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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

How does it feel to have your scientific paper plagiarized? Part 2

with 34 comments

On May 11 of this year, Juan Antonio Baeza, an environmental engineering researcher at Universitat Autonoma Barcelona was looking for papers in Water Research about knowledge-based systems, the subject of his 1999 PhD thesis. As he tells Retraction Watch, when he came across “Improving the efficiencies of simultaneous organic substance and nitrogen removal in a multi-stage loop membrane bioreactor-based PWWTP using an on-line Knowledge-Based Expert System”:

I started to read this paper and some sentences of the abstract were interesting,  well, really I thought that I would have written that with the same words! But after reading some parts of the paper I realized that those were really my words of a previous paper published in the same journal in 2002.

I started to compare it and around 40-50% of the paper was a direct copy of my paper without changing even a comma.

So he wrote to the journal on May 14:

We have detected a clear case of plagiarism in one of my papers published in Water Research. The authors have copied the whole structure and large sections of  text, including parts of the abstract and the conclusions. In addition, they didn’t cite the original reference. We even think that they really didn’t do some software developments they write. The development of expert systems with Gensym G2 is not really usual in WWTP, and they write that their software is practically the same. Even they refer to FIA and CFA (page 5273), very specific analysers not defined in their materials and methods sections. Other parts of the introduction (page 5267) are copied literally from other articles as Puñal et al (2002).

In a first revision, we have highlighted all the parts of the manuscript copied literally from our work. You will see that approximately 40% of the paper has been copied. The conclusions are 95% equal.

The journal responded the same day, saying they’d forwarded the email to the editor, Mark van Loosdrecht, who in turn responded on May 23 saying they were studying the case. On June 26, van Loosdrecht contacted Baeza again to say he’d been in touch with the authors and had requested that Elsevier, Water Research‘s publisher, retract the paper. On October 23, the editor confirmed it would be retracted, and the notice appeared the next day:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

This article has been retracted because it has been using a previous published paper as template without making reference to this previous work. The original work can be consulted at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0043-1354(01)00402-X.

One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Re-use of any text should be appropriately cited. As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

The paper has been cited three times, according to Google Scholar. Baeza said:

So finally the retraction process was 5 months. I don’t know if it is too much or I’ve been lucky.

In our experience, five months is pretty quick, and the journal certainly seems to have taken this as seriously as we’d hope a journal would. Read another example of what it feels like to have your work plagiarized here.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

November 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm

34 Responses

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  1. Sounds to me as if they sent it through channels with all due speed, then took the plagiarizer out and shot him. Good work, I’d say, and five months total is about right. Commendable. “Severe abuse” is about the
    most negative term an editor would ever use.
    Next step is to check on the funding of the work of this plagiarizer. Perhaps the financial supporter of the plagiarizer would be unhappy to learn that his/her funds had been misused in this way. Federal support might come with some heavy penalties for this sort of behavior.

  2. Five months may be quick for a retraction, in the scheme of things, but this is pretty absurd. Though the time period from initial publication to plagiarized publication was 9 years, the journal of publication was the same for both articles. Clearly, Water Research does not use plagiarism-detection software, but it also seems that the Editor does not know what they’ve already published! There’s no substitute for a competant Editor….

    R. Grant Steen

    November 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    • I wouldn’t expect any editor to know each and every article that has been published in a journal he works in, although posession of good historical knowledge of what’s been published (which comes with experience, obviously) is invaluable. Having said that, it’s astounding that a journal would not include running a plagiarism-detection check as part of their publishing procedure.

      JK

      November 10, 2012 at 11:11 am

    • Water Research uses iThenticate. This program didn’t detect the similarity. Likely due to the fact that every sentence was slightly changed by a language editor who was hired to improve chinese-english (and maybe some spanish english ;-) ).

      With 5000 submission every year we detect much less then once a year a published plagiarism case. During reviewing wee detect some 2 cases each year.

      Remembering around 900 papers published each year will not be feasible.

      5 months is a bit slow, this was party due to detection in early summer (holiday period) and the policy to have information from the authors themselves.

      mvl

      November 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

      • “Likely due to the fact that every sentence was changed by a language editor who was hired to improve chinese-english (and maybe some spanish english).”

        Do you know for a fact that a language editor was involved and that this person was paid? It matters because good professional language editors would not knowingly collude with researchers to disguise outright copying.

        Karen Shashok

        November 14, 2012 at 7:54 am

    • …or a competant spell-checker?

      conradseitz

      November 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

  3. I use the system “put in the google scholar” to review every paragraph and as reviewer when I read my last time one plagiarism it was an abuse for me, imagine for the authors if the paper goes on.

