Wendy from Washington, D.C. is worried, needs advice

A frightful story from the Historiann.com mailbag!  Readers, get ready for a shock:

At a ( very small, international humanities) conference recently, I was in the audience at a panel on my research interests, and I was aghast to hear the panel organizer deliver a paper that appeared to be directly lifted from a journal article I published nearly two years ago.  The author of the paper mentioned my book, but never referenced the article I wrote on the very same highly specific topic with the same highly specific argument that she presented in the first half of her conference paper.  (And yes, I’m pretty sure she saw me sitting there in the audience!)  The second part of her paper brought in another case study that I haven’t written about, but she again used the same argument to frame that evidence.

I wasn’t sure what the appropriate response would have been, so I remained silent.  Did I do the right thing?  How does one respond when one’s work is being plagiarized in real time before one’s eyes?  What does your vast and learned audience think I should have done in this case?

I should add, the person who “borrowed” my work was in correspondence with me about this very subject three years ago and knew I was working on it, although my work was published before anything of hers was, and in a prominent journal.  Furthermore, my article won a prize.  She is basically a peer, although she is not tenured at her institution and she is not hugely influential in her field.  We both have published books, and I am tenured.

I am considering writing her an e-mail to let her know that I recognized my work in her paper without being necessarily confrontational.  What can I do at this point? 

Gentle readers, has this ever happened to you?  How did you handle the situation?  (Please tell me that cheaters never prosper!)  I guess my main question is, given that both of the above scholars have encountered each other before at this same very small, international conference in a very specific field in the humanities, what kind of idiot would try to steal Wendy’s research in public like that?  Even if Wendy didn’t attend the conference this year, other scholars in their very small field would probably have noticed this scholarly faux pas too.  What should Wendy do now?

0 thoughts on “Wendy from Washington, D.C. is worried, needs advice

  1. The type of idiot who deserves to be exposed.

    Wow. What a slap! Organizers of the conference and her department chair need to know, I think. I would take hush money from her because I am poor.

    I remember a faculty member in my department who once found herself reading something very familiar in an undergrad paper…it was her own article! Nice. I want that to happen to me one day, just to see the look on their face!

    This is out of the plagiarist’s hands. You have no obligation to her. She stole from you. Now, she needs to be shown the door. Remember, Wendy, you are not just seeking merciless vengeance, but you are protecting other scholars from such being treated in the same way by her.

    Also, anonymous accusations on the Chronicle of Higher Ed bulletin boards, while gratifying, might also be hilarious.



  2. I like your uncompromising morality, Bing, but don’t you think the woman deserves an opportunity to explain herself (or demonstrate that the article was at least cited in her footnotes?) Going directly to her department chair with an accusation is pretty strong medicine–she is untenured after all.

    I think it also makes a difference in the reading of the paper. Did the supposed plagiarist say things like, “As I have found in my research on X of Y…,” thereby taking credit for Wendy’s research, or was her delivery a bit more slippery? Maybe Wendy will write in with more details.


  3. I’ve never found my own work plagiarized, but I got to referee a plagiarized journal article once. I informed the editor, who wrote to the original author and informed the plagiarizer’s department head. However, the culprit came from a school in the third-world country, and last time I checked, he still had his job.


  4. Well, yes, she should be allowed to explain herself. To her Maker. Heehee.

    It’s a matter of degrees. If in the reading of a conference paper, someone eye-skipped little bits like, “As so-and-so has noted,” that’s a different bowl of jelly beans. But if the argument is mine: “a paper that appeared to be directly lifted from a journal article I published nearly two years ago”–I mean, “lifted directly.” That’s what leads me to think that it is more egregious than venial omission of credit. The plagiarized scholar should be able to make that judgment, I would think, while hearing the presentation.

    So, I would have the plagiarist’s body hung outside the convention hall at next year’s conference, as a warning to the unprofessional. With a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style hanging around their neck.



  5. I would say that we need more details. Two people working on the same topic, looking at the same sources, are likely to come to the same conclusion. I am not saying plagerism doesn’t occur or that it isn’t the case here (Again, need more data). However, not every idea that we have is so super original that somebody else couldn’t possibly have imagined it as well. Nor do we have a “lock” on certain topics/conclusions just because we wrote about them in the past.

