What extent of plagiarism demands a retraction vs correction?
Case text (Anonymised)
A short research article described a new method and tested the method, showing proof-of-concept that the method worked; the idea for the method is presented as the authors’ own.
On publication, the paper receives an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. Shortly after publication, the editorial team is contacted by a PhD student and their supervisor who had published the idea for the method on a blog 2 years earlier. Side by side comparison shows a significant overlap (approximately 25–30% of the article) between the blog and the article, in particular in the rationale for, and description of, the method. The text is rephrased in many places, but there are large sections that are structurally very similar between the article and the blog with some terminology and phrases being identical. Furthermore, the method is unique in its concept and no similar proposals seem to exist in the published scientific literature (on PubMed), so it seems obvious that the blog was the main source for the overlapping sections.
When challenged by the editorial team the authors acknowledged the existence of the idea and that they should have given credit to the blog but argued that their paper is about the empirical testing of the method. It seemed obvious that credit must be given in the article to the student for proposing the method and that there is no difference between a scientific article and a blog in this respect.
In the first instance, a correction was published with rewritten text and clear reference to the blog throughout the article, making clear the origin of the idea for the approach. The team’s interpretation of the COPE Retraction Guidelines was that this is a partial duplication (thereby treating the grey literature as part of the 'scientific literature' – see question 4 below) and, given that the article adds testing of the method and hence the proof-of-concept, that readers are best served with a correction. It seemed that a retraction, as demanded by the PhD student and his/her supervisor, would more serve to punish the authors (which the editorial team understood is not the purpose of a retraction) than to correct and benefit the literature.
It is worth noting that although three referees approved the article (in open peer review), the student and supervisor and some others who commented publicly have also questioned the scientific validity of the way in which the proof-of-concept was demonstrated in the article.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Where does the journal's responsibility to protect the student's rights lie and does it need to go further than the correction and retract?
• Is this a clear case of plagiarism that demands a retraction?
• How much does the structure and text need to be the same to count as plagiarism? Is this a case that needs to be investigated by the authors’ institution?
• Given that retractions and corrections are primarily meant to correct the scientific literature, is there any difference between a blog and a scientific paper when it comes to 'partial duplication'?
Both a correction and a retraction would protect the student’s rights and correct the record. The question then arises—what is the purpose of a correction or retraction? If it is primarily to correct and benefit the literature, then a correction does that. However, the Forum acknowledged that this will probably not satisfy the student and their supervisor.
The Forum discussed blogs as a source of the scientific literature. Blogs are often not cited because they are not seen as permanent. But is there a difference between a blog “grey literature” and an article “published literature”? The Forum agreed that the blog should be considered as published content and although websites change and the blog does not have a DOI, it should still have been cited in the original article.
A suggestion was that for the original blog post, the student could ensure that the blog has a DOI or it could be written up for a journal, particularly if there is more work done by the student.
On a poll of the Forum audience, the majority agreed that a correction seems to be the appropriate (non-punitive) action (compared with a handful who favoured retraction); a correction also serves the student’s rights by indicating clearly where the ideas originated, and maintaining in the literature the work that validates those ideas. The Forum believed that the editors were correct in the course of action they took, and the requirement that the blog concept be clearly recognized.
The Forum discussed if this was plagiarism. There was certainly plagiarism of ideas and the Forum noted that there should be awareness of “ownership of ideas”. Transparency is key in these scenarios and ideas need to be properly credited. Some argued that the article adds something new (validation) and major correction (to address the unattributed copying via proper reference and attribution) undoes the “harm” done by the absence of attribution.
However, some of the members of the Forum were concerned about the apparent deception—the authors did present the method as their own. They recommended that the journal contact the author’s institution. However, it is a judgment call for the editor as to whether the institution is contacted. The institution might appreciate knowing so they can build guidance on citing grey literature into their teaching/training.
The editorial team took the feedback from the COPE Forum on board and notified the corresponding author’s institution of the allegations; the case is still being considered by the research integrity team at the institution. In addition, an editorial note has been added to the article to alert readers that concerns had been raised about the overlap between the original article and the student’s blog (and that the case has been referred to the author’s institution).
Follow up (January 2017):
The journal did not receive any further information from the author's institute on whether or not they will pursue this further. The editor considers the case closed.