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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“Some sentences…are directly taken from other papers, which could be viewed as a form of plagiarism”

with 18 comments

plant phys biochemPlant Physiology and Biochemistry has an amusing retraction notice this month that underscores the perils of allowing authors to come up with their own statements.

The paper, “Molecular strategies in manipulation of the starch synthesis pathway for improving storage starch content in plants (review and prospect for increasing storage starch synthesis),” came from a group at Sichuan Agricultural University in China — including its Maize Research Institute — and was published in the December 2012 issue.

But according to the notice:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and Author.

The authors Jiang Chen, Junjie Zhang, Hanmei Liu, Yufeng Hu, and Yubi Huang decided to retract their paper on the basis of two major considerations:

1. Several relevant pieces of literature were not cited and adequately discussed, including recent advances on sucrose utilization.

2. Some sentences of the article are directly taken from other papers, which could be viewed as a form of plagiarism.

It certainly could be viewed that way.

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18 Responses

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  1. They cannot be just any sentences. Likely from the intro or discussion rather than method, which is more formulaic. When is it plagiarism?

    Rolf Zwaan (@RolfZwaan)

    December 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    • I’ve seen a lot of text “repurposing” from nonnative authors, mostly seemingly innocent attempts to glue together their own efforts. It’s a complete pain for a copy editor, because the setup is often that one initially experiences a sense of relief as very choppy prose waters seem to calm down, and then the realization sets in that it’s going to be a rewrite job.

      Otto

      December 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    • The retracted paper is a review. So there is no “method”! There’s not much point in writing a review if you’re going to use other people’s words….

      I don’t understand why Elsevier don’t pass all submitted manuscripts through plagiarism software.

      chris

      December 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm

      • Really? In my book, the strength of a review is in how it integrates other people’s work. So, if the authors used other people’s work to summarize that work (for example, group X found blah) I see no problems. It is time for the Copyright police to take a step back and for the scientific community to think about what is good for science as opposed to the publishers. I have not read this paper, but if the authors integrated a lot of previous work in a new and useful way then there should be no real issue here.

        Peter Bloomberg

        December 19, 2012 at 4:39 am

      • Well yes Peter, one of the strengths of a review is the integration of other people’s work. But I hope you don’t think that that integration can’t be done without unattributed verbatim or patchwork copying of other people’s text! A decent review is likely to reflect the personal perspective of the author with an integration of the relevant work in a field written in the reviewers own words. If you’re just copying someone else’s text (and some of the copied text was from someone else’s review as inspection of Otto’s example on this thread indicates!) then that suggests a reluctance to do the hard work of engaging properly with the subject.

        Of course there are degrees of plagiarism, and one can’t really quibble about the occasional reuse of someone else’s phrase (though it would be appropriate to cite the source!). But just copying stuff certainly isn’t acceptable and both the author and editor seem to consider that the problems are serious enough for a retraction.

        We put all our undergraduates assessed work through plagiarism-detection software. This has the benefit of promoting good practice amongst the students (even if it’s a bit “sticky” rather than “carroty”). It really isn’t rocket science and I can’t understand why all publishers don’t do the same with manuscript submissions. Judging by RetractionWatch plagiarism is one of, if not the, dominant misdemeanour in scientific publishing, and yet it could be quite easily cut right back to the benefit of everyone (plagiarists included)…

        chris

        December 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      • “Of course there are degrees of plagiarism, and one can’t really quibble about the occasional reuse of someone else’s phrase (though it would be appropriate to cite the source!).”

        Which was my original point about innocent repurposing. This really seems to go beyond; I merely stopped with the examples so as not to be tedious. There’s one text chunk that appears in uncited Monsanto patents, and I have little doubt that pretty much any extended passage that’s syntactically sophisticated could be turned up elsewhere. (Two minutes’ time just found the first sentence of section 4.3 to be taken basically intact from Zeeman et al., Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 61:209, which again isn’t cited and seems like a particularly serious problem given that it’s another review; this could be worse, as I don’t have full-text access.)