    As HistoriAnn points out, the text of the paper (or future articles/books) might cite secondary sources, such as those written by an audience member. Also, if she brought in a second case that Wendy never wrote about, it could be that she saw the first instance as context for her original contribution in the second half of the paper. Unless the presenter is remarkably dim, it is unlikely that she would not have considered that her work aligns with an award-winning article in a prominent journal.

    As a former colleague of mine always used to say: Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence. She might have been merely sloppy with references in a paper.


  6. “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence.”

    That’s good advice. (Still, it seems like pretty rank incompetence to deliver a paper on such a specific topic at such a small venue! Has she no pride?) It seems to me that the person who was tardier to publication has an obligation to make sure that her work does something uniquely new and different–again, for the sake of her own pride as a professional, if for nothing else.


  7. A similar-but-different issue: my friend just had a paper rejected by Bigshot Journal in her Field in part she “failed to cite the important work done by [my friend herself]on this topic”!
    What does one do in this situation? I guess she should have cited her own work?


  8. Ignatz–absolutely, she should cite herself! (It’s tricky when you know the journal does blind reviews, so you have to cite yourself as though you are not yourself, if you know what I mean.) That seems like an issue that would be easily resolved with the journal editor, who presumably knew full well that she was the author of that important work.


  9. I think Gay Prof makes a good point about not being too quick to assume malice. I guess I like to think that most people are honest. It would make a huge difference if the presenter had cited Wendy’s other work in her paper, but how does she discover that?

    I think it would be awkward for Wendy to ask for a copy after the fact.


  10. It is somewhat unclear whether “lifted directly” refers to ideas alone or the expression of them, in a word by word sense. (It would be out-of-body to sit there and listen to someone narrate your own sentences into the conference space). “Same highly specific argument” is itself potentially a complex construct that different parties would understand differently. The notes to a conference paper are typically never seen by anyone but the commenter. One would expect a commenter to have a fairly good familiarity with the published work in the area of a paper and to potentially have the unpleasant task of being the whistle-blower. I’d say this is at the moment a case of “revise and resubmit” with respect to more particulars about the potential transgression.


  11. Another thing occurred to me. I know that in my field, it would be considered rather odd to give a talk discussing a topic to which an audience member had made a major contribution to without some kind of mention to this effect. If you use an argument that was first developed by somebody who’s there listening, then you would at least add an aside, mentioning that person was involved. This probably varies from field to field, and the seriousness varies from instance to instance. I’ve seen cases where an omission of credit to an audience member just struck other (knowledgeable) people present as odd; at other times, it was taken as a personal insult.


  12. Arrgghhh, this happened to me once and it was a person whom I considered a friend who did it. Maybe because of that, I went to him first – I already had a copy of the paper and it was very specific plagiarism, although little of it was EXACTLY word-for-word. He couldn’t see it for what it was – i.e. he said something along the lines of what’s been said above – people working in the same areas, coming from similar perspectives coming to similar conclusions. That just wasn’t true and it blew my mind that he couldn’t see it – others agreed with me and senior faculty spoke to him, to “encourage” him to cite my work. Eventually, and with much hard feeling, he did that. It really wasn’t enough acknowledgment though and I contintued to feel that he’d stolen my work.

    I didn’t go to my Chair – I was junior, the guy was senior, there were all these complicated relationships – but I often feel terrible thinking that he could do this again, since he didn’t even seem to understand what he’d done. We’re not friends anymore. The extent of some people’s denial systems is simply frightening!


  13. Okay, I have no better advice for Wendy than has already been given, but am going to take the opportunity to derail the conversation by sharing my favorite (though sad) plagiarism story:

    I was advising an undergrad student’s senior paper on Robin Hood. The student, being extremely thorough, searched through Diss. Abstracts and ILLed a dissertation on medieval English outlaw from sometime in the 1970s. Imagine her surprise when it arrives and she discovers that it is a WORD FOR WORD COPY of one of the canonical works on Robin Hood, Maurice Keen’s Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1960-something) (which we’d read in class & she was using for her thesis). LITERALLY word for word.

