Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Mistaken plagiarism? Journal retracts education paper that inadvertently included others’ work

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An education journal is pulling a 2014 paper about how US funding partnerships in Africa could alleviate local poverty, after the author admitted to mistakenly lifting sentences from work presented at a 2012 conference.

Author Christopher S. Collins at Azusa Pacific University took full responsibility for the plagiarism, and told us he suggested the journal retract the paper — but also proposed alternatives, such as adding the plagiarized author as a co-author, or publishing “an error sheet” that cites the material in the sentences in question.

If it’s hard to imagine how someone could plagiarize another researcher’s work by mistake, Collins explained what happened in a 900-word statement, in which he also told us how he is moving forward professionally and personally.

Here’s how some plagiarized sentences ended up in Can funding for university partnerships between Africa and the US contribute to social development and poverty reduction?” in Higher Education, according to Collins:

In November of 2014, I was notified by one of the primary editors of the journal that there was an issue with my article and I was asked to submit a response.  I was confused when I initially saw the email, but once I more carefully read the issue outlined by the editor and another author, I realized I had made a mistake.  I immediately contacted the other author and the editor and outlined how the error was made.

In summary, I was a discussant for a session at a conference several years earlier (2012). While reading the papers for the session, I noticed one paper cited several reports and articles on a topic of interest, and I knew I needed to note and obtain those sources. I made notes from the paper in a separate document and failed to indicate the conference paper as the original source. As a result, when I returned to that document many months later, I failed to recognize that the paper included a handful of sentences drawn directly from the conference paper, without proper attribution. I apologized to the author and assured him that I had high regard for his work and would never intentionally slight him or his work.

In Collins’s full statement, he told us how he sought support from colleagues during the aftermath of the retraction:

Professionally, this process has been difficult and has included a level of negative exposure. Prior to the retraction, I contacted several of my closest colleagues and coauthors to inform them of the impending notice.  All of the responses were quite encouraging; they reminded me to be diligent in approaching research and writing with care, and assured that this mistake was one anyone could make. 

And he shared some reading material that he found helpful for getting through the process:

On a personal level, the months that passed in between communications about decisions regarding the manuscript led to a lot of self-doubt and a crisis in identity in regards to scholarship and the life of the mind. Close colleagues introduced me to Brené Brown’s work, which highlights the difference between guilt and shame.  Brown generally defines guilt as something that can be helpful; a failure can be compared to an individual’s set of values and standards and the discomfort can be used for growth.  Shame is the feeling of being deeply flawed or unworthy and is an unhelpful set of feelings (for a more detailed description, see Brown’s 2012 book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead or the blog, 

He has still had opportunities to work with the journal since, he explained:

I have since been asked to review several articles by the journal and another editor at the journal asked me to contribute a section on a comprehensive project on higher education with Oxford University Press.  Both of these instances have been professionally encouraging after such a discouraging experience. 

APU is an evangelical university, and Collins said his faith played a part in his recovery:

On a deeper level, this series of events caused me to think about my self-perception and life purpose through a different lens. Although I deeply regret my oversight, I have been reminded that my journey of faith requires me to live for something much greater than my individual accomplishments and failures. I realized I had placed much of my identity and my faith in temporary successes instead of a more eternal purpose. Although I am committed to my scholarship, this experience has altered my perspective and disposition in a way that has made my work more congruent with other aspects of my life, beliefs, and epistemology.

The retraction note (published in May, 2015) outlines what, specifically, the paper took from others:

This article published in {Volume 68, Issue 6, pages 943–958, DOI 10.​1007/​s10734-014-9753-x} has been retracted at the request of the editors in chief, as it contains portions of other author’s writings on the same topic, without sufficient attribution to these earlier works. The author of the paper acknowledged that text from background sources was mistakenly used in the Introduction without proper reference to the original source. Specifically, the three first pages of the article (pp. 943–945) contain excerpts of Dr. Felly Chiteng Kot’s presentation with the title “Factors Associated with International Partnership Engagement: Results of a Survey of Two African Universities” (pages 3, 8–10) given in ASHE International Forum in Charlotte, North Carolina, 2011, and Dr. Kot’s dissertation “Factors Associated with Partnership Experiences, Attitudes, and Perceptions: A Comparative Case Study of Two African Universities” approved by the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, August 2011, and published by ProQuest/UMI Dissertation Publishing 2011. The author apologizes to the editors and readers as well as the author of the original studies.

We have contacted the editor of the journal, and will update if we hear back.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Written by Shannon Palus

March 17th, 2016 at 11:30 am

  • Heather Z March 17, 2016 at 11:43 am

    This man’s contrition and humility demonstrates what it means to own your mistakes and work to make amends. The fact that he went a step farther and used this time for self-reflection is admirable. Hopefully young researchers can learn from his mistake AND from his response.

  • Jesus Verde March 17, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    In the second paragraph, “Azusa State” should be “Azusa Pacific”

    • Alison McCook March 17, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      Fixed, thanks!

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