France tries husband-wife team for research misconduct in plagiarism case

Mr Sixou
Michel Sixou

We’re always glad to have guest posts, and here’s one from François-Xavier Coudert, reporting from France.

As we reported the other day, a Nature editorial suggested that police involvement might be an appropriate response to research misconduct. The French seem to agree, based on reports in the media there, as Coudert writes:

A husband-wife team of French odontology researchers at l’université Paul-Sabatier in Toulouse have been on trial in that country for research misconduct. Christine Marchal-Sixou, an associate professor, faces a charge of plagiarism, and Michel Sixou, full professor and dean of the faculty of dental medicine until September, has been charged with complicity.

In June 2006, Samer Nuwwareh, a masters student in the group of professor Sixou in Toulouse, completed his thesis with Sixou as one of his two advisors. Six months later, Marchal-Sixou, who at that time was a graduate student in her husband’s group, successfully defended her doctoral thesis. Nuwwareh’s name features in the acknowledgements of the thesis, but his own work was not otherwise cited. After getting her PhD, Marchal-Sixou joined her husband’s group as associate professor. In August 2008, Samer Nuwwareh filed suit for plagiarism of his thesis. He declared at trial:

I felt betrayed and dispossessed. Today I want to get back the ownership of my work.

Eight different experts were called in to testify. It appears clear that a good part of the work was shared by the two theses, with 44 pages out of 150 (bibliography excluded) of Marchal-Sixou’s paper being directly drawn — and in some case copy-and-pasted, which we know thanks to some telltale, identical typos — from Nuwwareh’s work. The experts agreed that this “core” was the essential and most original part of the doctoral thesis.

Most of the time during the trial was spent arguing about who copied whom, and whose work had priority. Because Nuwwareh and Marchal-Sixou worked on closely related topics and actively collaborated at that time, her defense is that the work was thus a collective effort, owned not by either researcher but by the whole group. The lawyer for Sixou and Marchal-Sixou also characterized the whole affair as:

a cabal, orchestrated by a few academics and aiming at taking [the Sixous] down. These accusations were made by the guy two years after the facts, he was manipulated.

But other details that emerged during the trial raise some interesting questions. The couple shared a single email account, for example, so every time Nuwwareh wrote to his supervisor, Marchal-Sixou could read the messages. And she defended her thesis in record time, two years instead of the usual three, benefitting from the research in her husband’s group.

The prosecution seeks a fine of 5,000 euros from both Marchal-Sixou and Sixou.

22 thoughts on “France tries husband-wife team for research misconduct in plagiarism case”

  1. This is why no graduate student should be allowed to marry their PI and then be awarded a degree from work done in the husband’s/wife’s lab. If you marry your PI, the PI should remove themselves from any degree-granting decisions to avoid the very opportunity for appearance of bias.

  2. “The couple shared a single email account, for example, so every time Nuwwareh wrote to his supervisor, Marchal-Sixou could read the messages.”

    Um. Wow. So the dean of the school (or department) brings on his wife as a doctoral student, shares his email account with her, gives her a PhD in two years, and then hires her direct as an assistant prof in his own group? (This assumes they were married before she became a student–I’m not sure which is worse.) As atrocious as it may be, I’m not sure the plagiarism is the big story here.

    1. Even if they lose the case, and pay a measly fine of 5,000 EUR, I suspect that between salaries and grants received over the years, this amounts to peanuts or crumbs on the table. If they lose, it will be a small victory, but will justice have been served? I would say that it would be better to throw them into jail for a couple of months instead. The prosecution is not very ambitious, is it?

      1. But should this be a criminal offense? It seems to me that this could have been handled more appropriately by the degree-granting organization rather than the police.

        A far more appropriate response would be (if the allegations are proved) to remove the degree and take punitive actions against the Marchal/Siouxs. This could have been done without involving the police, the magistrates and prosecutors, judicial system, etc. France has a strange legal system, but I would never recommend this sort of thing in the US.

        1. @ Dan,

          Without being a legal specialist nor knowing the case, my guess would be that it is a penal offense as long as the plagiarism has been used to wrongly obtain a national certified diploma (in this case the doctorate). If no diploma was involved, it would probably have fallen under the laws of intellectual property but the severity of the offense is probably lower.

      2. The thesis focused on ethics in dental research, a weird case of the ethics of ethics in research. The text of the French jury may explain the harsh treatment, as reported by the French newspaper “Le Monde”: Les juges ont considéré comme particulièrement inacceptable cette « contrefaçon commise dans le cadre d’un travail portant sur le thème de l’éthique médicale ».

  3. Presumably Sixou read the both dissertations and signed ’em… if that’s the case, it would be hard/impossible to argue that he wasn’t/should have been aware of the overlap. If, in fact, the work was owned by the whole group, why did Sixou sign off on a dissertation that didn’t properly credit the work of his wife?!

