‘A disturbing experience’: Postdoc fights to have work that plagiarized her thesis retracted

Solange Saxby

In December, Solange Saxby, a postdoctoral research fellow at Dartmouth Health in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was notified by her friend of a paper published in the MDPI journal Nutrients that sounded similar to her dissertation. Saxby pulled up her 2020 dissertation, “The Potential of Taro (Colocasia esculenta) as a Dietary Prebiotic Source for the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer,” and compared it to the 2023 Nutrients article. 

To her dismay, the paper “Taro Roots: An Underexploited Root Crop,” co-authored by researchers at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina, overlaps significantly with Saxby’s work, including some passages of word-for-word copying with no citation.  

While the corresponding author of the paper has called the omission of any citation to Saxby’s work “unfortunate” and said that she is working with Nutrients’ publisher – MDPI – to add one, the publisher said the behavior did not amount to plagiarism because the prior work was a thesis.

“This is not the way I wanted my early career as a researcher to start,” Saxby told Retraction Watch. “It’s been very stressful and emotionally draining because I put in so much work into my dissertation and having it published open access. And the worst part was, I wasn’t even cited. At least have the decency to cite my dissertation if you’re going to copy it.” 

On Feb. 1, Saxby filed a report with the office of research compliance and ethics at North Carolina A&T State University. In an email thread seen by Retraction Watch, Saxby stated her “intellectual property has been plagiarized and not properly cited.” A day later, Stephanie Evans, the director of the office, replied that she would review the allegations in the next 12 days, at which point she would “issue a determination” on how to proceed. 

Over the next few months, Saxby received a handful of updates from Evans on the status of the investigation. In the most recent such message, sent May 28, Evans told Saxby the university was still conducting a “thorough investigation” of the complaint. 

In other publications, Saxby’s dissertation has been cited a total of six times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. Meanwhile, Saxby has been trying – without success – to have the offending article retracted from Nutrients

On January 25, Saxby contacted Vladimir Vuksan, the academic editor for the Nutrients paper, informing him of the plagiarism. Vuksan said he doesn’t “remember” reviewing the work. After months of emails, the members of the journal’s editorial board reached a decision on April 17. Shannon Zhao, the journal ethics specialist informed Saxby the  journal would “resolve this situation by correcting the manuscript to add the citation of your paper.”

“This just seems like an easy way out by the Nutrients editorial staff to sweep things under the rug and not pursue any further action. It almost seems like they’re protecting individuals who plagiarize or do research misconduct –– there really is no action or ramification,” Saxby told us.

In response, the Nutrients editorial office said “It is considered that this is not plagiarism, because thesis materials are not classified as prior publications.” [See an update on this story.]

The journal has still not added the citation of Saxby’s dissertation, despite their statement in April. Zhao said that the correction would be “completed soon.” 

Roberta Claro da Silva, an assistant professor in Food and Nutritional Sciences and corresponding author on the Nutrients paper, told Retraction Watch that her team takes “these claims very seriously and are committed to maintaining the integrity of our research.” She said:

Unfortunately, there was an oversight in the citation of Dr. Solange Saxby’s dissertation in the references. We have promptly worked with the editor of Nutrients to correct this mistake and ensure that Dr. Saxby’s dissertation is properly cited in the revised version of the paper.

Saxby will continue to send weekly emails to both parties until they fully acknowledge and deal with the plagiarism. “I hope this never happens to anybody else,” she said. “It’s just a very awful feeling.”

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59 thoughts on “‘A disturbing experience’: Postdoc fights to have work that plagiarized her thesis retracted”

  1. Incredible… They have much, much more to do to “ensure that Dr. Saxby’s dissertation is properly cited in the revised version of the paper” than just citing the original thesis. An author generated retraction of the offending paper with a public apology for the plagiarization of a PhD thesis would be just the start of what would be the right thing to do here.

    1. Agreed. Also, did they really claim that it’s OK to steal all of someone’s thesis?

      Because the statement that: a thesis isn’t a prior work, sure sounded like it’s open season on dissertations.

      1. My understanding is that all defended dissertations are automatically copyrighted, so if the offending publication published exsct quotes from Dr. Saxby’s dissertation, then the co-authors and the publishing journal are in violation of the copywrite, and need Dr. Saxby’s permission to publish those quotations from her dissertation.

