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Correction by punctuation? PNAS fixes paper by putting quotes around plagiarized passages

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PNAScover1113PNAS has a curious correction in a recent issue. A group from Toronto and Mount Sinai in New York, it seems, had been rather too liberal in their use of text from a previously published paper by another researcher — what we might call plagiarism, in a less charitable mood.

To paraphrase Beyoncé: If you like it, better put some quotation marks around it. But we’re pretty sure she meant before, not after, the fact.

The article, “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” had appeared in May 2012, in other words, some 17 months ago. It has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

As the notice states:

BIOCHEMISTRY Correction for “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” by Hong Wu, Natasha Moshkina, Jinrong Min, Hong Zeng, Jennifer Joshua, Ming-Ming Zhou, and Alexander N. Plotnikov, which appeared in issue 23, June 5, 2012, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (109:8925–8930; first published May 21, 2012; 10.1073/pnas.1114117109).

The authors note that the review article by M. R. Parthun (ref. 11) provided an excellent summary of the structure and biochemical function of HAT1 as a histone acetyltransferase, and served as background introduction for our study. As such, description of some of the specific biochemical functions of HAT1 was not appropriately noted in our article and should be cited and quoted in the following sections:

On page 8925, left column, second paragraph, lines 11–15, “In vitro, HAT1 specifically acetylates Lys5 and Lys12 of free (nonnucleosomal) histone H4, and “this specificity is entirely consistent with the pattern of acetylation found on newly synthesized histone H4” from many organisms (11).”

On page 8925, left column, second paragraph, lines 18–22, “The p46/48 protein “is a WD40 repeat protein” involved in “a wide variety of chromatin-modifying complexes” (11). In yeast, “the association of HAT2 with HAT1 increases the catalytic activity of” HAT1 “by a factor of 10 and appears to function by increasing” HAT1 binding to histone H4 (2, 11).”

On page 8925, right column, first full paragraph, lines 8–10, ““Once in the nucleus, the HAT1–HAT2 H3–H4 complex becomes associated with the histone chaperone/chromatin assembly factor HIF1 to form the NuB4 complex” (11).”

On page 8930, left column, first full paragraph, lines 1–9, “Because of the important role of HAT1 in chromatin assembly, “a number of studies have begun to link HAT1 to” different types of human cancer (11). “The levels of HAT1” have been found “to increase substantially in liver tumors” (11, 29). Also, “HAT1 mRNA and protein levels are elevated in primary and metastatic human colon cancer tissues” (11, 30). In addition, immunohistochemical studies show that HAT1 is primarily nuclear in normal cells, but the localization of HAT1 largely shifted to cytoplasm in the tumor tissues (11, 30).”

Additionally, Campos, et al. (ref. 12) should be quoted in the following section:

On page 8925, right column, first full paragraph, lines 10–16, “In human cells, “the sNASP chaperone binds H3.1–H4 heterodimers and presents the H4 carboxyl domain to RbAp46,” which “recruits HAT1 activity. After acetylation of histone H4, the complex is stabilized and the histones” are transferred to the ASF1B chaperone. “ASF1B associates with importin-4, and the histones are then transported into the nucleus” (12).”

Parthun is Mark Parthun, a professor at Ohio State University. It was he who brought the misused text to PNAS’s attention. He tells us:

I read this paper with great interest because my lab also studies the Hat1 enzyme.  While reading this, a number of the passages in the Introduction and Discussion sections started to sound very familiar.  These passages were familiar because they were plagiarized from a review article I had published earlier (Parthun, M.R. Oncogene 26:5319–5328, 2007).  I also found some sentences that were plagiarized from another manuscript from another lab (Campos, et al, NSMB 2010).  I brought this plagiarism to the attention of the editors at PNAS and suggested that this manuscript be retracted.  After more than a year, PNAS published a correction (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/45/18339.full).  This correction lists all of the passages that were plagiarized and simply says that they should have had quotation marks around them.  This seems like a woefully inadequate response.  PNAS has essentially made plagiarism irrelevant because if you are caught, all you have to do is retroactively say that you should have used quotations.  Is this a common practice with journals.  I hope not because I think this represents a serious step in the erosion of scientific ethics.

We asked Daniel Salisbury, a PNAS editor, why the journal opted to correct rather than retract the paper. This was his reply:

In light of recent concerns from the author of the plagiarized text, we are following up with the PNAS authors’ institution.

Parthun, who said he received a similar message, was not impressed:

My problem with his response [is] that they are simply passing the buck.  I would have thought that PNAS had the ultimate responsibility for the manuscripts that it publishes.  I don’t understand why they need Mount Sinai to tell them when something is improper.

To which we say, we agree.

We’ve emailed Plotnikov for comment and will update this post if we hear from him. Meanwhile, although we think there might be room in science publishing for correcting improperly attributed text, an instance of multiple examples of frank plagiarism such as this probably isn’t the test case.

Written by amarcus41

November 8th, 2013 at 11:49 am

Comments
  • DT November 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    This is completely insane. I will avoid citing PNAS papers from now, and also avoid publication on this journal whenever is possible. You can’t correct plagiarism by adding quotation marks, this is quite obvious..

