Meet the scientist whose ideas were stolen at least three times

Jeff Offutt (via George Mason University)

Jeff Offutt, a professor of software engineering at George Mason University, has some stories to tell. He says that when one of his students wrote his first paper, the student reused four paragraphs from another source, not knowing he couldn’t do that. And then he tells of attending a PhD thesis defense where the student presented interesting data from human research, but had no idea he needed approval from an Institutional Review Board – and neither did his advisor. And Offutt’s own ideas, he says, have been stolen by other researchers three times. Three times. (We asked him for the names of those who’d stolen them, but he declined to say.)

In a recent editorial in the Journal of Software: Testing, Verification and Reliability, Offutt argues that these examples – and all the others any researcher can provide – illustrate the need for ethics training, especially for PhD students.

Retraction Watch: You note in your editorial that you have seen your ideas published by other groups three times. Do you think you’re an outlier?

Jeff Offutt: I have no reason to think I am. Maybe I’ve seen more because I published more than some. So relative to the amount of publications I have, I suspect most scientists with a similar record would say the same.

RW: Can you tell us more about the plagiarism?

JO: All three times, the ideas were included in papers that I’d submitted to a conference but were rejected. In one case, the person later admitted to it – and said it was my fault for not having written a better paper!

Another incident took place when I was in my last year as a PhD student. A faculty candidate came to my institution to interview for a position, and I told her about my research, since we were working in a related area. We ended up both sending papers to the same conference, and she included three terms I had invented as part of my PhD. They were the exact same terms, and the exact same concepts. But her paper didn’t mention me or my work. The program committee came back to us and said since both papers used the same terms they should reference each other. I did, and made sure to also reference a technical report that predated both papers. She did not, and published her paper in the conference with my ideas—unattributed. She also used them in future papers, and never did acknowledge my papers.

The third time was an out-and-out theft of a new way to test software web applications. I discovered this when I was accused of plagiarism! The paper I supposedly plagiarized had actually plagiarized my previous submission. In effect, I was accused of plagiarizing the plagiarizer. Luckily, I also had a time-stamped technical report and was able clear things up with the editor.

RW: Since all three thefts involved submissions to conferences, do you think this is a common source for people looking to lift others’ ideas?

JO: A very basic ethical principle is that private and confidential ideas must be protected. Whether we are reviewing a conference submission, a journal submission, a grant proposal, or a student’s class paper, we are under ethical professional obligation to not use the ideas in any way until the ideas are published in archival form. But it happens. Sometimes knowingly and willfully, sometimes without realizing it’s wrong, and sometimes people probably forget where we read the idea and think it was our own.

RW: Do you think plagiarizing ideas is worse than plagiarizing text? Why or why not? And what can scientists do to protect their intellectual work?

JO: Although both are types of plagiarism, my opinion is that stealing ideas is worse than stealing words, from an ethical perspective. In my field, words are valuable, but ideas are far more valuable. In some sense, the most fundamental requirement of my job is that I invent new ideas. I then embody them in algorithms, software, or data, and disseminate them in words. So stealing my words is more akin to borrowing my expertise with the language without “paying” me, whereas stealing my ideas can directly reduce my value as a scientist.

I think another way to separate the two is to consider intent. If I invent a new way to automate software testing, and someone else claims he invented it, that’s deliberate theft with the intention benefit himself by hurting me. However, if I write a paragraph that summarizes three papers on a similar idea to mine, it’s quite possible that many people also need to summarize those three papers. If someone copies my paragraph verbatim because he can’t think of a better way to write it, at worst that’s being lazy, and at best it’s a compliment to my writing. I don’t actually lose anything from that copying. This kind of thing happens a lot and is usually by people who are simply not good writers.

I actually wrote at length on this in another editorial.

We can protect ourselves from this kind of theft. Publishing aggressively is one way. Releasing technical reports with time stamps has worked for me in the past. Maybe the modern version would be to write a blog.

RW: Your editorial argues that PhD students need training in publication ethics. But many of the problematic anecdotes you provide suggest that more seasoned researchers do, as well.

