Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.


Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?


* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program


  1. He was an undergrad at the time asked for a sample of NSF proposals and I gave him the technical part of a proposal as a starting point. I even wrote a recommendation letter for him. A couple of weeks ago he gave his “winning” proposal to a peer and that’s how I ended up finding out about it. It just doesn’t feel right.

  2. Come down on him like a ton of bricks. Notify NSF. Notify the grad program. Set fire to every tree and bush and blade of grass, and sow salt into the charred ground left behind. This cannot be tolerated. If he gets away with it now, what do you think he’ll do for the rest of his career?

  3. What was taken from your NSF proposal? Did he directly copy your writing and text (cut and paste/condense) or did he copy the proposed experiments while rephrasing what you wrote? Did he lie in the expected statement in the proposal about what the student and PI’s contributions were to the proposal? Or did he leave one out? Or is such a statement no longer expected?

  4. It is completely wrong. You should contact NSF and his award should be withdrawn. He also needs to understand what he did was wrong.

  5. And you might say something about wanting to help him learn from this. That’s fine, but what about his peers and what they learn from watching? If they see him get his hand held and suffer no significant consequences in the end, what will they learn? What will they conclude?

    Punish him. Punish him harshly. Por encourager les autres.

  6. I’d need more details about the exact extent of the plagiarism before coming to any firm decision, but in general I favor very strict enforcement of rules against plagiarism. Claiming someone else’s work as your own is the cardinal academic sin, and NSF should not be rewarding those who indulge in it.

  7. Undergraduates at my institution have to follow an honor code. So if they do something like this, they know they are wrong they know the rules. They also typically have had writing seminars and thus have learned to quote and cite. However a lot of them 10-20% think they are smarter than faculty and they go online to steal. I am for punishment, in the sense of contacting NSF. These days NSF is cracking down on fraud. If they know that you knew although only afterwards you and your institution can get hurt. So, there are multiple reasons to act, if the student committed plagiarism.

  8. Is this a joke? You have to contact NSF. This person has achieved this research fellowship fraudulently.

    More than that, you need to contact your school’s academic dishonesty process. You need to do this even if you don’t want to press charges academically in your school (because you want to be nice to this student and “give them another chance”). The reason is that the serial perpetrators depend on faculty finding other ways to teach students a lesson. (They keep convincing their professors that its always the first incidence and they’ll never do it again.) You would never know if this person has done this before unless you register them with your school’s academic dishonesty program.

    You have to nip this in the bud. Allowing this student to get away with this is setting this person up for future crimes. (I’d say “even worse crimes”, but plagiarism on a grant application is actually a pretty bad crime in the academic world.)

  9. What they all said. Notify NSF. Notify your/the student’s university. If a student will do this now, they’ll only get worse if they believe they can get away with it.

  10. I agree with Alex. Even if there isn’t cut and paste plagiarism, the grfp is supposed to reward promising young scientists with original ideas.

    & I especially agree w contacting the grad program.

  11. Thanks for your comments, I am glad to see that I am not the only one concerned here. The proposal is not exact cut and paste plagiarism but there are numerous spots of similarity (its basically reworded in many places) and the idea is a copy of the original work. Do I need to send a letter to NSF or shall I just call them? Would they ask me to provide them with the original proposal? Do they question the student or the school? I am going up for tenure I don’t want to be toasted for flagging the poster child from our school.

  12. Jezus on a hockey puck! Stealing the ideas for the experiments or stealing text from your proposal — either is theft and both should be punished harshly.

    No, “it doesn’t feel right” because it isn’t right.

  13. This is my opinion. First, there is the issue of the student I believe deliberately stealing from Sameir. If Sameir says “Here is a sample proposal” that means “This is how proposals look, but go write your own.” So the student essentially stole from Sameir, i.e. took an idea and used it without permission. For this Sameir definitely needs to penalize the student in the future in some fashion.

    The problem with going to NSF is that a lot of kids submit NSF fellowship applications that bear some resemblance to the work done in the lab where they did their undergraduate research. Some people even rework their PI’s proposals with the PI’s blessing. This is unfortunately very common, and those proposals (considering that they are based on professionally written proposals) resonate well with reviewers and those kids often do get fellowships. So there are many cases where the difference with respect to Sameir is that there was no stealing, but there was still some form of plagiarizing. What I am trying to say is that a great many applicants get fellowships based on ideas that are really not theirs. The ideas that undergrads have when starting grad school usually cannot compete with ideas based on the work of someone who’s a professional.

