Several Europe-based authors, including well known, respected and much published ones, submitted an essay for the journal's section on research methodology.
We rejected it without external review as it wasn't making sufficiently new points. We offered to see it again, however, if it was revised and if it added some worked examples using this methodology within published studies. A year later the article was resubmitted after revision, and we sent it for review.
One of the reviewers, who was chosen by the handling editor via a PubMed search, replied quickly, saying that:
1) she used to work in the senior authors' department where her PhD was supervised by the most senior author;
2) the worked examples in the revised submitted article, and some of the accompanying explanatory text, were copied and pasted (with translation into English but no attribution) from her unpublished PhD thesis, which was on this same topic;
3) she had contacted the most senior authors about this, and they had apologised saying they hadn't realised that the first and most junior author, who had revised the submitted article, had lifted the cases from the reviewer's PhD thesis. They said that the first author was contrite, and they advised the reviewer to tell the journal what had happened and seek our advice;
4) this reviewer also supplied a helpful, constructive and positive review of the article (as, meanwhile, did another reviewer and subsequently did a third, as we felt unable to use the first reviewer’s review).
We replied saying we took plagiarism very seriously and that we appreciated the reviewer's constructive approach to all of this. We suggested that she should be added as an author of the revised article, and she agreed—in a phone call with the editor handling this article—and seemed happy with that solution. We asked all of the authors to write to us to confirm: (a) that plagiarism had occurred and (b) that the reviewer was now a coauthor of the article. All did so.
The revised article, with the new coauthor, was provisionally accepted after appraisal at the manuscript committee meeting (where all members had read the article's full history) and is now back with all of the authors for final revision. We expect to accept the article and we intend to reiterate in the acceptance letter that plagiarism is a serious form of misconduct, that we appreciate everyone's cooperation here and that we hope the institution now has clear rules on avoiding misconduct.
Did we do the right thing, and is there more we should also do?
Most of the Forum agreed that this was a good result; all parties were happy in the end and the plagiarism was detected. The majority view was that it seemed to be an honest mistake which was dealt with well. However, some of the Forum put forward the idea that this was an act of theft and the senior author should have known better. But the majority view was that the editor should not pursue the matter and contacting the institution would be an overreaction. A constructive suggestion was to ask the authors what steps they are going to take to prevent this from happening in the future.
We asked the authors how they would prevent this happening in future. They said: “In response to the editors’ comment on the issue of plagiarism, we like to start here by emphasizing that we as well have taken this very seriously. Plagiarism of any kind is not and will not be accepted at our institutions. We have codes of conduct that explicitly stipulate that this is not accepted. In this case, we do not believe that there was an issue of voluntary, intended and therefore wrongful appropriation of close imitation of previously written scientific papers.
The current exchange with the editor and the journal, however, has clearly taught us that we should be even more careful when the work of PhD students builds on that of others, and that we should carefully examine the results and writing of subsequent researchers in our groups before we submit anything to a scientific journal. Previous work should always be acknowledged and when there is a contribution that justifies authorships according to the current standards, we should invite that colleague to become a co-author on new papers. Similar issues have never happened to us before, despite the fact that we have supervised several dozens of theses and hundreds of papers. Nevertheless, we have now taken action to institute this as a new standard policy in the manuscript preparation process.”