JO: Yes, that’s a subtle undercurrent to suggesting young scientists need help…so do their professors! If students are missing a key sense of ethics, that means they aren’t getting it from their advisors. Everyone should be getting this training. Maybe it’s too late for some experienced scientists, but if we can get ‘em when they’re young…

As the editor of a journal, we find 15 to 20 really clear cases of plagiarism every year. We find them by using plagiarism detection software, and also because reviewers tell us they’ve already seen the paper. In 2015, a reviewer told us a submission sounded familiar, and he searched the literature and found it had taken 90% of the text, ideas, and figures from a paper published in 1975. The only changes the “author” made was to add some additional references to make the paper seem more current. The fact that a reviewer was able to find that earlier reference, which isn’t digitized so was not included as part of a plagiarism scan, is kind of shocking. What are the odds? So most people who would do this would get away with it. And the fact that we found one makes me think others are also doing it.

RW: In many universities, students are required to complete Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR); so how would the ethics training complement that?

JO: First, not all fields and not all institutions offer RCR training. My university does, and as part of that I give a talk on the ethics of publishing. But it’s only required for students in social sciences and life sciences—it may be an NIH thing. So my software engineering and computer science students don’t take it.

I haven’t thought much about the specifics of how ethics training should proceed, but it should probably include case studies, and opportunities for students to discuss among themselves. It could take the form of a course that’s part of their degree, which teaches them how to write academically, publish in an ethical fashion, assign authorship, and some of the many issues that arise. When I talk with Mason’s course, I mostly tell stories like the stories we started with.

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24 thoughts on “Meet the scientist whose ideas were stolen at least three times”

  1. Plagiarism can happen at all levels, from student to professor. Unfortunately, even the leading institutions in science can support plagiarism of their members. Since universities are free and self-responsible, some appear to be able to abuse the system and not admit plagiarism or compensate their victims.

  2. I totally agree with the need for training in this area. That some seasoned professionals can disagree about fundamental aspects of scholarly writing (e.g., citation and attribution) is abundantly clear by some of the comments made on this very blog in cases of plagiarism (see for example, and related RW posts). Unfortunately, I have often had the impression that training is these important matters is sometimes seen by some not as a necessary step in the preservation of research integrity, but as another arbitrary administrative hurtle imposed by their institutions and/or by the government. As such, is it any wonder that the evidence for the effectiveness of RCR training is, at best, modest?

  3. Offutt should preprint everything on arxiv before any future conference submissions. If it’s any consolation, at least he has ideas worth stealing!

  4. The bias of educators is to add a course or seminar to “educate” problems away. Morality is about individual responsibility and choice. There is always “moral hazard” in the competition for ideas, recognition, and reputation. Recall the celebrated dispute between Newton and Leibniz about who invented calculus.
    There may also be cultural differences in perceptions, beliefs, and practices in this regard. My wife, who is retired from the George Mason nursing faculty, often remarked about these cultural differences. Campus politics made it difficult to enforce standards. ‘Nuff said!

  5. Theft of ideas is not always as clear cut as it seems. I’ve inadvertantly done it myself. After reading widely on doubts about free will and the consequences for criminal law I put down my own personal conclusion in my blog. Rereading some stuff later I was shocked to find that what I had written was a nearly verbatim quote from one of the better articles I had read. This plagiarism was certainly unintentional and I was completely unaware of it at the time. With concepts and ideas this can hapen all too easily and I know no reliable way to avoid it.

  6. Axel,
    Your photographic memory is exceptional . . . probably at the very end of the bell-shaped curve. Less blessed people are simply plagiarizing.

  7. Ethics training, please! The last case of alleged scientific misconduct that I was asked to adjudicate involved blatant plagiarism – on the ethics exam. I don’t believe that you can, or should need to, teach honesty to 20-year olds. If they haven’t learned it in grade school, they never will.

  8. “Education” is the default, morally lazy response to wrongdoing. In contrast, consistently enforcing existing codes of conduct and policies should be sufficient to stop at least 3/4 of ethical wrongdoing. Zero tolerance will never totally eradicate research misconduct, but it will certainly be a lot more effective than accepting the “dog ate my homework/I missed that ethics class” excuse at face value.

    If people haven’t learned that stealing, cheating and lying is not acceptable by the time they graduate from elementary school, they don’t have the prerequisites to do research at university, regardless of their intellect, GPA or tenure.