    However, these fellowships tend to be given for general awesomeness of the record anyway.
    Not that it excuses the student lying and stealing.

    Sameir, you are in a vulnerable position right now, going up for tenure. So I would say treat lightly rather than go all terminator on the student, not for him but for yourself.

    Did you actually confront the student about the issue? I would be curious to see what he has to say. How far along is he in the fellowship? Do others think the student should be contacted directly?

    Have you discussed this issue with trusted senior colleagues in the department?

    If you are going to go nuclear, get tenure first. Then I would contact NSF over the phone.

  14. Thing is, the student is apparently showing the proposal around. Even if we approach this entirely from the standpoint of Sameir’s survival, this could easily become more widely known between now and the tenure decision. If it comes out that a student was committing plagiarism and Sameir knew it and did nothing, Sameir either gets denied tenure or gets promoted to Athletic Director. (It’s a tough call.) So sitting on this is at least as risky as going public.

    The first thing to do is bring your Department Chair into the loop, and make sure they are informed of each step. The Department Chair might decide that there’s safety in numbers and bring in somebody from whatever office handles academic misconduct, and perhaps other people who can provide cover for going after a poster child. Then it isn’t one professor versus a poster child, it’s instead an institutional decision to stand against plagiarism.

    And if they decide to cover it up? Then it’s time to start shopping around the CV and find a different job.

  15. This is my concern. Sameir starts making waves, someone higher up contacts the kid and the kid comes back to say “Well Sameir gave me his proposal, he encouraged me to base my fellowship application on his proposal.” And therein lies the murkiness. It may be that the kid misunderstood, or it may be (more likely) that the kid took the idea and saw nothing wrong with it (because he misunderstands plagiarism, or because he’s a dishonest prick). Either way, the situation is such that it can easily turn out that Sameir ends up looking like the he encouraged the kid to use the ideas, effectively a plagiarism enabler.

    So before going hardline, I would talk to trusted department colleagues. And not go nuclear before my position is secure. Never underestimate a department’s love for a (presumably white male) golden child, especially when the accuser might be not be white or male.

    (I might have become excessively cynical and disillusioned.)

  16. I’m just a lowly grad student, so I don’t have any political advice. But…

    It is unethical to do nothing. Professors who benevolently encourage applicants to plagiarize their proposals for fellowship applications are also being unethical. Surely it must be pretty clear to reviewers when a proposal from a grad student is just too damn professional *not* to have been heavily “influenced” or, at best, edited by the PI. Reviewers who reward said students are also being unethical. So a lot of bad behavior all around….

    Yes, in a way it’s not really fair that the hammer must come down on this particular student when others have done almost the same thing and gotten rewarded. But that’s life … you live by the sword, you die by the sword. And the sooner this student learns that lesson, the better.

    I do wonder, if Sameir wrote him a recommendation letter, why he didn’t ask or wasn’t shown the student’s application. Perhaps this should be a condition for future letters.

  17. Sameir said: “basically reworded in many places and the idea is a copy of the original work”. It seems it can be interpreted in different ways by the school. Pragmatically speaking, this is not worth the fight and will distract Sameir from his research and will not look good on his career. There is no clear-cut proof that Sameir did not allow the student to copy.

    Next time, when you do such a thing, document your expectations in an email. Similarly, when you give an exam to your students, make sure they don’ t cheat, because if they do and you decide to follow up, you will waste a lot of time and energy, and tax payer’s money. It is hard to right all the wrong in the world.

  18. First, even if the student decides to play the whole “But how was I supposed to know that it was wrong if I did not have extensive written documentation of exactly what I can and cannot do with the contents this valuable and confidential document that I was given?”, Sameir should at least bring this to the attention of the chair. Let the chair contact their counterpart at whatever school this alum is now a grad student at. Let them at least summon the kid into their office and grill him a bit. He might play the “I was never formally given documentation to prove that there’s anything wrong with using ideas in a confidential document without express written consent, so you can’t punish me!” card, but at least bring this to somebody who will make him sweat a bit. Maybe he’ll smirk and play lawyer, but somebody should at least call him into their office and bluff a bit. Maybe encourage him to drop out of the PhD program and pursue his true calling in law school.