        1. “My understanding is that all defended dissertations are automatically copyrighted…”

          All written work in the U.S. is automatically copyrighted, even dissertations that are not defended (ever, or successfully….)

      2. Intellectual property is copied all the time without credits or citation to the original author. This is very unfortunate And devastating to one’s work. I hope there is resolution
        For Dr. Saxby.

      3. A commercial company once took one of my articles in its entirety from where it was published, issued it as a news release on their letterhead, even using my byline, and called it fair use. Sleaziness is endless.

    2. The way I see it, there is clear grounds for legal action. Suing the journal and the author for copyright infringement should be the way to go and not sending emails to the journal asking them to retract. That’s just like asking someone that slapped you to take it back.

  2. Nutrients and its unpaid and paid editorial staff are horribly lacking in publication ethics. I am therefore not at all surprised by their response.

    The real question is what will happen to da Silva.

    1. This clearly doesn’t fall in the realm of inadvertent ommission. Intellectual dishonesty had absolutely been intended here. The journal article must be retracted in toto, and the author must face commensurate penalty. It is sad that a so-called established researcher and scholar went out of their way to defraud Dr Saxby. Exploitation of postdocs must come to an end!

  3. “… the publisher said the behavior did not amount to plagiarism because the prior work was a thesis.”
    Since when is plagiarism of a thesis not plagiarism? It is akin to saying bank robbery is not theft. The offending paper should be retracted. Merely adding a citation is not adequate.

    1. Just to clarify ( and I agree with your points whole heartedly);

      Theses are a bit of an anomaly. In order for the availability of theses not to interfere with the author (or supervisor’s) ability to publish on the same topic with the same information, theses are not regarded as ‘prior publication’ in a formal sense. It means there are fewer issues around novelty, and ‘self-plagiarism’.

      This bad behaviour threatens the open dissemination of theses, which are becoming a more and more valuable part of the scholarly communication environment all the time.

      1. It seems though they’re deliberately misinterpreting a norm that allows peer-reviewed publication by those involved in a thesis to apply to those not involved in a thesis. Which is stupid: it’s still plagiarism regardless of whether the source is published; it’s plagiarism to quote a Wikipedia article without acknowledgement!

      2. But plagiarism has nothing to do with prior publication in a peer-reviewed format. An author automatically owns all the rights to their words (or ideas, code, etc.), even in the absence of any formal registration thereof. To use them with out permission or proper attribution is unethical. Unless da Silva can provide convincing evidence that her transgression was inadvertent, I would say that she should be out of a job.

      3. In addition to the horrible lapse of ethics, this story is personally intriguing. My own dissertation has been downloaded several hundred times but never cited. I’ve been quite disappointed and rather surprised that nobody found it useful to their own work. Now I wonder whether it might have been used without attribution. That would actually be great news, from my perspective!

    2. I’m in full agreement with you! Dr Saxby should take legal action. They have been ducking and diving for too long.

  4. “It is considered that this is not plagiarism, because thesis materials are not classified as prior publications.” Excuse me!?

  5. Source: https://www.mdpi.com/ethics#:~:text=Governing%20Body%20recommendations.-,Plagiarism%2C%20Data%20Fabrication%20and%20Image%20Manipulation,-Plagiarism%20is%20not

    “Plagiarism is not acceptable in MDPI journals. Plagiarism includes copying text, ideas, images, or data from another source, even from your own publications, without giving credit to the original source. *Reuse of text that is copied from another source must be between quotation marks and the original source must be cited.*” [emphasis added]

    That is exactly what happened here. Obviously, it is more challenging to cite unpublished sources, but MDPI’s policy does not state that text from unpublished sources does not need to be put in quotation marks or cited.

    I’d be pissed off too.

  6. How can da Silva claim to have “an oversight in the citation” when plagiarized? This just seems like a cop-out to save face, after being caught.
    What will North Carolina A&T State University do?
    What will Nutrients do?
    All respect for these organizations is gone.

  7. I’m not saying that I think the Nutrients article’s authors used something like Chat GPT to flesh out their article, but this is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to happen if they did.

    It would not surprise me for a 2023 iteration of Chat GPT to regurgitate big chunks of stuff it was trained on (without attribution), especially if it were relevant to a prompt about a very specialized topic.

    The training data would probably include a thesis made available online in 2020. In that scenario, the so-called authors of the resulting article wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the existence of the thesis being plagiarized.

  8. Evidently it is OK to steal someone else’s unpublished work, so that they are the ones who will be branded as plagiarists if they try to publish it in the future.

