We received a complaint from an author claiming that her PhD thesis had been plagiarized in a journal article. After many discussions, the editorial office decided that the authors should resolve this issue among themselves, as it was an author dispute. After further correspondence, the editorial office is now also saying that because the thesis is not published anywhere, there is no need to cite it in the reference list. The instructions for authors state that: "The list of references should only include works that are cited in the text and that have been published or accepted for publication. Personal communications and unpublished works should only be mentioned in the text."
There are many opinions/views/cases available on different websites. But the prevailing view seems to be that any document, whether an unofficial discussion piece (or an unpublished thesis?), must be cited. What is the opinion of the COPE Forum?
The Forum were unanimous in their assertion that the PhD thesis should be cited. Even if the PhD thesis is unpublished, it should still be cited. It counts as a type of publication. The intellectual property belongs to the authors, so their rights may have been violated.
However, the editor raised another issue. The Forum were told by the editor that one of the authors of the paper is a supervisor of the PhD thesis. Hence there may be incorrect author attribution here. Should the author of the PhD thesis in fact be an author on the paper? At this point it is impossible for the editor to sort this out, so the editor should contact the institution with this information, presented in a neutral way, without making any accusations. The institution need to investigate who owns the data. Following the investigation, the editor may have to publish a correction. In the meantime, one suggestion was to publish an expression of concern in the journal.
The editor sent the advice of the COPE Forum to the complaining author who said he would discuss the possibility of publishing an erratum with the authors of the article. The editor is awaiting a response.
Follow up (September 2013):
In the end, the author concerned decided that he did not want to escalate the case to the university authorities. This editor considers the case now closed.
Author F published a single case report (CR1) in my journal. A few months later, I received a letter from author G who claimed that the case published by author F was a verbatim copy of his case report published in another journal H. On comparison of the documents it was obvious that CR1 was an exact reproduction of the article of author G. More than 90% of the sentences overlapped in both articles and even the clinical photographs were identical. The case report by author G was published 6 years before the publication of CR1. Both authors work in different institutions that are more than 500 km apart. Neither journal is indexed in Pubmed and journal H is not a member of COPE.
I contacted author F but received no reply to multiple emails. I also contacted the editor of journal H and informed my editorial board members about the case. One of the associate editors recognised author F’s name from another case report which had been accepted for publication at the journal. This second case report (CR2) had been reviewed and recommended by reviewers and no one suspected plagiarism. Following some research into this matter, the associate editor found that CR2 was an exact copy of another article by author P published in journal H. Publication of the article by author P predated the submission of CR2 by 7 years. In CR2, the text and clinical photographs were identical to the article of author P. As the journal is not indexed in any major database, no one had detected the plagiarism. We were able to stop publication of the second case (fortunately the manuscript was in the queue for the printer but had not yet been published).
It seems author F is habituated to plagiarism. It is not known how many such plagiarised papers he has published in various journals. Apparently, author F has never published any papers in journals indexed in Pubmed, suggesting he is aware of what he is doing.
What advice would COPE offer regarding this case?
The Forum agreed that this appears to be a clearcut case of plagiarism. The editor should retract the article. The Forum advised the editor to consult COPE’s retraction guidelines, which are published on the COPE website. The editor should state in the retraction notice the reason for the retraction. The Forum also advised the editor to follow the COPE flowchart on “Suspected plagiarism in a published article”. As well as retracting the article, the editor should consider contacting the author’s institution and informing them of the author’s misconduct. The Forum advises against any sanctions or blacklisting of authors because of the risk of legal consequences.
A paper was published with four authors from two universities and the contact author provided an exclusive license form on behalf of all of the authors. After publication, one of the authors contacted the editor claiming a case of plagiarism. The claim is that the published paper was a direct copy of an MSc thesis which this person had supervised 7 years previously. Complications arise in that the first author of the paper was the MSc student, now working at the other university, and the complainant was an author of the published paper. Thus apparently the authors included the person whose work was being plagiarised and the supervisor of that work, who is also complaining about the publication of the paper. The claim was that the other authors had plagiarised the MSc thesis and had no right to publish the material.