  • Dan Zabetakis November 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    A borderline case, I think. The authors are not accused of copying whole sections of text. They used lightly reworked sentences and phrases. If I understand correctly, they did cite the review.

    I think this is a case of insufficient paraphrasing rather then plagiarism. I think the changes are sufficient to withstand a formal, legal charge of copyright violation. If they did cite the source then it is probably not plagiarism.

    This is the sort of thing you deal with in high school composition classes.

    • lar November 10, 2013 at 9:38 am

      What exactly is the value of this correction if they don’t create a new version of the article? I find it difficult to believe someone reading the paper for its scientific value would read the article and the correction side-by-side.

  • Peer007 November 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    “This is completely insane. I will avoid citing PNAS papers from now, and also avoid publication on this journal whenever is possible. You can’t correct plagiarism by adding quotation marks, this is quite obvious..” (DT)

  • Peer007 November 8, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Pure craziness. These authors lifted a bunch of text from one specific paper, got caught, and the only fallout is to add quotation marks and a citation? The paper should be retracted. The logical extension of this rather bizarre move from PNAS is that authors no longer need to generate new content for anything in papers other than specific descriptions of what was done/concluded in that paper. The entire introduction (minus the last paragraph, probably), materials and methods, even bits of the discussion could simply be copied verbatim from other papers, wrapped in quotation marks, and cited. Is that what we want? Is that what we expect from a journal that carries the stamp of the most prestigious scientific body in the US?

    • DT November 8, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      I’m also afraid that this became a trend. Today, you can correct everything from manipulated bands in Western Blots to duplicate images between papers (with allegations of mislabel, accidental error, etc). Now there is a new modality: correct plagiarism with quotation! I’m very disappointed that this began with PNAS.

      • tekija November 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm

        Tweet this out and those who disagree with PNAS can say so to the journal. Did that.

  • Miguel Roig November 8, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    In my view, the corrections do not seem to follow proper rules of scholarship because in instances in which two or more citations appear immediately after the quoted material, the reader does not know which specific citation the quoted material comes from. Moreover, when quoted material is used, it is customary to provide the citation AND the page number in which the material originally appeared.

    • Miguel Roig November 11, 2013 at 7:17 am

      A clarification to my post: As pointed out to me, the practice of including page numbers to indicate the origin of quoted material does not seem to be followed in the biomedical sciences. However, the practice depends on which writing style manual the journal follows.

  • qqq November 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    This seems to be a mixed problem… and certainly warrants an expression of concern in addition to the correction…

    2 issues: some of these now quotes sentences don’t seem to arise to plagiarism: “is a WD40 repeat protein” alone is not plagiarism.

    second, the question of what to do once “good science” has been published in a way tainted by plagiarism. i agree with PNAS that a retraction is probably not the best practice… someone paid for these studies to be conducted and the results are valuable to humanity. however, the authors should pay for their misdeeds by having an expression of concern attached to their paper/CVs permanently.

    finally, if the plagiarized author is unhappy that his work was misappropriated/stolen, he (or nature, really) should sue PNAS for copyright infringement.

    • DT November 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      It is not so simply. COPE and most journals CLEARLY stated that plagiarism is considered misconduct and should be punished with retraction. When authors submit they know this. Science is not just about validity of the data/conclusions (which seem pretty OK with this structure data at PNAS), but also the way that you report and guide your study.

      If a retraction occur, but the conclusion is valid, authors can resubmit reanalysed data to other journal anyway, so valuable results still remain available.

      • qqq November 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm

        I would like to add, that “is a WD40 repeat protein” could be found in my own work… definitely not a quote worthy phrase. Googling it in quotes hits 259,000 times.

      • CR November 9, 2013 at 10:09 am

        Also, a retracted paper should not be hidden from public view… Thus it is still accessible for any useful information therein.

      • Rens November 11, 2013 at 2:34 am

        “If a retraction occur, but the conclusion is valid, authors can resubmit reanalysed data to other journal anyway, so valuable results still remain available.”
        This would be duplicate publication, which is just about as bad as plagarism. In addition, the researchers are probably working on other projects by now. Retraction of the article would probably mean the results are lost. Whether that’s a bad thing I really can’t say, as I’m no expert in the field.

        I would argue that this particular case is a borderline case for the exact reason that it does correctly cite the appropriate papers that contain the phrases, and the authors did not do a large verbatim copy. I’m quite sure you can find phrases like these in almost any paper that has a lot of related work.

        Perhaps more importantly: this is quite clearly something that would never have been found by a review, unless the author of the phrases was in the set of reviewers. Can the journal bear responsibility for something they couldn’t have found?

        To be clear: I’m not sure what the answer should be here, I’m just explaining why I think this is an edge-case, and not as clear-cut as most plagarism cases I’ve seen and reported.

  • Chip_MoMo (@Chip_Molly) November 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Journals put such a huge fight to insist on manuscript revisions or rejections (often for laughingly trivial issues which are agenda driven), only to turn into walls of silence about retractions once manuscripts have passed the goal post. This seems entirely contrary to the ethics of research.

