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.

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