Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Referencing failure (we mean, plagiarism) leads to retraction of water testing paper

without comments

evirmonassFrom the Not Saying What You Mean Files: Environmental Monitoring and Assessment has retracted a recent article by authors in Kuwait who appear to have plagiarized, although you couldn’t really tell from the notice.

The paper, “Detection of bacterial endotoxin in drinking tap and bottled water in Kuwait,” appeared in the December 2012 issue of the journal, which is a Springer title.

According to the abstract:

The average concentration of endotoxin in bottled water is 13.5 % of the average concentration of endotoxin in tap drinking water. This experimental investigation has proved that drinking bottled water has less endotoxin as compared to tap water in Kuwait. It is also demonstrated that the endotoxin concentration did not exceed the acceptable level in drinking tap water.

So much for that. As the retraction notice states:

The authors voluntarily retract their article from Environmental Monitoring and Assessment on the grounds that certain parts/portions of the article have been published elsewhere and were not appropriately referenced. The situation is due to honest error and the authors would like to apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused to the readers.

Now, it’s entirely possible that this notice refers to self-plagiarism, but we don’t think that’s the case (or, at least, not entirely). Why? We ran a short, unreferenced passage at random from the article through Google and came up with a surprise. Okay, not exactly a surprise, since it was what we were expecting, but a hit.

The authors’ passage:

Because molecular weight of the endotoxin can vary a great deal (10,000 to 1,000,000 Da), endotoxin levels are measured in “endotoxin units” (EU). One EU is approximately equivalent to 100 pg of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide—the amount present in around 105 bacteria. Humans can develop symptoms when exposed to as little as 5 EU/kg body weight; and even small doses of endotoxin in the blood stream are often fatal.

And this, from Wikipedia:

Because endotoxin molecular weight may vary a great deal (10,000 to 1,000,000 Da), endotoxin levels are measured in “endotoxin units” (EU). One EU is approximately equivalent to 100 pg of E. Coli lipopolysaccharide—the amount present in around 105 bacteria. Humans can develop symptoms when exposed to as little as 5 EU/kg body weight. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, fever, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, and low urine output; and even small doses of endotoxin in the blood stream are often fatal.

We’re not oddsmakers here, but we’re guessing that the chances of us plucking out the only plagiarized part of this paper on the first attempt are pretty low. Put another way, we’re willing to be that the chances of us finding other, similarly misappropriated text in the article are equivalent to the likelihood of finding two people with identical birthdays in a crowded Manhattan subway car. (If you want to see the math, look here.)

Getting back to the retraction notice: We think it could have been a lot less, um, watery. Honest error? Given the nature of the infraction we found, that claim seems pretty shallow.

Comments
  • Clifford Beall May 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Also notable – while copy-pasting from wikipedia they lost a superscript and changed 10E5 to one hundred five, a little matter of a thousand-fold.

  • Sylvain Bernès May 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    With just a single attempt using a random sentence (chaotic moves of the mouse over the pdf, with eyes closed), I got a 2nd hit. Sentence in the retracted paper:

    “Endotoxin is a biological toxin that is part of the outer membrane of some types of bacteria (gram negative bacteria). Endotoxin causes a powerful inflammatory reaction in humans, especially at high doses, when it causes fever, flu-like symptoms, cough, headache, and respiratory distress.”

    Compare with:
    http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/katrinadata/endotoxin.asp

  • aceil May 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    What happens to promotions and tenure that are granted based on to be retractions? Obviously the time span between acceptance of the flawed manuscript and the retraction allows for promotion, and career advancement! BTW, are universities notified of retractions?

  • aceil May 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Again. One way to put it :Anarchy in Academia

  • Michael Kovari May 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Surely this is just introductory material? No-one would mistake these sentences for original work. I believe in being tough where it’s justified – not here.

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