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.
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As the paper was “in press”, we thought that we may be able to withdrawn it.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 Can the authors remove the figure and publish this paper or should the paper be withdrawn?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The Forum advised that the paper cannot be withdrawn—if it is available online, it is considered already published, and therefore it has to treated as published material.
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.
Author A of a 2008 review article in our journal claims her article was used as the "framework" for a 2013 review article on the same subject in an open access journal by a former student of hers, author B. There was no verbatim overlap but the format (comparison of two common conditions) was indeed similar (differential diagnosis, management, pharmacotherapy, and implications for practice).
Author A sent me the articles for comparison and stated that she thought this was plagiarism and that, furthermore, her student had no experience caring for these patients so she had misrepresented herself as an authority on this topic. The student (author B) was the first author, the second author was a physician who was well published on this topic, and "writing assistance" had been provided by a professional medical writer and paid by a pharmaceutical company that manufactures drugs in this therapeutic class. I checked both papers through iThenticate and there was no verbatim overlap between the two. I had nine members of my editorial board review and compare the articles in question along with the complaints of author A. I asked for specific comparisons (quantity and quality) of overlapping material and whether or not any overlap constituted plagiarism of ideas (not words). The editorial board concluded, as did I, that this format is fairly standard for clinical articles; content overlap likely resulted from similar content in practice guidelines for these conditions; neither article is ‘conceptually original’; and that updates of clinical review articles are a common practice (there was a 5 year gap between the articles). We found multiple articles in the literature on the same or related topics with similar resources, content, and format.
Meanwhile, author A contacted the open access journal stating that she was consulting a lawyer and she wanted author B's article “pulled and reviewed for integrity and rigor”. Within 8 days of the complaint, I wrote to author A stating that we did not find evidence of plagiarism and that I would not contact the open access journal with a claim to protect the article copyright because I did not believe it had been violated. Author A was not pleased with my response and claims she has "confirmed" with two colleagues that there are striking similarities between the articles. I reiterated based on COPE guidelines and definitions of plagiarism, there was nothing more I could do. Meanwhile, the open access journal responded to author A's email that they have "removed" the offending article by author B from their website (in fact it is still there) and they suggested she contact the author because authors retain the copyright. I referred author A to my publishing manager, who has been appraised of this investigation since the beginning, if she wishes to pursue this further.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Do I have an obligation to contact the open access journal with my findings? I am reluctant to do so given there are legal implications (lawyer contacted by author A); author B's paper has not actually been removed; and there are professional medical writers and a pharmaceutical company involved in author B's paper. I had never contacted the open access journal myself and they have not contacted me but I "feel" that I might have some responsibility to let them know that we are not making any claim.
The editor updated the Forum that the paper by author B has now been removed from the publisher’s website, with no notice of formal retraction, although it is still possible to find the paper by a search of PubMed.
The Forum suggested that the style of writing of review articles may mean that this type of issue arises. Author B may have been commissioned to write the review and asked to format it in a specific way. The Forum noted that it is possible to have plagiarism of ideas and not just words, although harder to prove, and author A may feel this is the case in this instance.
But in reality, this is an issue for the open access journal, not the editor’s journal. The editor feels that the open access journal has genuinely tried to do the right thing but has just not handled the situation correctly. Should the paper in fact have been removed at all? Was there any plagiarism? By removing the paper, without issuing a retraction, the literature has not been corrected, and if the paper was not plagiarized, then what might have been a reasonable paper is no longer available. Was the editor of the open access journal pressurized into removing the paper by author A and/or its publisher because of the threat of legal action?
Is author B aware that his paper has been pulled from the journal’s website? Author B and his colleagues may have legal redress against the open access journal. But it is up to the open access journal to inform author B.
Hence a suggestion was for the editor to reach out to this other editor, and perhaps discuss how this might have been handled differently. On a poll of the Forum audience, more than half agreed that the editor should reach out to the other editor, obtain their side of the story and perhaps then establish how proper correction of the literature can be done.
At the suggestion of the COPE Forum, the editor wrote to the managing editor of the online journal clarifying that the journal did not find any plagiarism with their published article and that the editor would not pursue any claims against the journal. The editor also noted that the article in question was missing from the home page of the journal on the publisher’s website but that it remained available on the PubMed Central site for their journal. The editor asked that the journal update her if they were conducting an investigation themselves and offered information on the COPE guidelines.
The managing editor responded thanking the editor for the clarification and explaining that the decision had been made by the publisher to remove the article in question from their website to “avoid legal complications,” which had been threatened by the complaining author. He stated he did understand that removal of the article was not recommended by COPE but because the article was still listed and retrievable on the PubMed site for their journal, they thought this was a reasonable solution. He stated he would forward the editor’s letter to the editor-in-chief and the publisher to see if this would change the decision; however, the situation remains the same. There has been no retraction of the article and the editor has not heard back from either the journal managing editor or the editor-in-chief.
