Science Has A Plagiarism Problem

By Neuroskeptic | February 3, 2017 11:58 am

plagiarism_neuroRetraction Watch reports on three scientific papers (1,2,3) that have been retracted or deleted after I reported that they were plagiarized.

Neuroskeptic became suspicious about the three unrelated papers – about food chemistry, heart disease, and the immune system and cancer – after scanning them with plagiarism software. After alerting the journals, two issued formal retractions for the papers – but neither specifies plagiarism as the reason.

These three retractions represent the fruits of a personal project (or perhaps it was a quixotic quest) I carried out last year. Over the space of four months, I reported about 30 cases of plagiarism in review papers to various journals, with the help of Turnitin plagiarism detection software.

Every case I reported was a serious one. The percentage of unoriginal text ranged from 44-90%, with an average of about 65%. What’s more, I didn’t count overlap with the authors’ own work (i.e. self-plagiarism) as this is sometimes seen as less serious. Likewise, I only looked at review papers, because plagiarism is arguably less serious in experimental papers when the data is new.

Yet despite the severity of the problems I reported, most journals never replied to my emails. A few did acknowledge my concerns, and promised to investigate, but nearly a year later, only three papers have been retracted. I don’t know of any expressions of concern or corrections either.

Eventually I got tired of being ignored, and abandoned my one-man crusade against copy-and-paste.

This leaves 27 papers, that I know for a fact to be largely plagiarized, remaining in the scientific literature – and there must be thousands more out there. If I had to estimate the proportion of review papers that contain severe plagiarism, I’d put it at something like 10-15%. Maybe we should call them recycle papers instead of reviews?

I’m not sure how to proceed with this project. I’m happy to share my list of offending papers with anyone who thinks they can do something useful with it, and I may decide to publish it at some point. But will this achieve anything? Journals are meant to uphold the standards of science. If they don’t care about plagiarism, what can anyone else hope to do?

Here’s why I did it:

Plagiarists steal opportunity from their honest peers. In science, for instance, jobs, promotions and funding are assigned largely on the basis of the publication records of the candidates. There are not enough of these things to go around. So whenever a plagiarist wins one of these prizes on the strength of their unfairly inflated record, someone else misses out.

This is why I don’t like plagiarists. I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s ‘downfall’, but I look at it this way: for every disgraced plagiarist, an honest researcher gets a job, or gets funded, or gets promoted.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, ethics, papers, science, select, Top Posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If management (grant funding) assayed quality, publications would be significant. As management only counts integers, publications will be abundant. Content is out of context.

    Consider the explosion of journal numbers. We are a approaching a researcher only reading his own work. Maybe. Quill software removes the need to write. Teach it LaTeX and its over.

  • smut clyde

    I appreciate your efforts and am feeling inspired to try something similar. I probably have access to Turnitin through my university but I’ll have to ask someone in the department to set up an account.

    Do you contact the editors as “Neuroskeptic”? Any pointers? (other than “be cordial and non-accusatory”).

    I liked this part of the RetractionWatch story, from Srinababu Gedela:

    As per abstract, I hope it is a mini review abstract/article published
    under graduate students work. I did not [get] any notification regarding
    retraction. During 2009-11, I did the project work guidance to 100+
    graduate students, and I am not aware of publication of those project
    works. I am the corresponding author for all of my research
    publications.

    I can happily believe that someone under Gedela’s tuition – and later OMICS team leader / manager — should turn out to be a plagiarist. I can also believe that his journals sometimes publish work without the authors’ permission. What I am wondering is how Gedela gets to mentor students. Did some existing university employ the dude? Did he set up his own bogus OMICS institution where hundreds of grad students pay him for tuition?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Happy hunting! Let me know if you need tips for finding plagiarized papers but it’s really depressingly simple. Just go on PubMed or Google scholar, search for recently published review papers (not systematic reviews). Then identify “likely candidates” and manually Google a couple of sentences. If the Googling finds any hits, put it through Turnitin.

