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Academic Careers , , ,

You Have to Give Credit Where Credit is Due

A few weeks ago, the visual science journal I edit received a manuscript from an outstanding group of research physicians at a major university center.  In addition to two senior authors, the manuscript had four additional authors, each of whose credentials and roles in the study were well defined.  On reading the manuscript, my impression was that the study was well done and contained useful new information.  Accordingly, I assigned it for more detailed review to two reviewers who are authorities in the field.

The first review advised acceptance after some minor changes.  The second review was basically in agreement, but stated that the discussion contained a plagiarized paragraph from a previously published work.  The reviewer cited the original source.  On checking, I found this was indeed the case. I called the second reviewer and asked her how she had recognized the plagiarism.  She said the literary style of the paragraph in question was different from the rest of the paper.  She entered the paragraph into Google and it brought up the publication in which the paragraph first appeared.

We contacted the senior author of the submitted manuscript and he was surprised and embarrassed to learn of the plagiarism. He said the paragraph of concern had been contributed by one of the authors, who was a medical student working on the study.  This student called me soon after and, in the ensuing tearful conversation, explained she had recorded the paragraph verbatim with the intention of rewriting it in her own words, but was caught up in exams.  Under pressure from the senior author to contribute “her portion” of the manuscript and in the heat of the moment, she  inadvertently submitted the original material without quotation marks or citing its source.

She was obviously frightened and contrite and, indeed, had reason to be.  Plagiarism, even if inadvertent, is a serious offense in science.  It is the usual policy of our journal and many others to report plagiarism to the respective university authorities in the case of academic research. Disciplinary action usually follows.  The submitted paper is rejected and editors of other journals in the field are alerted to the plagiarism and the names of those involved.  Future works from the offending authors are handled with intense scrutiny and caution.

This was explained to the author responsible for the plagiarism, as well as her fellow authors.  After rejecting the paper and carefully investigating the matter, we were finally convinced that this was a bitterly regretted “first offense” for the responsible author and a unique occurrence for all the authors involved.  Consequently, we did not carry it beyond the rejection and stern warning. 

It is nonetheless a cautionary tale because plagiarism can derail a scientific career at any stage.