FOLLOW UP (December 2014):
There has been no change in the status of the article in question and no further communication from the authors or the open access publisher. The article remains widely available and discoverable. The editor considers the case now closed.
A paper was published in our journal. A reader contacted us and informed us that the whole of the introduction of the paper was copied directly from another publication. The editor-in-chief suggested retracting the paper immediately. However, the author insists on publishing a correction. They do not want to publish a retraction as this will affect their future career development. Questions for the COPE Forum (1) What can we do? (2) Can we retract without the approval of the author? The author has threatened legal action if we retract.
The Forum agreed that this was a clear case of plagiarism, and as another journal was involved, there may also be copyright issues.
The Forum stressed that according to the COPE guidelines, an editor does not need the approval of the author to retract an article. If the editor feels there are grounds for retraction, he/she can retract the article without the author’s permission. In this case, half of the Forum favoured retracting the article, on the grounds of plagiarism and breach of copyright.
However, others argued that there are different degrees of plagiarism with different severities. Plagiarism can sometimes occur among authors whose first language is not English and who do not realise that plagiarism is unacceptable in this situation. In this case, the data are not corrupt and the plagiarism seems to have occurred solely in the introduction. If data were corrupt, the editor would be correct in reporting this to the author’s institution and retracting the author, irrespective of what the author thinks. But this case seems to be more of a mixture of naivety and lack of understanding of language on the part of the authors. Hence the advice was to publish a correction or expression of concern, and write a stern letter to the authors explaining that this type of behaviour is unacceptable.
Hence the Forum was evenly split between recommending retraction versus publishing a correction together with a firm rebuke to the authors. In the end, it is the editor’s decision, but the editor should inform all of the authors of what action he plans to undertake.
An author contacted our journal in August 2011 informing us that a paper he had published in our journal in 2005 had been published, word for word, in another journal (journal X), under a different title and author group, in 2007.
We followed the appropriate COPE flowchart and contacted the editor of journal X. The editor of journal X told us in September 2011 that he would publish a retraction and a letter submitted from the author group admitting a "disagreeable mistake".
Journal X publishes infrequently, so I checked over the past 12 months for the retraction and published letter. The notice and letter were never published and the article is still available through the journal's website and SCOPUS. I contacted the editor of journal X in October 2012 to ask him if he planned to retract the article and publish the letter, as we had agreed. He replied that the article was no longer available. I sent him the link where I was able to retrieve it and he did not reply back.
The original author of the paper contacted the author group's institution in September 2011, but he never received a response.
In the COPE flowchart for suspected plagiarism, the journal that published the plagiarized article issues a retraction; however, what should be done if that journal will not correct the record? Journal X is not a member of COPE.
The Forum noted that readers will be confused by having two versions of the paper available in the literature. Hence the advice was for the editor to publish a notice linked to the article explaining the relationship between it and the plagiarized article, which has not been retracted and is still available online. The Forum also recommended alerting the other publisher to the fact that the editor is planning on publishing this notice to see if that will make them respond and formally retract the article. The Forum agreed that there was not a lot else the editor could do but did suggest writing an editorial on this issue.
The editor contacted the editor/publisher again following the advice of the COPE Forum, attaching a notice letting him know that the journal would publish the notice if he did not retract the article. The author agreed to retract it but removed it instead from his site; it was still available in an internet search. The editor suggested he replace the original with a version that included a retraction notice and a watermark on each page that indicated the article was retracted. He agreed to this but did not know how to do it, so the journal prepared the document for him. This was done on 18 February 2013 and the journal is waiting for him to upload this version to his website.
Update (December 2013) The original article PDF and the "retraction notice" appear in a Google search; however, the retraction letter does not seem to be visible in Scopus so it has clearly not been linked correctly to the original article. As we have discussed before, this publisher appears to be ignorant of the established protocols for handling situations like this. In back-and-forth conversation with him, we did provide a PDF of the article with the retraction watermark for him and explained that the retraction notice had to link to the article. The retraction letter was not that easy to find—you would need to know what to search for to find it. No further action was ever taken by the publisher. On the plus side, their article has never been cited by any journals that are in Scopus, and our article has been cited 57 times by Scopus journals.
We do not feel that we can do any more at this point, but would be interested to hear what the Forum might say as far as whether this case should be considered closed or, if not, what more we could do.
