We received an email from a whistleblower notifying us about possible plagiarism in two chapters published by us, both authored by the same two authors. The whistleblower accused the authors of substantial plagiarism.
In both chapters there were, indeed, certain unattributed parts of the text, although the majority was properly attributed. Some of the unattributed parts were authored by the authors themselves, while some were taken from third parties. The whistleblower highlighted some properly cited parts of the text, as he claimed they were directly copied from other sources.
As a first step we contacted both authors for an explanation. The authors admitted their mistakes but also explained that they did not have any malevolent intention, and that it was a simple oversight on their behalf. They explained that they were willing to correct (publish a correction of) their chapter.
We then contacted the editor of the book. In his opinion this was not a case of substantial plagiarism and suggested publishing a correction. The whistleblower was not satisfied with the opinion of the editor.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Is this misconduct serious enough to warrant a retraction, or would it be sufficient to publish a correction?
The Forum advised that a correction is probably appropriate in this case, as there does not seem to be any malicious intent or pattern of deceit.
The whistleblower should not be the main consideration—the journal’s main concern should be to consider whether or not the literature needs to be corrected.
One of the main challenges in book publishing is the lack of established retraction/correction processes for books. It is not considered by book authors or editors as a standard process. While plagiarism in books seems to be common, there are no clear guidelines on how to handle it. However, the Forum would still advise following the COPE flowcharts on plagiarism and contacting the institution if appropriate.
The journal decided to publish a correction and asked authors to prepare a draft. Once they receive the draft, the journal will publish the correction.
We received a complaint of plagiarism by Dr A concerning a book that has just been published. This case is ongoing since January 2012.
Authors B and C published a new, very extended edition (+1000 pages), on a topic that previously was covered in part in an English book by author B (published in 2006). Part of this book was based on a German book published back in 1993 by Dr A and author B. The English book was taken off the market by the publisher because of alleged "plagiarism" by author B. The publisher apologized to author B for this withdrawal which seemed to have been a mistake (but there is no written documentation on this). Copyright of this book was transferred to author B. Dr A has made a complaint of plagiarism for this book too. Copyright of the German book was transferred to both authors (Dr A and author B). It is therefore unclear what exactly has been plagiarized (in the 2006 book and the revised edition).
As the publisher, we sought two independent reviews. Unfortunately, the publisher asked the authors to come up with the names of the “independent” reviews, so we are a little hesitant to rely on both reviews. However, the reviews are respected scientists, and both state that “similarity is inevitable because of the involvement from the same author (author B) and overlap in the topic treated. It is also clear that the book is not based on new material, but it brings together existing material in a presentable form, but has a different formulation form and interpretation of material”.
Authors B and C mention that they have included all appropriate quotes/references to the previous book. Dr A has received parts of the text for review, and the authors have been willing from the start to rewrite anything that comes close to the original text of Dr A, should there be any similarity.
The lawyer, hired by author B, informed all parties, based on both reviews, that this is not a case of plagiarism. Dr A in the meantime has also hired a lawyer because he is not in agreement. So far we have not heard anything from this lawyer. Dr A now requests a statement from publisher on the case.
We believe there are strong personal issues at work here. With books, there is no editor-in-chief that can investigate the case or make a decision with help of his editorial board/associate editors or other body in the form of a society.
At the moment we, as the publisher, will make the new book (of over 1000 pages) available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book (published by him and author B) and probably the 2006 English book.
Is there any advice from the Forum on this complex case?
The Forum agreed that this is a complex copyright issue rather than an ethical issue. This may have to be resolved by lawyers. The Forum supported the editor’s actions of making the new book available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book and the 2006 English book. It was suggested that following this, independent advice should be sought from an independent expert. It was also suggested that the editor may be able to obtain agreement in advance on the use of an independent arbitrator who would review the case and whose opinion the authors would abide by.
The editor has been informed that the complaining author is trying to ‘organize’ the community in order to ‘discredit’ the book. So far nothing has been heard from his lawyer. Dr A has not provided any detailed information of where the plagiarism has occurred despite the fact that he requested a copy of the book in order to look at the chapters and the book was sent to him for comparison with the request to send his findings to the editor.
I am a trainer and author of books on medical writing. It was brought to my attention that a chapter in a German-language book published in Switzerland was based almost entirely on my teaching. The first author is director of a privately funded research institution and the second author a member of staff. The second author attended one of my courses. There is a general statement at the beginning of the chapter where the authors ‘refer to’ me (with a reference to one book and my website) and one other specific reference when they talk about macro and micro editing. However, there is one diagram copied from a course overhead and some original research published without reference, including a table reproduced directly from one of my books without acknowledging the source. Descriptions of several other specific concepts from my work (eg, storyboarding, 2-7-7-6) that appear in the chapter to be theirs, not mine. At one stage they write ‘We recommend’ giving a clear implication that it is theirs to recommend.