    Second, the kid is now sharing documentary evidence of his activities. At the very minimum, survival and morality both dictate that Sameir contact the department chair and hand this matter off. However bad this might look now, it will look worse if the kid is caught and people find out that Sameir was aware but did nothing.

    Third, the kid is sharing documentary evidence with other students. Word has apparently traveled. What does Sameir want his current students to learn? They’ll learn at least as much from inaction as they will from action.

  19. I am not now in academia, but as someone who had an NSF fellowship as a grad student and wrote her own god damn proposal… this is not right, and should not be allowed to pass without some action. At the bare minimum, the kid needs to be told this is NOT ok. I have no idea what the proper protocol is in academia, but something equivalent in industry would result in notifying the people up your reporting chain (it is good political practice to make sure that they don’t get surprised by the bad news from someone else), and then watching them take appropriate action or taking that action yourself with their blessing. If they don’t take appropriate action, you either whistleblow (for an infraction that could impact the public) or just get the hell out of there as soon as you can because you work for snakes.

  20. Definitely check with the chair, and try to limit the spread of your ideas further. As for punishing the student, I’d trade with caution since this does not appear to be a clearly winnable case. Plus institutions do not always treat plagiarism by undergraduate students as rigorously as they are perceived to be. In short, not worth your time.

  21. I agree with the other comments to discuss this with your chair. Managing this crap is part of their job (and why I never, ever want to be chair). Right before tenure is not the time to fall on your sword for standing against plagiarism with the department’s “golden child” as your target, especially since handing an undergrad a proposal to use as a source of ideas is not uncommon (still unethical, though). This is probably why so much of the decision-making for fellowships is based on track record rather than proposal merit.

    Xyk–I am back (and now with tenure!)

  22. I’m in industry, not in the groves of Academe anymore…never was even a grad student working as a TA, so, there’s lots I can’t evaluate. BUT, I’d second the “discuss with Chair” idea, as long as the Chair is an ally and decent at politics (as I’d assume a Chair would be, but one never knows).

    Also, I’d like to say that I’m a little distressed at a framing issue on this thread. Please don’t use “kid” in discussing this thief. Maybe immaturity is at play, but this is a grad student. Even as a middle schooler, I understood that I had to do my own work. Working with others on a group project — whether a mural or the science report on the Quaternary in 5th grade — obviously meant that the ideas and work of more than one person were in the mix, BUT CREDIT WAS GIVEN and responsibility was assumed by those who put their names down on the work. I don’t think I went to especially unusual schools, either. This is someone who is old enough to sign a contract, vote, get drafted (if we had a draft), get married without his parents’ permission, etc., etc. Not a kid. Please.

  23. I think allowing the award to go forward is grossly unfair to (among others)
    honest applicants who weren’t funded. The university has (I presume) an
    academic-honesty program, so the professor should report the student’s
    plagarism to that office. And the NSF has an inspector-general’s office, so
    the professor should also report the plagarism to that office. In both cases
    start with a phone call, then follow up with a written or E-mailed report.

  24. Report him now to the university and then the NSF. There is no excuse for plagiarism in academia. I won’t forgive anyone who plagiarized my work, even if this is a student. I will even go after people who tend to steal ideas from me. I cant go after them though since there is nothing tangible that I can prove.

  25. I have a question with regard to a situation different from this one, wherein a PI encourages their own student to write a proposal based on what they will actually be doing in the lab. It seems to me fairly obvious that most projects a young student would write up in these situations will be strongly influenced by whatever the PI is currently being funded to do. In this case, an obvious place to start would be to encourage the student to read the funded proposal and work with the PI to figure out what part(s) of it he or she might want to propose to pursue for the fellowship, and what parts might be extended based on any preliminary data the student or others have generated.

    As long as everyone consents, and the student refrains from directly or indirectly plagarizing (e.g. just rephrase without reformulate), I guess I don’t think this qualifies as plagarism or even unethical. I know very few students who wrote entirely independent (e.g. not based on the PI’s work) proposals for their GRFP. I do think that many trainees overrate their own level of independence and sometimes may come to believe their PI’s project ideas were their own ideas.

