At the North American seminar 2019, Kath Burton (Associate Editorial Director of Arts & Humanities, Routledge, Taylor & Francis) presented the initial research findings and the solution put together on the back of some research conducted by COPE, supported by Routledge.
The aim of the research was to better understand the publication ethics needs of arts, humanities and social science journal editors, and to identify areas where they may need specific guidance and support.
The research aimed to answer the following questions:
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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.
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.
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.