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.
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A commentary was reviewed by journal A and rejected. The paper was then submitted and accepted at journal B. Journal B published the commentary. After publication, a reviewer from journal A wrote to journal B with a complaint of plagiarism. Text from his/her review was used in the commentary published in journal B
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How should the editor of journal B respond to this reviewer? • Is it plagiarism to pull text from a peer review into a manuscript? How should this be cited or credited when the reviewer is blind to the author? • The editor of journal B has often used suggestions from reviewers and not thought of it as plagiarism but rather suggestions from the reviewer to improve the manuscript. Is this correct?
This case raises the issue of who own’s peer reviews. Does the reviewer have copyright on their own report? The Forum agreed the intent is for reviewers to provide advice to authors, and this is given in good faith to improve the manuscript, regardless of where it is eventually published. It seems a little unreasonable for the reviewer to be so possessive of his comments. On the other hand, good practice would be for the author to acknowledge the work of the reviewer.
The Forum commented that there appears to be a certain amount of laziness on the part of the author in copying verbatim the text from the reviewer. The comments from the reviewer should be attributed. Hence a suggestion was to publish a correction or erratum to attribute the idea and wording to the reviewer. The editor should ensure the reviewer is happy to be named or it could be done anonymously.
Ultimately, it is up to the editor to decide on the context of the plagiarised text (in this case one line of text) and whether an erratum is needed.
The journal felt that an erratum was not necessary in this case, since the comments used from the reviewer were only one line of text. Both the reviewer and the author were contacted and made aware of the decision. The journal considers the case closed.
An article was published in July. In October, a corrigendum was published to correct large sections of unattributed text. Two weeks later the journal and publisher received a complaint from a reader who accused the author of the published article of using text from an unpublished collaborative manuscript on which the published author was participating. This participation on the collaborative work was initiated and ongoing during the time that the manuscript was being prepared for publication at the journal. The unpublished collaborative work has not yet been published.
The reader requested retraction of the published article, with the possibility of a republication only when all collaborators of the unpublished work were in agreement with the article content.
The publisher and journal initiated the procedure outlined in the COPE flowchart 'Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript'. The editor-in-chief has requested feedback from the published author on the reason for the large overlap in text.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher and journal publish an 'expression of concern' while continuing with the investigation? • Is this the correct approach in this situation?
The editor told the Forum that she had checked the articles and the degree of overlap of text was nearly 20%. The Forum warned that percentages can be misleading, and the editor needs to look carefully at where the overlap occurred (in the introduction and methods may be fine, but it can be more problematic in the results or conclusion sections).
The institution(s) may need to be involved in this case.
The Forum would advise against an expression of concern on the article as these are generally used for ongoing unresolved cases. In this case, there is nothing proven or finalised —it may ‘end’ in a correction or a retraction. Hence it may be premature to publish an expression of concern and the editor should wait for a response from the authors. There is also the issue of the negative connotations of an expression of concern and/or stigma for the author, which may be unwarranted
A suggestion was for a less permanent ‘Editor’s note’ on the article for now, written in neutral terms.
The journal’s review of the guidelines on text recycling led to the conclusion that the scientific content was not disputed, and in fact the article adds to the body of knowledge. Also, the text recycling was not in the discussion or conclusions but rather in the methodology. The journal decided not to publish an expression of concern or retract the publication. The editor considers the case closed.
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.
The author X of a paper published by journal A complained to the editor-in-chief of journal A that his/her paper has been plagiarised by a paper that has been published later by journal B. Moreover, the authors of the paper in journal B allegedly did not respond to letters sent by author X asking for an explanation about the apparent plagiarism.
The editor-in-chief of journal A compared the two papers and confirmed the plagiarism. Then s/he tried to contact the editor-in-chief of journal B, but no response was received, even after several reminders. Similarly, no more successful were attempts by a representative of the publishing house of journal A to contact any representative of the publishing house of journal B.
Author X continues to ask what journal A (where his/her plagiarised paper has been published) can do for him/her. Journal A is considering publishing either an expression of concern or a ‘note of plagiarism’ on its paper that would inform the community that the paper in journal A has been plagiarised by a paper in journal B.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is journal A entitled to publish an expression of concern or ‘note of plagiarism’ in the absence of any reaction from the author/editor-in-chief/publisher of paper B? • Can this expression of concern/note be published based only on the assessment of the editor-in-chief of journal A?
The Forum agreed that there is often little that the editor can do in these situations when another journal refuses to engage.
One suggestion was to contact the publisher of journal B if there is no response from the editor. The publisher should responsibility in these cases so escalating the issue to the publisher level should be considered. If journal B is a member of COPE, a complaint to COPE could be lodged. The editor could also consider contacting the institution of the author who had plagiarised the work.
There could be copyright issues here, with violation of copyright by journal B (if copyright was transferred to journal A by the author). Therefore, legal action could be considered.
There are instances where unscrupulous journals do not respond to these requests and in these circumstances the Forum would advise journal A to post a note on the paper. The note would also clarify which of the papers is plagiarised. The note should be worded in neutral terms. However, it is unlikely that author X would be satisfied with a note in journal A; he probably wants the paper removed from journal B. If journal A holds copyright to the plagiarised paper, then legal action may be the only option.
An author submitted a redundant publication to one of our journals. After reviewing the report from the anti-plagiarism software, we followed the COPE flowchart up to and including contacting the author's institution. We have not received a response from the author or the author's institution. Shortly afterwards, the same author submitted a (different) redundant publication to one of our other journals. We followed the same steps and have not received a response.
The institution listed in the author's submission form is not an academic one. We cannot find the author on the staff list and the only email address the author has provided is a Gmail account.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What additional steps can/should we should take if the author/institution is unresponsive?
The editor provided additional information to the Forum that the two submissions contained plagiarised material and were replications of two already published articles. The editor has written to the author and the institution but has received no response.
In such cases the Forum would normally advise approaching a higher authority than the institution if that is possible. Is there a professional body that the author belongs to or a funder that could be contacted? In the UK, for example, you might contact the General Medical Council (GMC) if the author was a registered doctor.
However, the Forum acknowledged that there is only so much the editor can do, and it may be the case that the editor has to accept that there is nothing more he can do. The Forum advised making all the journal editors aware of this person in case future submissions are received but advised against blacklisting, especially if the true identity of the author is in doubt.
The editor attempted to contact the author/institution again but to no avail. Both papers were rejected (and the journal’s concerns about the high level of textual overlap were included in that letter, following COPE sample letters). The journal considers the case closed.