      For review papers “likely candidates” can be spotted from their titles. In my experience if the title is generic (e.g. “A review of…” “An overview of…” “An update on…”) and/or awkwardly phrased, a high % of these will turn out to contain plagiarism. Being published in a predatory journal is also a warning sign, but plagiarism is not limited to predatory journals. It’s hard to describe all the warning signs but after a while, you know them when you see them.

      Here’s my standard email template:

      Dear (Journal)

      I’ve discovered evidence of plagiarism in the article (title – this is also a link to the paper) (year) by (first author) et al.

      I used Turnitin plagiarism detection software
      to examine this paper and it reports that XX% of the text is identical to other previous sources (any other remarks here). I attach the Turnitin report.

      Please let me know if you require any more information,

      regards

      Neuroskeptic Blog

      • smut clyde

        Many thanks! No, searching for plagiarism is not needed. I have in mind a series of about 30 papers from a couple of Italian obesity researchers, that came to the attention of PubPeer after a high-profile entry in Retraction Watch at the end of last year. The papers range from “scrapbook” projects, reviewing the literature by stringing together a series of Abstracts of recent papers (i.e. more curated than written), to verbatim copies of existing papers (resubmitted to new journals with the new authorship).

      • smut clyde

        For review papers “likely candidates” can be spotted from their titles
        The offenders that I’m aware of are fond of rhetorical-question titles (“Is X involved in Y?”). It is as if they’ve never heard of Betteridge’s Law.

  • Dom

    That’s not so bad. In Croatia we have a Minister of Science and Education who is a proven plagiarist (Pavo Barisic).

    • Kekropian

      Same as Germany (a minister of something)…twice actually if I remember correctly. For their PhD theses.

      • Dom

        Was he punished?

  • Tom Aaron

    I have never seen any plagiarism in my field. One shouldnt paint all sciences with one brush.

    Much of science is happening at niche levels of extreme specialization. Any research published in our field is by a handfull of researchers and we know each others work to a detailed level. I couldnt imagine any room for plagiarism unless we all caught contageous dementia.

    • Jefferson McCarthy

      Specify your field here, and I will provide with you at least one well-documented example.

      • Tom Aaron

        Pangean biostratigraphy using late Late Carboniferous and Permian inarticulate brachiopods

  • PsyoSkeptic

    Please publish it, perhaps even here on your blog. This story needs a more thorough airing

  • Thomas Munro

    I think you should publish your list of plagiarized papers. We can’t know if someone will make use of it and take action, but they certainly won’t if it’s unavailable.
    I think the fact that the third paper you mention has vanished is much more serious. I can’t find an archived copy in google, google scholar or memento. The researchgate link you gave doesn’t contain the full text; nor does a second link:
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269542099
    Crossref still contains the citation details (although they may soon also delete those):
    Nayak, S. S., Kadali, S., & Gedela, S. (2011). Rational Therapeutics of Cardiology in Elderly. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Cardiology, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.4172/2155-9880.R1-001
    If you still have a copy, I think you should publish it (which is legal, given their use of CC-BY licenses). I think fraud is much more serious when committed by a publisher (OMICS in this case) than by an author. Given that the Federal Trade Commission has filed charges against OMICS and the senior author himself, you should also bring this to their attention. It may well be useful. Congrats on finding all this.

  • Arayma

    You should publish it. If publishers won’t take note at least other scientists and even interested outsiders will take note.
    Such a list as that you’ve made shouldn’t be locked in a drawer. Publishing it, anywhere really, would help science at large and the honest researchers in particular, as you well said.

  • salmon

    Is it possible you could compare the writings of Grace Livingston Hill and Ayn Rand and settle a question that has perplexed thousands of confused Christian readers for decades.

