How do Croatian scientists deal with retractions and misconduct? A guest post by Mico Tatalovic
Today, we have the pleasure of presenting a guest post from Mico Tatalovic, who has just published a piece in the monthly magazine Tehnopolis on retractions in journals in his home country, Croatia. Here, he describes the reporting that went into that feature, which he says was inspired by Retraction Watch.
You may think that in a country with regular plagiarism scandals there would be many retractions. But a search for ‘retractions’ in the open-access depository of academic journals, Hrcak Srce, shows only two retraction notices among more than 70,000 articles in 271 journals indexed there.
There may be several reasons for this.
One is that some retracted articles simply disappear from the database, without any notices. Other articles are retracted and their full text is taken down from the Hrcak Srce database, but their abstracts are still indexed there with no indication that they had been retracted.
One example of this is an article in Synthesis Philosophica, a peer-reviewed philosophy journal that publishes original research. After suspected plagiarism was detected and reported to the journal in 2007, a debate erupted on an internet science forum, Connect::portal Znanost, and in the media. It was pretty clear from looking at the two texts that plagiarism had indeed taken place, but the journal decided to publish both the letter detailing the plagiarism and the author’s reply in its ‘debates’ section, which was later deemed inappropriate by the National Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education.
The full text of the article was finally taken down nearly three years later, after the committee finally ruled in May 2010 that the article was indeed plagiarised and recommended its “deletion form the public record through the usual and accepted means.” Yet even now, there is no notice in the database to indicate that the article has been retracted , and it is still included in the author’s list of publications on his website.
Another reason for the scarcity of retractions in Croatia could be that people who spot misconduct are reluctant to report it. Several experts told me that among Croatian academics, accusing someone of plagiarism or misconduct is perceived as a personal attack which merits vengeance. Such attitudes, combined with a lack of clear procedures for dealing with misconduct in the country, mean that alleged cases of misconduct are passed back and forth between various committees for years before any decision is made.
The experts I spoke to also said that within Croatia’s small academic community (between 7,000-10,000 scientists), editors are often friends with the authors of the papers they publish, and this creates another barrier to retractions. In some humanities journals, it is common for editors to publish their own original work in the journal they are editing, putting them in the potential situation of having to decide whether to retract their own article.
The highest-ranked journal in the country, with an impact factor of 1.5, the Croatian Medical Journal (CMJ) appears to be the only one to list their retraction notices in PubMed. But even they do not keep their records in the national Croatian database up to date, so their retractions are not listed there.
As a result of all of these issues, there’s no telling how often retractions happen in Croatia. And there’s an apparent lack of knowledge of how to deal with them. Writing in 2008 in Acta Stomatologica Croatia on how to handle scientific misconduct in Croatia, Gordana and Slaven Letica, researchers from University of Zagreb said:
…we wish to stress out that our University and our country has an enormous theoretical, institutional and normative deficit in regards to the complex phenomenon of scientific misconduct and especially plagiarism and plagiarizing.
And now, proposed new science laws would take away the only national body that did have some final say on issues of misconduct and retractions, the national committee on ethics.
But there have been exceptions. When plagiarism was reported in November 2008 in an article in Social Ecology, a retraction was published within a month, along with an apology from the author. The full article is still available on the Hrcak Srce database, but it is clearly marked with a note following the title saying “this article has been retracted” and even the full pdf carries this notice in capital letters above the title.
The author’s apology acknowledged missed citations but attributed this oversight to having sent a working document instead of the final version to the journal. Social Ecology appears to have learned its lesson though: it said in its retraction notice that it would create new guidelines and ask authors to sign a declaration stating that the paper they submit is their own work, as well as run the final copy by the authors to ensure that the journal has definitely received the final, fully cited version.
Authors refusing to take full responsibility seems to be a common theme in alleged and proven cases of plagiarism in Croatia – the culprits make excuses or deny any wrongdoing despite the evidence. Part of it seems to stem from the stigma of the word “plagiarism” as some perceive that to be lifting someone else’s work entirely, instead of simply failing to cite and attribute accordingly. This also means that one rarely sees any consequences for the careers of those engaged in scientific misconduct, aside from the retraction itself.
One example is of a researcher from agricultural faculty of University in Osijek, who repeatedly appropriated images and text from others without citing them in his PhD, including an image of different animals (for example, he used an image from a Canadian university website of a liver of a North American moose describing a liver disease in Croatian deer.). Again, the national committee on ethics found his PhD highly suspect, deeming it dishonest and deceitful and practically recommended its retraction, but he denied any wrongdoing and made it to assistant professorship in the meantime.
The only straightforward apology I could find came from an author who admits that he did not know any better at the time. This was published alongside a retraction in the CMJ in 2008.
Another example comes from Pomorstvo: Scientific Journal of Maritime Research, where a 2007 article was retracted the following year when it was discovered that the author had plagiarised somebody else’s conference paper from 2001. The retraction notice says that it was the first case of plagiarism discovered in the journal, but failed to include a response from the author. The journal also simply deleted the article, including its abstract, from the Hrcak Srce database, so anyone who had not happened to see the retraction would wonder why the article is not in the database.
I ran another 2007 article published by the same author in Pomorstvo through an online plagiarism checker, which revealed apparent duplication — including the typos! – in a 2009 article in a Romanian journal, Maritime Transport & Navigation Journal. The 2009 paper didn’t cite the original review paper in Pomorstvo, which also had two more authors on it.
I alerted Pomorstvo, but so far have received no response from the editors on that issue. But they said that the reason they removed the full text of the retracted article was because the original author of the article insisted upon in, and they added that they were guided by the Council of Science Editors’ white paper on promoting integrity in scientific journal publications. Synthesis Philosophica never replied to my e-mails.
One wonders how many undetected plagiarism and scientific misconduct cases lurk in these small, low impact, local journals. A recently published “retraction index” found that the higher the journal’s ranking, the higher its retraction rates. However, the index did not look at journals with an impact rate lower than 2.00, which is still well above the impact factor of most Croatian journals.
A Croatian case from 2007 indicates how critical the situation may be among lower-impact journals. The national committee on ethics investigated the publications of a high-ranking medical researcher and practitioner, Asim Kurjak, then at the University of Zagreb, following a tip-off about two possible plagiarism cases and an article published in the BMJ. They looked through almost 250 journal articles listed in Medline and found that at least ten of his articles spanning 15 years were redundant, duplicated or otherwise in breach of the ethical code and also mention that some initial concerns about misconduct in his work were raised as early as 1976:
We believe that such a large number of publications with some type of breach against accepted norms in scientific publication, as well as the time range in which these appeared, indicates an unethical scientific publishing record that is most probably not accidental nor can it be justified or excused as an honest mistake.
Some of those duplicate papers have since been retracted, including two in CMJ. The case also shows how long it can take to tackle misconduct, especially when it involves powerful and prestigious individuals: initial concerns about Kurjak’s work were raised (but it appears, ignored) as early as 1991, and by some accounts 1976.
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