Plagiarists, generally, take the path of least resistance. Whether they’re plagiarizing out of laziness (putting outcomes ahead of processes) or they’re plagiarizing out of fear (lack of confidence in their work), few go beyond the act itself.
However, way back in 2010, we discussed a very different type of plagiarist. It was a type I dubbed the “Single White Female” plagiarist after the movie based on a similar concept.
In this type of plagiarism case, the plagiarist isn’t just after the work itself, but the original creator’s identity. They go beyond just using the content to further their personal brand and use it instead to pretend to be someone else.
While this happens a fair amount to pseudonymous authors, it is much rarer for authors who have their own identities and public personas.
However, as one researcher in the UK found out, rare doesn’t mean never and he found himself dealing with an academic “stalker” that copied not just his work, but also took his name, his look and even his tattoos.
It’s one of the most genuinely disturbing plagiarism stories I’ve read and one that should have been imminently preventable.
Stolen Work, Stolen Identity
Dr. Matt Lodder is a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Essex in the UK. He has an extensive background in the history of tattooing and is widely considered one of the top in his field.
Back on January 15, on his Twitter, he posted a thread describing an unnamed “academic stalker” that he had dealt with a few years prior and ended up describing one of the most disturbing plagiarism stories I’ve read.
According to Lodder, the story began with a series of emails sent to him by various identities asking for more information about his work. This wasn’t uncommon for him and he worked to help the various people out, including sharing some of his unpublished work. However, in each of the cases tracked back to him, the individual never replied, even to say thank you.
However, the identities were a ruse. Behind them was an unidentified graduate student at a separate university. The student was taking Lodder’s work, as well as the work of others in the field, and building not just a promising academic career but an online presence.
It was a simple mistake that ended up getting him caught. The plagiarist was following the social media accounts of Lodder and his colleagues but never interacting. He made the mistake of liking a colleague’s Instagram photo and his unusual username caught her eye.
She followed up and found essentially a copy of her Instagram page. However, the page also included photos and videos of its owner and it was with that the depths of the copying became truly known.
The individual wasn’t content on just copying Lodder’s work. He was claiming to have spoken at conferences that Lodder was at, was dressing in a manner similar to Lodder, using similar gestures, and he had even gotten nearly identical (but much lower quality) tattoos to him.
According to Lodder, the individual had become a star student in his graduate school, all the while submitting almost no original work.
One of Lodder’s friends reached out to the school and things began to fall apart for the individual. They lost their job and their scholarships and didn’t complete their degree. Lodder speculates he may have had his undergraduate degree stripped as well.
The story came to an end in January 2018 when the individual sent an apology email to those he had stolen from, including Lodder. Since then, no one has heard anything else from the individual.
Lodder says he doesn’t know where the person is gone and that, “I think it’s best to leave it that way.”
Unanswered Questions, Difficult Challenges
One of the biggest questions that comes from this story is “Why wasn’t this plagiarist caught sooner?”
According to Lodder, the plagiarist had been at work for several years and was at a “decent” school. However, almost none of his work was original or authentic.
Though the unpublished material he used could be cited, one of the more egregious cases involved a magazine article Lodder wrote that the copycat simply added footnotes to.
Though plagiarism detection tools are far from perfect and will never catch every instance of plagiarism, this is the kind of plagiarism it is best at. Verbatim copying of a publicly accessible work that is in a myriad of databases.
The only way that this could have happened is if no one was checking or if the checking was wildly lacking.
One of the frightening things that Lodder says in his Vice column is that, if the individual had simply submitted the work to his program and not posted anything publicly, he likely would have gotten away with it. Given how he was caught, that is almost certainly true.
Though the plagiarist is the only one responsible for his actions, the school also needs to address how it got so far. This case is a clear warning that their plagiarism detection protocols are woefully inadequate, and one can only hope that, since then, they’ve improved.
While it seems they handled the situation well once they were notified, the school still has a lot to answer for and that seems to be the biggest untold part of this tale.
This story terrifies even me. Though I’ve seen and even advised on cases of impersonation before, this one takes it to a new level. This isn’t simply copying one’s work, one’s name or one’s look. Tattoos are both deeply personal and permanent.
Lodder hinted that he may not have been this person’s first target/victim and likely won’t be his last. To that end, my other hope in this case is that the individual behind the story get the help they clearly need.
If there is a path forward for them, it will be by first addressing the forces that drove them to do it in the first place.
For the victim however, this is a terrifying tale. Plagiarism is one thing, but to assume someone’s whole identity, including dress and tattoos, takes things to another level.
Though Lodder seems to be in decent spirits about it today, it is difficult to imagine exactly what was going through his head at the time.
For schools, this is a reminder to step up their plagiarism policies, including enforcement. Though most plagiarists are simply taking an unethical shortcut, some take it a great deal farther.
Though this is an extreme case, extreme cases are warnings and here’s hoping everyone involved heeds it and it never happens again.