  • Tom DeCoursey November 8, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I have seen several examples of manuscripts that include verbatim quotations from reviews (mine) or from Wikipedia (!!!), without any citation of the source. This is clearly wrong – the words are not those of the authors, and the source is not given credit (or responsibility, if the quoted material is wrong). A mitigating factor is when the plagiarism occurs in the Introduction. Non-native English speakers may argue that they want to use proper language, but cannot produce it on their own. This is understandable, but does not justify plagiarism. Far worse, in my view, is actual theft of data. But even throwing a few Wikipedia tidbits into the Intro suggests a lack of scientific ethics that may permeate the entire study. If you are willing to steal ideas, then are you also willing to fabricate statistics to make a non-result significant? Where do you draw the line?

    • qqq November 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm

      I don’t buy this at all. Non-native english speakers have two excellent options: A) write in their native language EXACTLY what they want to say, without copy/pasting and have it translated by an expert B) write exactly what they want to say in poor english and have the language corrected by an expert (this is something that I’ve personally done to help foreigners free of change and know many others who do the same).

      I really feel for non-native english speakers in science, especially those having to learn as adults… but it’s not an excuse to copy/paste.

      • Tom DeCoursey November 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm

        I agree with you. I simply think that some forms of plagiarism is worse than others. However, ALL are unacceptable and have no place in the scientific literature. Extensive plagiarism as occurred in the PNAS paper should be grounds for retraction.

      • opop November 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm

        I agree with both points made here and in my experience it has been mostly non-native english speakers who commit this form of plagiarism (using sentences essentially verbatim instead of re-writing them). I can understand why they do this, but I agree with qqq that there simple ways not to commit plagiarism. For instance just asking a co-worker to re-phrase a sentence while still citing the relevant source. I can also understand why people might get confused as to why when they want to express essentially the exact same idea as someone else why they have to change the wording (especially when doing so takes some effort). However, that’s still no excuse for plagiarism. I think much of the responsibility lies on lab heads and institutions to make it perfectly clear what are acceptable and unacceptable practices for scientific scholarship. This means being realistic about the fact that many people may be coming from countries where ideas like intellectual property and plagiarism may not be well understood.

  • twistor November 8, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    ““This is completely insane. I will avoid citing PNAS papers from now, and also avoid publication on this journal whenever is possible. You can’t correct plagiarism by adding quotation marks, this is quite obvious..” (DT)” (Peer007)

  • Canadia November 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Thumbs WAY up for the Beyonce zinger

    • JATdS November 8, 2013 at 4:30 pm

      99% of this bickering could be resolved if COPE and the publishers could define what is an ACCEPTABLE level of plagiarism, self-plagiarism or quotations accross all journals. I have seen journals accept papers with 1% plagiarism, 5% plagiarism, or some, in Iran, accept as much as 20% plagiarism (based on iThenticate values). Or maybe I should re-phrase that, if, upon submission to one of these journals, values less than these limits exist, then the paper is publishable, provided that the scientific quality is OK (usually followed by suspect or no peer review), so annulling the significance of the plagiarism issue. So, while some are trying to rip PNAS’ head off, unfortunately, down, dee-down in the basal levels of science publishing journals, where the Impact Factor runs low, or does not exist, this is not even an issue. Most of the journals will attrribute it to “non-native English speaker” or “our culture differs” or “we had no idea”. I woudl tend to agree that perhaps the authors could have been more specific with their attribution and added quotation marks only if there was a direct quote. Since when does paraphrasing require quotation marks? Ultimately, we are not only witnessing the serious degradation of ethics, we are witnessing the commercialization of ethics and the prioritization of bickering over real scientific quality. Now is the time to get out of science before the system collapses.

      • Tom DeCoursey November 8, 2013 at 5:37 pm

        The reason these bottom-feeder journals have nonexistent impact factors is precisely because they allow plagiarism, among other problematic practices (no real peer review, etc.)

        • CR November 9, 2013 at 10:12 am

          Some have declared they accept a certain % of plagiarism to save the asses of big shots from their own institutions caught in the act. There is a famous case from Pakistan on this.

  • ferniglab November 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Par for the course, though I would not use the term insane. My limited experience is that journals take a huge amount of time to look into reader concerns, and they often reach for the brush first to sweep everything under the carpet. It took me two goes (http://bit.ly/XT91Il) to get PNAS to acknowledge that there was a data re-use issue. They then issued a correction (http://bit.ly/1dSVklV), though this did not really address any of the obvious underlying questions.
    Paul Brookes has just blogged his experiences with PLOS Biol, which are even less “positive” than my own. His post makes interesting, if depressing, reading: http://www.psblab.org/?p=130

  • Scichamp November 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    I agree with Zabetakis. In fact plagiarism is defined as the act of missapropriating someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. If the comments are referenced, it can’t really be classed as plagarism. Ok, so they should have re-edited the sentences a bit…but I don’t agree with having to put quotation marks around comments, that’s gettingn ridiculous.

    • CR November 9, 2013 at 10:16 am

      I think “referencing” is rather vague and may imply several things in the context. A reference plus quotation marks say the text was repeated for some reason (which should be good and not for the sake of laziness). Many people I know fill up their papers with references to justify their act of just repeating others’ job in patchwork and claim the result as their genial creation.