As editor, I was asked to take action but my only route was to contact the authors by e-mail. I received an email from the corresponding author assuring me that all procedures had been correctly followed and also an email from the first author, the MSc student on whose thesis the paper was based and now a PhD student with the corresponding author's university, stating that he was happy with the publication. However, I have had another co-author request the paper they have been included on be delayed as they had not known of its submission until we contacted them. The author making the complaint states that the work belongs to him, not his student, but I understand that an MSc is written by the student and is the student's own work hence the student would have copyright and the right to subsequently publish papers from the MSc data. Additionally, the system we use automatically informs all authors and co-authors on submission of a paper that the paper has been submitted so the delay is also a problem.
What actions are possible?
The advice from the Forum, in the editor’s absence, was to contact the author’s institution, informing them of the situation, and request that they conduct an investigation. It is not for the editor to resolve the situation.
I am seeking advice on a confidential ‘letter of concern’ from an author (X) of a manuscript submitted before I was appointed editor of the journal but rejected by me on the advice of the associate editor.
Author X is concerned with similarities or parallels between his manuscript, rejected in 2008, and a recently published article. I have looked over our file and contacted the associate editor who handled the manuscript. One of the authors of the published article, author Y, was in fact a reviewer of the manuscript by author X and recommended rejection, as did two other reviewers. In the opinion of the associate editor, there are clear parallels between the article by author Y and the manuscript by author X, but these seem to be the result of common research interests rather than appropriation of ideas or data.
Author Y has published previously on this subject. Both authors X and Y are well established scientists, although from somewhat different disciplines. At this point, it is my view that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript but has not appropriated ideas or data. Unfortunately, our system at the time of this review did not include explicit guidelines on conflicts of interest. I can also imagine that the reviewer would have assumed that his overlapping interests were obvious from his previous publications.
My options seem to be the following: (1) Reply to author X, acknowledging the parallels but communicating the view of the associate editor that there has not been appropriation of ideas or data. (To acknowledge the apparent undeclared conflict of interest would seem to violate reviewer Y’s anonymity.).
(2) As above, but ask author X if he wishes to make a more formal complaint (waiving his own confidentiality), in which case we would need more specific details about the suspected appropriation of ideas or data.
(3) Write first to reviewer Y and request a response to the ‘letter of concern’. However, I do not think this is appropriate, given that author X indicated his communication was confidential.
I have consulted the COPE flowchart but find that the issue of a conflict of interest is not well covered.
The Forum agreed that this was a case of reviewer misconduct and the editor should follow the flowchart on ‘What to do if you suspect reviewer misconduct’. The editor should contact author X and ask him to provide as much evidence as possible and then the editor can assess the situation. The Forum agreed that the editor’s best course of action was (2) above. If the case cannot be resolved, the editor might consider contacting the author’s institution.
A separate issue is that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript and the Forum agreed that the editor could contact author Y informing him of this.
This is a complicated case which involves possible plagiarism, double submission and reviewer misconduct. The timeline is as follows:
In year n, a paper P1 authored by A1 and A2 was published in the English language journal X. The paper describes a theoretical analysis of a particular phenomenon.
In year n+6, paper P2 was published in a non-English language outlet by authors A3 et al, which cites P1, but carries essentially the same scientific message.
In year n+8, A3 et al submitted paper P3 to conference Y without referencing P1 or P2. The main content of the paper was essentially the same as that in P1. This paper was awarded a best student paper prize at the conference and journal X, which has an arrangement with conference Y to fast track “extended” versions of best papers , invited submission of such an extended version. Journal Z, unbeknown to journal X, also invited a paper to be published in journal Z based on P3.
In year n+8, paper P4 was published in journal Z; the paper did not cite P1 and was only a very minor extension of P2; under journal X’s rules, P4 would have been rejected as not being sufficiently different from P3 since conference Y is regarded as archival in the field. The editors-in-chief of journal Z were two of the reviewers of P3.