The authors did not seek permission from me or the publisher of my book. Their publisher has been contacted, and says that the work is not a piece of plagiarism but a homage, that the two references are sufficient, and that the author’s only mistake is leaving off an acknowledgment on one of the tables, which they will remedy at the next printing.
(1) Have the authors acted unethically? (2) Do I have an ethical duty to take this further, or should I just continue to enjoy my retirement?
The Forum unanimously agreed that the authors’ actions were unethical. Failure to ask permission is a form of misconduct. Some argued that it would be reasonable to sue for breach of copyright and that the author should contact his publisher and international distributor. The Forum agreed that this is a form of plagiarism but that there are degrees of plagiarism so the question arises as to how much harm has been done. The Forum reasoned that whether or not the complainant takes this matter forward by informing the plagiarists’ employers depends very much on how much he cares about protecting his intellectual property.
The publishers have now written an erratum in German that will be inserted in all remaining copies of the book. The statement says that the publisher and authors “thoroughly regret not having made it clear” that the chapter in question largely consists of a summary of book and course material. “We did in no way intend to question [the author’s] copyright and apologise to him for not having obtained the required permissions.” The author's institution has not been formally informed in the light of COPE's view that it would not be necessary to do so.
The editor and co-editors of a book have a query concerning an ethical dilemma involving possible authors for a book chapter.
The book concerns certain diseases in pregnancy and the authors have been approached to contribute a chapter. Both authors are apparently deeply religious and have expressed a strong concern about contributing to a book in which views may be expressed that are against their religious beliefs, specifically that other authors may suggest termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management. The editors would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what to do.
These are the options as the editors see them:
(1) Leave it to the authors to decide whether they wish to contribute to the book, with no reassurance by the editors as to the content of the rest of the book. This might mean the two authors concerned complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, which would be breach of contract on their part and create great difficulties for the book.
(2) Allow the authors to see proofs of all chapters and let them decide whether they wish to contribute. This would make the drawing up of contracts difficult and might mean the editors have to find replacement authors for this chapter at the very last minute.
(3) Allow the authors to include a comment in their chapter that they do not approve of some of the content of the book on religious grounds. However, this would be an unusual comment in the context of this chapter and may be seen as the authors imposing their religious views on a patient’s management. One could argue that if this is the case, why are they writing a chapter in the first instance? The readership may feel the same.
(4) Find other authors.
The editors intend to include a chapter in the book on ethics in cases of certain diseases in pregnancy and so they in no respect plan to brush such issues under the carpet by not including them as authors.
The advice of the COPE Forum would be appreciated.
This case sparked much lively debate and comment. Some favoured option (1) but suggested contacting the authors, informing them of the content of the rest of the book, and leaving the decision up to them. Some advised getting assurances from the authors up front that they would not complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, and if none is forthcoming then ask them not to contribute (ie, option (4)). Others thought option (4) was the most sensible. However, some Forum members suggested that from the point of view of the reader, option (3) was the most interesting. Some likened it to a conflict of interest. However, others questioned whether not mentioning termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management would make the chapter clinically useless. Is the editor confident that the authors can present their subject in an unbiased and complete manner? All agreed that this was a very interesting case and all thought option (2) was inappropriate.
In 1997 a book was published (in Italian) on the life of an Italian composer, assembled through analysis of his mummified remains. Author A contributed a chapter on anthropological analysis (chapter X) and author B co-authored a chapter on paleopathology (chapter Y).
In 2003, our journal published an article (in English) co-authored by author B on the paleopathology of the same composer.
In 2006, the journal received a complaint from author A, who accused author B of plagiarising chapter X in the journal article. We now have copies of both texts with the similar text highlighted (by author A). The publishing editor has contacted author B on numerous occasions for an explanation with no response.
As authors A and B work at the same institute and author A has inferred that this is not an isolated incident, the editor has been advised to contact the institute with details of this specific allegation.
However, we were interested to note that advice from our legal department clearly stated that plagiarism could only be proven if the alleged plagiarism was word-for-word the same as the original text, with the implication that as the text was in a different language, plagiarism could not be proven. Have any other committee members encountered plagiarism in different languages and, if so, how was it proven/resolved and what advice can you provide.
The committee unanimously agreed that this was indeed a case of plagiarism. Plagiarism does not have to be word-for-word the same, and plagiarism can be proven even in two different languages. The advice was to seek more legal advice as it is possible that the legal department may be confusing copyright with plagiarism.
As the authors involved worked at the same institution, the heads of the relevant departments were approached by the publishing editor and asked to try to resolve the matter internally.
They investigated the situation and agreed that the accusation of plagiarism could not be sustained, although author B should have included a citation to author A’s book chapter in the journal article. It has been agreed that an erratum to the journal article can be published to correct this oversight. Both authors and both faculty heads have approved this decision and the matter can be considered resolved.