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The Scientific Literature

A Publication Dilemma

Here’s a tricky situation that a reader of the blog has run into. To their dismay, a paper has just appeared in an open-access journal that seems to duplicate much of his group’s research. He says that they had a good deal of material available via presentations on their own web site, and worries that it may have been used as the basis of this new paper, which is written in broken English, with poorly described methods and characterization, and backed with unclear illustrations. Basically, it’s the sort of thing that he and his group have declined to publish for the last couple of years while they work to get things right.

So seeing this in print was not an enjoyable experience, and he’s wondering what the best course of action might be. The paper that’s appeared is bad enough that it might well be worthy of retraction, but on the face of it, it covers the work that they’re trying to publish themselves. Complain to the open access journal’s editors? Push ahead and publish their own work? (But if so, how do they deal with this one that’s now in the literature?)

My own thoughts are that if the paper that’s appeared is bad enough that it should be retracted, that it’s worth pursuing that, although there’s a low chance of success. At the same time, though, I think that work my correspondent is doing should go ahead to publication, with all due speed, and he may even want to deliberately compare it with the earlier paper (“This prompts us to report our own work in the area. . .in contrast to So-and-So et al.; we find that. . .”) Basically, try to say “OK, here’s the real paper on this stuff”. Any thoughts from people who’ve seen such situations?

28 comments on “A Publication Dilemma”

  1. I’d suggest that a journal editor worth their salt would be capable of understanding this situation. The authors should explain this to the editors in their cover letter. It’s then up to the journal editor to make the call (or ask reviewers to comment) on whether this prior publication truly scoops the new paper or not. One thing I would certainly not do it try to hide this other paper from view.

  2. Mel says:

    Between the number of folks taking pictures of posters at meetings and the terrific protocols posted by many labs, faking-up a presentable facsimile of work performed by a lab that communicates well can’t be all that hard.

    I think it comes down to thoughtful reviewers, which may not be a comfort given some of what makes it into the ‘good’ journals, and giving reviewers the latitude and responsibility to evaluate the situation. This raises at least two issues: One, as evidenced by the too many papers making into the peer-reviewed literature, which upon careful reading, are revealed not to have been read carefully prior to publication – as a community, we’re not uniformly adequate reviewers. Two, it may be time to revisit what constitutes “the literature.” If a Google search brings up equal measures of rigorous science and crap, then perhaps we need a more explicit way of determining between the two. How can we ensure that faked-up papers in pay-to-pay journals are not considered “in the literature?” (By the public, by naive students, by professionals taking a quick look who don’t delve quite deeply enough to pick up on the lack of rigor…)

  3. dearieme says:

    “they had a good deal of material available via presentations on their own web site”: perhaps that’s a habit people will have to refrain from. Just as they might choose to edit heavily any presentations and seminars they might give.

    Or they could act like the early publishers of mathematical tables: deliberately include some errors to see whether they pop up in rip-off publications.

    1. useless knowledge on the cheap. says:

      By adding a false town or landmark of little note cartographers have protected their intellectual property for centuries. It’s not a bad method frankly.

      1. tangent says:

        Like what error could you inject that wouldn’t be a terrible idea?

        If it affects the conclusions, it destroys the integrity of your work. If it doesn’t affect the conclusions, anybody doing a decent job of plagiarism is going to remove it automatically.

        1. simpl says:

          The music publishers do the same thing, but the errors they introduce, like an extra-long note, are nonsensical and with a clearly correct solution, so that musicians ignore them.

  4. b says:

    Sorry… unclear. Was the paper published based on copying the website presentations without actually generating data, or did they use those presentations to quickly generate some crappy data in the lab and then publish? If the former, it seems like it would be pretty easy to get the editor to ask for the primary data to make sure it wasn’t created out of whole cloth, much like asking for the original FID of a shaky spectrum. I guess it also depends if it’s a reputable journal or not. I’m guessing, based on this situation, it leans more to the “not”.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I believe it was the latter, from what I can see.

  5. Paul Brookes says:

    Such is the dilemma of this newfangled open science movement we’ve gotten ourselves into. Yes, it’s laudable that this person was publicizing their new ideas on the lab website. But a lab website does not have a DOI and can’t be used as a performance metric when it comes promotion/tenure time. The take-home should be “yes open science is good, but make your ideas trackable and creditable to you”. By this measure, ArXiv preprints would be OK.

