I have a problem. A fellow grad student copies my work by changing both the focus of her study and her course material to match mine, and then gets praised by the Chair for her hard work? The other faculty in our area are aware of the problem, but won't bring it up with the Chair. What can I do?

--Copycat Colleague

Dear Copycat Colleague,

This can be a truly difficult situation, especially if this fellow student is a friend. Your plan of action will depend primarily on your goals for the situation.

Your objective may be to stop the student’s behavior and ensure that it does not continue in the future. In contrast, your objective might be to let others know that the student has been using your work in order to penalize the student.

If your objective is to stop this student’s behavior, I recommend first starting at the root of the problem. In person, let the student know that you are aware of their behavior, and be ready with specific evidence that shows this is really happening. Tell the student that you are speaking to them first as a courtesy, in order to ask them to cease this behavior. You worked very hard on your research and course materials, and do not appreciate someone using them without your permission. Let the student know that if they continue to use your work for their gain, you will be forced to speak with the Chair of the program. Additionally, in order to ensure that this does not continue to happen, be careful with whom you share your research and course materials. If the student asks to borrow your materials, it is your responsibility to ensure that the student cannot simply change your work to suit their needs. You can include watermarks in your files, only provide PDF copies of materials, and ensure that you are the primary author of your files. Your next steps will depend on the response of the student, and their future behavior. If the student ceases their use of your materials, there is no need to seek out further assistance. In contrast, if the student’s behavior continues, you will need to seek the advice of your advisor and the Chair of the program. Let them know that you have spoken with the student, and they have refused to stop using your work. Be prepared to show evidence that they have been using your work, so that your case will not be easily dismissed.

If your objective is to penalize the student by informing the chair of his/her behavior, my ultimate recommendation is to reconsider bringing this to the attention of the Chair. In addition to creating an enemy of this student, you risk creating a reputation for yourself as a complainer to faculty members and as a snitch to your fellow graduate students. In the long run, trying to create trouble for another student will only create trouble for yourself. However, if your intentions are oriented toward ensuring that this student begins doing their own work, rather than continuing to use yours, I definitely recommend speaking with your advisor and Chair. It is important to speak with your advisor about this matter first, as you want to go through the proper channels to avoid offending any faculty members.

Before deciding to take action, please keep in mind that many academics are happy to share their course and research materials as long as they are given credit and are not plagiarized. For instance, an instructor might be willing to share their course materials as overall guidance for another instructor in creating their own lectures. Similarly, a researcher may share their template for creating research posters for conferences, as long as the content is changed. Thus, it is important to take into consideration the sharing behaviors of other students and faculty in your program. If your colleagues tend to share their materials with each other, it might be considered ungenerous to withhold your materials, and may inhibit others from sharing their materials with you in the future. If you do decide to share your materials, just let others know that you are happy to share them as long as their final product looks considerably different from your own.

--René Paulson, PhD

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