  9. Joining the chorus, “the publisher said the behavior did not amount to plagiarism because the prior work was a thesis” is pure b.s. If someone picks a piece of paper off my desk and copies it, that’s plagiarism whether or not that piece of paper was ever published. The word “plagiarize” refers to the stealing of the words, regardless of the source. See, for example, Meriam-Webster: “: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source”.

    1. Good idea but Copy Right law is complicated. The first issue would be to establish which country’s jurisdiction applies. It may or may not be necessary to check if Fair Use applies.

      If you follow the link above, you can read “All UHM dissertations and theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from this source for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without written permission from the copyright owner.”

    2. All thesis students sign a declaration to a thesis before submitting also in university rules and regulation there should be an agreement to thesis copyright! Therefore, why doesn’t the university where this post doc did her study proceed to breach of copyright?

  10. This way, theses are going to be the next gold mine for both unscrupulous researchers (shall we say), and greedy publishers. To be sure, it will allow many more papers to be produced, more so called “special issues” (which usually do not contain anything special at all as to novelty and scientific merit) to be published, and vast amounts of additional money to be gained. Everybody will be happy. Plagiarizing researchers – who should be kicked off research employment as soon as possible – will instead be facing dire consequences. In the shape of a gentle slap in the wrist and a wink from their publishers.

  11. It’s nonsense to suggest that copying a thesis doesn’t count as plagiarism. If that were the case, why do all citation styles, whether Harvard, APA or whatever, have definite rules for citing theses SPECIFICALLY?

  12. Based on my past experience, Nutrients will do nothing. It is an MDPI journal after all.

    Being a “compass point” institution, I wouldn’t necessarily expect swift and appropriate action from NC A&T, either.

  13. “Nutrients” clearly has an inadequate understanding of what plagiarism is, and this raises questions about the competence of their editorial staff, and about the quality of the journal. The definition of plagiarism given by my own institution (the University of Oxford) is:

    “Presenting work or ideas from another source as your own, with or without consent of the original author, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition, as is the use of material generated wholly or in part through use of artificial intelligence (save when use of AI for assessment has received prior authorisation e.g. as a reasonable adjustment for a student’s disability). Plagiarism can also include re-using your own work without citation. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence.”


    And the university’s guidance continues:
    “The necessity to acknowledge others’ work or ideas applies not only to text, but also to other media, such as computer code, illustrations, graphs etc. It applies equally to published text and data drawn from books and journals, and to unpublished text and data, whether from lectures, theses or other students’ essays. You must also attribute text, data, or other resources downloaded from websites.”

    I think most academics would agree with this definition. Obviously theses are covered by the definition of plagiarism, and have always been – not least because unpublished theses are some of the works most commonly plagiarised. What planet are the editors of Nutrients living on?

  14. If my reading of the article is correct, then it appears that the behaviour of both the journal and the suspects is/was deplorable. That said, it’s a bit odd that the Saxby didn’t move quickly to publish related materials from the thesis, which appeared in December 2020; the problematic article was submitted 30 months later in June 2023. If you are going to be competitive in today’s academic environment, you have to crack on with things. Indeed, one should really be publishing papers as your thesis-study proceeds.

    1. Irrelevant comment, especially since Saxby cannot publish work from her graduate research without her PhD advisor’s permission and participation. The reason for not publishing beyond the thesis has nothing to do with this situation.

      1. Dissertations are indeed “published work” and the plagiarism thereof is both misconduct and the theft of intellectual property. I would wager that there is a copyright ©️ somewhere on the dissertation which makes unattributed use a criminal and civil crime.

      2. “Saxby cannot publish work from her graduate research without her PhD advisor’s permission and participation.”

        Are you assuming facts not in evidence, as we lawyers say?

  15. Several people have asked about copyright issues. While any thesis can have a copyright symbol or statement, in order to get statutory damages and attorney’s fees (for USA documents), the thesis needs to be registered with the Copyright Office. I doubt that many theses are so registered. Otherwise you can only get “actual damages” which are harder to prove, usually require expensive expert testimony, and may be nominal.

    1. Actually most PhD dissertations are so protected at most major academic institutions. I know that all of my publications are so registered.

