I’ve been an academic since 2013. I am a senior lecturer in art history, and director of US studies at the University of Essex. What drove me towards an academic career was my interest in tattooing. There is a very small group of tattoo historians in academia, so we all know one another well.
In November 2017, Anna Friedman, a Chicago-based academic with a similar specialism, contacted me. She had received a like on Instagram from an account she thought was interesting. Clicking on the profile, she saw it was a duplicate of her page and that the guy had also made a copy of her website, including her very specific biography, but under his own name. When she looked at his profile on academia.edu, she instantly realised that his bio was a copy of mine; the papers he’d supposedly written were actually by me. He’d claimed to have given talks that I, or others in our academic circle, had given. Anna messaged me asking if I knew who this person was, but I had no idea.
We started digging around, and things quickly became unsettling. I found a video clip of him at a conference, reading a chapter I’d written. He was dressed like me. Even his mannerisms and speech patterns were similar. Then I came across a picture of his hands, where he’d poorly copied my tattoos: the flowers on the backs of my hands, with the words “know more” and “artefact” written across the fingers. This man had been stealing my work and elements of my identity for years. It creeped me out.
Searching my inbox, I found correspondence from someone claiming to be a PhD student, who was this same man under a fake identity. I often get students contacting me with an interest in my expertise; I consider it part of my job to help them out. For me, it was sometimes easiest to share work in progress when someone asked what I’d been working on, so this guy had got his hands on my unpublished research.
We discovered he’d also taken magazine articles I’d written and added footnotes to them, stolen catalogue essays I’d authored, and taken other people’s work from old books and paraphrased it. I later asked what mark he’d got for a piece of my work and was told it had been given 95%, which in a way, I was pleased to hear.
One of the strangest things was the effort he’d put in. Usually, plagiarism is a sign of laziness or an act of desperation. I think there was something about the thrill of the game and the performance for him. Not only was he copying people’s work, but he was regularly contacting the original authors, using bits of their life stories and weaving them into his own, before presenting it online.
When we notified his university, it quickly launched an investigation, which led to him getting kicked out of his graduate programme, for repeated plagiarism. Some of the work should have been spotted by plagiarism checkers, but he’d been getting unpublished pieces from me, and claiming he preferred to submit his work in paper format as his home internet connection wasn’t good.
After it all unravelled, he changed his social media profile picture: first to a screenshot from Citizen Kane, appropriately enough, and then to a strange illustration of a pig wearing a mask, which, someone told me, was from a Polish children’s book about the consequences of lying. Since then, I haven’t been able to find a record of him online. He just disappeared.
I don’t understand why he chose me. I have an interesting niche subject, and love what I do, but I’m not the most prolific of academics. We never contacted the police, because we didn’t think he’d done anything illegal. It was really an issue of academic misconduct. The most upsetting thing – copying my hand tattoos – wasn’t something I could do anything about. He’s probably still walking around with those tattoos on his hands today.
As told to Amy Sedghi