In November year n+8, A3 et al submitted paper P5 to journal X. P5 has the same theoretical content as papers P1–P4, but also has a new experimental section, which does make a new contribution. P5 does reference P1, but only incidentally and does not properly acknowledge that the theoretical content of P5 has previously appeared in P1 (or indeed in P2–P4). The editor-in-chief of journal X was not alerted to the overlap with the previous papers by the two reviewers (who were, in fact, the editors of journal Z). It is not a coincidence that the reviewers of P5 were the same as for P3 since this is part of the journal’s fast tracking process. The editor-in-chief of journal X accepted the paper and it was published in year n+9.
Around 6 years later, journal X (with two new editors-in-chief) received two independent complaints that P5 contains large sections of material plagiarised from P1, noting that although P1 is referenced, the reference is not sufficient. Journal X starts investigations. Two editorial board members and an independent reviewer confirm the facts as stated above. One of the complaints was submitted in the form of a paper for publication; at present, this has not been sent out for review but is simply being treated as additional evidence/confirmation of plagiarism. (We have recently discovered that this paper has been posted on a web site devoted to plagiarism discussions.)
The co-authorship has changed over the papers P2–P5. A3 is constant (although not always first author) but the “et al” changes. Of particular note is that the authors of P3 are not a subset of P5, despite the fact that content-wise P3 is a subset of P5.
P5 has become highly cited and A3, although junior at the time of submission of P2–P5, has become well known with many papers and sits on the editorial board of journals. This should of course not affect our action, but it is worth noting that our decision could have a significant impact.
A3 has admitted in a non-English language web site that he was invited to submit a revised version of P2 to journals X and Y.
One of the complainants has just pointed us to another publication by A3 et al in a foreign language journal which again appears to have a high degree of overlap, published in the same year as P3 and P4. At the time of submission of this case we have not yet contacted A3 or the referees of P5.
Questions for COPE:
It is clear that the theoretical part of P5 is effectively plagiarised as the reference to P1 is insufficient. How severe should our response be?
There is some element of double submission (P4, P5): is this worth pursuing?
Should we take any action against the reviewers of P5 who have arguably acted unethically, or at least less than ideally?
Other comments are welcome on this complex case.
The Forum discussed this complicated case and agreed that there was some culpability on the part of the editors, given that authors A1 and A2’s work was plagiarised, there was redundant publication and possibly dual submission. The advice was to contact authors A1 and A2 and solicit their opinion. This will give the editor a stronger case against author A3. For multiple papers, the editor should assess the level of overlap and consider retraction of the second paper if the overlap is unacceptable. A3 was a junior author but was also the supervisor on the paper but it may be that publication practices were not correctly understood. The advice from the Forum was to address the plagiarism issue. If there is an acceptable explanation, then the editor should consider the less serious offense of redundant publication. Or the editor may wish to issue a correction, mentioning that papers P1 and P2 should have been cited in the other articles.
We sent a letter to the author A3, setting out our concerns and asking for a response. We also followed the advice from COPE to contact the authors (A1 and A2) of the allegedly plagiarised article. One of these two authors (A1) replied (the other is now emeritus) and said that they had already been contacted by A3 asking for their help in defending the charges. A1 confirmed our view—essentially that the paper did replicate ideas without proper acknowledgement. He was perhaps inclined to be lenient to a junior researcher and regard it as ‘unintentional plagiarism’ but left the decision to us of course. A3 replied, heavily defending their position both on the count of plagiarism and that of double submission. This response was reviewed by the Editors-in-Chief and the two editorial board members who had advised initially as well as the same external referee.