    I wrote the chair of the department issuing the degree and let him know what I’d found. He hadn’t been there at the time, and the committee in question had all died/retired, but he thanked me and said he’d inquire about the recipient (who didn’t show up in Google as part of an academic institution). I’d almost forgotten, but months later the chair wrote me to say they’d tracked down the author, who, when confronted with the evidence, confessed immediately. The chair copied the letter for me; apparently the author had just got married and his father was very sick and he really really REALLY needed a job, got an offer and needed to be done, and panicked. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a tenure-track job, because I don’t think he ended up continuing in the profession. It was actually a very sad message in which he said he’d never really thought he’d get away with it and how it weighed on him every day, especially when he thought about how his wife didn’t know (though I guess he learned to live with it for 30 years!).

    Needless to say, the university in question rescinded his degree.

    And I have to say my biggest question was: how could his committee not know???

    (I have a less favorite story of a journal editor not caring about an author’s lifting direct language from his source, because the author cited the source correctly, but that’s much less exciting than the other one.)


  14. Indyanna–good point. Perhaps Wendy will drop in and comment further/explain more clearly the circumstances. And Brett–I think it’s the same in the humanities, with it being considered common courtesy to acknowledge an intellectual debt (or at least an intellectual confraternity) to an audience member. This was apparently a very, very, very small conference just for specialists working on a particular subject in a particular century, so it would seem to be rather typical that there would be considerable audience overlap with many presentations.

    hysperia, what a discouraging story, but it strikes a note with Wendy’s story. There seems to be a high degree of denial happening in her circumstance too. Your story is a cautionary tale.

    And NKOTH: Wow! Your story is like an Urban Legend come to life! I don’t know which part is more unbelieveable–that you had an undergraduate who was such a dogged researcher, or (as you suggest) that someone plagiarized a book word-for-word without his committee figuring it out! I really would LOVE to know what university it was that allowed that to happen. (Can you dish? Just shoot me a private e-mail. You know where to find me.) You have to give the guy credit (well, a little bit anyway.) It would have been a major pain in the ass in the 1970s to plagiarize word-for-word, since someone had to re-type the stolen stuff word-for-word. Plagiarism used to take character and dedication in the old days, before everything was digital!


  15. Publication trumps conference paper. That’s what a senior scholar told a colleague of mine when she heard a paper delivered by a junior scholar who had been in contact with her about their shared research interests. She had sent said junior scholar a chapter et voila! there it was, in the conference paper. My colleague was in the final days of sending the book manuscript to the publisher. From dissertation to book, she possessed a paper trail of the origins of her argument.

    The same seems to be the case here. Wendy’s article is published, has won an award, was read by folks in the field, and now serves as a touchstone for scholarly work. It is shocking to hear one’s argument adopted without acknowledgement within a scholarly circle, but I’ve found that many junior scholars have not learned or do not practice the professional etiquette of their (ahem) “elders.” Another colleague of mine edits a book series and aided a recent Ph.D. in publishing his first book: hearing his work at a conference, encouraging the submission, critiquing the manuscript and securing other readers, convincing the press to publish. Yet the author never acknowledges her help at all in his thank you’s. That’s not empty etiquette; that’s a debt that should have been felt and paid by the simple recognition of another’s aid.

    The scholar mentioned Wendy’s book but not the specific article. That may or may not be a feint intended to frame the argument as her own. The fact that Wendy’s name was mentioned, though, tells me that the scholar in some way was acknowledging (however poorly) the debt.

    Nevertheless, the “professor mom” in me worries that the scholar isn’t as aware of intellectual property and professional etiquette as she should be by now. How bad would it be to pen or email a note, saying how nice it was that the scholar acknowledged Wendy’s book at the conference, how interesting it was that her paper offered another example that hadn’t been covered by the journal article, and how great it is to learn that the discussion lo these three years ago has spurred further research in the field?


  16. historymaven: agreed. Very good points. It’s much better to be the person who published an article 2 years ago. Wendy is fortunate in that she has the “paper trail,” instead of just other conference papers or unpublished work.

    That’s what I just don’t get here. Plagiarism is so much more sneaky and effective if it’s done to unpublished work, not published work!

    I also take your points about junior scholars not quite getting the professional etiquette involved, although that shouldn’t be the case for this person, who finished grad school almost a decade ago. (She finished the same year as Wendy.) I think many junior scholars feel intimidated when a more advanced person publishes something that touches on their research interests, and it takes them a while to recover and cope with the fact that there are others working in their fields. But, the smart ones figure out their own distinctive path and make their own unique contributions, which makes them more capable and generous in acknowledging the work of others.


