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Handling suspected plagiarism and fraud

How should I, as a PhD supervisor*, handle suspected plagiarism and fraud?

A supervisor in a medical area told me a thought-provoking story which can serve as a case study.

A case study in possible fraud by a research student

The supervisor was a guest overseas in the house of his research student who held a prestigious position in her home country. As part of her research she was measuring blood sugar levels in a group of local people. He was somewhat surprised at how quickly she seemed to be making these measurements. Then, during Ramadan, not only did she again come back with her measurements quickly, but they were not significantly different from the previous measurements, even though the individuals concerned were fasting during the day. He strongly suspected that she had not really made any measurements at all, but had invented them on the basis of her previous measurements. He asked what he should have done.

This story polarises people. Some hotly defend the student, suggesting reasons why the measurements should not have been significantly different. Others feel equally strongly that the supervisor had a duty to his discipline and the academic community to check the matter out to ensure that academic standards were not being compromised. Yet others feel that he had a duty to himself because, if the measurements were in fact fraudulent, then his own academic professionalism and position would be at stake. No-one seems to feel that he should have ignored the matter, as he had seen it as possible fraud.

Yet, the actual outcome was, so he said, that neither at the time nor later, had he found the courage to question the student about her measurements, and that he had worried about it ever since. Fortunately for him, his professional community had not noticed anything amiss.

Personal value systems and fraud

Judging from the diverse reactions to this story, the resolution of such dilemmas, in practice if not in theory, seems to lie with personal value systems - which are likely to vary from individual to individual.

Codes of practice on fraud

Fortunately objective guidance is available in the publications of many learned societies and professional bodies, and it may be worth finding out if there is something suitable for your discipline. Your institution may even have one or be in the process of developing one. What is crucial is to be prepared and ready to act as soon as a suspicious situation arises. There are ethics to research, and supervisors need to be able to live at peace with themselves by conducting their supervisions according to those ethics and not allowing suspected fraud to go unquestioned.

Suspected plagiarism

A related issue is what to do about those students who copy excessively and apparently mindlessly from the works of others. Where the students are from a non-Western culture, the copying can be intended to show respect for the authority of the discipline by showing respect for a published author. The problem is best resolved by spotting occurrences early on and then explaining why they are not acceptable. Where the excessive copying is not attributed to its rightful author, there is more of a problem. If supervisors suspect it, they can readily check it out through questioning verbally to probe understanding. It is also worth ensuring that the suspected student is made to realise that institutions have gone as far as stripping graduates of their degrees in severe cases of plagiarism.

There is a advice for students on plagiarism in the students' section of this website.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.