Plagiarism is stealing

Commentary (Mar 07, 2017):
I thought about writing something about my experience of being a victim of plagiarism plus bullying when I was working on my PhD. So in May 2016 I dug up all the facts and put together this article which first appeared in Han Chiang News where I served as the editor-in-chief cum Principal & CEO (well I needed to multi-roles to conserve cash for the college).

It was around late 1989 / early 1990. I was frantically getting as much of my laboratory work done, data taken and analysis completed as possible in order to beat the deadline set by the end of my scholarship funding. Then someone, whom I had held with great respect did the unimaginable: he plagiarized my work. When confronted by me, he further issued a personal threat to me. It was more hurting for the fact that this bully, plagiarist and cheat came from my supervisors’ group. Here it was, a man I looked up to when I was an undergraduate when he was one of my laboratory class demonstrators and a friend did this to me. I had literally helped this man get his job by giving him a quick tuition on the arts and science of plant tissue culture just a year before when he attended his job interview for a job opening that had my name to it (as it was in my area of expertise, but I did not qualify due to my status as a student). So I was pretty pleased when I learned that my so-called friend got this job. Little did I know that this “friend” would plagiarize my work later and put so much anxiety on me at the final leg of my PhD studies.

If I can arouse the courage and alertness of fellow victims of plagiarism to stand up like I did amidst personal threats and intimidation, then I have achieved my aim of writing this article. Hence I hope more plagiarists will have their acts of cheating exposed in the future if their victims take courage from what I did in 1990. With today’s modern anti-plagiarism tools such as Turnitin and powerful search engines like Google, it is getting easier to catch the cheats. I do hope more plagiarism scandals can be exposed!


The recent case of a well known public university seemingly endorsing official plagiarism by its students hogged the headlines of the print media for a while.

What this story did was put forth the greatest of all academic sins; cheating.

Plagiarism is an act of presenting other people’s work or findings as one’s own. Plainly speaking, the perpetrator is a CHEAT. Nothing more and nothing less.

In the digital age of today, academic plagiarism can be committed easily. You just have to Google the topic of your quest and viola! You will get pages upon pages of links from Google to copy from.

I feel that we need to teach students right from primary school (even primary 1 or 2 is not too early a start) that simply copying things from the internet and presenting it as your own is wrong. Since this obviously has not been the case, we  now have university students and graduate students committing this act of cheating and not thinking twice about it.

The recent plagiarism case only came to light after one of the original owners/writers of the Master’s theses spotted his and his course mates’ work being branded as copyright of the said public university.

These victims’ work was submitted to another institution over a decade ago. Precisely since these original work was not “that old” (my thesis is 25 years old and it is still held in electronic format by the British Library), these work would have been indexed by anti-plagiarism services, the most famous of which is Turnitin.

One question begs an answer from this public university: did their staff put their students’ work through Turnitin (or similar services) before accepting them as the real McCoy? If not, why not?

In my humble opinion, this institution is just as guilty as their students or more so since they seemed to have condoned this act of plagiarism until the crime was exposed by one of the original authors.

Was it just an act of carelessness on the part of this public university’s official involved or is there a big loophole that students of this particular institution have been exploiting?

Narcissus as depicted by Van Gogh’s painting as the undergrowth. My PhD work was on how to clone massive numbers of the bulbs of this plant for it to be commercialized in Northern Ireland.

I feel that the power that be must seek a detailed explanation from the highest official of this public university. Failing which all the academic awards, accreditation and hence the reputation of this public university (and more importantly, its graduates all through the years) are in jeopardy.

So how does a victim of an act of plagiarism feel? I will share with you my first hand experience.

Towards the final phase of my PhD studies at Queen’s University of Belfast (around April/May of 1990), my supervisors, fearing that I would not have enough time to write up my thesis, practically banished me from my laboratory, as far as doing more laboratory work was concerned. I was however allowed to visit my beloved narcissus cultures in test-tubes and to monitor the growth room’s facilities housing these periodically.

One day, I was watching the BBC documentary programme on science on TV and was surprised to see a familiar face being interviewed. SMT was working on commercialisation of  a variety of plants by tissue culture and the programme was about the work of my department.