  16. At least there is the silver lining, at many institutes, including mine, it would not be considered not plagiarism, because MDPI Journals are not classified as publications. 😀

  17. I feel very bad for Dr. Saxby. Citing her work may not be sufficient. If her work introduced a new approach or a new way of seeing things, the offending work (if allowed to exist) should indicate this (“This paper is based on Saxby’s approach/method, etc…..”)

    Suing is expensive and a major drain on Dr. Saxby’s time. Retracting the journal article is the only option.

  18. Utter nonsense. It is true that different countries treat PhD theses in different ways. Some assume the doctoral thesis may later be modified for publication, either as a whole or chapter wise, but Swedish PhD theses are always officially published with ISSN and ISBN numbers. They used to be printed in 200 copies and distributed to universities around the world for free, but are now, I think, mostly archived electronically unless already accepted by a publisher. Why wouldn’t they be ‘publications’? Requirements for pass is that they meet ordinary academic standards in terms of content and originality, and they are peer reviewed even more strictly than journal articles.

  19. Academic thesis/dissertation is a PUBLICATION, like a book. It is not a journal paper.
    The thesis’ researcher/author owns full copyright of his/her book (i.e., thesis/dissertation).
    So, it must be considered as a book with all intellectual propety rights.
    It’s obviously plagiarism and cheating to fabricate and publish a paper from an academic thesis of somebody else, even from the same lab with same academic advisor.
    A cheater CANNOT fabricate and publish a paper from thesis of somebody else just by giving proper citation (?). That is not a real citation, but plagiarism.
    Here, we as acadmic community, expect and support Dr. Solange Saxby to inform us more about the issues and take legal action against cheating athor, their institution, and against the journal and publisher.
    It happened to me and know how painful can be you feel being cheated entire life.

  20. I was under the impression that manuscripts submitted to MDPI journals were checked using iThenticate. Why an obvious plagiarism from a Thesis available from an open repository was not detected as a red flag? iThenticate checks against ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (PQDT), so I’m pretty sure that the Saxby’s Thesis showed up during this check. I copy below an example of plagiarized paragraph:

    Saxby’s Thesis, p. 17:

    “The high digestibility of poi also appears to be related to the relative ease with which it breaks down. An early study reported that the easy digestibility of poi and the high absorbability of its minerals, specifically calcium and phosphorus, appear to be related to its rapid fermentation process [184]. Furthermore, the high digestibility and absorption was further demonstrated in a human study where poi eaten in high quantities was found to have no measures of undigested fiber in the participant feces [182]. Thus, most of taro nutrients are easily absorbed through the digestive tract, potentially facilitating their beneficial properties.”

    Nutrients article, p. 16 in the pdf:

    “The high digestibility of poi also seems to be associated with the relative ease at which it breaks down. According to a previous study, the quick fermentation process of poi appears to be responsible for the food’s high mineral absorbability, particularly phosphorus, and calcium, and simple digestion [118]. Likewise, a further human study showed that poi eaten in high quantities had no measures of undigested fiber in the participant’s feces [116]. Thus, most of the taro nutrients are readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, potentially facilitating their beneficial properties.”

  21. I would actually be curious about more details of the accusation.
    After checking both PDFs (thankfully they are publicly available), I found six sentences which had similar wording compared to the PhD Thesis. One of them has an overall completely different statement (“Taro has great potential to be a versatile food source that can be processed into different consumable products.” vs. “Taro has the potential to be a valuable food crop that can reduce food insecurity, especially in developing countries.”).
    In three other instances, different sources are mentioned at the end of the sentence, so it might actually be a similar wording compared to those sources – I’m unable to judge those instances.
    Of course content-wise I can not say anything about the significance of the overlap, but judging just based on text similarity, the accusations do not seem so obvious to me. Of course, already based on the text similarity in two instances without any other source, it seems that the authors had access to the PhD Thesis and should have cited it. But based purely on text similarities, this case does not seem as clear to me as it is described in the article.

    1. See the comment by Sylvain Bernès. This level of similarity makes it clear that the text was copy and pasted and then some words changed,

      This is not a close call.

