Recently, our journal has introduced systematic analysis of all submitted manuscripts for plagiarised text, using anti-plagiarism software. We had noticed increased incidences of recycling of existing text which is why we introduced the systematic check. It turns out that a large proportion of the submitted manuscripts (an estimated 30–50%) yield positive results, with copy values of somewhere in the region of 25% to >35%. These are substantial values and certainly beyond fortuitous incidences.
However, in almost all cases it is difficult to suspect acts of conscious (self)plagiarism as the copied text (ranging from single sentences or fragments of sentences to passages of 2–3 sentences) can be attributed to a very large number of sources: often more than 60, and in one case 129 different sources. It looks as if copying text containing what is perceived as elegant expressions has become a means of improving lack of language skills.
In principle, there is no issue of scientific fraud or even plagiarism of ideas or concepts to be suspected. But also in principle, a text that consists of one-third of passages that can be attributed to other sources is not satisfactory and is not what we would consider good scientific writing practice. The question is how to deal with these cases that we see in a quickly growing number? It is not fair to authors who produce good science to penalise them for trying to cope with their limited language skills. It is not fair either, to give the advantage of facility to those authors who easily copy from existing work, over those authors who make the conscious effort to avoid such doubtful practice.
Presently, when significant proportions of text have been copied from a large number of sources (as mentioned above), I do not take this into account when making a decision based on the science of the paper but inform the authors that we consider this a doubtful practice that should be avoided in future manuscripts.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What kind of coherent policy should the journal have on this issue? • Have any COPE members had experience with similar situations?
The Forum advised that any policy or process should be based on the context of the content. Choosing a particular benchmark or cut-off for anti-plagiarism software is unreliable, and the a granular reading of the text is often needed to understand the level of copied text. Clearly duplication is more worrying in the results section of a paper compared with the introduction or materials and methods. If large sections of text are duplicated in the discussion/conclusions section of a paper, that would raise concerns.
In terms of technical issues related to the anti-plagiarism software, it is advisable to remove stock phases before running the software. The editor may wish to decide on what size of strings of words to exclude.
The Forum suggested that the editor’s current policy seems very reasonable. In addition, a suggestion was to look carefully at attribution. If large sections of consecutive sentences are not attributed, that could be problematic and the editor may wish to ask the author for an explanation. It is more serious when the words and ideas an author has reproduced are not their own.
The Forum also advised considering the type of paper—in a research paper, the editor may feel that borrowed phases can be overlooked, but this may be unacceptable in a review paper if the author is purporting the presentation of novel ideas.
Regarding a process, the Forum suggested the editor may want to clearly state the journal policy in the instructions to authors, to head off similar cases in the future. The editor should continue to check all submitted manuscripts for plagiarism and duplicated text using anti-plagiarism software; reject those with moderate/major overlap of text; if malicious intent is suspected, contact the author’s institution; if the authors are junior researchers, consider asking them to rewrite passages and re-submit.
There is a role for the institution in these cases as they govern the behaviour of their researchers. Institutions need to investigate any such cases, and educate and support those who are unaware of good practice. Hence the editor should contact the institution if he suspects misconduct or if he believes that good publication practices need to be reinforced. This is especially true if the editor sees patterns emerging within particular institutions or countries; it is up to the institution to investigate these practices. Collective awareness raising of the issue is needed among authors and institutions.
The editor believes the case is closed although he remarks that unfortunately the phenomenon has not gone away and new examples crop up almost every day.
Plagiarism is a growing issue in scientific publishing domain. Information technology has immensely increased the accessibility of source literature, simultaneously making plagiarism easier then ever, but it has also enabled the development of plagiarism detection software tools. In order to detect and prevent plagiarism, we designed a research project to investigate two issues: the prevalence of plagiarism and attitudes towards plagiarism in the scientific community.
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We received a review paper and it was accepted and published on our website. We then noticed that one of the figures had been copied from a paper published in another journal.
Before publication, we asked the authors if the figures were original or if they needed references, and the authors responded that they were original. After confirmation of the similarity of one figure to a published figure, we contacted the corresponding author again and he/she said they had not seen the paper and it was submitted by a student.