  26. If there wasn’t exact cut and paste plagiarism, I would not notify NSF or my department chair. No good will come of it. It will just suck up a bunch of your energy and time, which you cannot spare right before tenure. Copying of ideas is commonplace in NSF GRF proposals. At my school, most students write up projects from their PIs. This is to be expected. It is ridiculous to think that a college senior can come up with a credible PhD thesis idea. The NSF GRF is a totally different animal from the NIH pre-doc fellowships. For the NSF GRF, no one expects the student to do the actual project that they propose. That is why the NSF GRF applications are accepted from college seniors. In contrast, the NIH pre-doc application is for students that have already passed their qualifying exam. In this case, the project description is truly a proposal of the thesis work yet to be completed. I would talk to the student directly and educate them that what they did could be considered academic plagiarism. For undergrads, they may not yet understand that using someone else’s ideas is similar to using someone else’s words. Many colleges don’t do a great job at teaching this, because we encourage our students to work on their homework as a group and then write up their own solution to turn in (i.e. borrow each other’s ideas, but write it in your own words).

  27. “It is ridiculous to think that a college senior can come up with a credible PhD thesis idea.”

    Then why the hell ask the student to propose one!? Seems to me that this system is encouraging precisely the type of behavior that many here find totally unacceptable.

    “For undergrads, they may not yet understand that using someone else’s ideas is similar to using someone else’s words.”

    Many colleges have honor pledges that spell this out. Really, these are not 5-yr-olds.

    “Many colleges don’t do a great job at teaching this, because we encourage our students to work on their homework as a group and then write up their own solution to turn in (i.e. borrow each other’s ideas, but write it in your own words).”

    At my school, if you do this, you have to list everyone in your group.

    I will also say that noting differences between NSF GRF and NIH F31 seems a bit ridiculous to me. We’re talking about levels of competency here between students with at most 1 or 2 yrs of experience difference. The review panels for these programs should be able to properly factor this in. That everyone sort of looks the other way when students are being excessively helped by their mentors is part of the reason for this disgusting mess.

  28. I have no idea about NIH F31, but the NSF GRFP thing is that the student proposes a project before knowing where they are going or who they will work with. They propose in the fall of the year they are applying to grad school, so essentially what they propose is meaningless because, even if it were genius stuff, it will likely have nothing to do with what they end up doing. If they get an NSF fellowship they will be attractive to top schools and then over there they will be doing whatever their eventual advisor wants anyway. Not that any of this excuses stealing ideas, but a low actual weight placed on these “research proposals” (versus the high weight placed on the general awesomeness of applicant) is not entirely misguided. From what I read above, the NIH situation seems to be much more tethered to an actual lab/advisor/research area/resources, so a research proposal presumably carries much more weight, but such weighing is also much more meaningful.

    [Another unrelated rant is how people from schools like mine help numerous smart kids get undergraduate research experience and get NSF fellowships (no plagiarizing here; I might suggest a topic in a broad sense, send the kid off with a bunch of review papers to read, then I edit what they have written on their own; I always ask to see what they are submitting, among other things so I can write about it in my letter of recommendation). Then these kids go to better-ranked schools to work for one of our infinitely superior colleagues and for free! I know it’s in the best interest of the student, but I hope there are some karmic brownie points in all this for me and the likes of me; still waiting, though.]

  29. You can apply to the NSF GRFP during your 1st year of grad school, no? In that case, it’s really not so different from the NIH program.

    My larger point is that perhaps people should really re-think putting students in situations in which they feel that their only reasonable shot at anything is to cheat or bend the rules. If we all agree that seniors or 1st year students really aren’t in a position to be able to write a credible research proposal, why force them to go through this charade? You don’t think most students feel bad about (and themselves as a result)? Talk about imposter syndrome! Why don’t we all stop pretending that students can do things that they really can’t and stop requiring that of them. I’m not saying that students are blameless in these situations, but perhaps this would go a long way toward avoiding these types of problems in the first place.

  30. If we all agree that seniors or 1st year students really aren’t in a position to be able to write a credible research proposal, why force them to go through this charade?