  17. @ Historiann- Your mention of the relative ease of plagiarizing unpublished work makes me thankful again that in my field (theoretical physics), we have a comprehensive repository of preprints at http://www.arxiv.org . We physicists know from experience that it makes tracking down and documenting plagiarism immensely easier. I think it also discourages people from committing plagiarism. There is no longer an informal network of colleagues who circulate preprints, with information about new developments spreading slowly through this system. Now, when a potential plagiarist sees a new paper they might be inclined to steal, they know that most everybody else in the world who’s interested has seen the paper online as well.

    This system is to some extent facilitated by the fact that nobody in the field writes longer works. In the humanities especially, where the publication of books, chapters of which might be circulated far in advance of final publication, is more important, it would be difficult to replicate this scheme as effectively. Nevertheless, I am a strong believer that many other disciples should adopt an online preprint system similar to that now used in physics and mathematics. (Although I should add one more caveat as well. There is a reason why physics and math are better suited to the online preprint system than other disciples. The technical requirements of writing a mathematics or physics paper are different from writing one in, say, history. The latter can be typed in a standard word processing package, but to write physics or mathematics–even crackpot physics or mathematics–one needs to learn LaTeX for typesetting mathematical symbols. Most crackpots are unwilling to learn, and that keeps down the number of preprints that are total rubbish. Without this software barrier any humanities preprint servers would probably need more active monitoring by humans to keep the crazies out.)


  18. As a former junior scholar who takes pride in my research and ideas, I would have slammed Ms. Thing against a wall as soon as the session was finished. I think Wendy should write her a direct, neutrally toned email, stat–and cc.Ms. Thing’s chair.


  19. Thanks for all of your comments. I think cc’ing or contacting the Chair is premature, but I certainly think that a friendly but firm e-mail notice is appropriate.

    Brett, I really appreciate your thoughts from another discipline. The physicists are way ahead of us humanities types (surprise!), although I’m not quite sure if something like the collection of preprints would be embraced by humanities scholars. As you suggest, humanities scholars are lone wolves rather than people who work in a collaborative fashion, and I wonder if fears that work would be plagiarized from the anti-plagiarism preprints collection would limit the success of this model! (There are some in my profession who warn darkly about people stealing ideas from conference papers, and who hold back their extremely important findings until publication, but that has always seemed a little paranoid and farfetched to me.)


  20. I second Historiann in thinking all of you for you comments and suggestions. It was certainly a surreal experience. It was nice to know that people are reading my work-not so nice to suspect they are plagiarizing it.

    In some respects, it would have been easier if it had been published. I could have pointed out the commonalities that were too close to be coincidence to the editor of the journal. A conference paper seems a bit trickier. She may have very well been citing me, but there’s no way for me to know.

    Again, thank you for all the helpful advice. I’ll have to mull it over and decide on a course of action.


  21. This is one of my biggest fears — not that I’ll plagiarise, because honestly, it’s not my thing, nor will it ever be. But I do worry, because I tend not to have time to do any real research during the academic year, that I will have read a bunch of stuff before I get started on teaching and then, X months later when I get back to writing, I’ll have internalized all that reading and not remember what’s mine and what isn’t.


  22. Thanks, DV. Although I am shocked to read about these cases, I’m not entirely surprised about the cowardice of the American historical profession in exposing and outing the fraudsters. My profession has an upper-middle class etiquette or sensibility which dictates that confrontation is the faux pas, not the original transgression. Thus the advice to Dr. Wu from her colleagues to just let it go that someone plagiarized her disseration! Any and all manner of abuse is acceptable, just so long as the victim PLEASE GOD doesn’t say anything about it!

    This is of course related to the tolerance for bullies and bullying that I’ve written about a lot here, and may be worthy of a post in an of itself. Thanks for drawing my attention to the article.


  23. p.s. With the assistance of La Google, I discovered that Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is now an Associate Prof. at OSU, and that Benson Tong has apparently left academia. A blog post from the spring of 2005 suggested that he was leaving Gallaudet University, but it didn’t say if he resigned or was fired.


  24. From the perspective of an outsider, it appears that the rules over copyright laws have become muddied again. Perhaps counsel with a good copyright lawyer is in order, followed by pursuit of the plagiarizers. Reestablishing the boundaries is important. Plus, what a joke if, organizations like the one sited in your reference, are not defenders! I don’t know, is this sort of etiquette taught anywhere as a required class?


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