What was shocking to me was this: 4 racks (each with about 20 test-tubes) of my beloved narcissus cultures were prominently shown behind SMT’s head along with a few other bottles of cultures that were SMT’s.

The worst was to come.

SMT presented to the interviewer that all the cultures, especially pointing at mine, were his work. Hence the plagiarism was shown on the BBC! My work  was shown on the BBC but the credit was claimed by SMT!

I was furious to say the least. I confronted SMT at the next day. Since both of us worked in the laboratories of my two supervisors’, if SMT were to apologise and had bought me a cup of tea at the canteen, I would have let the case rest.

After all, my work got the be shown on the BBC.

However what came out from SMT when I confronted him in front of a couple of witnesses was even more shocking.

“Chow, you are just a bl***y student. You are a bl***y foreigner.

“I am a staff and I shall do as I please. If you push on with this, I shall get the Home Office (the British term for immigration office) on you”, said SMT

He further told me that as a student I had no right to my work and that my supervisors had given their consent for him to use my cultures for the BBC interview. I later checked with both of my supervisors who informed me that they collectively had no objection to SMT approaching me to borrow my test-tubes to appear on the BBC show. They did not however permit SMT to claim my work as his.

I knew that my supervisors would be in a dilemma if I filed my complaint with them as SMT was one of their subordinates.

Luckily for me, I was taught in my Master’s studies in biotechnology by Professor Li Wan Po who had helped many foreign students especially when it came to their welfare.

When I approached Professor Li, his advice was simple: lie low, keep away from SMT, get the PhD thesis written as fast and as best as I could and get through my viva vorce first.

Since by early 1990 I was given the permission to remain in the UK for an indefinite period, in simple words, the right of abode in the UK, SMT’s threat of sending the Home Office on me did not pose any real danger to me.

But, messing up my PhD studies was a huge threat indeed.

“Prof, what happens if SMT tries to sabotage my PhD viva vorce or something like that?” I asked, fearing for the worse.

Professor Li told me the fact that I had reported the case to him was good enough and if I faced any further threats from SMT, he will take me to see the vice chancellor directly.

With that assurance, I buried my head in my writing and completed my PhD thesis and passed my viva vorce with minor corrections a few months later.

When I received a letter from the Queen’s University’s Academic Council advising me that I had been admitted for the Winter Graduation for 1990, I finally was able to breathe a sigh of relief, one which I was holding for over 6 months.

I printed seven extra copies of my thesis and distributed these to the researchers and professors in England, Scotland and Holland who had helped me to formulate my research plan and generously shared their knowledge with me.

Next I waived the moratorium on the circulation of my PhD thesis, thereby putting my work literally in the public domain. All these were done with one thing in mind; to prevent SMT from further claiming my work as his.

I then lodged a formal complaint against SMT to the Deputy Chief Scientific Officer of the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture (DANI), Professor Marks who was the second highest official of DANI scientific services.

DANI made joint appointments to academic staff to the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science with Queen’s University of Belfast and essentially I was working in DANI’s laboratories for my PhD.

But before I had the chance to push my case fully to get “my pound of flesh”, I had to leave Northern Ireland suddenly.

I managed to secure a post-doctoral position at the National University of Singapore. I needed to relocate to Singapore fast if I wanted that job!

SMT got away with his crime with a rap on the knuckles. He wrote me a letter of apology very reluctantly as demanded by me.

My story is one in which the victim had to endure months of anxiety and the perpetrator of plagiarism did not get the punishment that he fully deserved.

Perhaps SMT was lucky that 1990 was still in the pre-internet era and I did not have the means to expose his crime further.

In addition, out of respect to both my supervisors (who had to continue working with SMT), I did not pursue this further with Queen’s University. The case was viewed as “settled” at the Department of Agriculture, Northern Ireland level.

One of the reasons for my bringing the case up was the fact that SMT was prepared to bully me in full knowledge that I was the “de-facto” leader of all the postgraduate students in the faculty.

I had spent about eight years at the university by 1990 and thus was the most senior of all the postgraduate students.

My altruistic instinct was to protect my fellow students, especially overseas postgraduate students from falling prey to SMT.

This I was proud to learn later that I had attained!

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