Plagiarism is unacceptable and should be dealt with firmly when it’s discovered, right? Not so fast: Some authors and even a few journal editors disagree, according to a study just reported in Science.
Harold R. Garner at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and his colleagues used computational tools and no-doubt arduous hours of reading to find journal article citations in the National Library of Medicine’s Medline database that appeared to have been plagiarized. Garner’s group then sent questionnaires to several of the authors and editors of those articles to get their take on the allegations.
The surveys were anonymous, so the responses were fairly candid. Some were astonishing. One editor of a journal in which the original article was published didn’t seem at all perturbed by the revelation that it was later plagiarized. “It’s my understanding,” that editor wrote, “that copying someone else’s description virtually word-for-word, as these authors have done, is considered a compliment to the person whose words were copied.”
An author whose work was plagiarized was far less sanguine. The “researchers”—and I use the term loosely—who later re-published that work as their own “substituted our 13 human volunteers with monkeys,” according to the original author. “That is all they did. All experiments and tables were copied, and also the discussion. It is just ridiculous and not understandable that the editor let it pass.”
The responses from plagiarists run the gamut in tone from defensive to mortified. One in particular stands out for its lyrical, Haiku-like quality: “It was a joke, a bad game, an unconscious bet between friends, 10 years ago that such things … happened. I deeply regret.”
While some journal editors were grateful for being notified about authors’ misconduct and planned to take corrective action, other editors seemed reluctant to punish plagiarists. Garner’s team believes they’re afraid the process would be stressful or would hurt their journal’s reputation.
What’s your take on this? Have you ever been the victim of plagiarism? What happened?
When, if ever, is it ok to copy another author’s words?
Should journal editors and reviewers vigorously pursue plagiarists?
And what’s an appropriate punishment?