    • pyshnov November 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      I also “agree with Zabetakis” (see, I put quotation marks!). There is marginal plagiarism in the paper, but only plagiarism of words, not data, ideas or anything that represents scientific value. The sentences or their parts plagiarised do not have any scientifically original value. The references are there. The test should be this: Would a reasonable reader take these as appropriation of another author’s original scientific content. I absolutely believe – not. So, PNAS did the right thing, except that they should have noted that the authors were either negligent or can’t write properly. Also, a detailed reasons for correction should be given.

      • Pablo November 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm

        Completely agree. The focus of the scientific primary literature should be on the value of the results. There is a flood of published research where experiments are doubtful or directly fabricated as can be seen in pasted photographs and duplicated images. This does not imply that authors are not obliged to write an original and clear text to accompany and explain their data, but the main concern should be “the scientific value” of the studies, as pyshnov puts it.

  • caydenberg November 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    I think you meant “the” Ohio State University

  • Liz Wager November 11, 2013 at 3:52 am

    Sadly, I don’t think anything would be solved by reducing the definition of plagiarism to a text matching ‘score’. Such software is a powerful and useful tool, but it should not replace the judgement of an editor and there are many other factors to consider beyond the simple % of overlap. In an attempt to move towards tighter definitions, I wrote a discussion document for COPE a couple of years ago … see http://publicationethics.org/files/Discussion%20document.pdf

    • Miguel Roig November 11, 2013 at 7:06 am

      Thank you for posting the link to your paper, Liz. Your discussion of how plagiarism may be classified along various dimensions illustrates the complexities encountered when trying to determine the seriousness of this type of transgression.

      Readers of this thread may be interested to know that PNAS provides detailed author guidelines titled “Information for Authors”, http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/iforc.pdf, which states:

      “(xiv) Errata. PNAS publishes corrections for errors, made by the journal or authors, of a scientific nature that do not alter the overall basic results or conclusions of a published article. PNAS articles may be retracted by their authors or by the editor because of pervasive error or unsubstantiated or irreproducible data. Articles may be retracted, for example, because of honest error, scientific misconduct, or plagiarism. Errata are published at the discretion of the editors and appear as formal printed and online notices in the journal.”

      Thus, regarding the question of whether the paper should have been retracted or corrected, it seems that the editors of PNAS followed their own stated recommendations, but the amount of copied material seems to exceed the 100 word threshold for major plagiarism as outlined in Liz’ paper.

      • lar November 11, 2013 at 8:46 am

        So improperly citing sources is an ‘error of a scientific nature’? Why?

        • MIguel Roig November 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

          (To lar) Well, it depends. When authors present others’ ideas, substantial amounts of text, or data and the manner of citation misleads the reader into believing that the material is original, when in fact it is not, and it is determined (as it usually is) that the action is NOT inadvertent, then, yes, those are errors of a scientific nature. Of course, some errors are more serious than others. In my view, plagiarism of ideas and data are more serious forms of misconduct than just text plagiarism of text. When the latter reaches a certain threshold, it should be classified as serious. But, what that threshold should be is what Wager is proposing. (to JATtds) Keep in mind that, the paper is a ‘discussion’ paper. It’s purpose is to stimulate dialogue about this vexing problem.

      • JATdS November 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

        100 out of 1000? 100 out of 10,000? 100 out of 100,000? Please provide a percentage value as indicated by the Wager paper. Does the Wager paper represent an official COPE position, or is it just a personal opinion?

        • JATdS November 11, 2013 at 11:10 am

          This response (by Miguel Roig) is of serious concern (at least to me). Here we have a situation where the former chair of COPE (Liz Wager) is stating a personal opinion that 100 words – as a random value relative to nothing at all, just a wild number of 100 – constitutes “major plagiarism.” This is not a stimulation of dialogue, in my opinion. It is an attempt to set the rules by virtue of the positions held or previously held. Manipulating the narrative so to speak. When will the ORI, COPE, ICMJE, WAME or any of these “ethics” institutions come out and give the research communities REAL values related to plagiarism? It’s almost absurd that these “ethical” bodies preach ethics that scientists are expected to follow, but then are absolutely unable to give a fixed value that I am sure all would be happy to respect. Why can’t they simply engage the scientific community, publishers and non-scientists? For years we have had this problem, yet they seem to still reach a resolution. In some circles, this would be called incompetence. This flowery, vague and euphemistic language that is used again and again is also part of the problem, no doubt. It makes me wonder what they charge “membership fees” for. I have stated on quite a number of occasions, why not set a reasonable value of 1% of total text. This would be 100 words out of 10,000 words, which is not much, in essence a paragraph, which could amount to an honest mistake. That “mistake” could then be minimized if the authors were alerted to copied text by the editors and/or publishers who nowadays should be expected to use plagiarism detection software for all submissions. There is no excuse now for publishers to not be held as accountable as authors for misses in plagiarism or self-plagiarism. Scientists do not work to the tune of psychological hypotheses. When a clear and quantifiable rule is in place, we are perfectly capable of following and respecting the rule. Time for ORI, COPE, ICMJE, WAME and other “ethics” institutions to get their act together and quantify what is plagiarism. Enough of unquantified definitions. Yes, I am protesting the vagueness by COPE and others.