Our conclusion was that the charge of double submission could be dropped (since P3 contains sufficient novel material) but there was definitely inadequate reference to the earlier paper in the theoretical part of the paper. We also decided that there was sufficient novel (and interesting and important) novel material in the paper so that a retraction was inappropriate. We therefore wrote to A3 et al again asking them to sign a short note to be published in the journal acknowledging the inadequate reference to prior work, and apologising for this (we also said that if no response was received we would publish the note in the names of the editor in chiefs. This note also (implicitly) acknowledges that no citation was made to P1 in P3 published in conference Y.
We have recently had a response from A3 et al, agreeing in principle to sign an apology note to be published, but disputing the exact extent of what was to be apologised for. We are currently reviewing these questions within the Editorial Board and will respond to A3 et al shortly.
We also considered the issue of possible unethical behaviour by the editors of journal Z who published paper P4 and who reviewed P3 for journal X. We have decided not to pursue this further owing to lack of hard evidence.
It seems that the substantive issues have now been addressed and the case can probably be regarded as closed (subject to our final editorial board review).
An article was published online (e-pub), and a reader notified the editor about a section of the abstract that was taken from a review article published in another journal by different authors. Subsequent analysis of the e-pub manuscript found sections plagiarised from additional articles, often with citations but not quotation marks. Some sections were from manuscripts previously published by the authors in question.
At least seven articles were used to compile the entire manuscript: one for the abstract, four for the introduction, one for the results and one for the discussion. Overall the data look original but sections of the text are obviously not and have been in the literature for at least 13 years (1996). The authors have not been contacted to date.
The COPE options for plagiarism are retraction and public admission. The grey area is how to treat the situation as the science does not appear to be flawed, only how it is presented as the big picture. While the case clearly involves plagiarism (true plagiarism, self-plagiarism and unquoted use of text), there is no way to ensure the science is fairly presented while the authors are reprimanded.
Accepting current e-publication status and future print publication of this manuscript as is, inadvertently declares that the publishing journal accepts partially plagiarised work; retraction limits the release of original science.
The editor told the Forum that the article is in the process of being retracted. The Forum emphasised the fact that, in this case, all authors should agree to the retraction, and the reason for the retraction must be stated. In this case, the editor is convinced that the data are not fraudulent. This must be stated in the retraction notice. Hence the retraction notice should say that the editor is satisfied that the data are not fraudulent but that the article contains plagiarised material. Repetition of the introduction or discussion sections of an article is less of an issue that repetition of the results section. The advice was to consult the COPE retraction guidelines, published on 1 December. The Forum advised the editor that you cannot rely too heavily on software that detects plagiarism. It has to be a judgement call on the part of the editor. Self-plagiarism can be a grey area—the author must cite previous papers otherwise there may be a breach of copyright. The Forum questioned whether the authors really understood that they need to re-write language in their own words—does the paper just need to be better edited? Other advice was to contact the author’s institution, informing them of the situation.
Most authors were contacted, with the exception of the first author. A retraction of the article was made initially, and a statement was generated according to the legal guidelines established by the publisher, and was agreed by the corresponding authors and editors. The authors were given the option to resubmit a rewritten manuscript using the same data as there was no evidence of fraud or plagiarism in the results. Upon resubmission of said re-written text, the sections initially highlighted as having been plagiarised were modified but additional, similar sections of plagiarism were detected elsewhere in the manuscript. The revised work was immediately rejected.
A review paper (paper 1) was published in journal A. A review paper on the same subject (paper 2) by a different author was published in my journal (journal B) later in the same year. The authors of paper 1 and the editor of journal A informed me that paper 2 had in part been plagiarised from paper 1.
I as editor of journal B looked to the COPE flowchart for guidance and I wrote to the author of paper 2 for an explanation. Although I did not consider the author’s explanation satisfactory, I felt uncertain whether this was a case of “minor” or “major” plagiarism based on the fact that the paragraphs copied verbatim from paper 1 constituted only a small fraction of paper 2 and because this was a review paper and not original data.
I then contacted COPE and the chair of COPE gave me some personal advice. I was advised that plagiarism is not a matter of percentages but of principle and to take another look at the flowchart and decide if the author had given a satisfactory explanation for the “overlap”. If there was no satisfactory explanation, I should consider a retraction and informing the author’s institution.
