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Case Discussion: Possible plagiarism

Case Summary

Case 19-03

A whistleblower emailed a publisher, accusing two co-authors of substantial plagiarism in two chapters of a published book. Of the unattributed overlapping text, some was traced to the authors and some to other sources, whereas some overlapping text had been cited. When approached, the authors admitted their mistakes and oversight to the publisher and suggested publishing a correction. To the book editor, the plagiarism was not substantial and warranted a correction.

Question(s) for the COPE Forum

• Is this misconduct serious enough to warrant a retraction, or would it be sufficient to publish a correction?

Forum Advice

The Forum agreed that a correction was appropriate. Although the Forum noted the lack of standard procedures for corrections/retractions and handling plagiarism in book publishing, it recommended that COPE flowcharts on plagiarism be followed.

Case Discussion

This archived COPE Forum case is categorised under three of COPE’s Core Practices:

(1) Intellectual Property, which states: “All policies on intellectual property, including copyright and publishing licenses, should be clearly described. In addition, any costs associated with publishing should be obvious to authors and readers. Policies should be clear on what counts as prepublication that will preclude consideration. What constitutes plagiarism and redundant/overlapping publication should be specified”.

(2) Journal Management, which states: “A well-described and implemented infrastructure is essential, including the business model, policies, processes and software for efficient running of an editorially independent journal, as well as the efficient management and training of editorial boards and editorial and publishing staff”.

(3) Post-publication Discussions and Corrections, which states: “Journals must allow debate post publication either on their site, through letters to the editor, or on an external moderated site, such as PubPeer. They must have mechanisms for correcting, revising or retracting articles after publication”.

Although COPE’s guidance is currently mostly geared towards scholarly journal publishing given the group’s history, COPE’s 10 Core Practices and associated resources are still relevant to scholarly book publishing. Both activities share fundamental commonalities. In the future, it is hoped that ethics guidance in book publishing can be developed for/with the relevant membership of COPE, especially book publishers and members working in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Until then, guidance such as Core Practices and flowcharts may be adapted as needed.

One approach would be to systematically replace the word “journal” with “journal/book” or the more general word “publication” in COPE documents and webpages. However, it must be borne in mind that there are some differences between journal and book publishing (eg, provenance/commissioning, structures and roles of editorial boards, and nature of editorship), as well as variations in infrastructure and practices among book publishers. Books can also range from stand-alone monographs, edited compilations, reference books and textbooks to continuous book series. Dedicated COPE resources might eventually be needed for book publishers/editors. However, common to all scholarly publications are the principles of originality, transparency, and integrity.

Under COPE’s Core Practice of Intellectual Property, pertinent to the case under discussion, book publishers need to be clear about author fees, copyright and licensing, and how to properly use copyrighted material. They should define what constitutes prepublication, plagiarism, and redundant publication, and have guidelines about originality and expected practices in citing and using past works, including those of the authors. Authors should be required to be transparent about prior presentation of their work in conferences, conference proceedings, preprint servers, coursework, and any publications. Authors should also disclose how prior work has been used (eg, text/figure reproduction, extraction, adaptation, summary, translation), with any necessary copyright permissions and reuse notices.

It is unclear from the presented case if the authors neglected to cite their own past published or unpublished work. Copying with or without citing one’s previously published work is treated as text recycling (self-plagiarism). If the published work is copyrighted by the publisher, reproduction of previous text by the same author above an amount allowed by the previous publisher would need copyright permission. Authors need to be careful if prior work that they are reusing had co-authors, because permission may be needed from them. In this case, the self-copying seems to have been minor, for example, in terms of extent, nature, and position. In contrast, examples of major copying are reproducing an article as a book chapter without permission and/or citation (duplicate/redundant publication) or pasting previously published results/data into a chapter that is meant to present original research.

In the COPE website, text recycling is covered in the joint COPE/BioMed Central Text Recycling Guidelines. Suggestions have been made to systematically classify plagiarism, such as an early discussion paper on plagiarism and two presentations on plagiarism in the COPE China seminar of 2017. Relevant flowcharts are ones on suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript and suspected redundant publication in a published manuscript.

Major copying typically requires retraction. Minor copying can be corrected by citing and indicating quotation by using quotation marks or a block quote (setting off a larger quote as an indented paragraph), or thorough paraphrasing. Quoting and paraphrasing may not be needed for monographs and book chapters that contain material derived from the same author’s previous degree thesis/dissertation (which is counted as unpublished). As outlined in the COPE Discussion Document on Best Practice for Issues around Theses Publishing, this is an accepted practice especially in the arts and humanities, but still requires citation or acknowledgement. Special consideration and steps are needed if the thesis/dissertation in turn contained any previously published and/or copyrighted material.

Publishers should advise on how to refer to and reference certain types of unpublished works, such as personal communications in the text, with permission, or in footnotes or endnotes. Citations and use of research information from preprints need special attention, particularly appropriate signalling that the material has not been peer reviewed or formally published. Even if a preprint is by the same author, verbatim use of substantial stretches of text without quotes and citation may be detectable in text-matching checks and would be viewed as text recycling. In addition, a published book chapter that contains a substantial portion of recycled text from a preprint may technically become the peer reviewed and formally published version of that section of the preprint.

Publishers and editors tolerate text overlap for common phrases and technical terminology. In some disciplines, publishers may state in their guidelines that they tolerate a certain low percentage of text overlap when authors describe techniques in a Methods section. However, authors (particularly those not writing in their most proficient language) need to realise that without citation, copying content without quoting and also paraphrasing/adapting are viewed as plagiarism, academic dishonesty, and misappropriation. With citation, copying without quoting is also usually viewed as plagiarism, as well as academic laziness or sloppiness. The practice of citing with either quoting or paraphrasing is also the etiquette expected when copyright permission is not required, including use of material that is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence and material in the public domain (CC 0).

The need for sound infrastructure and clear policies and processes in the editorial office is covered in the COPE Core Practice of Journal [Publication] Management. Editorial offices, including the one presenting the case above, would do well to audit and improve their guidelines and routines (COPE members can use the COPE Journal Audit). Offices could routinely perform text-matching checks of all submissions and perhaps revisions, and require author declarations on plagiarism, originality, use/citation of unpublished work, and proof of copyright permissions. Authors should be given clear, practical instructions on avoiding plagiarism and text recycling. Book or series editors, as well as commissioning, acquisition, and managing editors and peer reviewers, should be trained in publication ethics, how to handle suspected and alleged cases of misconduct, and how to use COPE guidance and flowcharts. In addition, editorial staff should know what practical and legal steps to take if a journal wishes to reproduce a book chapter, or if a book editor wishes to reproduce a journal article as a book chapter.

Book publishers may need to consult institutions and other publishers in cases of possible misconduct and can make use of COPE’s Short Guide to Ethical Editing for New Editors and Cooperation between Research Institutions and Journals on Research Integrity Cases: Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). However, editors/publishers should focus on maintaining the integrity of the scholarly record according to the COPE Core Practice of Post-publication Discussions and Corrections, while leaving disciplinary investigations and procedures to authors’ institutions and employers. Although COPE’s Retraction Guidelines are currently for journals and despite the lack of standard guidelines for dealing with chapter corrections/retractions, a common procedure is to use a publisher or book website to notify readers of post-publication changes. These changes could be incorporated into a future reprinting (re-issue or new impression) or a new edition. By analogy to online journal publishing, online versions of book chapters could be watermarked as corrected or retracted and linked to a relevant notice. Meanwhile, correction/retraction notices can be inserted into remaining stocks of print copies.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee