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.
Most plagiarism cannot be judged solely by the similarities discovered when using CrossCheck. Based on experience of cross checking more than 2000 manuscripts from approximately 50 countries in different parts of the world per year, this project aims to provide 3-5 typical cases of cross checked plagiarism in three different disciplines covered by the Journal of Zhejjiang University-SCIENCE A/B/C (http://www.zju.edu.cn/jzus/) (JZUS-A: Applied Physics and Engineering; JZUS-B: Biomedicine and Biotechnology; JZUS-C: Computers and Electronics).
In April 2014, our journal received a case report from author A with co-authors B, C, D and E. After undergoing a first round of revisions pertaining only to the paper’s format, author A excluded co-authors C, D, and E from the revised version and retained co-author B, without notifying the journal of this change. After this change, the manuscript underwent the complete evaluation process, comprising peer review and revisions by the authors. It was accepted for publication in July 2014.
During the evaluation process, author A included two new co-authors (authors F and G). The paper was published in November 2014 with author A and co-authors B, F and G. From the time of manuscript submission until publication, the excluded co-authors C, D and E did not contact the journal or send any requests or comments regarding their authorship.
In May 2015, 7 months after the case report was published, our journal received an email from a legal advocate acting on behalf of the excluded co-authors C, D and E, complaining about the attested authorship of the case report. Co-authors C, D and E claim that author A is not, in fact, the first author and assert that the correct authorship and co-authorship should include the excluded authors C, D and E as the principal authors.
We sent the complaint made by the excluded co-authors C, D, and E to author A (the corresponding author of the published version) allowing him the chance to answer all of the allegations made by the excluded co-authors. In his reply, he assured us that he was the principal author of the case report, as originally submitted, and that it has no element of plagiarism. He further assured our journal that he and the co-authors listed in the published version had written the manuscript and made all the corrections proposed by the reviewers. He stated, “We have never indulged or indulge in such silly misdoings and in order to keep the personal relationship amicable, we would like to withdraw the case report despite it being the product of hours of hard work on our part”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Although this case does not represent a clear reason for retraction (eg, redundant publication, plagiarism or clear evidence that the findings are unreliable), should we issue an expression of concern?
Is it possible for our journal to retract the case report in order to avoid serious legal problems in the near future?
There may be a case for retraction of the paper based on plagiarism, if co-authors C, D, and E claim it was their work, and then the other authors have taken that work and published it as their own. So it could be seen as plagiarism of ideas. But the authorship issue would need to be resolved before taking this action.
However, given that the study seems to be sound, some argued that the paper should not be retracted. An expression of concern may be warranted, but again, as there are no issues with the content of the paper, it may not be necessary.
Has the journal gone back to the authors and asked them why this has happened? The editor could suggest that the authors look at the journal's authorship guidelines and determine who should be listed as an author. However, the Forum agreed that it is impossible for the editor to know exactly what is going on here, and so the journal needs to contact the institution and ask them to resolve this situation. It is not the editor’s role to sort out authorship disputes. Hence the Forum recommended contacting the authors' institutions in the first instance, before taking any action.
There seemed to a failure of the journal processes here and the Forum recommended that the journal should tighten their processes and make sure that their system for checking authorship at submission is more robust. This situation could have been avoided if the journal had been in contact with all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The journal could request email addresses from all of the authors on submission of a paper, and copy all authors on all correspondence relating to the paper.
Although the journal checks for plagiarism and authorship at the submission step, they have made their processes more robust to avoid future problems. The editor-in-chief sent several messages to the corresponding author and co-authors asking them to find agreement regarding authorship, based on the journal´s authorship guidelines. Unfortunately, no response has been received. The editorial board of the journal decided to give the authors another 2 months to respond. If no response is received, and considering the corresponding author already asked for retraction, the case report will be retracted.
Follow up November 2015 The authors did not answer questions from the journal regarding authorship of their case report. The editor has not retracted the paper and considers the case now closed.
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