As the paper was “in press”, we thought that we may be able to withdrawn it. We contacted the research deputy of our university and the author’s university but we have received no reply.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is this major plagiarism? Can the authors remove the figure and publish this paper or should the paper be withdrawn? • Should we contact the author’s university again?
The Forum agreed that there are two issues here: the authorship issue and the plagiarized figure. Regarding the plagiarized figure, there may be copyright issues, so the editor may like to consider contacting a Copyright Clearance Centre to obtain permission to publish the figure in a review article. The editor may decide that the use of one figure is not a major plagiarism issue and he may wish to educate, rather than punish, the author. The editor should emphasize to the author that having permission to use the figure is not the same as having permission to publish it. It is acceptable to re-use a figure if the author has permission and if the original figure is cited. But the potential copyright issue may be more serious than the plagiarism issue. This can sometimes depend on the nature and complexity of the figure itself and whether the author has made an honest attempt to redraw the figure.
Regarding the authorship issue, the Forum suggested contacting the institution. It is up to the institution to resolve the author dispute.
The Forum advised that the paper cannot be withdrawn—if it is available online, it is considered already published, and therefore it has to treated as published material.
In October 2014 it came to our attention via one of the reviewers of a manuscript submitted to our journal that an identical article (100% identical) had been previously published on the website of the author. The submitting author had not made us aware in their submission documentation that the article had been publicly available on their website at the point of submission. Two different but related issues arise from this.
Firstly, as it is the journal’s policy to conduct blind peer reviews of each submission received, it is impossible to uphold this policy where submissions already exist, as does the present one, in an identical form in the public domain. Secondly, there is an issue of self-plagiarism. In academic contexts, it is not permissible to re-use identical copy for multiple submissions, and would in all likelihood be regarded as a case of academic misconduct.
We have consulted the COPE website for advice but there does not appear to be a comparable case whereby the original identical article is in the public domain but not previously published in another journal. We are also aware of the various definitions and types of plagiarism and self-plagiarism which render the details of this case a grey area (COPE Discussion Document: How should editors respond to plagiarism http://publicationethics.org/files/Discussion%20document.pdf), and that copyright and rights of author issues may apply.
In summary, both co-editors of the journal consider that this case constitutes self-plagiarism and possibly redundant/duplicate publication according to the COPE Case Taxonomy (http://publicationethics.org/cope-case-taxonomy). The two COPE case taxonomy areas we refer to in this case are: o ‘Self-plagiarism’ (submitted article)—reusing one’s own previous writing without being transparent about this or appropriately referencing/quoting from the original” and o ‘Prior Publication’—The publication, or attempted publication, of whole or substantial parts of the work/data/analysis that have already been published, or have been submitted elsewhere, without transparency or appropriate declaration/referencing.
We have contacted the author, forwarding the two peer reviewers’ comments which both contained major revisions to the manuscript, also pointing out that we are aware of the existence of the article on the author’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum We would be grateful for the Forum’s advice on:
Whether to pursue this as we would a case of self-plagiarism of a previously published journal article (ie, reject the paper) or whether it would suggest an alternative course of action(s).
The other related issue is the publication of ‘green copies’. While many journals, including our own, now encourage authors to make their own author copy available on public forums (eg, researchgate, institutional fora), such publication would normally take place after the publication of an article in a journal and not before. It is our concern that better policies need to be developed around prior publication.
The Forum advised that it is up to the editor and the journal to decide what they regard as prior publication. Journals should provide guidance on their website, detailing what they do and do not consider prior publication. Many journals provide lists of what they consider prior publication, and these lists vary greatly from journal to journal, and between different disciplines.
It is crucial that every journal discusses this at the editorial level and decide what they consider to be prior publication and then puts this information on their website and on the online submission system. There is no general guidance on what is considered prior publication—it has to be an individual journal decision. In some areas prepublication posting is encouraged, and may be required eg for clinical trials. This is a rapidly changing area and journals should be prepared to modify their policies over time, with the increasing number of prior publication options becoming available (eg, blogs, preprint servers). This does raise issues in relation to blind peer review.