          • Miguel Roig November 11, 2013 at 3:06 pm

            To JATdS and all others who are equally concerned about this problem, believe me when I say to you all that I very much feel your pain. But, I really do not think there are easy answers. As I see it, the main problem with operationalizing plagiarism is that there are too many contextual variables that would need to be taken into account. Consider these questions: Must the 1% of misappropriated material consist of all consecutive words or can they represent a collection of snippets of, say, 20 consecutive words each? Must the 1% come from a single source or can they come from 2 or more sources all adding to the 1%? When is light paraphrasing considered plagiarism? If I change every 5th or 10th word in a sentence, is that considered adequate paraphrasing or is it plagiarism? How about changing the order of the subject and predicate? Suppose it is decided that appropriating more than 10 consecutive words constitutes plagiarism, should all text be treated equally? What about commonly used phrases and sentences (“subjects were randomly assigned to the experimental and control conditions”), should those be counted as well? Shouldn’t allowances made for technical, methodological descriptions (see ORI’s definition)?

            In sum, I think any objectively quantifiable definition of plagiarism would have to take these and related questions into account and THAT won’t be easy.

  • aceil November 11, 2013 at 10:33 am

    What about plagiarizing reviewers comments verbatim and including them in subsequent submissions to other journals?

    • Harp November 11, 2013 at 10:41 am

      wow thats a tricky matter

  • pyshnov November 11, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Liz Wager’s Discussion Document is appalling in that it is simply not for scientific publications, may be – for a literary work. After so many years in this business, she did not come to realise that plagiarism in science is, first of all, claiming scientific research originally done by other person. Her main emphasis is on plagiarism of words. Her Table 1 is a ludicrous failure. She did not know what should be put in 8 out of 20 squares, and they are left empty. Well, for the obvious reason – the table is not constructed with any scientific or other sound idea in mind. It’s a collection of words, put in squares, which have no common regularity or principle in arranging them. Probably, a table looked to her more scientific than just words; probably, in the same way she regarded the need to “quantify” of plagiarism – 100 words seemed to her a threshold everybody is looking for. But, 100 words is for a child who is clueless about WHAT IS in these words. The Liz Wager’s treatment of the subject seems to me so inadequate and helpless as not even allowing serious criticism.

    The Document “…does not aim to provide guidance…”. Not even guidance, let alone rules! How many more decades the COPE and its former Chief will need? How much more money in fees they intend collect? Isn’t this a point to stop their incompetent, infantile interference?

  • Look@s November 12, 2013 at 10:06 am

    “To paraphrase Beyoncé: If you like it, better put some quotation marks around it. But we’re pretty sure she meant before, not after, the fact.”

    Not sure if Beyoncé would see this in such a conservative way. I mean, the sentence “if you like it” implies that one has already experienced “the fact”. Else you wouldn’t know if you like “it” or not.

    Just adding this because I think some people get a bit heated here. I mean, if you don’t want to publish in that Journal any longer just because of this – in which Journal will you be able to publish within a few years?

    I personally decide on where to publish based on the good articles I find in a journal, not so much on the bottom end.

  • Alan Price November 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    I fully agree with Miguel Roig (above, to JATdS). After 17 years in ORI handling allegations of plagiarism, it is clear to me that one cannot just count words or percentages of copied material and conclude that serious plagiarism has occurred. One has to evaluate the context and significance of the copied material. As Miguel noted, plagiarism of ideas and data is much more serious. And as he noted, we developed an ORI policy that
    “ORI generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance.” see at: http://ori.hhs.gov/ori-policy-plagiarism

    • JATdS November 14, 2013 at 7:57 am

      Does this mean that claims of plagiarism cannot be quantified and/or should not be quantified? If so, then every retraction that was based on “plagiarism” thus far was based on a purely subjective view, which would invalidate these retractions. And that just won’t go down well with scientists. This subjectivity is clearly open to abuse and bias. If ORI and other “ethics” societies are not willing to quantify the level of plagiarism, then a more democratic system should be put into place e.g. an actual vote among the readership of a journal, the authors of a journal or the peers in that topic. So, if there are 1000 authors, let there be a vote. If >60% vote, then the vote is valid and if there is a clear majority (>51%) in favor of retraction, then so be it. Justice would then be served based on a sizeable sample, free of bias, and based on a range of value systems that are neither influenced by publisher, or editors. But to leave such serious decisions at the hands of a few individuals is ludicrous, especially when they are unable to or unwilling to quantify the level of plagiarism. With this circus set-up, editors and “ethical” bodies are aiming to bury science for once and for all. All I am advocating for is fair and logical rules for scientists who would gladly abide by logical – and not by illogical and biased – rules. Currently, the ORI and COPE positions on plagiarism are totally invalid, are based on opinions of individuals who make up essentially boards that satisfy the publishers, and should NOT be respected by anybody until the majority have spoken, not just the powerful elite who think they have a superior ethical nature due to their positions.

      • JATdS November 14, 2013 at 8:43 am

        PS: Allow me to provide documented proof from http://ori.dhhs.gov/ for my critique and allow things to be observed in a balanced context.

