Sunday, March 8

Plagiarism in Science

I was looking over the current issue of Science and noticed an article about scientific integrity and plagiarism ("Responding to Possible Plagiarism" by Tara C. Long, Mounir Errami, Angela C. George, Zhaohui Sun, Harold R. Garner -- you can access the article through the library's website), and it really has made me question the level of responsibility in which scientists are held to.

The paper begins by stating:

"The peer-review process is the best mechanism to ensure the high quality of scientific publications. However, recent studies have demonstrated that the lack of well-defined publication standards, compounded by publication process failures, has resulted in the inadvertent publication of several duplicated and plagiarized articles. "

After a discussion about varying search engines/databases that are available for helping detect plagiarism, the authors' note that after their own search they found at least 212 cases of potential plagiarism. They then notified original and later authors and editors about the potential plagiarism. Response ranged from shock, anger, and disappointment to at least one of the later authors stating that they were not involved in the article. In conclusion the authors' note that there needs to be:

- Authoritative oversight by the scientific community
- Authors need to commit to the novelty and accuracy of the report
- Peer reviewers must make informed and thorough reviews
- Verification of originality by editors

However, my question is how is one to implement and/or enforce rules or guidelines that address these conclusions? For example, in respect to authors needing to commit to the accuracy of their report, isn't this what journals/editors/etc. already ask of the authors?
Also, how are editors to verify the originality? Are they to ask the authors to submit proof of all data? But wouldn't individuals already intent on copying or making up data find a way to do the same with "their" data?

In general there is an obvious need for the scientific community to start holding scientists to higher levels of responsibility and scientific integrity. I think that one way to help start this process is to start with younger/newer research scientists. Many of these scientists are under pressure to get a certain number of papers published, and unfortunately (as has been noted) this causes a quite a bit of "crap" to be published. This pressure needs to be lessened to allow these younger/newer scientists a chance to develop and produce real research. Much of this lessening of pressure needs to come from the universities and research insititutes.

Also, in respect to scientists who are well established and have larger labs in which they oversee, these scientists need to actually be overseeing and be apart of all research. I am not saying that all such scientists are not involved, but that involvement needs to be more than just being the person who gets all the grant money and signs off on projects and papers--they need to be involved in the development and carrying out of the projects.

Though there are other ways in which the responsibility and scientific integrity of scientists can be increased, I think that the scientific community needs to actually start doing something about it--instead of just going "oh well" or giving a simple slap on the hand in cases like plagiarism or "crap" publications.


  1. I was actually under the impression that the reviewers were responsible for detecting plagiarism, almost the way that a professor would detect their students. It seems that there are varying degrees of plagiarism which range from blatant and unacceptable to almost non-existent. Maybe the peer review community should adopt a position on what is acceptable and what isn’t? I am inclined to think they should be held to the same standard that a university student is. In other words, a no tolerance policy. Get caught plagiarizing? Then your article should be revoked and you should be labeled accordingly. At which point any piece of literature you attempt to publish should be critically analyzed and checked for academic dishonesty. Certainly there is no foolproof detection method but it seems that most of this responsibility should fall on the reviewers. It doesn’t seem very realistic to place responsibility in the scientific community as so much crap is already being pushed through the peer review process.
    I can imagine cases where the scientist would plead ignorance and there may be cases where this is possible. But it does seem that everyone affiliated with the process needs to be held to a higher level and I definitely agree that we ought to start with the younger/newer scientists.

  2. I agree with both of you, but in addition I think that the system needs some changes which would then create an incentive and hence a tendency of approaching research with a clearer picture of what actually is plagiarism. For instance, the professors(knowingly or unknowingly) may do research that has some form of plagiarism (off course, the blatant ones get detected) thus a student researcher in such an environment (who no longer has a clear idea of what is and what is not plagiarism) end up following such practices (not just because of the pressure from tenureship). Thus, though the academic pressure to publish (particularly for a start-up researcher) can not be excluded it would be naive of us to think that these researchers plagiarise just due to the pressure because I personally feel that most new researchers don't have a clear idea of when they are/are not plagiarising. It is also not surprising that plagiarism (non-blatant ones) gets hard to detect because of the encouragement for articles that follow the middle-of-the road pack which peer-reviewers have greater tendency to pass for publication as suggested in Lamont's research on the peer-review process in her book "How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment".

    I agree with Graham that there's no fool-proof way of detecting plagiarism, may be blatant ones but not those which some may call plagiarism while others may not. However, I would not put the whole burden on the reviewer, may be for detecting plagiarism in the article itself but since these articles are the by-product of genuine/disingenuous research done in respective institutions during which interactions with fellow researchers (particularly the experienced ones) have directly/indirectly been involved at some point of time I think the review process should not just encompass peer-review in the traditional sense but should also involve peers during the investigation prior to submission of the article. I think this solution though far from perfect will definitely eliminate the blatant ones and cause far less plagiarism which then lead to easier detectability of the few plagiarised ones since they are few are now easier to detect.


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