Niina’s recent post on plagiarism struck a chord with me. Some of my work was stolen a couple of years ago, a grant application. Reading about Niina’s experiences makes me reflect once more on what happened, and the impact it had on me. So, I thought I’d share the situation and what I’ve learned from it.
A person got in touch with me through a colleague in another university, for advice about a funding application. I was quite overwhelmed by this person’s first few emails—they were hard to follow, and more than a little chaotic. But I knew all too well what it was like to be starting out in research and still learning to express your ideas, so I happily gave the benefit of the doubt. After all, I trusted the colleague who had connected us, and I wanted to help bring on new clinical academics in the profession. The person asked for a copy of my successful funding application, and I shared it. I’d reaped the benefits of learning from my colleagues’ successful applications* and it was nice to emulate their generosity and spread the wealth. Also, the person worked in a different clinical field to me, so where’s the harm?
Time went by, and a year later the person got back in touch. They’d been shortlisted for an interview – great news! They wanted my help to prepare: How did I approach it? What was the experience like? Could they have a copy of my presentation to use as an example? “No problem I’m sure. But first, send me your abstract so I can get up to speed on your project.”
They sent the abstract, and the first alarm bell started ringing. It strongly resembled my own study, so I asked for a copy of the full application. The alarm bell switched to full blast. The structure of their study was the same as mine, which was fairly unique in the profession at the time. As I read through the application page by page, I highlighted sentences, paragraphs, half pages of text that I had written, with key words for my population (children and young people), substituted with key words for that person. I told the person I was concerned about the resemblance and that I wouldn’t be able to help them to prepare for the interview. I remember clearly their one line reply: “that makes me very sad”.
What made me sad was thinking about all those hours spent writing my application over two years, and then seeing my exact words cut and pasted and passed off as if they were that person’s own. If not blood, those words certainly represent sweat and tears. They represent time away from my partner, friends, and family. They represent the two most arduous years of my professional life. And they represent an achievement of which I am incredibly and enduringly proud.
That person took a handy shortcut and headed out to enjoy all the time and activities I had sacrificed. Anyone I’ve told about this has been angry on my behalf. They understand that plagiarism is personal. It’s grubby. It’s someone sucking your blood and feasting on those sacrifices you made.
What have I learned from the experience? I’m less naïve and more careful about sharing my work, and when I share stuff I make the ground rules more explicit. I’m more selective about who I introduce to colleagues, and I make sure that those I introduce understand the rules of engagement. But most of all, I take extra care to give credit where it’s due.
Reflecting on my NHS career so far, I wonder whether I myself have plagiarised loads of times. What I mean is, I was enthusiastically taking ideas from the published literature and trying to implement them locally. I was so busy using the ideas that I didn’t always think to credit where they had actually come from. Did my actions meet the definition of plagiarism? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I don’t want to get myself in a situation where I even need to ask that question.
*Special thanks for this to Niina Kolehmainen, Phillip Whitehead, and Simon Hackett for their generosity.