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Can Mentoring and Collaboration Lead to a Charge of Plagiarism?

McCorkle, Ruth PhD, RN, FAAN

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doi: 10.1097/NCC.0000000000000519
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I have been teaching graduate students at research-intensive universities at the master’s or doctoral level since 1975. When I began as a new assistant professor at the University of Washington, I was fortunate to have role models who taught me the generosity of sharing my work and the importance of remaining accessible to students to help develop their ideas. I have prided myself on an open-door policy. When students want to talk, I am available. When they write something, I respond quickly. I share my work freely and give students articles, books, grants, and manuscripts in progress. In more than 40 years of teaching, there had been no suspicion of my using a student’s work. One of the cardinal rules of working with students I live by is to behave with the highest level of academic integrity, including guarding against plagiarism.

To my horror, approximately 4 years ago, I was accused of, and investigated for, taking a former doctoral student’s work and publishing it as my own. My accuser remained anonymous throughout the ordeal. My initial fear was that my former student might be at risk of potential consequences that would affect her appointment and promotion at another university. If this were the case, I wanted to set matters straight to preserve her career. Two jurors and my dean met with me to lay out the charges against me. They accompanied me to my office to copy the hard drive on my office computer and followed me home to copy my home computer. I received a copy of the work in question: my published work and the introductory chapter of my former doctoral student’s dissertation. The work reflected 750 words of background and demographic characteristics of a well-established population we both had researched at different times, me before her. The work did not reflect any original creative thought. I was instructed not to contact my former student to discuss the case while I was being investigated.

The investigation was conducted by a formal university panel composed of 3 full professors. They interrogated me in person for 90 minutes and gave me an opportunity to respond in writing to the charges. As my shock dissipated after the interrogation, I realized that, if I was found guilty, I could be dismissed from the university and dishonor it, the faculty whom I worked with throughout the years, and the journalism program where I had earned my doctorate. As a result, I took counsel from a former dean. She advised me to consult a lawyer who specialized in plagiarism cases. She assisted me in identifying a lawyer who was knowledgeable about the law and former cases. Upon meeting with him, he instructed me on how to prepare the evolution of my work including a timeline with supporting documents. The work in question had been solicited for a book, and there was a paper trail of correspondence with dates to reflect an accurate timeline and copies of draft materials. His review of my written response and confidence that I would be found innocent of the charges were the only thing that helped me during the long 6 months of waiting for the panel’s decision. Their task was to determine whether there was adequate evidence to support whether the charges should go forward to the next level of review. Finally, I received written notification that the charges had been dismissed. The panel recommended no further action.

I was so relieved, and my first response was to reach out to the student to inform her that this charge had been made and reassure her that someone had noticed the similarity of the work. It was at that point I learned that my accuser was my former student herself. As another shock hit me, I could not wrap my mind around the fact that she had not come to talk to me about her discovery of the overlap of work. This was a bright student, one whom had I encouraged to come to our doctoral program, one whom had I worked with before entering the program to develop her NIH predoctoral application, and one whom I had published several manuscripts with. She was a former student whom I had recommended for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship and for her first academic position. I had reviewed her for reappointment and promotion. Afterward, when I emailed the student to see whether we could meet, her response was that she wanted no contact with me. It was obvious that this student thought that I had taken her work and, by doing so, had betrayed her. It has been almost 4 years since this incident happened, but the time has not diminished my sadness that the student perceived me in this way.

I thought I understood the rules of publishing, but they continue to evolve as technology evolves. It is important that authors understand the rules of plagiarism, especially self-plagiarism, when you do not cite your own previous published work. My style of working with others has always been the free flow of ideas and exchange of written words back and forth to develop articles and grants. Working together produces a better product. I have always believed and practiced that authorship should reflect the input of those who contributed. Authorship is best decided upfront at the beginning of a project or article. The work I was accused of using was written a full year before the student began her studies with me. However, my style of working is one in which we all, together, pursue the truth. So it never occurred to me to think of the work as mine or hers. My style of working with others has not changed, but I am more aware of the increasing tensions associated with the need to publish and the need to contribute to clinical scholarship and nursing science in academia. One of the greatest gifts as a teacher is to help students develop their ideas and help them publish. Their first article in print or online is magical and reaffirms who they are. We are custodians of safeguarding this process and ensuring its fairness and integrity. There is no greater responsibility than protecting our students from the harmful actions of others and ensuring that they receive full credit for their work.

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