  9. While on the one hand, these seem to be legitmate examples of theft, with time-stamped documentation, there’s also the problem of ideas vs. reduction to practice. In effect, an idea is nothing unless you follow through and do something with it (even if that something is just publishing the idea).

    A lot of people get hot under the collar when they see “their” idea in a grant proposal gets published by another group. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, but consider the number of people working in a given area or on its periphery, all with access to similar information. If you’ve thought of it, there’s a good chance someone else has too! The people you need to worry about are not the tangible “competitors”, the ones reviewing your grants or conference abstracts. You’re just as likely to be scooped by a group you’ve never heard of in a faraway country.

    Having had this happen numerous times in my own career, I’ve found there’s a simple solution to avoid going insane – namely not fussing about ownership of ideas and instead focusing on reduction to practice. Let people judge you on what you actually do, not what you say you’re thinking about doing. If you’re any good at science, there’ll be another idea along on a short while, so just get on with developing that one.

    1. Paul and others, I hope you will all agree that, for example, if I make a suggestion for, say, a novel method for making an observation, and I do so at a conference or even in a private conversation, I expect those who heard about my ideas and who go ahead and use them, to give me due credit. Failure to do so constitutes plagiarism, plain and simple. Now, I realize that in the real world things are usually much more complicated as when different groups working on the same problem may simultaneously converge on the same ideas. In such situations it may, indeed, be difficult to establish a specific point of provenance. Be that as it may, and in spite of the current climate of competition, etc., it is a matter of professional courtesy to, at the very least, recognize the various points of such convergence.

      1. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is what matters. Going around a conference banquet spewing half-formed ideas to everyone you meet is not the proper criteria for scientific communication.

        1. TL, ideas may be a dime a dozen, but any idea, even if half-formed, that is good enough to contribute to ongoing work or provides a new insight must be recognized in terms of its true originator and regardless of how it was originally disseminated. Doing so constitutes the backbone of ethical scholarship.

          What happened to the simple principle of credit where credit is due?

          1. I agree with Paul – ideas are just that, ideas. There should be no expectation of “ownership”, unless you follow up with actual results.

          2. But if you are junior researcher, you have to make a grant application to secure funding for your vulnerable good idea- the senior researcher who reads your application most likely doesn’t have to put their best ideas forward because they can fund them internally until their developed enough to be ‘immune’ to theft

  10. This is my field, and I can relate to Jeff’s comments. (Disclaimer: Jeff has also rejected my manuscripts, but that’s another issue.) Particularly the comment about:

    “… it was my fault for not having written a better paper!”

    seems quite familiar in computer science and related fields. The “idea theft” is often even quite obvious: borrowing the same idea and doing essentially the same experiment, but “strategically” missing a citation to the original work.

    What is more, this stealing of ideas is quite puzzling because many people are also aware of the low citation rates in these fields (compared to, e.g., medicine). And what is even more puzzling is that those who “steal” tend to be in a higher level of the scholarly hierarchy. If I would have a tenure, I would certainly try to promote new ideas, junior scholars, and the health of the computer science community.

    Btw, I am not sure whether etc. really help at resolving these issues due to the volume of papers in these fields.

    1. They tend to be higher ranked, because they have the resources/connections to steal effectively and submit quickly. In my old lab, we literally never spoke outside about work in development unless the manuscript was in submission- many a time we headed off being scooped by seeing a poster or a job ad for projects that a junior scientist had had to advertise to develop further- we were large and didn’t have the problem of securing resources for a particular project.

  11. You can’t own an idea.
    Long ago, science was about discovering truth. Now it’s about crediting people for obvious discoveres. We should start publishing papers with no attribution whatsoever. Maybe then we can return to the persuit of science as opposed to pop star status.

    1. The primary reason for using proper attribution is one of respect and good social etiquette. People are free to use other people’s idea so long as they give a proper nod to the original scholar/thinker.

  12. Nahhf
    It would help establish that he had the idea first.

    Yeah, but unless you’re in a editor-in-chief-kind-of-a-position like Jeff, it is a career suicide to raise any of these concerns with your real name attached. I mean what can you do? You post your preprints to, the papers get published by IEEE and ACM and the like, but still those who stole your ideas get the citations because they’re in the club of old boys and girls.

    But if I ever make it to these kind-of-chief-like positions, I will certainly have my laughs with the scammers (real names attached).

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