    From the acknowledgements (via google translate):
    “A whole team of epidemiology and public health laboratory of the
    Faculty of Dentistry of Toulouse, especially Samer Nuwwereh for his contribution through his work [of] M2R”
    I could be wrong, but I *think* M2R refers to his research master’s thesis.

    1. Yes, the acknowledgements section in a Thesis is always a piece worth to read (for instance, in many thesis defended in Mexico, a warm thank to God is included in acknowledgements. That sounds a bit strange, because God’s participation in experimental workup and data analysis is obviously close to nothing, assuming that God, considered as a perfect entity, can’t be involved in an intrinsically imperfect Thesis). Now, the strongest words in the section devoted to Michel Sixou are not those quoted by qaq, but rather the “soutien indéfectible” and “aide rare et précieuse”, with a connotation somewhat difficult to translate. The most interesting is, however, the typo introduced in the name of Samer Nuwwereh, instead of Samer Nuwwareh (unless both wording are considered as correct).

        1. I’m not sure about the practice in France, but at my university in the Netherlands the acknowledgements section of a PhD thesis (in contrast to a journal paper) is a personal thank-you section. It is used not only to acknowledge those who helped scientifically, but also those that provided other forms of support during the (here, 4-year) PhD program. E.g. it is quite common to thank family and friends for emotional support. In that context I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging a deity, if someone felt themselves supported or inspired by their religion.

          In the acknowledgement section of a journal paper, which is usually reserved for those that provided scientific input, but not enough to warrant a co-authorship, it is of course a different matter.

      1. C’est tout du parfum! In the context of “soutien indéfectible” and “aide rare et précieuse” I would expect not less than a Nobel prize from this thesis!

  4. The whole research community worldwide needs to learn from this and start “plagiarizing” such good deed. for those sarcasm-handicapped, I mean to start creating the proper mechanism so as to bring white-coated, rat-popped criminals (researches, sarcasm again), to public light. Go France!!!! I am hungry, need to get a baguette.

  5. Good to hear that French Academia is moving forward and takes fraud and misconduct more seriously. Indeed, the French situation is just awful. At the exception of PhD students and post-docs, the job status of all our Academics is based on the “public-servant” French law, meaning that no one can fire them form the Academia. In case of fraud, proved or after a complain, French public research institutes or Universites prefer to sweep the dust under the rug. And if the one who brings at the attention of the community a case of fraud, is weak (PhD student or post-doc), the French system will kill his career, and he will be black-listed in the Academia.

    1. I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe all of this to the status of French researchers (in Unis and national institutes). There are similar issues in countries with different systems. Blowing the whistle is always hard and risky.

      1. You are right, fraud and misconduct are intimately part of the human being, whatever your the country. But in some culture, individual responsibility is something more important than in other culture (more let’s say “socialist”). The proof is that in France, you have to sue in court a Professor having an academic position to have a chance to get your right back, and at the opposite, in USA or Denmark for example, just complaining to your University or to your funding agency is enough to start a very serious investigation. Another proof, USA or Denmark has got Agency fully dedicated to scientific fraud and misconduct, we French don’t have a such National agency, neither a tiny “office of complain” in our universities!

        Denmark: Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty under the authority of the Danish Ministry of Science !
        USA: Office of Research Integrity

        Based on the globalization science and research, we urgently need a global agency!

  6. The blog of Hervé Maisonneuve ( mentions this trial in a recent post, with a link to a short report about the case in a French newspaper:
    This article reads:
    “In June 2006, Michel Sixou, dean of the Faculty of odontology in Toulouse, gave a failing grade to a Jordanian student registered in the Master’s program, due to his poor command of French. In August of the same year, Christine Marchal-Sixou, also enrolled as a PhD student in the research laboratory of her husband, completed a Thesis on the same topic.
    According to the Jordanian student’s lawyer, plagiarism is blatant, since even identical typos have been found in both theses. Sixou’s counsel, however, is alleging that a plot was staged against the couple, and that this Thesis was the product of a joint effort.”

  7. Le 20 minutes de Toulouse a écrit ce matin
    pour plagiat
    Le tribunal correctionnel de Paris a condamné jeudi Christine Sixou, la femme de l’ex-doyen de la fac de den- taire de Toulouse, à 5 000 € d’amendes pour plagiat. Elle était accusée d’avoir utilisé en 2006 les travaux d’un étudiant jordanien travaillant dans le laboratoire de son mari pour rédiger sa propre thèse. Elle devra par ailleurs lui verser 20 000 € de dommages et intérêts et détruire tous les exemplaires de sa thèse. Pointant l’éthique, les juges n’ont pas retenu l’accusation de complicité pour Michel Sixou et l’ont relaxé.”

    1. Whoops! If you have to destroy all your copies of your thesis, if I understand the French correctly, should this not mean that the thesis is effectively retracted and therefore the basis for her PhD has disappeared?

      1. I think so. However, the court judgment is about the physical thesis (the various copies available in libraries), but i don’t know if this applies to the PhD degree, which is a University decision, i guess… We need to wait until January and see how the two Universities will react on the court decision.

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