Advice on follow up:
The Forum agreed that there was little else the editor could do. The only suggestion was that perhaps the editor should reach out to the other editor, in an effort to educate and inform on the correct course of action in a case such as this.
Suspicions were raised on 20 September 2012 by a reviewer who commented that some of the passages in a submission from Dr J were similar to an earlier paper published in our journal by the same author. An iThenticate check indicated a similarity index of 60%: however, the overlap was not from that earlier paper but from another source by a different author which had contributed 41% of the material.
This prompted an iThenticate check of the published paper, which gave a similarity index of 57%, with 45% of the material from three papers by other authors. (It should be noted that this paper was reviewed and accepted before iThenticate was available for checking incoming submissions.)
It was clear that the new submission should be rejected. The key issue was the action to be taken about the paper that had already been published.
The editor of the journal in which two of the key sources had been published kindly provided copies and the published paper was checked by hand against these two earlier papers. This check established that the iThenticate report was reasonably accurate. It appeared that one of the plagiarized papers had been used as a means to improve the quality of the English while the other had provided a framework for the reporting of the statistical results: Dr J had substituted new figures in the running text of the earlier paper.
COPE guidelines were followed and a carefully worded letter was sent asking Dr J for an explanation. In summary, his reply said that: (a) he was building on the work of the earlier authors, (b) he did not understand or mean to do it and (c) he was very sorry and would not do it again.
Dr J had made six other submissions to our journal, all of which had been rejected on the grounds of quality. iThenticate checks on these revealed similarity indexes between 66% and 77%. Typically up to three sources had been plagiarized to contribute up to 63% of the material. A search using Google Scholar identified that Dr J had published over 20 other papers in different journals since 2005.
In the light of this information, Dr J’s explanation of naivety was considered to be implausible and the decision was taken to retract the published paper. Dr J was given a final opportunity to respond and gave the same explanation for the overlap. The retraction will be published in the next issue of our journal and on the journal website. In view of the extent of the plagiarism, the decision was also taken to inform the president of his institution.
There remains the question of whether the editors of the other journals in which Dr J has published work should also be informed of this case. The editor would welcome the comments of the Forum on this issue.
Following this incident, the journal has reviewed its policy to detect and discourage plagiarism in submitted work.
As a matter of routine, the journal now checks all of the work submitted for publication using iThenticate.
Submissions that appear to include a significant amount of previously published material are investigated further to establish whether that material has been referenced and attributed appropriately.
Where the overlap is found to exceed an acceptable level, we write to the author(s) providing a link to the full report and inviting them to withdraw the submission, or alternatively to revise it extensively to reduce the overlap and to indicate where they are quoting the work of others (or their own previously published work). We also ask for their comments on the overlap.
If the author cannot provide an acceptable explanation or where the overlap is very significant, then we will immediately reject the submission.
The issue of plagiarism is being included in the Journal Reviewer Development Programme to heighten awareness of the problem within the Reviewer Panel.
We are seeking to engage in discussions and the exchange of information on plagiarism with editors of other journals in the field.
We have also retrospectively checked the overlap of all submissions currently in process and identified several others with unacceptably high similarity indexes. We are asking those authors to withdraw their submissions or to revise them to eliminate the overlap.
Of the 231 submissions that have been checked to date, 71% have an iThenticate similarity index of less than 30%. Over 12% have a similarity index in excess of 40%—the level at which iThenticate gives a plagiarism alert. Excluding the eight submissions from Dr J, there were 9% falling into this category. The remaining 16% fall in the range 30–39% and have been investigated. In all of these cases, the overlap was in acceptable quotations and in the bibliography and no further action has been taken. The, as yet unanswered, question is whether these figures are typical for an international journal.
The Forum agreed with the editor’s course of action and also agreed that the editor could contact the editors of the other journals. The editor could inform the other editors that he is retracting the paper, stating the reasons (eg sending the retraction notice), and saying that he noticed that their journals have also published papers by this author. One suggestion was that the editor could run the other papers (from the other journals) through the plagiarism detection software, but this is very time consuming.
COPE does not recommend using percentages as cut-offs for detecting plagiarism. COPE believes that each paper should be judged individually and by eye after an initial screen. Percentages can mean very different things in different disciplines and in different sections of papers. COPE is considering developing a flowchart for what to do about plagiarism detected using plagiarism detection software.
A retraction was published in the journal. There has been no further communication from the authors. As suggested by the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the editors of the other journals who had published work by the author in the past, drawing their attention to the retraction but without further comment. Most of them have understood the implications of the email. The editor considers the case closed.
The journal continues to get a significant number of papers with high similarity indices. About half are understandable (eg, a paper that makes accessible a report which received very limited circulation, derivatives of theses, etc): others are naivety.