    Anon, of course, you are correct here. But unless (or until) the NSF requirements change, which may or may not be something we profs can influence (not the hill I am willing to die on, to be honest), the rules are what they are. And with the current rules, the interested parties have adapted as seems natural, even if murky — applicants get more assistance from the PIs and other senior folks around them than ideal, while the reviewers seem to put more weight on the non-proposal part of the application.

  31. Well, if profs can’t change this, who can? Should I write my congressman? 🙂

    You know, it all starts early, with the “mentoring” that goes on for science fair projects. How have we managed to screw up so many things with such potential for good? I really wonder what we are teaching kids about the way science gets done and who should get credit for what. Maybe I *am* being too hard on this student….

  32. Making seniors and new grad students propose competitive research projects (complete with some sort of broader impact activity) bothers me on many levels. Grad school is or ought to be a time to focus on learning rather than selling. Yes, you will have to sell ideas and products in a career, but grad school is not supposed to be a career. It is school. A grad student should just get involved in something and explore it and get a feel for it, THEN propose a project. And broader impact? A grad student should just focus on their TA duties, maybe lend a bit of assistance to some outreach project, supervise an undergrad at some point, and once they are near graduation help train a younger grad student. They will have the rest of their careers to expand their educational portfolios. As grad students they should be primarily focused on learning the subject, and doing just enough educating of others to get some exposure. If they want to educate others as a career (like I and xykademiqz and others here do) they can do that after they have spent grad school learning their field.

    All that these fellowship proposals do is train people to jump through hoops. It is a necessary career skill, but it should not be the focus of grad school.

  33. Not every senior or grad student has the ability to put together a credible research proposal, but perhaps those who can are the ones who should be getting NSF fellowships. We certainly teach our undergrads how to write theses and proposals, though not all do a good job of it.

    I agree that the “broader impacts” portion of the NSF fellowship application makes no sense, and the NSF reviewers usually have no idea usually what to do with the nonsense that gets written for it.

  34. “Not every senior or grad student has the ability to put together a credible research proposal, but perhaps those who can are the ones who should be getting NSF fellowships. We certainly teach our undergrads how to write theses and proposals….”

    Sigh…. See, this is part of the problem — profs who are deluded about what it is that their students can really do. And then these expectations find their way into programs like the NSF GRF, but, since they aren’t realistic, everyone finds a way to work around them. So we teach our students that the *appearance* of doing something is what counts.

  35. It’s silly to think that an undergrad or even an early stage graduate student can come up with their own nationally competitive research project ideas. Student proposals are almost always based on the directions of the lab in which they work. It takes years of being involved in a field before you can recognize what is left to be done and know what the tools are that are realistically available. The vast majority of all winning graduate and even postdoc fellowships are heavily inspired by a proposal previously written by the PI, and the student just adapts it for whatever the competition is. This is reality, and if you’re not helping your students in this way, then they will most likely fail.

  36. So is the idea that the undergrad will go somewhere else to do the project under another mentor who will, willy nilly provide resources? or is the undergrad going to work under Sameir. It makes no sense either way.

  37. Is this proposal thing new? I got a NSF fellowship in 1993. I definitely didn’t have to write a proposal and when I told them I was switching fields in grad school (from EE to astronomy) they said, that’s fine, the money goes to the student not the science.

  38. I got an NSF GRFP for a proposal that I wrote on my own. I switched fields going into grad school so I didn’t know anyone from my grad field that could mentor me. I proposed an extension to a project that I had seen in a research talk- I spoke to the speaker after and asked if they had considered my extension and they said no but it sounded interesting, and that was the extent of the faculty involvement in my application. I did get several friends (with only a B.S.) from different fields to read my proposal and help me make sure it made sense to people with different backgrounds. I got the fellowship on the first try before entering grad school. So it is certainly possible to write a fundable proposal as a student on your own!

    That said I did not end up going to the university I was thinking of when I wrote the proposal and I did nothing like it for my PhD. But I thought the point of the exercise was to show that you could engage in the literature and come up with a coherent research plan for a novel idea, like you would need to do for your grad studies.

    I am perhaps unsurprisingly offended that someone got a GRFP for an idea they regurgitated from an expert. I took a scientific ethics course as part of my grad program, and one of our example cases was a student who faked a journal article on their CV for the NSF-GRFP. The consequence was having the fellowship revoked and getting kicked out of grad school, which really hammered home the point that the federal government does not take kindly to lies.

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