“Absolutely mortified” after unintentionally plagiarizing, author offers to step down from new post

A few months ago, Dirk Werling discovered he had made a horrible mistake: He had inadvertently plagiarized in his recent review.

On January 20, Werling said he came across a 2016 paper while working on a grant and realized he had published some of the text in his 2018 review in Research in Veterinary Science. Werling — based at Royal Veterinary College at the University of London — told Retraction Watch:

I knew I needed to retract my paper.

Two days later, he contacted the editor of the journal and Elsevier to request the review, “Non-infectious stressors and innate immune response,” be retracted. That day he emailed the head of his department and the author of the 2016 paper, Edmund LeGrand, to inform them of the situation. He also offered to step down from his new role as associate dean for research. (He said the university has not made a final decision about the resignation.)

How did Werling plagiarize by mistake?

Werling explained that, while working on a presentation in 2016, he copied text from LeGrand’s paper, which “contained some really good thoughts I would have liked to pick up on.” He never ended up giving that talk, but the journal invited him to write a review on the topic.

More than a year later, in September 2017, Werling wrote the paper—and said he somehow lost sight of the notes that indicated which text was copied from the 2016 paper.

LeGrand, now retired from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, told us he was already aware of Werling’s review. LeGrand said that while reading the abstract on ResearchGate after it was published, he initially had thought:

Wow this paper is right up my alley. … it sounds like something I would write.

After comparing the two abstracts, he realized they were essentially the same.  

Elsevier withdrew the review in January, as it was still in press; the notice offered no explanation about what happened, simply stating:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s).

The only reason we knew there was a story to tell is that Werling himself alerted us to the situation in January.

In the past, our co-founders have explained why they take issue with the way Elsevier handles withdrawals:

[The policy] seems to reflect an old-fashioned view of what “publishing” means, namely that the paper has appeared in a print issue. Sorry, folks, publishing online means something is, well, published. We see no reason why the scientific community does not deserve as full an accounting of such withdrawals as it gets from Elsevier’s retraction notices — which, as we have noted before, generally contain more information that the industry average.

When we asked the publisher why it didn’t publish a retraction notice, a spokesperson said a notice “was not deemed necessary in this specific case” because the issue was inadvertent and the author was forthcoming. The spokesperson told us:

… we wish to avoid any potential embarrassment to authors by withdrawing the article as quickly as possible, without the extensive discussion that is typically needed to finalise a retraction notice.

She added that the plagiarism wasn’t spotted before publication because the paper was part of a Special Issue, and there was a “misunderstanding regarding the point of the editorial workflow” at which the submission was supposed to be checked for similarities to previous works.

University investigates

Given the degree of plagiarism and the fact that Werling did not reference the 2016 paper in his review, LeGrand said he was concerned that the plagiarism might not be inadvertent, and contacted Werling’s university on February 5:

I recognized my obligation to report the incident to the university.

Werling explained that after LeGrand’s complaint, the university conducted a formal investigation. Jonathan Elliott, the university’s vice principal of research and innovation, confirmed that the investigation has concluded, and the university determined:

This was self-reported incident which was clearly an unintended error contributed to by personal circumstances and time pressure of deadlines imposed by the journal for an invited review to be published in a special issue.  Professor Werling deeply regrets this serious error and has done all he could, once he realised it had occurred, to rectify the unfortunate situation.

LeGrand told us:

I’m flattered that someone read and liked my paper. I’m upset that my [2016] work wasn’t referenced. And I’m disappointed because I’ve lost a potential collaborator. If [Werling] had asked to work together, I probably would have said yes.

Although Werling said he never intended to plagiarize, it doesn’t change my mistake:”

I feel absolutely mortified by this and I apologised profoundly to everyone involved.

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3 thoughts on ““Absolutely mortified” after unintentionally plagiarizing, author offers to step down from new post”

  1. I think LeGrand was a bit vindictive to report Werling to his university after Werling self-reported his unintentional plagiarism and had the review retracted. If Werling didn’t report his error, would LeGrand have pursued such a course of action?

  2. I totally agree…mistakes happen, it was reported by the author as soon as he realised and the review (!) retracted. No need by LeGrand to report to RVC, it’s added double pressure. He could have contacted the author directly instead to clarify the situation!

  3. I hardly think that LeGrand can be criticised here (and I think to state this as being vindictive is harsh)
    He may have been unaware of any background to the retraction (what prompted the retraction) and any explanation as to how it occurred

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