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Case Two: Struggling to Understand Plagiarism

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RCR Casebook: Research Misconduct

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Pamela is a geneticist at a major research university. Her department, Biology, is very large and includes a wide variety of sub-disciplines. It attracts a diverse array of graduate students, including many from outside the U.S.

Pamela has a PhD student, Hua, who comes to the program after finishing medical school in her native country. Hua plans to return after receiving her PhD and because she plans to practice genetic medicine, she is not too concerned at her poor ability to write in English. At Pamela’s urging, Hua signed up for an English as a Second Language (ESL) program on their campus to improve her communication skills.

Pamela was particularly concerned about Hua’s writing because Hua would have to take a preliminary examination prior to beginning her dissertation research. Their department’s preliminary exam has two parts: (1) write a proposal in NIH style format, and (2) write a review article on a topic outside of the student’s area of interest. 

Plagiarism: the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit

-45 CFR 93, 2005

For her exam, Hua submitted a review paper on gene duplication as a cause of disease. Her review had a title which sounded familiar to Pamela. And the English was far better than Hua’s usual writing.

Pamela asked Hua if she had used any review articles in preparation of her own review article. Hua replied that she had, and so Pamela responded that Hua must cite those articles.  Because of the very rapid development of a black market in review articles, Pamela knew that students found it easy to lift part or even whole reviews that have been published. To her relief, even if it was at the last minute before the deadline, Hua came back with some citations added to her review article. Pamela let Hua hand it out to the Committee, but the title of Hua’s paper still bothered her. She went to the library and did a search. She found an article with the same title, but the university did not subscribe to the journal so Pamela ordered it through interlibrary loan.

In the meantime, Hua barely passed her preliminary exam. A week later, Pamela got a copy of the journal article – 80% of Hua’s paper had been copied verbatim.

Pamela reported her finding to the Committee. A debate ensued as to whether to report this to the Dean of Students, or to make a departmental determination of how to respond to Hua’s plagiarism.

How should the committee respond to Hua’s alleged plagiarism?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • Should the department decide how to handle Hua’s plagiarism or should they turn the case over to the Dean of Graduate Studies?
  • What, if anything, should the department have taught their students about scientific writing and the nature of review articles?
  • Should Hua be expelled from the program or given a second chance to complete her degree? *
  • Do you think it is “sympathetic” or rather “insulting” to ask if culture may have contributed to Hua’s actions?*
  • Are there any circumstances in which this matter would need to be reported to the university research integrity officer or to the Office of Research Integrity?
  • Should all doctoral students be expected to know basic standards of research integrity?