From time to time I get emails asking for advice dealing with situations that just don’t feel right. Recently, I’ve been asked about the following sort of situation:
You’re an undergraduate who has landed an internship in a lab that does research in the field you’re hoping to pursue in graduate school. As so often happens in these situations, you’re assigned to assist an advanced graduate student who is gearing up to write a dissertation. First assignment: hit the library and write a literature review of the relevant background literature for the research project. You find articles. You read. You summarize and evaluate and analyze, over the course of many pages.
What you write is good. Not only is it praised, but it is incorporated — in some cases, word for word — into the chapter the grad student is writing.
You know (because you have been told) that just doing this kind of literature review wouldn’t be enough to make you an author of any published paper that comes from this research, but your gut tells you there’s something not quite right about the situation. And, another researcher in the lab is taken aback to learn that what you have written is being used this way. In fact, the graduate student’s supervisor makes it clear that your words can’t be used verbatim in the thesis or any manuscripts to be submitted for publication; the wording will have to be reworked.
Are you enabling misconduct? Are you being taken advantage of? And, given that you’re being asked to do some more literature reviews, what do you do now?
While it is true that culling and summarizing relevant background literature is not in itself enough to be counted as an author of a scientific paper*, taking someone else’s words or ideas and representing them as one’s own is clearly plagiarism.
Indeed, representing in a paper that one is familiar with the literature in the background when one hasn’t read the works cited is not only dishonest but also dangerous. No knock on the skills of the undergraduate intern at all, but should this dissertation writer be trusting the intern’s interpretation of the relevant articles? What if the intern is wrong? (Shouldn’t the advanced graduate student’s analysis of such literature be more sophisticated anyway?) So, problem #1 here is that getting the background literature “second hand” may undermine the reliability of the conclusions drawn from this literature — and of the conclusions drawn from the new research in the context of the (hearsay version of the) background literature.
Problem #2, of course, is that the undergraduate intern’s words are being assimilated into the dissertation and, potentially, manuscripts submitted to journals for publication without the intern getting proper credit. Some might argue that whatever salary or “experience” s/he is getting in that internship is compensation for his/her intellectual labor here. If his/her words (or mild reworkings of them) get used in print, that’s not enough. At bare minimum, the intern ought to receive official acknowledgement — and the acknowledgement ought to indicate precisely what the intern did ( i.e., “We acknowledge X for reviewing the background literature and writing parts of section Y”). Absent the acknowledgement, it’s plagiarism. (With the acknowledgement? There’s a good chance someone on the dissertation committee would have a problem with the situation — and that’s a great clue that there’s something wrong with the situation!)
So the big question for the student in this situation is, what do you do?
First, for all of your further “contributions” to this project, I’d suggest changing the nature of the “deliverables” pretty radically. Instead of turning in multipage surveys of the literature, I’d turn in photocopies of the articles or chapters, plus brief summaries of the important stuff in them. Use bulleted lists or some other format that conveys information without being easily lifted verbatim. The prominence of the articles themselves with these summaries ought to trigger some reminders that part of scholarship is actually doing the damn reading and forming one’s own opinions.
Next, you need to find a reasonably safe way to communicate your concerns about the potential (mis)use of the work you’ve already done. Here, it would definitely help to have an ally — another researcher who seems uneasy about what’s happened so far, or the lab supervisor, or a university ombudsman. But it’s really hard to know from the outside (and probably even for the undergraduate intern on the inside, since s/he’s a relative newcomer to this lab) just what the power relationships are and how it might go down. Possibly the supervisor is leaning on the disserter to ensure that s/he actually reads the literature and does his/her own writing and thinking, but possibly the supervisor is being an enabler here. Possibly the other researcher has the standing with the supervisor to get your concern taken seriously, but posssibly s/he is perceived as a trouble-maker with an axe to grind. For the undergraduate intern who wants to pursue this field in the long haul, especially given that some scientific disciplines are extremely small, incestous communities, the goal is to find a way to preserve one’s integrity without pissing off the community one would like to join.
Here, you could work the “Golly, I’d hate it if my less informed interpretations of the literature were wrong; please look yourself to see what you think” angle … but that might put you in a place where the people evaluating you judge you to be less confident and less competent than you ought to be. Or, you could just make it clear that you’re extremely troubled at the prospect of your words and ideas being used without proper attribution because you know that to do so would be plagiarism, and you know that plagiarism is a variety of scientific misconduct, whose detection could have bad repercussions for everyone involved.
Even if it takes awhile, it may well be detected. The folks who plagiarized in their masters theses at the Ohio University probably didn’t think, 20 years later, that they’d have to pay the piper. They were wrong. And, as someone who regularly detects plagiarism, I can tell you that jarring shifts in writing style are one of the tip-offs. This makes using entire paragraphs that someone else has written, and trying to pass them off as your own, an extraordinarily bad idea.
Ultimately, what to do about the pieces one has already written may rest on what kind of risk one feels like one can handle. But once you’ve registered the feeling of ethical uneasiness, it only makes sense to ensure that the rest of what you turn in makes plagiarism unfeasible.
As always, I welcome additional advice from those in the trenches.
*I should note that hard-core summary, interpretation, and analysis of a chunk of literature does merit authorship. This is where review articles come from.