    Separate from the open science issue, is the concept that it’s actually quite difficult to get really truly “scooped”. The world is a big place, and if you’re working in a hot area and you’ve thought of a good idea, there’s a decent chance someone else has thought of it too. Ideas are not “owned” per se, and if you drag your feet getting papers out the door, you can’t get mad when others do so. Ideas are cheap and free, so you can’t just sit on them and expect everyone else to wait around until you get your proverbial s— together and publish.

  6. Some Dude says:

    Worst case publish in a journal that allows replication studies, such as PLoS ONE.

    1. Skeptical says:

      But in this case, it is not really a replication. It is the original study.

  7. anon says:

    Does an ACS poster presentation (for example) count as something one can refer back to in such a situation? I imagine it would have some leverage for a group who gets scooped like this. It shows up in SciFinder and has an abstract (sometimes graphical, with a scheme or figure). As a PUI prof, I constantly worry about presenting our preliminary data at seminars or conferences, knowing full well that a good (albeit unscrupulous) grad student could complete our work in a few months (which might take us a few years).

  8. Sophist says:

    I don’t see the problem here. Open is, well, open. Data placed in the public domain is available for all to see. Intellectual honesty and scientific ethics fall along the same continuum now as always. If advancing science by sharing data early and often is your goal, then this will sometimes be the result. If attribution is your primary objective, then maintain secrecy until you’ve got the whole story. With respect, one cannot have it both ways.

  9. trying not to blame the victim, but... says:

    “He says that they had a good deal of material available via presentations on their own web site”

    This is a terrible idea – NEVER put anything online that is unpublished. If you really want to show off your awesome, preliminary data, put it on a preprint server.

  10. WW says:

    An open access journal that doesn’t care about proper methodology or grammar is likely to be a predatory one, in which case appealing to the editor is about as effective as knocking a building down with your head. It is unfortunate that the victim was naive enough to have all that data lying around on a webpage for some dodgy fraud to pick up and publish. Learn your lesson and move on.

  11. rw says:

    If the material was taken from a web site without permission the authors can pursue a copyright claim against both the authors and journal that published the pirated material. It would be one way to force a retraction.

    Just because you put something up on a web site it does not go into the public domain, you still own the copyright unless you specifically disclaim it. Certainly worth having a lawyer send a letter to see what happens.

    1. Sophist says:

      Copyright protects only the original works of authorship, not ideas. It was my understanding from the string that the work that was published was based on the concepts that had been published. Further, enforcing a copyright requires registration of the copyright and proof of actual copying to my understanding. One puts much at risk when laying information open for public inspection. Yet another inconvenient truth.

      1. Don't use copyright to solve plagiarism says:

        Assuming US but applicable more broadly, copyright is inherent to all creative works; there is no need to register them. Evidence of copying is good but not necessarily required, but that would only come to play if this actually got to court, which is dubious at best.

        Not that a copyright lawsuit would be the way to go here anyway. It’s tempting to use copyright tools to deal with plagiarism problems, but that’s very often a terrible idea.

        That said, from the post it sounds like the plagiarist used the ideas to re-instantiate the research, in which case copyright considerations do not apply at all.

        1. anon says:

          It doesn’t even need to be any kind of plagiarism. Maybe the other group had been doing same kind of stuff independently and after seeing the stuff on the website they just hurriedly wrote something to get the first publication.

          I agree with other posters: if you do not want to be scooped, do not post too much information publicly before you’re ready to submit the paper.

          1. CR says:

            Without knowing any more than what was originally posted by Dr. Lowe, this very thing could be what happened. The other group working in the same area (not knowing what that area is) and then they see the work on the internet. So, they quickly get their work out. I’m a bit surprised that Dr. Lowe would post this story since it is so one-sided. All we have to go on is one person’s side of the story – which may or may not be correct.

      2. Scott says:

        “Further, enforcing a copyright requires registration of the copyright”

        Only in Europe. In the US, copyright exists from the moment of creation, while in Europe it exists from the moment of registration.

        Personally, I’d acknowledge the prior paper (but NOT mention that it appears to use ‘my’ data), and then throw down with the data ‘my’ group had put together.

        1. patently says:

          T’is the other way round, in fact. Only the US requires registration, but that can now be done as a preliinary step just prior to enforcing the copyright and is not a pre-requisite for the existence of copyright in the first place.

          Basically, if you create the work then copyright comes into existence. “Registering your copyright” is a relic that you can leave to the lawyers.

  12. Anonymous says:

    When I was a grad student, I had a few office conversations with a chem prof who was also the Senior Editor of major, very well known organic chemistry journals.

