.

    Alternatively, some authors actual do not have a formal, legal copyright on a manuscript, but they will nonetheless write at the bottom of their first page “Copyright 2015 by Dr Joseph E. Bean.” This is always immediately followed by a short and very legal-sounding statement saying that anyone who lifts ideas or verbatim text from the work without the express written permission of the author will surrender themselves for execution by the author’s attorney and have their first-born child sold into slavery. True or not, a statement like that at the bottom of page 1often sends chills down the spines of people prone to stealing other people’s intellectual property. It is a really good way to protect a manuscript prior to getting it published wherever you want to publish it, in which case it will then take on the real copyright of the journal in which it is published. What do you do If a colleague asks: “Do you really have a copyright on this?” Always keep a blank copy of an official copyright submission package to show your colleague and say, “Oh, it’s easy. You just fill out one of these and send it off with a copy of the work.”

    Of course, the ethical issue here is that you are technically lying about the copyright status of the manuscript, but you are also just saying: “Mine. Hands Off” to effectively protect what is rightly your property—like a fence line in a field. You might think of it as a temporary, virtual fence line. You might be surprised at how many anthropologists actually do some of this “hocus-pocus” to protect their work. I do not do this, but I know of at least one person who I would guess does—and it is very effective—scares the crap out of me every time I read those words at the bottom of page 1. Fortunately, I do not steal or plagiarize the work of other people.

    P.S. I know you probably do not care about this because some people in anthropology have done it for a long time, but I absolutely despise the word “academy” used the way it is above in the main post. Every time i see it my skin ripples, and I feel like I want to vomit. Policemen, military cadets, little boys/girls in school uniforms, and fast-food burger flippers are present at the “academy,” and no, the word “academia” per se does not work for me here to make it all right. If you work at a college, then say “college”. If you work at a university, then say “university.” I work as a professional Technical Editor—I’m beggin’ you anthropology guys—quit it—please!!!!

  15. Check out http://www.copyright.gov/ for the official position on copyright.

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