In considering what to do, I was advised to take account of COPE’s guidelines and code of conduct under the headings of encouraging integrity of the academic record and pursuing misconduct..
Based on the advice communicated to me, the journal decided to retract the paper and to inform the dean of the author’s institution about this incident. The retraction note has been published online (and will also be printed in the next possible print issue).
The authors’ institution has established a high-ranking committee to look into this matter, consisting of the dean, the rector and representatives from the Academy of Sciences.
This case is for information only and was not discussed at the COPE Forum.
This is a report of two cases of possible misconduct by the same author(s): one that was identified during the review process and one only after it was published.
We believe the author tried to publish a paper that was a verbatim copy of one that had appeared in another journal a few years earlier. A vigilant reviewer of the “copied” paper alerted the editor that, on verifying the references, he had found that the paper was a carbon copy of an already published article. Having realised that the author and the same graduate student had already published a paper in our journal a year before, we took the time to search the literature for any IP violation from the first paper. We discovered that the paper already published in our journal was a verbatim (not a single word or graph changed) copy of another one.
Also, one of the two reviewers who accepted the first paper that was published in our journal was the author of the original paper from which it was copied. Did he accept it inadvertently, not recognising his own original publication, albeit after a few years? Was he in collusion because he was a friend or a compatriot “wanting to help”?
We then wrote to the authors informing them of the two discoveries and requesting an explanation, an apology or retraction, and notifying them that we may contact the University President about their unethical behaviour. The senior author withdrew the paper being currently reviewed but nothing else. We then wrote to his University’s President, only to discover a couple of weeks later, through a more thorough search, that he was indeed the University President.
We then wrote to the Ambassador (High Commissioner) of this person’s country, explaining the incident and the cloud of suspicion such behaviour (far from being isolated) would bring to science from their country. What we found particularly repulsive is how a professor can act like this, in collusion with graduate students. We received no response despite a reminder. We then decided to write to the President of that country directly, as he was known as an eminent mathematician. We got no response. Finally, we wrote to the President of the Maths Society of that country but again no response was received.
The first published paper was retracted from our journal and the guilty authors were named. We also informed 6–7 journals in our field not to accept any papers from this individual or his group.
I would be very curious to know what COPE would bring to cases like these (denunciation, banishment, penalties, general alert?).
The Forum congratulated the editor on his handling of the case and considered that this was a model way of proceeding under the circumstances. The Forum noted that it can be very disheartening to follow-up on these inquiries when no response is forthcoming. It was suggested that the editor could now mention the fact that he has brought the case to COPE - sometimes this elicits a response. The Forum wondered how the reviewer did not spot the plagiarism and suggested looking into the reviewer’s conduct. Another suggestion was to see if the author belongs to a society or association that the editor could lodge a complaint with. Other advice was to write an editorial in the journal highlighting the issue. This could be done anonymously and would demonstrate to the reader that the journal’s system is working and also that this type of misconduct will not be tolerated by the journal. The Forum also agreed that it would enhance the reputation of the journal. The Forum reiterated COPE’s general view that it doesn’t endorse sanctions against authors.
I am a trainer and author of books on medical writing. It was brought to my attention that a chapter in a German-language book published in Switzerland was based almost entirely on my teaching. The first author is director of a privately funded research institution and the second author a member of staff. The second author attended one of my courses. There is a general statement at the beginning of the chapter where the authors ‘refer to’ me (with a reference to one book and my website) and one other specific reference when they talk about macro and micro editing. However, there is one diagram copied from a course overhead and some original research published without reference, including a table reproduced directly from one of my books without acknowledging the source. Descriptions of several other specific concepts from my work (eg, storyboarding, 2-7-7-6) that appear in the chapter to be theirs, not mine. At one stage they write ‘We recommend’ giving a clear implication that it is theirs to recommend.
