Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Should plagiarists be named and shamed?

Once again plagiarism, that scourge of journal editors, has reared its ugly head, with an accusation that a paper published in Minerals Engineering contains material directly copied from another author's work.

It is evident from the comments on my recent posting on peer-review that journal referees are becoming increasingly under pressure as the flow of papers to reputable journals increases.

The number of papers is increasing because researchers are also under increasing pressure to publish, as this is often the most important route to career advancement.

Unfortunately this has led a minority to seek the easy route, and this is where plagiarism steps in. Fortunately, with increasingly efficient software it is becoming easier to spot incidents of plagiarism, and indeed it is often apparent just by reading papers, when for no apparent reason, the style or standard of English suddenly changes for a few paragraphs and then reverts to its original format.

Duplication (sometimes called self-plagiarism) is even more prevalent. This is when an author submits essentially the same paper, sometimes thinly disguised by a change in title, or order of authors, to two or more journals at the same time.  If accepted then the author's list of publications is boosted, and it is often difficult to prevent this unless there is strong liaison between journal editors.

However, the author rarely gets away with this, as an eagle eye will invariably spot the duplication, maybe weeks, or even months after publication.

Authors found guilty of plagiarism are often blacklisted from publication again in the journal, but the question I ask is:  is this enough, or should offenders be publicly named and shamed? I seek your views on this.

21 comments:

  1. Stephen Neethling6 April 2011 at 11:53

    I would support naming and shaming, though I suppose that as an editor you would need to make sure that it is a very clear cut case of plagiarism or else you might find yourself sued for defamation (especially in the UK were the onus of proof in defamation cases is currently on the person being sued)!

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  2. Yes! A previous colleague did this to me once by self-plagiarising a conference paper that I was a co-author on into a journal paper. What a brouhaha that caused, and rightly so.

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  3. Over the last five or six years now I have been involved in a so-called self-plagiarism dispute at Queen’s University. This became public in a number of newspapers in Canada, late last year. See: (http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Queen+University+papers+centre+self+plagiarism+dispute/3891577/story.html). My general conclusion was that nobody in authority wanted to deal with the matter. This matter was also discussed in an article in Nature regarding self-plagiarism in the literature. See: (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468745a.html). According to this article, the incidence of paper replication in the literature is on the decline. But it is somewhat difficult to define how much replication is acceptable. Are a few lines unacceptable? Or is it okay to publish the same introduction and techniques but have different results and discussion? An interesting point on a blog was made that if a paper with many co-authors is republished by one author is this self-plagiarism or plagiarism? See: (http://blog.ithenticate.com/2010/12/self-plagiarism-is-it-really-plagiarism/). I suppose the debate will continue. Yes, perhaps this is due to pressure but Universities and funding agencies should begin to look for ways to reduce the pressure and measure quality rather than quanitity and then the driving force for academics to multiply papers would be reduced.

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  4. The need for complete certainty before public denouncement would make the required infrastructure far too onerous, as the subjects are so varied and technical. Furthermore I doubt there would be much appetite from the community to get involved on a routine basis.

    I would argue that cases where a genuine breakthrough is 'stolen' are rare, and we should save our efforts for such cases.

    Besides such cases, it seems to me the tendency to judge people by the number of papers published rather than quality and influence of their work is the real issue here.

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  5. I say, publish when one has something substantial and new of one's own volition to say.

    Recycled work is not new and therefore not substantial in terms of a contribution to science. Such submissions should be detected and rejected. The necessary resources to detect recycling should be made available to reviewers in this regard.

    Plagiarism is illegal and should be dealt with as the law dictates under the jurisdiction applicable to the journal. Such action likely will lead to name and shame, courtesy of journalism. Again, necessary resources to detect plagiarism should be made available to reviewers.

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  6. Just as we monitor an author's citations or H-factor, I can see merit in viewing the issue of self-plagiarism as grey, rather than black and white (which is certainly the case for plagiarising another's work). Perhpas we can also develop a P-index (plagiarism) or O-index (orginality) to reflect a diversity between some authors who see value in presenting similar ideas to different audiences (not that they should be identically worded) to reveal new insights (such authors may have a lower originality score, but more impact in addressing complex problems which cross disciplines), versus others who focus on completely new ideas to the same audience (who would have a higher originality score).

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  7. I have to agree with Jarrod above - it's the pressure of quantity not quality that is probably the main issue.

    Plagiarism is of course reprehensible; it is lazy and hugely disrespectful to all concerned. However, as some have pointed out, the consequences of a false 'name & shame' are potentially quite disastrous, not just for the journal, but also the individual in question.

    I suspect that people who plagiarise routinely will get found out eventually, and given the way academic circles move, their reputations would probably (hopefully) precede them.

    Chris

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  8. I think the creation of an online forum where readers can discuss and comment on published works would be hugely advantageous (perhaps it already is in place for some journals). It would certainly root out plagiarism from more obscure sources and would also allow the review process to extend beyond the publication process. There are certain precautions that need to be taken to prevent people slandering others work, but this should make the whole process of review more transparent.