      1. As I said, I do not have access to the source which they quote in this particular instance *BUT*:
        A quick google search of “The high digestibility of poi” shows the Book “Bioactive Food in Promoting Health: Fruits and Vegetables”, published 2010 if I’m not wrong, quoting the same work from 1952 (and some other references which I can’t see thanks to books.google hiding the relevant page)
        The verbatim formulation in this book is
        “Further evidence of the high digestibility of poi has been demonstrated in human studies which have reported no measure of undigested starch in feces, even when large quantities of poi were consumed.
        The high digestibility of poi also appears to be related to the relative ease with which it breaks down. Derstine and Rada (1952), for example, reported that the easy digestibility of poi and the high absorbability of its minerals such as calcium and phosphorus appears to be related to its rapid fermentation process.”
        In particular, the first sentence of the second paragraph (“The high digestibility of poi also appears to be related to the relative ease with which it breaks down”) is a 1:1 copy, appearing without direct quotation in the PhD-Thesis.
        Without knowing the original sources of these works, I would not dare claiming “This is not a close call.”, as I can not exclude that the original source of the book, the PhD Thesis and the paper might have formulations very close to each other.

  22. A thesis is citable and typically published by the degree-conferring institution’s library. If made available in the public domain (as this appears to have been)…it should be treated like any other publication. In my humble opinion, this was clearly an ethical violation.

    1. “A thesis is citable and typically published by the degree-conferring institution’s library.”

      It is not the case that a PhD thesis is published by the degree-conferring institution’s library in the U.S.

  23. Smells like the sloppy work of a generative-AI-using “researcher.”

    I won’t be surprised to see a rise in similar cases of plagiarism. Very disappointing and appalling response from the “University,” editorial staff, publisher, and other authors/enablers. Sad state of science.

  24. Doesn’t matter that it wasn’t itself a peer-reviewed scholarly publication; it’s Dr. Saxby’s openly-licensed IP. If attribution wasn’t done correctly, da Silva et al infringed upon her copyright / ‘moral rights’ – simple as that. They didn’t obey the terms of the license.

    – Random righteously indignant academic librarian

  25. I assume the thesis is copyrighted, in which case it should be cited. More importantly, a publication is more than a statement of the research and findings it contains. It is a tool. Researchers use the list of references to determine what has been done and what can be done in the future. If the thesis was important enough to pull a quote from, it is important enough to cite, allowing future researchers to find a source that may be relevant to their own work. It is frustrating that a problem that is so clear and so simple to correct should take so much time. Email the authors and tell them they need to add a citation and they have 3 days in which to do it. Simple as that. The line that a thesis is not considered to be a publication is pure B.S.

  26. Hopefully readers will not buy into the attempt by some of those involved to distract from the charges of plagiarism by arguing about copyright. Plagiarism and copyright violation, while they can go together, are two completely different things. You can plagiarize a public domain work if you use it without proper attribution, and you can violate copyright of a work without plagiarism if you copy too much it without proper authorization (and in excess of fair use or other recognized usage harbors), even if you properly cite what you copy.

    Whether it’s published or unpublished, or whether it’s copyrighted or not, if you’re reusing someone else’s work in a scholarly context without giving proper attribution to it, you’re plagiarizing.

  27. Many universities have open access policies for doctoral theses, which makes the content readily available. Often, there are clear policies regarding copyright, where this can be attributed to the university or to the student who wrote the thesis. In any case, copyright exists and reproduction without evidence of consent is plagiarism: attribution (citation in a journal article, for example) is not sufficient. In my own experience, I noticed a publication which ‘lifted’ whole paragraphs from one of my former PhD student’s thesis, even including ‘ix’ midline (which corresponded to the page number of the Abstract to the thesis). I collated the evidence, informed the editor/journal (a very highly ranked European one) and was told that it was not a problem and, indeed, our own fault for making the thesis available on line. No follow-up action at all. It seems that many academics have little understanding of their legal obligations when following up misconduct – and the MDPI journals have clear policies on these matters, pity the editors appear to be unfamiliar with their obligations.
    I have several other stories regarding mistreatment of PhD student IP – very sad.

  28. I think that many scandalized people don’t know 2 things: 1. for many publishers, and not only for MDPI, phd theses are not considered prior publication, not only about to the thesis of the same author who publishes a paper but as content type. Obviously PhD thesis are protected by copyright (also if it is publishe with an open license , see 2) 2. Plagiarism has to be proved, often or almost always in court. The internal rules of the academic community are not always effective and very often (but it has to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis and I do not comment on this specific case) it is not plagiarism.

  29. The reason the author did not cite the thesis is that, if she had, others would see that the text had been copied verbatim. We have all seen this before. It’s just laziness on the part of the author or lack of confidence in her writing skills. On the bright side plagiarism is a form of flattery I suppose. Welcome to publish or perish!

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