  • Ross Wind

    For many years now a great number of so called serious media close their eyes on many suspicious scientific articles. The scientific world is often protected from scandals. Sadly the few that are brought up the public attention is only the tip of the iceberg. Not all are honest scientists. There are humans; therefore could be corrupted by money and ideology. The history of cigarettes, pharmaceutical, food, industrial pollution industries and the Darwinian evolution dogma had shown many frauds. People are not critical enough about science. Yes they did good things. However, a great amount of cancers and pollution is cause by science as well. Ask ourselves this question; why one scientist gives proves that a certain product is dangerous for the human health and the manufacturer’s scientists give proofs of its harmless. Obviously scientists can manipulate data in different directions depending on their personnel interest.

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  • Yulia Chentsova

    A colleague and I found a large chunk of our text in a review paper and another one in our former editor’s sole-authored book. In each case, we found that people in charge do not care about this a whole lot. When we contacted one of the publishers, we were asked what it was that we wanted and told that a famous author has no reason to steal, hence it is an honest mistake and no biggie.

    • smut clyde

      “And why is the author famous?”
      “Well, he publishes so much!”

      • Yulia Chentsova

        The borrowing was so brazen that one wonders

  • acrh2

    This blog post is bullshit. There are literally millions of scientific papers published every single year. Thousands of bad papers is a drop in an ocean.

    • CaseyW

      Are you worth plagiarizing? Have you been plagiarized? How would one feel when one’s work is stolen?

      • smut clyde

        There are literally millions of scientific papers published every single year. Thousands of bad papers is a drop in an ocean.

  • A. Tasso

    You should probably seek the advice of a lawyer before publishing your list. Someone might sue you for defamation. Even if you can show obscene amounts of overlap, it is very hard to prove intent. That is probably why universities and journals are so reluctant to pursue these cases in the first place.

    • smut clyde

      it is very hard to prove intent
      Is “intent” part of the definition of Plagiarism? If you repeat someone else’s fine words not out of malice, but because you forgot ever reading them (and genuinely thought their appearance in your head was spontaneous), it is still plagiarism, albeit of an unintentional form. If your co-author compiles a list of useful sentences to quote, and you find the list and incorporate the sentences without quotation marks (thinking that they were the co-author’s own coinage), the two of you have innocently plagiarised, but it was still plagiarism.

      As long as a whistle-blower makes no claims about the intentions of the authors, or makes it clear that any such claims are opinions (while ensuring that factual claims are provable, i.e. a percentage of repeated text), he or she should be safe.

      Lawyering up against a journal is still a rare enough event to be newsworthy, and RetractionWatch gives such cases special attention. Journal publishers aren’t worried about law-suits when they sweep plagiarism under the carpet, just about the personal embarrassment of admitting that a paper should never have been published in the first place.

      • Erik Bosma

        And where do our thoughts come from in the first place? Perhaps we’re all guilty (except the nasty intentional plagiarists) of unintentional plagiarism.
        OK, keep the metaphysics out of it… I hear ya.

  • John C

    Whenever a skeptic questions the validity of conventional scientific writ the typical response is,”Any researcher who exposed such a hypothetical fraud would be instantly famous and lauded.”

    Well, maybe not.

  • Sean Fielding

    The fish rots from the head. What less-honest group has displaced a lot of what more-honest group in science, academics, learned professions, business, politics and media over the last few generations? Who/Whom?

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  • Fredrik Kašpar

    Neuroskeptic, I share your view on the equilibrium in science – when one plagiarist leaves the research lab, one honest and decent young talent could replace him and do the real science.

    I’m not surprised that you’ve used Turnitin, because it’s proven that plagiarism detection services are effective at revealing the unoriginal texts in research papers. Many international journals with a good reputation use such services prior publication. For example, IJBEP is using a plagiarism detection service provided by Unplag.com.

    There are many supporters of preventive measures of dealing with plagiarism. I support this point. We need to grow a new generation of scientists, who has respect for the work done by their colleagues and professors.

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Neuroskeptic

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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