        The paper, to the extent that it was copyedited at all, was not done so competently: the third paragraph of the discussion section leads with “The effective way to increase the individual grain’s storage starch content still need further study.” (This section looks to be original in the sense of only using phrase-stitching.) I don’t say this to make fun of anybody’s English skills, but it makes the examples stand out, and they suggest that there was an obfuscatory method at work here.

        Otto

        December 19, 2012 at 7:18 pm

  2. LOL. Indeed, it could be viewed that way. Not that the authors are willing to admit to plagiarism. But since it “could be” viewed as plagiarism — or as “a form of plagiarism” — wording which they apparently think reduces the level of misconduct, they will take the high road and voluntarily retract the paper.

    And there is that matter of failing to include recent developments in the science. If this is a legitimate problem with the paper, the reviewers should have noticed and should have asked that the manuscript be brought up to date before publication. I doubt that this omission by itself, discovered after publication, would have prompted a retraction. It’s the plagiarism.

    JudyH

    December 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

  3. #1 is just a smokescreen – you do not retract a review because it does not cover the subject matter thoroughly. “Some sentences” in #2 can mean anything from a couple of lifted sentences to the entire text comprising copyrighted bits and pieces.

    chirality

    December 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    • I agree about #1; if you start retracting papers for this, then you’d get an avalanche of retractions. As for #2, it has to be more than a couple of sentences, I would think.

      Rolf Zwaan (@RolfZwaan)

      December 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      • Besides, with many journals, by the time the paper comes out it’s already obsolete.

        Peter Bloomberg

        December 19, 2012 at 4:40 am

  4. At least one lifted sentence, “In most
    cases, multiple genes encode different isoforms of each enzyme, which may have slightly different roles
    depending on plant species and tissue,” appears in Koetting et al., Current Opinion in Plant Biology 13:321. Chen et al. do not cite this work.

    Otto

    December 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    • Chen et al.: “There is good evidence that the different SBE isoforms have distinct roles in endosperm starch synthesis. Analysis of amylopectin in SBEI mutants reveals subtle deficiencies in intermediate and long chains. This suggests a role for SBEI in the formation of chains of these lengths, and indicates that neither SBEIIa nor SBEIIb can compensate for the loss of SBEI [37].”

      James et al., Current Opinion in Plant Biology 6:215: “There is good evidence that the different BE isoforms have distinct roles in endosperm starch synthesis. First, analysis of the amylopectin of BEI mutants reveals subtle deficiencies in intermediate and long chains. This suggests a role for BEI in the formation of chains of these lengths, and indicates that neither BEIIa nor BEIIb can compensate for the loss of BEI activity [5

      Otto

      December 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm

  5. Sorry about getting truncated there. The James et al. just ends “… BEI activity [5•,39].” They’re pretty easy to pick out.

    Otto

    December 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    • Let me guess: [37] is not the James et al. work, but instead corresponds to either [5] or [39] _of_ the James paper… I should add that I have no idea what that leading S does to the meaning of the acronyms…

      CH

      December 19, 2012 at 5:16 am

      • Yup, Chen et al.’s [37] is James et al.’s [39].

        Otto

        December 19, 2012 at 11:01 am

  6. I think perhaps there is a slight cultural misunderstanding here. The Chinese are notoriously polite (even while they’re cutting your throat.) The retraction notices states that “some sentences…are directly taken…” and this is, to put it mildly, absolutely true. Then it states “…could be viewed as a form…” which is also, technically, true, but much more polite as well as convoluted.
    In plain English, this should be translated as “is plagiarism.”, leaving out the “could be viewed as” part as being superfluous to the meaning.

    • So the authors are being polite to themselves in order to avoid offending themselves? Do they want to allow themselves to save face? This is not what I would call being polite. This is pretending that their innocent actions were misconstrued as cheating and that they are nobly withdrawing from the competition in order to avoid any whiff of unsportsmanlike conduct to taint their reputations.

      Yes, they are resigning from their jobs to spend more time with their families. They do not want the controversy to be a “distraction” from the greater cause. They will pay back the embezzled money without admitting guilt for how it came into their hands, and they consider that this makes everything okay again, all fair and square, no point in pressing criminal charges.

      JudyH

      December 19, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    • “Put it mildly”?

      Otto

      December 20, 2012 at 4:52 am


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