Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Does the philosophy literature have a plagiarism problem?

with 3 comments

Michael Dougherty

Philosopher Michael Dougherty doesn’t take plagiarism sitting down. Over the years, the researcher at Ohio Dominican University has tipped us off to numerous instances of plagiarism he’s spotted. And it turns out, he’s done the same thing for publishers, as well. In a new paper in Metaphilosophy, Dougherty describes his experience contacting publishers over an instance of what he terms “serial plagiarism,” and how they responded – or didn’t respond – to his allegations.

Retraction Watch: Your paper focuses on the publications of one author – Martin W. F. Stone – who you claim has plagiarized numerous times. (We’ve reported on 14 retractions for Stone.) What made you decide to undertake this work?

Michael Dougherty: My interest is primarily in post-publication responses to plagiarism. I do not focus on the individuals who plagiarize or on how plagiarized manuscripts reach print, but rather I am interested in dealing with plagiarized articles once they become part of the scholarly literature. When I first became involved in this kind of work, I thought that writing to publishers with evidence of plagiarism would be sufficient to generate retractions. I was quite mistaken. Securing a correction of the scholarly record is often extremely difficult, even when the evidence of plagiarism is overwhelming and indisputable. This work can involve seemingly endless correspondence with academic editors, acquisitions editors, legal departments at presses, research integrity offices, editorial boards, and sometimes the genuine authors whose works have been misappropriated. For the cases covered in my recent article, the evidence of plagiarism was already part of the public record due to prior work with research colleagues. I thought that by approaching the matter anew and by cataloguing the various responses by publishers, I might start a discussion on improving the methods for retraction in my field of philosophy. I am currently writing a book on the topic, and I hope to continue the conversation.

RW: You note that different publishers approached the situation very differently. Can you describe the range of responses to the allegations of plagiarism?

MD: As you can imagine, the work of requesting retractions creates both friends and foes. I have worked on several serial plagiarism cases in recent years, and I certainly understand that academics who edit journals, and acquisitions editors who publish books, never enjoy learning about new cases of plagiarism. To be clear, many editors in philosophy understand what is at stake and they are committed to their gatekeeping responsibility in the dissemination of knowledge. Working with those editors to restore the integrity of the scholarly record has been a great privilege. Not all editors are so committed, unfortunately. Some ignore requests for retraction altogether or promise a response and then never follow up. Others cite friendship with plagiarists as a reason not to correct the scholarly record. In extreme cases, some editors seem unaware that whistleblower harassment and interference with misconduct investigations are themselves distinct forms of scientific misconduct. In one instance, an editor at an academic press accidentally forwarded to me the internal email correspondence with fellow editors over one of my retraction requests. The email chain included a frank admission that an article was plagiarized and revealed the press’s position that issuing a retraction for plagiarism would simply be too damaging to the press’s reputation. We have a long way to go, I’m afraid, before some editors realize that issuing retractions improves a press’s relationship with the research community.

RW: Which publishers stood out for their exemplary behavior, and why?

MD: In my rating of published retractions, Springer earned the highest marks for exhibiting the best practices in correcting the scholarly record. Springer’s retractions explicitly use the word ‘plagiarism’ rather than the various euphemisms commonly employed by some publishers (e.g., saying an article is “no longer available for legal reasons”). Springer’s retractions also identify the works that were misappropriated in the plagiarized articles, thereby giving credit to the genuine authors who were victimized. The retractions by Springer are freely available online without any restrictions (e.g., no paywall, no registration), and the electronic versions of the articles are watermarked as “Retracted.” Also, the publishers Brepols and Peeters Publishing scored well for their respective published retractions involving journal articles.

RW: You propose that retraction statements for plagiarism focus on three criteria: determination (showing support for the claim), credit (to the original source), and availability (disseminating the notice). In your estimation, how many retraction statements in philosophy meet all three of these criteria?

MD: Other than the three mentioned above – Springer, Brepols, and Peeters – the remaining presses scored deficiently in at least one respect. Of course, issuing a statement of retraction that in some way falls short of perfection is much better than issuing no retraction at all for plagiarized articles; doing nothing is unfortunately an all-to-common occurrence in philosophy. Less than perfect retractions still offer a strong measure of correction of the scholarly record, insofar as readers are warned that the article is substantively deficient. For example, the publisher De Gruyter issued an extremely brief online retraction that simply stated, “Retracted for Plagiarism.” This retraction scores highly in determination and availability, but it is deficient in failing to give credit to the genuine authors whose works were misappropriated.

RW: You found that philosophy often “falls short of the accepted practices” for correcting the record, relative to the natural sciences. In what way? And do you have any speculation about why?

MD: One problem is the overreliance on neutral expressions of concern that simply publicize that a complaint of plagiarism has been received without offering a confirmation that plagiarism has occurred. Expressions of concern are certainly warranted when there is ambiguity in the evidence, but when the evidence of plagiarism is irrefutable and overwhelming, the substitution of a neutral expression of concern for a straightforward retraction is a failure to correct the scholarly record adequately. Neutral expressions of concern also deny whistleblowers the institutional support they deserve for having reported demonstrated cases of plagiarism. As for speculating about why philosophy falls short, perhaps the ill effects of deficient publications in the field of philosophy do not always manifest themselves as quickly as they might in other disciplines. The need to retract a plagiarized article on medieval metaphysics, for example, appears less urgent than to correct deficient articles in fields like pharmacology or oncology. There is no reason, however, for the discipline of philosophy not to exhibit the best practices in maintaining a reliable scholarly record.

RW: What are the most important ways the publishing community can improve how it handles problems in the philosophy literature?

MD: Too many editors misconceive requests for retraction to be requests to punish plagiarists, when the point is correcting the scholarly literature for students and researchers. Some current practices should cease, in my view. For example, I have seen cases where academic editors condemn an article for plagiarism on a website not associated with a publication and never issue a formal retraction with the relevant publisher. Some publishers quietly stop selling certain books or limit access to certain articles after they are demonstrated to be plagiarized, without ever issuing any public statements of retraction. These activities do not provide a correction of the scholarly record, since the repository of published research remains damaged without amendment. Researchers will continue to cite the plagiarized material, not knowing that it is plagiarized. Furthermore, all retractions should be unpaywalled and electronically tethered to the retracted articles.

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Written by Alison McCook

May 19th, 2017 at 11:30 am

  • Miguel Roig May 21, 2017 at 6:04 am

    I wonder if Michael can comment on how the philosophy community treats the problem of self-plagiarism, for example, the recycling of substantial amounts of text or the presentation of an already published idea or argument as new material. Is there a sense that these are common occurrences in the philosophy literature? Are they considered problematic, a grey area?

  • Miguel Roig May 22, 2017 at 7:34 am

    Thank you, Michael. As the field of experimental philosophy continues to expand, awareness of issues related to duplication, especially with respect to data re-use and salami publication involving data, will be increasingly important.

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