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Science Careers Blog

March 9, 2009

Avoiding Plagiarism

It seems like a no-brainer that you shouldn't take someone else's research or words, slap your name on it, and submit it to a journal. However, quite a few scientists out there seem to have missed this simple lesson. Consider these responses by authors who duplicated content and citations from earlier published articles:

"To be honest with you, I was not aware of the fact that I need to take prior permission of the authors of the original article."

"Our main goal was to spread the knowledge into the local investigation community, so it was published in a local journal as a review article."

"I was shocked when I saw the attachments... Only idiots can do such a thing, which I am not."
These are some of the responses that Harold Garner, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and colleagues got when they presented authors of published scientific articles with their published article and an earlier published article with which there was substantial amounts of overlap in citations and/or text. They describe this process in this week's Science Policy Forum, "Responding to Possible Plagiarism"  (subscription required to view full text).

Garner and colleagues have started a database called Deja vu, which identifies highly similar citations in Medline. So far, the database has identified more than 9000 articles with "high levels of citation similarity and no overlapping authors," Garner, et al., write. They then started doing full-text comparisons on these papers, and, so far, have identified 212 articles "with signs of potential plagiarism."

The research group developed a questionnaire and sent it to 163 sets of authors of original (potentially duplicated) articles, authors of the later (potentially fraudulent) articles, and the journal editors of both articles, along with copies of both published papers. They got a surprising (I think) 88.3% response rate. Some 93% of original article authors weren't aware their work had been duplicated. Authors who duplicated their own work denied wrongdoing 28% of the time, and 35% admitted to having borrowed from previously published materials.

What's this got to do with careers? A LOT, especially when it's your career. Plagiarism falls under the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy's definition of research misconduct. There are probably people among the survey respondents who knew exactly what they were doing. But probably most of them were unaware that copying material without permission or without crediting the other group is considered research misconduct, or they simply weren't involved enough with the final manuscript to know that plagiarism took place. Consider some of the responses that Garner's group got to their questionnaire:

"I was not involved in this article. I have no idea why my name is included."

"My contribution to the article was limited to the collection of clinical data: [the senior author] alone was responsible for the use of the data provided."

These people are now in danger of being guilty of research misconduct, and they didn't even know it. What can you do?  Make sure you know what papers your name goes on. If something smells fishy, ask questions. "The integrity of research is everyone's responsibility," Nick Steneck, University of Michigan emeritus professor, said in an article we published last year on research integrity. "If you see something that you don't think is right, all professionals have a responsibility to raise their concerns."

For more on this topic, see Research Integrity: Making the Right Choices, Dealing With Deception, A Pressure Cooker for Postdocs?, and Scientific Integrity and Ethics: A Dilemma. Also, the current issue of The Scientist this month has an article on tips for preventing research misconduct (registration required).

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