    The paper is the mirror of editor-in-chief it have.

    All

    November 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    • Use the website Plagairism-checker, it is damn good for catching plagiarism. It gives you source and % of copied content. and it is FREE

      Hibby

      November 11, 2012 at 10:32 am

      • Just used that website to check on the abstract of the chinese paper: No similarity was detected despite the obvious similarity when a human looks at them. (I did not check the full paper). Clearly the software tools are not optimal yet.

        mvl

        November 11, 2012 at 11:54 am

      • Interesting. Is this because of altered content, or does the website fail to catch verbatim repetition? Anyway, given its rapid approach, I do think it is a good preliminary filter.

        Hibby

        November 12, 2012 at 7:20 am

      • You think the fraudsters don’t know where these tools are? It’s an iterative process. Feed paper into software to see highlighted similarities. Alter text slightly. Repeat until software no longer detects problem. Repeat paragraph for paragraph.

        These tools are good to detect plagiarism, and just as useful to avoid it getting detected.

        boduke

        November 12, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      • I found most plagiarists to be too dumb or too lazy to worry that much. I think such websites catch 60% of cases with little effort… most other will depend on whistleblowers.

        Hibby

        November 14, 2012 at 12:46 pm

        • Hibby, why do you assume plagiarists are all dumb? Are there any data to confirm this claim?

          R. Grant Steen

          November 14, 2012 at 12:52 pm

      • Well, the fact that most of the plagiarism cases caught and exposed include verbatim transcriptions from influent scientists in the field seems good evidence that these people were quite IQ-challenged. Also maybe the true nature of plagiarism, which is sloppiness of wit and lack of creativity, which are recurrent traits in subjects labeled as “dumb”.
        The smartest fraudsters are those who fabricate data in a convincing way, and this makes them much more dangerous.

        Hibby

        November 15, 2012 at 10:58 am

  4. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Copyright infringement is not.

    chirality

    November 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm

  5. Joan Benach (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) and Carles Muntaner (University of Toronto) have plagiarized my work, which they published in the International Journal of Health Services (unfortunately not a COPE member) with editor Vicente Navarro (their fellow country-man and co-author in many publications).

    These three persons are featured in my comments here http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/make-it-a-double-alcohol-treatment-study-pulled-for-duplication/#comments

    Please, advise how to proceed when the editor (Navarro) and the two institutions (UPF and UoT) refuse to do the right thing and actively cover up the obvious and very straight forward plagiarism?

    YouKnowBestOfAll

    November 10, 2012 at 1:58 am

  6. Thank you mvl, your comments are very accurate.
    It appears that the best way to plagiarize and avoid detection is to have translated into Chinese and then back into English, leading to “out of sight, out of mind”==”blind, crazy”…

    What is YouKnowBestOfAll to do, question directed to ivanoransky and/or adammarcus?

    • YouKnowBestofAll, have you contacted the editor/publisher where your work was printed? They hold the copyright. It might be easier to force changes at the offending journal if another editor/publisher, with a legal concern, contacts them.

      My work has also been plagarized, but I caught it during the review process. Serendipity, to be asked to review a paper that had copied my own words verbatim. But it was infuriating, and I understand how frustrated you must feel right now. Good luck.

      Noah

      November 12, 2012 at 9:04 am

      • Noah,
        Yes, I have contacted all parties involved: WHO, both publishers (Elsevier and Baywood Publishing), both journals (IJHS and Gaceta Sanitaria), the institutions of both authors (Universitat Pompeu Fabra and the University of Toronto), and COPE as well.
        The result is IGNORANCE and DENIAL !!!
        And all of this is due mainly because of the self- investigation for all of them.
        Self-investigation equals Cover up!
        Therefore, any self-investigation must be ended once and for ever, and Transparency Index offers alternative (see my comments about the end of cover up in Catholic Church here http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/transparencyindex/ )

        YouKnowBestOfAll

        November 13, 2012 at 6:38 am

      • And I tell you what, self-investigation is the official rule in Brazil. Who will trust Brazilian science then? Anyway, no one cares about Brazilian science after all…

        Rafa

        November 13, 2012 at 7:58 am

  7. One of my authors found his exact paper with different author names on it posted to an NGO environmental site that published studies from those they funded. I could only track down one of the authors, who was in Malaysia. He actually listed the paper in his CV–the title was the same as the original. I emailed his institution and they sent him a survey to start their investigation. The guy quit before they could fire him.