Regarding the present case, if the journal has not been explicit about what it considers prior publication, it may be difficult to accuse the author of self-plagiarism or duplicate publication. The author may reasonably state that he was unaware of the journal policy. Some members of the Forum noted that they would normally allow this form of prior publication but there should be a link to the previous version, and the author should have made the journal aware of the previous publication.
Other members of the Forum stated that they would definitely consider this prior publication, and would reject the paper.
So the editors needs to decide for themselves what they consider to be appropriate for their journal and their discipline.
There is an initiative called CrossMark, available for publishers, which provides a “version of record”, making it very clear which is the published version with linking to any other versions.
The editorial decision was to reject the manuscript in its current form, but offering the author the option of resubmitting the article following a substantial and complete reworking of the manuscript to include all of the feedback from the reviewers. The editors confirmed that they would require every one of the reviewers’ suggestions to be addressed in any resubmission, and that they did not guarantee acceptance of the resubmitted manuscript, which would be subject to further review by the same reviewers as previously. To date the journal has not received a reworked new version of the manuscript.
Journal A has accepted a meta-analysis for publication. As is standard practice for many articles accepted in this journal, a key expert (Professor X) in the relevant field was invited to submit a commentary on the paper. Professor X expressed concerns to the journal that “we believe that some of the papers included in the review could be either fabricated or at best are heavily plagiarised”. The papers included in the meta-analysis are all primary studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
Journal A requested some evidence for the concerns raised by Professor X.
Professor X has already tried to investigate the potential research misconduct of the primary studies. He sent a comparison of five studies, three of which were included in the meta-analysis accepted by journal A. Professor X claims strong evidence of plagiarism, and questions whether the trials took place at all. He also notes that he has previously written to the authors of the trials but says that few have responded. Those that did respond, he believes, have failed to provide reassuring responses.
Example response from authors sent to Professor X include the following: “The work has been actually undertaken after proper clearance. And details of the same are available with the competent authority.” “We don't want to be get disturbed as I discussed with our main author.” “Excuse us..Bye”.
Journal A has now halted publication of the meta-analysis.
The editors of journal A are unsure how to proceed, as the potential research misconduct lies with research not submitted to the journal, but rather primary studies included as part of a meta-analysis submitted based on the “available data”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum (1) How do we establish whether or not the primary studies are fabricated? (2) Is it journal A’s responsibility to pursue this investigation or should it be the responsibility of the journals in which the primary studies are published? (3) How should journal A proceed with managing the meta-analysis accepted for publication?
The Forum was told that the editor has not yet contacted the authors of the meta-analysis. The advice from the Forum was to raise the concerns with the authors initially. The editor has a responsibility to act on the information that he has, and the first thing to do is contact the authors of the meta-analysis.
The editor also needs to be sure that the evidence from the expert is sound, regarding the fact that some of the papers in the meta-analysis are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, before he draws any conclusions. The Forum suggested gathering more opinions on the meta-analysis and perhaps eliciting help from members of the editorial board. Why was the paper accepted in the first instance? Did the reviewers suspect anything untoward with the paper? The editor should go back to the reviewers and ask their opinions and also ask their advice on the response from the key expert.
The Forum cautioned against the practice of blindly re-analysing data for inclusion in a meta-analysis, without obtaining the original data, so the authors of the meta-analysis need to take some responsibility here.
Unfortunately for the authors, their paper is in limbo while there are questions over the paper. One suggestion was to ask the authors to re-do the meta-analysis using only the data that are not under suspicion.
Ultimately, it will be up to the journals in which the primary studies were published to investigate the fabricated and/or plagiarised papers, but journal A should initiate the investigation by contacting these journals. It will be the responsibility of the other journals to see that an investigation is carried out but journal A should follow the events. Of course, if the other journals refuse to investigate, there is little that the editor can do.
In summary, the Forum agreed that the editor should contact the authors and the reviewers of the meta-analysis in the first instance. If the editor has sufficient evidence that some of the papers are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, he should then contact the journals where the primary studies were published and ask them to investigate.