You Say Flattery, I Say Plagiarism

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?

Author: Sophie Rovner

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6 Comments

  1. “– flattery, plagiarism, flatter, plagiarism–oh, let’s call the whole thing off.”

    Why ask ‘copying’? I only agree with that QUOTING, with attribution, someone else’s description virtually word-for-word is considered a compliment to the person whose words were QUOTED.

  2. Plagiarism is unacceptable and should be dealt with firmly when it’s discovered.

  3. Also, I think that it is just ridiculous and not understandable that the editor let it pass.

  4. In all seriousness though, more responsibility should be attributed to the journals and publishers. They’re the ones who would catch the largest percentage of these cases.

    What if the ACS and AAAS (and other sciencey publishers, sorry non-chemists) signed an agreement with each other to blacklist all authors caught red-handed? They could also establish an independent organization to assess each case and suss out better ways to catch those jerks.

  5. Just blog the names of people who plagiarize. People will think twice after they google themselves and discover their misdeeds did not go unnoticed.

  6. Not to belittle the topic, but I find the bureaucracy in peer review to be far more disconcerting than plagiarism because it’s so much more pervasive and ignored. It’s my personal experience that getting work published amounts to little more than academic backscratching. You suggest referees for your own paper (who often turn out to be friends with your PI) and they’re expected to look at things objectively (which they often don’t).

    If you’re in the unfortunate circumstance of having a very antagonistic PI who isn’t friends with the editor then you are in for a dragged out war of words. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you are productive and diplomatic it seems you can publish whatever you want. Consider K.C. Nicolaou’s recent Perspective article in JOC (2009, 74, 951). Granted, Nicolaou is extremely gifted and a powerhouse in the field of total synthesis, but is JOC really the appropriate forum for your Photobucket page?

    So I guess my point is, if the peer review process were more trustworthy it would help curb a lot of the plagiarism that occurs. Besides, don’t most authors plagiarize themselves in order to bump their paper/citation count?