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  9. There is a forum for discussion and criticism of journal papers. It is the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the journal, which is all too infrequently used.

    I shall be publishing a letter in a forthcoming issue of Minerals Engineering, which accuses a journal author of breaching ethical guidelines. This author has been asked to submit a response or rebuttal to the accusations. If received, his response will, of course be published.

    This seems to me to be the fairest route to naming and shaming and to stamping out this practice.

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  10. Is the ‘Letters to the Editor’ easiy available online? I was suggesting a less formal forum where readers can leave comments concerning a paper. It would be accessed from the same page where you can download the paper in ScienceDirect.

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  11. Hi Anon. Yes, it will be available via ScienceDirect.

    I'm not sure that a less formal forum is the way to go with plagiarism issues. Personally I would like to research the claims to ensure that they are fully justified, and allow the miscreant the chance to respond, before going public.

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  12. Plagiarism and peer review issues are part of the same problem - ethics. Copying content without attribution is fraud. I’d argue a single author paper by a PhD student, that attracts authors before publication, is no different. Can you really stamp out one problem in isolation Barry?

    You’re a former academic. You will know firsthand of examples where a student came up with an idea, ran experiments, wrote the paper, “supervisor” (at a couple of removes) proof-read it, made a few typographical changes, and put their name on it. That was just the way it was done. In terms of teaching how to “seek for truth”, I don’t think this aspect of academic publishing meets that criterion. So, why is “lazy attribution” such a surprise? If the author at least re-wrote the borrowed piece, would you even care?

    A related irritation are “sins of omission” eg failing to identify secondary references, causing me to chase primaries only to find the information I’m looking for is quoted from somewhere else. Second is a bit more egregious, where the majority of primaries are by the same authorship team. At best, this is ignorance of the literature, but at worst is a deliberate way of omitting competing literature, or a way to get your citation index up by self-referencing. And when those self-references are also secondary references…?! This is “reverse plagiarism”, where you are deliberately ignoring work, never mind not attributing it.

    On the point of the single blind peer review, I have one ethical niggle when you know the person. In the rarefied world of increasing academic specializations, it is increasing likely that main reviewers will know the main players. Do your reviewers self-declare and/or do you take that into account when choosing them Barry? So, to me, plagiarism, crap attention to detail, peer review pressures; it’s all of an ethical piece. I have no answers Barry, as to how you can address this, but would suggest you have to address it as a more systemic, broader set of issues?
    David Barr
    Melbourne

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  13. I also caution a less-formal forum, unless it was heavily moderated. But then we're half way to it being letters to the editor...

    I would also say as a more general point that in the days of internet access and google scholar, people tend not to read journals per se - they tend just to research articles by key word and contents. Therefore, while the letter to the editor section may be freely available, it's not as prominent as it maybe once was.

    Maybe this should be promoted?

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  14. I’m not too worried about that Chris. I am sure that a sufficient number of people will see the Letter to the Editor for it to be spread by word of mouth. I will also alert via Twitter, which feeds into the right hand column of this blog and into LinkedIn.

    What is more important is that the offender will be alerted to the letter in the journal.

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  15. Papers that are deemed to be unethical can be retracted. Elsevier has a procedure to do this and has done it recently. The paper can be retracted in its electronic versions. The word retracted is written in red across each page of the pdf.

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  16. A podcast from the BBC World Service may be of interest. Titled "science betrayed", it was broadcast as part of the Discovery programme: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00fvkn7#synopsis.

    Dealing with science fraud, this 18 minute article touches on peer review, the role of editors, and suggests that a certain degree of "gilding the lily", in terms of promoting the importance of any research, is just part of human nature.

    One interviewee suggests that most scientists are basically honest, because by definition they wouldn't otherwise be scientists. Presumably getting back to that "seekers after truth" tag?
    Not sure where plagiarism fits into either concept, of honesty, or being prepared to make things look (or read?) a bit better.
    David Barr
    Melbourne

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  17. The basic issue is pressure from university to publish not quality work (measured by citation for example) but numbers of papers. Of course some are going to be tempted to increase their publication list under these circumstances.

    I have always felt that the university research community had lost the plot with rewarding publication numbers, and personally I ranked my own output based on citations per paper.

    If university and funding management did that, the whole system would be more aligned with the journal editors, who rank their journals by citations.
    Regards
    Frank Crundwell

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  18. the issue of honesty extends beyond the scientist. i've been asked by an editor of an Elsevier journal (not ME) to consider including some articles from an extensive list of papers from his journal to include in the references to a paper we had just submitted. One or two of the numerous references were relevant. This is an obvious and dishonest way to inflate impact factors.

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  19. If this is true Anonymous, then it is very worrying, and very unethical on the part of the editor. I would suggest that you make Elsevier aware of this.

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  20. I also have been asked by Editors to include references from their journal in an already accepted paper. The other thing I see happening is that the reviewer of the paper is listed in the references perhaps numerous times. In some cases, when one looks at the references these are secondaries not primaries. This puts the reviewer in an ethical predicament. Reject the paper and loose the citations! There are "games" being played here to multiply papers and authorship because this allows one to "win".

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