    On every occasion, there would be an interruption from his secretary that “so-and-so is on the line about a paper,” I would get up to excuse myself and he would always hand wave me to sit back down while picking up the phone. Even tho’ I was only hearing 1/2 of the conversations, they were frequently about bad behaviors. I can recall a few. NOTE: This was all before the internet stuff and websites and Arkivoc and such.

    Prof X (who I knew because he had been a post-doc with the group 2 years earlier) gave a seminar at Y Univ about yet unpublished work in progress and he spoke with Prof Z. Soon after, not knowing anything about the background, the Senior Editor randomly sent a mss from Prof Z to Prof X for refereeing. Yikes! Prof Z was clearly trying to scoop Prof X and MADE NO MENTION of Prof X’s work (that he clearly knew about). The Senior Editor recommended that Prof X critique the mss, request the inclusion of a reference to seminar material disclosed to Prof Z on such-and-such a date, sign (openly, not anonymously) the referee report and submit his own paper on the topic ASAP. The Senior Editor then required Prof Z to mention Prof X’s work.

    I knew Prof X and figured out who Prof Z was after their papers came out. Prof X did eventually get tenure but he left academia a few years later.

  13. truth says:

    More evidence of the idiocy of academia, where careers are made or broken on a ridiculous race to “be first” rather than to be “correct”. Because there couldn’t possibly be value in this work if somebody else raced to put up a garbage article about the same topic! Add to stuff like this, the overall knowledge that probably 75% of what is out there is hyped up half truths or completely unrepeatable garbage, throw in a dash of absurdly low funding rates leading to completely arbitrary grant fundings/ denials, and top it off with a bunch of personalities who have more arrogance and raw ambition than intelligence, creativity or forethought, and presto! You have NIH’s mess of a “scientific” system creating nothing but misery and low pay for vast numbers of people, and occasionally as a byproduct, a new scientific finding, which might actually help patients.

    The funniest thing about this whole system? The people whom it is making miserable are out spending their saturday’s protesting to keep it running. Talk about a case of stolkholm syndrome.

  14. Isidore says:

    Similar to the above: Well-known senior Professor A at world renowned university is visited by his former post-doc, not so senior (but tenured) Professor X at mid-tier university. Professor A asks graduate student B and post-doc C to tell Professor X about some interesting work they are doing (there is a fair amount of overlap in the research of the two professors). Professor X listens attentively, asks questions, then goes back to his lab and a few days later communicates to Professor A that his (Professor X’s) grad student Y had discovered something very similar to student B’s and post-doc C’s work, not the entire thing but a critical subset of it. Some data (printouts, these are the old days) are also sent along, which may be old but which would also have been easy enough to generate quickly if one knew what to look for. It is entirely possible that Professor X’s student Y, who is smart and able to work independently, could have, in fact, come up with the same observations himself before X’s visit to A’s lab and not have told X right away (X, just like A, allows his students and post-docs a fair amount of freedom). Basically nobody knows for sure and in the end, after some back-and-forth, they end up publishing a joint paper.
    (True story, early 1990s)

  15. Brandon says:

    It’s a tough spot, but it might not be the end of the world.

    I knew a postdoc that had her poster taken out of a garbage bin by a visiting professor at a conference. The poster was then copied and published with laughably bad methods (using PCR to measure AKT phosphorylation, for example). Supposedly it took the postdoc about a year to get it retracted, but she eventually published her findings in a respectable journal.

  16. dvizard says:

    Well, if you consider putting stuff on the webpage “prior publication”, then the published paper can be considered a plagiate if the authors add nothing new to it. If they used the actual material on the webpage in the paper, likewise. If they just conducted the same research with lower quality and you have only a vague suspicion that they might have used your work, you’re in a much weaker position because how will you prove that, and are you really sure it’s not your wishful thinking that makes you believe they stole your work? Being scooped (or at least devalued) by lesser-quality work has happened to me too but it’s quite different to fraud.

  17. patently says:

    Sophist makes the real distinction, and hits the nail on the head.

    If the crappy paper includes graphs, images, data etc that are copied from the website disclosures, then both the paper authors and the journal are infringing copyright. There needs to be a discussion with the journal, with a view to retracting the paper.

    If, however, the other group saw what had been published openly on the website, did some work of their own that was inspired by it, and then wrote their own paper, then that’s life. If you don’t want people to read the material and think about it, why are you publishing it? Live with it, and submit a paper that you think deals with the topic properly.

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