The authors did not seek permission from me or the publisher of my book. Their publisher has been contacted, and says that the work is not a piece of plagiarism but a homage, that the two references are sufficient, and that the author’s only mistake is leaving off an acknowledgment on one of the tables, which they will remedy at the next printing.
(1) Have the authors acted unethically? (2) Do I have an ethical duty to take this further, or should I just continue to enjoy my retirement?
The Forum unanimously agreed that the authors’ actions were unethical. Failure to ask permission is a form of misconduct. Some argued that it would be reasonable to sue for breach of copyright and that the author should contact his publisher and international distributor. The Forum agreed that this is a form of plagiarism but that there are degrees of plagiarism so the question arises as to how much harm has been done. The Forum reasoned that whether or not the complainant takes this matter forward by informing the plagiarists’ employers depends very much on how much he cares about protecting his intellectual property.
The publishers have now written an erratum in German that will be inserted in all remaining copies of the book. The statement says that the publisher and authors “thoroughly regret not having made it clear” that the chapter in question largely consists of a summary of book and course material. “We did in no way intend to question [the author’s] copyright and apologise to him for not having obtained the required permissions.” The author's institution has not been formally informed in the light of COPE's view that it would not be necessary to do so.
It has been drawn to our attention that a paper published in a high-impact journal in the field of biological sciences (Journal A) draws very heavily on research published in the lower-impact factor journal for which we work (Journal B), as well as on work published in other journals. One of the authors of the paper in Journal B has contacted the editor of Journal A to register his/her concerns, as have several other high profile scientists in the field, including some whose work has also been appropriated. These scientists have each asked Journal A to investigate the peer review process for the paper in question. The author of the paper in Journal B has also asked the editor of Journal A if s/he might write a piece, to be published in Journal A, to ‘set the record straight’. This request was denied. Journal A, instead, suggested the author post a comment about the paper online on Journal A’s website, which would be of lower visibility than the article of concern itself.
·Should Journal A accede to the request to publish a response by the author of the paper in Journal B? Such a response would place the article of concern in the context of previously published data and hypotheses, and engage readers in the debate about the provenance of the published theories. If this is not published as a mini-review, as requested by the author, then would it be appropriate for it to appear in another form in the published journal that is equal in profile to the paper in question?
·Should Journal A have offered to conduct an investigation into how the paper in question was peer reviewed to allay the concerns of the scientists who have contacted them to request this?
This case prompted much debate among the Forum with several different views being proposed. However, all agreed that the peer review process is notoriously bad at detecting fraud or most forms of misconduct and is not really the issue here. Moreover, it is not open to complainants to demand an editor review their journal’s peer review system. The focus should be more on defending the reputation of the authors. In the absence of an ombudsman for Journal A and the fact that it does not appear to have a printed letters section, most of the Forum agreed that the authors should accept Journal A’s offert to post a comment on their website. Once the issue is in the public domain, it can be discussed and debated.
However, others argued that it was not sufficient for the authors to post a comment on the website because it is not citable, does not have a doi and so would not be linked to the original article. The authors should complain to the editor and ask him or her again to publish their response; but it was pointed out that you cannot force an editor to publish.
COPE’s code of conduct states that editors have a duty to “encourage debate” and that “cogent criticisms of published work should be published unless Editors have convincing reasons why they cannot be”. Hence if the editor refuses to publish the complaint then the author could call into question their compliance with COPE’s Code of Conduct. However, in his or her defence, the editor would probably note that posting the authors’ comments on the website constitutes publication, given that there is no correspondence section in the paper journal. This then led to a debate on the definition of “published”. Is something published if it appears on the website or does it have to be citable?
There was a general feeling that the authors should do something, and if nothing else is available, they should be encouraged to post a comment on the website, which might at least spark some debate. Having done so, if the authors continue to believe the editor has treated them unfairly, then they could complain to a higher authority, perhaps to the publisher or society, if it is a society owned journal.
COPE also agreed to look again at its Code of Conduct with a view to clarifying what is meant by “published”.