    Angela

    November 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

  8. Plagiarism leaves a seriously bad feeling for any author. I experienced this myself with a submission to Physical Review Letters back in 1994. My paper was reviewed by four reviewers who agreed with the mathematical content but disagreed that the subject was important enough to warrant publication. I subsequently re-wrote the article and had it published in Physical Review A as a longer piece. K.R.W. Jones (1994), The exclusion of intrinsically classical domains and the problem of quasi-classical emergence, Phys. Rev. A50, 1062-1070. Subsequently there appeared another publication in Physical Review Letters that was remarkably similar in spirit and near identical in examples to the original one that I submitted to Physical Review Letters. I raised this with the editors, who said at the time, there was insufficient evidence of any plagiarism. However, I was able to demonstrate that the author of that second paper had made a mathematical error. He had changed one feature of my original work which rendered the claims made incorrect. I was permitted to publish a critique as a comment in PRL: K.R.W. Jones (1996), Comment on Quantum Backreaction on Classical Variables, Phys. Rev. Lett. 76, 4087. However, even with this error pointed out, there was no re-traction of the erroneous work. Nor was there ever any apology from the Editorial Board of Physical Review Letters for rejecting my work on grounds of insufficient importance while accepting a later (erroneous) work on a similar topic. This whole experience left we with a very bad taste in my mouth. It became abundantly clear to me that the review process was corrupt to the core. I left physics after that. The miracle of this story is that people still cite the erroneous work even though the error was pointed out independently by two authors. Much worse, Nature wrote up the wrong paper in an editorial saying how great it was. The lesson of this story was simple: It is far better for reputation to be Wrong with the Right Address than Right with the Wrong Address. In my view, the scientific publication process has been corrupt for some time. We have only seen the very tip of one Giant Iceberg.

    Kingsley Jones

    November 15, 2012 at 2:30 am

    • Amazing and frightening account!

      Hibby

      November 15, 2012 at 10:59 am

      • Yes, I was shocked and shaken by the bald-faced way in which malpractice was tolerated if it came from a “good school” with people and reputations to correct. Then The Establishment simply turns a blind eye.

        It is said that a Fish Rots from The Head.

        Well, the fish of Theoretical Physics is rotten to the very core. The response of the community of Physicists is clear to see. They have “Balkanized” and broken up into self-protecting cliques who create their very own journals staffed with “friendlies”. Such behavior is there (I think) to guard against being shafted in a situation where “everybody does it”. The thing in question is to arbitrarily reject work by pulling rank and declaring that your feel “it is not important” regardless of content. This response frustrates the author into having to re-draft, re-write and re-submit. That in turn buys you time if you want to “re-invent” a piece of work and claim it as your own. Such activity seems rife in Theoretical Physics. I was disgusted by it. In my view, this is probably a large part of the reason why a whole generation of promising minds eagerly got the hell out and went into: 1) finance; 2) machine learning; 3) robotics; 4) biophysics; 5) gene sequencing. Anywhere with an interesting problem where you could get away from the cheats and piranhas.

        Kingsley Jones

        November 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    • In experimental sciences you can fabricate data and RetractionWatch has many posts on this. As Hibby points out above, it is the IQ-challenged that copy-and-paste, the more cunning fraudsters fabricate convincing data.

      In theoretical fields like theoretical physics and mathematics, fabrication of data is impossible. Like in experimental sciences there are the IQ-challenged that copy-and-paste, but the more cunning fraudsters in theoretical fields steal other peoples ideas (which is also a form of plagiarism). Either the fraudster takes the results from a published article and rewrites them sufficiently that they cannot be accused of copying-and-pasting or, as Kingsley Jones experienced, as reviewer they steal the results during the review process and prevent the original manuscript from being published. Such a situation is much worse for an author than somebody copying-and-pasting your words (which is clear for everyone to see).

      This situation may also be a reason why many people in theoretical physics and mathematics put their manuscript on arxiv the moment that they submit it to a journal: you can then still claim priority if a reviewer steals your result.

      I know of many cases where a whole community attributes a certain result to Y whereas it was X who actually came up with the result and Y simply rewrote the article of X and published the result as his own. This tends to happen when Y is a “leader in the field” and X isn’t (and doesn’t have a supervisor that is).

      mathbobby

      November 16, 2012 at 4:50 am

      • Yep. The X vs Y saga is common. I was not on arxiv at the time (only one of my works is up there). However, certain of my work did go out through the HEP pre-print service. I don’t know exactly what happened in the PRL case I mentioned (how could I?) but the good thing for me was that my PRA re-write of the rejected work was received and appeared *before* the PRL article. So, I had the good fortune to protect my claims to scientific priority. The strange anomaly in this case was that the Scientific Community at large were sufficiently goofy to continue citing the Wrong and Later work despite my comment to PRL pointing out the error. This raises some serious questions about the smarts of PRL readers :-) There seem to be a lot of very gullible people in physics!