        Price is a former ORI employee, and Roig has been a consultant there. I quote from the ORI web-site: “May 15, 2013… and to develop an awareness of ethical writing. This guide was written by Miguel Roig, PhD, from St. Johns University with funding from ORI.”

        1. http://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/plagiarism.pdf (why no publication date?)
        2. http://ori.hhs.gov/education/products/roig_st_johns/Plagiarism%20of%20text.html (try move the back-and forward arrows to see great Obamacare-style ORI web functionality).

        In summary, Roig states the following 26 guidelines, which are supported by ORI (note how I have carefully added inverted commas to indicate the source) [my comments in square brackets]:
        “Guideline 1: An ethical writer ALWAYS acknowledges the contributions of others and the source of his/her ideas. [obvious]
        Guideline 2: Any verbatim text taken from another author must be enclosed in quotation marks. [obvious]
        Guideline 3: We must always acknowledge every source that we use in our writing; whether we paraphrase it, summarize it, or enclose it quotations. [no different to 1]
        Guideline 4: When we summarize, we condense, in our own words, a substantial amount of material into a short paragraph or perhaps even into a sentence. [obvious]
        Guideline 5: Whether we are paraphrasing or summarizing we must always identify the source of the information. [no different to 1]
        Guideline 6: When paraphrasing and/or summarizing others’ work we must reproduce the exact meaning of the other author’s ideas or facts using our words and sentence structure. [obvious]
        Guideline 7: In order to make substantial modifications to the original text that result in a proper paraphrase, the author must have a thorough understanding of the ideas and terminology being used. [obvious]
        Guideline 8: A responsible writer has an ethical responsibility to readers, and to the author/s from whom s/he is borrowing, to respect others’ ideas and words, to credit those from whom we borrow, and whenever possible, to use one’s own words when paraphrasing. [obvious and just paraphrases the previous 7 points]
        Guideline 9: When in doubt as to whether a concept or fact is common knowledge, provide a citation. [unclear what the definition between a citation and a cited quote is]
        Guideline 10: Authors who submit a manuscript for publication containing data, reviews, conclusions, etc., that have already been disseminated in some significant manner (e.g., published as an article in another journal, presented at a conference, posted on the internet) must clearly indicate to the editors and readers the nature of the previous dissemination. [out of touch. Most journals don’t allow for paper categorization within the body of text so this is bad an unpractical advice. Paper categories are also not defined indie reference lists, so this guideline makes no practical sense]
        Guideline 11: Authors of complex studies should heed the advice previously put forth by Angell & Relman (1989). If the results of a single complex study are best presented as a ‘cohesive’ single whole, they should not be partitioned into individual papers. Furthermore, if there is any doubt as to whether a paper submitted for publication represents fragmented data, authors should enclose other papers (published or unpublished) that might be part of the paper under consideration (Kassirer & Angell, 1995). Similarly, old data that have been merely augmented with additional data points and that are subsequently presented as a new study can be an equally serious ethical breach. [Why not just call it for what it is, salami slicing? why no quantification? what if the editors and publisher request the data set to be split for page limits, would they be responsible for a breach of ethics?]
        Guideline 12: Because some instances of plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and even some writing practices that might otherwise be acceptable (e.g., extensive paraphrasing or quoting of key elements of a book) can constitute copyright infringement, authors are strongly encouraged to become familiar with basic elements of copyright law. [as if copyright law were universal! it is a business cartel and the antithesis to open access]
        Guideline 13: While there are some situations where text recycling is an acceptable practice, it may not be so in other situations. Authors are urged to adhere to the spirit of ethical writing and avoid reusing their own previously published text, unless it is done in a manner consistent with standard scholarly conventions (e.g., by using of quotations and proper paraphrasing). [another useless repetition and no explanation as to when “text recycling” is acceptable]
        Guideline 14: Authors are strongly urged to double-check their citations. Specifically, authors should always ensure that each reference notation appearing in the body of the manuscript corresponds to the correct citation listed in the reference section and vice versa and that each source listed in the reference section has been cited at some point in the manuscript. In addition, authors should also ensure that all elements of a citation (e.g., spelling of authors’ names, volume number of journal, pagination) are derived directly from the original paper, rather than from a citation that appears on a secondary source. Finally, authors should ensure that credit is given to those authors who first reported the phenomenon being studied. [again this last sentence is a tiresome repetition. checking reference accuracy is also the function of the editors, peers and publishers, why is this shared responsibility not highlighted?]
        Guideline 15: The references used in a paper should only be those that are directly related to its contents. The intentional inclusion of references of questionable relevance for purposes of manipulating a journal’s or a paper’s impact factor or a paper’s chances of acceptance is an unacceptable practice. [obvious. and the link to plagiarism is?]
        Guideline 16: Authors should follow a simple rule: Strive to obtain the actual published paper. When the published paper cannot be obtained, cite the specific version of the material being used, whether it is conference presentation, abstract, or an unpublished manuscript. [obvious]
        Guideline 17: Generally, when describing others’ work, do not rely on a secondary summary of that work. It is a deceptive practice, reflects poor scholarly standards, and can lead to a flawed description of the work described. Always consult the primary literature. [obvious; a repeat of 16]
        Guideline 18: If an author must rely on a secondary source (e.g., textbook) to describe the contents of a primary source (e.g., an empirical journal article), s/he should consult writing manuals used in her discipline to follow the proper convention to do so. Above all, always indicate the actual source of the information being reported. [obvious; a repeat of 16 and 17]
        Guideline 19: When borrowing heavily from a source, authors should always craft their writing in a way that makes clear to readers, which ideas are their own and which are derived from the source being consulted. [obvious; a repeat of most of the above]
        Guideline 20: When appropriate, authors have an ethical responsibility to report evidence that runs contrary to their point of view. In addition, evidence that we use in support of our position must be methodologically sound. When citing supporting studies that suffer from methodological, statistical, or other types of shortcomings, such flaws must be pointed out to the reader. [obvious; but try and explain that to some hard-headed editors who equally unethically manipulate the narrative by cutting authors’ notes to negative results]
        Guideline 21: Authors have an ethical obligation to report all aspects of the study that may impact the independent replicability of their research. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is?]
        Guideline 22: Researchers have an ethical responsibility to report the results of their studies according to their a priori plans. Any post hoc manipulations that may alter the results initially obtained, such as the elimination of outliers or the use of alternative statistical techniques, must be clearly described along with an acceptable rationale for using such techniques. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is?]
        Guideline 23: Authorship determination should be discussed prior to commencing a research collaboration and should be based on established guidelines, such as those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is? and what exactly is the link between ORI and the ICMJE?]
        Guideline 24: Only those individuals who have made substantitve contributions to a project merit authorship in a paper. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is?]
        Guideline 25: Faculty-student collaborations should follow the same criteria to establish authorship. Mentors must exercise great care to neither award authorship to students whose contributions do not merit it, nor to deny authorship and due credit to the work of students. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is?]
        Guideline 26: Academic or professional ghost authorship in the sciences is ethically unacceptable. [obvious; and the link to plagiarism is?]”