        Kingsley Jones

        November 16, 2012 at 5:02 am

        • I see no future in tarring the entire field of physics. You had a bad experience, but I would not generalize from it.

          However, you’ve raised some interesting questions. Is priority protected with a system like arXiv? Can an author submit to arXiv and then to a traditional journal? Is this the direction that we’re all headed?

          R. Grant Steen

          November 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

          • I did not have just one bad experience. I had half a dozen papers suppressed with the exact same tactics. for the record, i also had twenty refereed publications including many in APS journals. I know the difference between a fair referee report and a hatchet job. Unfortunately, the probability of a hatchet job is in direct proportion to the importance and originality of the work. This observation is not new. Even the illustrious Julian Schwinger (Nobel Laureate, QED 1964) was on the receiving end of this nonsense. He was so outraged by it that he resigned his membership of the American Physical Society. It is is mistake to suppose that such events are isolated. They are not. They are “business as usual” and they do the most enormous damage to the scientific enterprise.

            Kingsley Jones

            November 16, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      • Kingsley Jones: maybe youve got some one after your ankles, someone very smart and influential… or maybe you are very unlucky or expose too much awfully good ideas. I really think that if this was a generalized problem, self-correction mechanisms would have raised open protests and side solutions already — see if you spot one way out.

        Now, I am also interested in arxiv, as I am just going through a weird experience with a rather-too-long review with an important paper. I will immediately submit my submitted paper there.

        Concerning IQ-challenged plagiarists, yes I think copycats are usually quite stupid (I personally know one exposed in this very blog and he is dumb as a doorknob) however I very much agree that plagiarists who steal good ideas have to be much brighter to survive. And certainly there are many reviewers like this, maybe horribly too many (one can specialize in this and accept any review). I appreciate ANY good ideas of how one can protect oneself from these guys.

        Good discussion! Believe me, Jones: good science ALWAYS wins in the end, otherwise we would still be in the caves! The beauty of Science lies in the long term. Fight on and keep up the good work.

        Hibby

        November 17, 2012 at 8:16 am

  9. Very enlightening… I propose we call it the Jones effect, i.e. the probability of a reviewer stealing your ideas is in direct proportion to the originality and importance of the ideas and in reverse relation to your reputation as a heavy hitter.

    It sounds like posting to arxiv right away is a good idea when you submit a paper to any journal.

    I am even more impressed that good science gets done once in a while with all these behind the scenes machinations and maneuvers by well-connected academics. I guess theoretical physics, with its reputation for attracting those with high IQ, is not immune from politics.

    No wonder so many really bright students in math and physics go into finance instead of doing theoretical work. It’s not just the money, it’s the academic infighting they can’t stand.

    puzzled monkey

    November 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    • Problem is, only really finding out about the smutty schemes of scientific production after having invested good 10-12 years into becoming a scientist…

      Hibby

      November 17, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      • Thanks folks! I like the sound of the “Jones effect” :-) You guys have cheered me up about an old (very old) wound. But hey, I went through so many rounds of reviewing I know all the tricks. I will write it up on my blog including my own favored ruse: The Rejection Protection Protocol and an oldie but a goodie: The Szilard Method for Grant Applications. I have a new method being planned out now: The Library of Congress Submarine Article. I think that will be highly effective!

        Kingsley Jones

        November 18, 2012 at 1:16 am

      • The Szilard Effect? Sounds fascinating, from the guy who invented the atom bomb while sitting in his bathtub (he liked 3-4 hr baths.)

        puzzled monkey

        November 18, 2012 at 11:43 am

  10. Hi Kingsley,

    Welcome to the club!
    I was amazed to see in your comments everything what did happen to me!
    Plagiarism is no different than robbery – someone steals what is your property.
    However, once it is published it becomes PERMANENT, so plagiarism in peer reviewed journal becomes multiple, permanent robberies.
    On top of this the perpetrator makes more money out of it by getting the credit for the work, which is used later to get more public grants!
    As you, I also have learned many of the tricks on which the system is based. This shows me how the system can be defeated. This will be win-win situation with fraudsters being the only losers. May be I can call you to discuss it. Rory Robertson might be interested to join us.

    YouKnowBestOfAll

    November 19, 2012 at 4:01 am


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