        The rest:

        “The Lesser Crimes of Writing
        . Carelessness in citing sources
        . Relying on an abstract or a preliminary version of a paper while citing the published version
        . Citing sources that were not read or thoroughly understood
        . Borrowing extensively from a source but only acknowledging a small portion of what is borrowed
        . Ethically inappropriate writing practices
        . Selective reporting of literature
        . Selective reporting of methodology
        . Selective reporting of results
        . Authorship issues and conflicts of interest
        . Deciding on authorship
        . Establishing authorship
        . Authorship in faculty-student collaborations
        . A brief overview on conflicts of interest”

        I welcome other comments.

        • Miguel Roig November 14, 2013 at 10:25 am

          JATdS, I am not saying, nor I interpret Alan’s post as saying, that plagiarism cannot be quantified. What I am saying is that any system that attempts to quantify it needs to take many other variables into account, some of which may be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify. You propose to make such determinations by a vote from readers. But, I wonder if you have thought of the implications of such a system. Imagine if one of your submissions to a journal is suspected of having been plagiarized, but that in reality it does not meet the criteria for plagiarism. With your proposed system, your paper, along with the source material, would be circulated amongst the readership of the journal (hundreds, perhaps thousands of your peers) for them to make a final determination. Would you be comfortable having your work paraded around as a possible instance of misconduct? In some nations, such as the US, wouldn’t such actions place the editor and publisher in a legally precarious situation? As you may know, people’s criteria for what constitutes plagiarism vary widely across geographical region. Suppose the readership of one of the journals is composed of a geographical region or perhaps a discipline where attitudes toward plagiarism were very liberal? What would be the consequences of such a democratic system being used in an increasingly global and multidisciplinary context?

          Again, let me reiterate my earlier point: Quantifying plagiarism is an extremely difficult task and approaches such as solely relying on a number generated by plagiarism-detection software or even your own proposal, while simple and appealing in some respects, are just not feasible in my opinion.

          BTW, thanks very much for the plug regarding my on-line resource on avoiding plagiarism and other unethical writing practices that is hosted by ORI. For a list of my other works on this subject, interested readers may go to: http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~roigm/publications.htm.

          Relevant papers on plagiarism start in 1995.

        • Alan R Price December 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm

          To JATdS — Yes, I (Alan Price) am a former ORI employee (senior official, 1989-1996), as indicated in the link to my website on my full name, along with dozens of comments in Retraction Watch in recent years, many with links to the ORI website cases and policies that I developed there. The ORI plagiarism policy and practice in reviewing allegations of research misconduct that I developed in ORI is based on the judgment of scientists –not a computer-generated percentage of copied words — it is unfair and makes no sense to me that ORI should be forced to “quantify the level of plagiarism” and then make a finding of misconduct for anything over that minimum level, without judging the significance and seriousness of the misappropriation of words or ideas. Having said that, JATdS, I have followed with interest your numerous other RW postings.

          • aceil December 15, 2013 at 5:24 am

            I’ve heard about graduate students debating the maximum number of words that can be plagiarized before using a synonym to deceive plagiarism detection tools.

  • aceil November 15, 2013 at 5:22 am

    JATdS,
    What is your opinion on including paragraphs and texts suggested by reviewers and editors? Is that plagiarism ? It sure is, theoretically, but in reality; it is not . Why? Because reviewers and editors allow it? What is self plagiarism then?

    • JATdS November 17, 2013 at 12:05 am

      Dear Aceil. Let me give you a CLEAR case of self-plagiarism (and we don’t need advice from psychologists, the ORI or COPE to reach this conclusion, I assure you):

      Compare primarily text in the introduction of these two papers:
      Naing AH, Kim CK, Yun BJ, Jin JY, Lim KB (2013a) Primary and secondary somatic embryogenesis in Chrysanthemum cv. Euro. Plant Cell, Tissue Organ Cult. 112, 361–368
      Naing AH, Min JS, Park KI, Chung MY, Lim SH, Lim KB, Kim CK (2013b) Primary and secondary somatic embryogenesis in Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium) cv. ‘Baeksun’ and assessment of ploidy stability of somatic embryogenesis process by flow cytometry. Acta Physiologiae Plantarum 35, 2965-2974

      Now do you believe in the concept of self-plagiarism?

      I should add that both journals, bith published by Springer, carry a GOOD impact factor which will keep “clients” from many countries submitting to these journals because they get remunerated based on the IF score. If self-plagiarism is allowed to be an acceptable form of the publishing model, then three things feed each other in a never-ending loop: fraud, the impact factor, complacency. The latter, as defined by Marriam-Webster dictionary is: “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies “. In other words, we are dealing with situations right now in plant science where editors are happy to pat themselves on the back for what they believe was good work done in publishing “original” papers, but upon close scrutiny (now in the process of taking place) it is revealed that MANY papers published, at least in such “high” level plant science journals, are nothing more than duds.

      Time to retract the 2013b paper based on SELF-PLAGIARISM.

      Some think my calls are for revolution. But actually, it’s much more than that. It’s a call for common sense and a return to basic honesty.

      • JATdS November 17, 2013 at 12:28 am

        Aceil, my personal opinion about including paragraphs or texts as suggested by peers or reviewers could take time to explain, but I will summarize my main thoughts here:

        a) Case 1. You cannot look at those comments in isolation. How can you reference or acknowledge a reviewer whose identity you do not know? So, when peer review is blind, or double-blind, then this is impossible. Even if you ask the editor or EIC for the identity of that reviewer, 99.999% of cases it will never be revealed. So, already the answer to your question lies in the question itself. Appropriate attribution is not being made possible BECAUSE of the current publishing model, as well as publishers’ and editors’ fixed attitudes.
        b) Case 2. Imagine that all parties are aware of each others’ identities throughout the peer review process. For example, the authors, editors and peers all know each others’ identities throughout the peer process. In this case, it get’s tricky. This is because a claim of copyright infringement or plagiarism is USUALLY based on the existence of published and/or copyrighted material. Moreover, most editors/peers serve voluntarily and their function is precisely to provide advice that will result in the direct improvement of the paper. Thus, their service (no matter how gratuitous it may seem) is FREE, charitable and voluntary. Thus, so too are their ideas, no? Since their ideas were in fact never formally published, it is impossble for them to be “plagiarized” (sensu stricto but not sensu lacto).
        c) Case 3. In my personal case, I have received, as part of the traditional peer process, in almost all respectable peer processes, suggestions for improvement. I have never referenced an editor or peer simply because I never knew their identity. I do not consider this to be a theft of intellectual property in any way. Although, deep inside, I would have liked to thank the editors or reviewers in the acknowledgements. Unfortunately, the great majority of journals and publishers are not built in this way, the peers are under-appreciated key elements of the quality control chain, and because of the idiotic rules imposed by publishers, we will never know what great intellectual achievements were made by peers or editors, simply because their true effort was never acknowledged. In this case, we have the entire scientific community to blame. Consequently, no-one can be accused of plagiarizing ideas of someone that cannot be seen i.e., a ghost.
        d) Case 4. You only talk about paragraphs or text, but what about ideas? In some peer reviews, some excellent ideas are actually borne, and some suggestions for the improvement of a manuscript come from peers. That is, traditionally, the function of peers, i.e., to spur ideas and improvements. This actually then brings us to the issue of appropriate authorship. Imagine a journal gets a pretty scrappy paper. Then the editor and/or peer contribute ideas and writing and/or significant improvements. Would that not entitle them to be an author? After all, one of the first premises of authorship is the contribution of new or novel ideas.

        So, yes, Harp’s response to the same question you made is true: “now that’s tricky”. Because it is not a straighforward issue and is linked to many other publishing parameters. However, it could become a reality if only the scientific community, editorts and publishers would be more open to a more open, transparent and honest publishing system in whihc the identity of all parties is known, namely authors, editors and peers. Then indeed, peers or editors can be appropriately “quoted” or acknowledged. Now that sounds fair to me. To date, I have only seen vestigial evidence that such a process may be taking place in F1000 Research and in Frontiers’ journals. The rest: just a distant reality.

        Could I accuse, for example, someone of plagiarism, for “using” my ideas or text published officially on this blog without due attribution?

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