Plagiarism and other ‘negligence’ fell lung-estrogen paper

There’s parsing a-plenty in the American Journal of Physiology Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology this month. The journal has retracted a 2010 paper by researchers at Chiba University in Japan, who lifted much of their manuscript from an article by other scientists in a different publication.

The authors of the paper, “The estrogen paradox in pulmonary arterial hypertension,” confess that they misappropriated text. But how they do so is a case study in subtlety:

We hereby retract this article for the following reasons: Due to negligence including a communication error between authors, the article contained a number of passages that were copied verbatim and close to verbatim from an excellent review in the field by Tim Lahm et al. in Critical Care Medicine (36: 2174–2183, 2008). We also did not reference the source of these passages.

We offer our formal apologies for this error and for any inconvenience associated with the publication of the article. The paper is therefore being retracted by the American Physiological Society at the request of Dr. Sakao and with the approval of the coauthors.

The key construction here is “negligence including.” What follows is “a communication error between authors” that led to the plagiarism. What exactly does that mean?

And what about the other “negligences” not covered by communication error? Those go unenumerated, unfortunately. We emailed the first author of the paper, Seiichiro Sakao, for comment but haven’t received a reply.

We also reached out to the editor of the journal for comment and will update this post when we hear back.

However, we think the verbal gymnastics of this retraction notice raise an important question about the role editors play in the issuance of retraction statements. Although we’re sympathetic to the argument that editors aren’t in the business of forcing confessions from errant contributors, there’s a difference between requiring clarity and transparency and demanding an author-da-fé.

After all, readers and, perhaps more so, editors of other journals, have a right to know what really happened with a retracted paper. Was it an innocent miscommunication that led to plagiarism or an intentional act that ought to raise the index of suspicion for future submissions?

3 thoughts on “Plagiarism and other ‘negligence’ fell lung-estrogen paper”

  1. I’m just wondering – shouldn’t the editors run each paper through some plagiarism detecting software? Many are available, some are pretty good and reasonably priced.
    I know they can (and should!) always blame the authors, on the other hand, the less retractions in a journal, the better for its reputation I think… and if the plagiarism was so massive that they actually copy-pasted from a review article, any plagiarism software would have picked that up. Just thinking aloud… But since many universities do this for every thesis, why not journals as well?
    PS:I can’t believe they have not cited the paper they copy-pasted from… what exactly were they thinking?

  2. Very good point made about the verbal gymnastics which may hide some more skeletons in the closet obscured by vague wordings. Look forwards to the update to this post!

  3. Unfortunately most plagiarism detection software used by journal editors fails to detect anything other than verbatim passages, generally longer than 8-10 words in length, and usually only compared against material in other journals. If there are subtle changes to the language used, then software, unlike a human reader, cannot detect theft of ideas or concepts. In addition, work not published in mainstream journals, but published elsewhere on the web or in printed form such as teaching materials and videos, conference presentations, workshops, and other arenas are vulnerable to theft, as detection software used by journals is not applied to these media. Therefore, the mindset of some academics is that if their material makes it through the detectors, then it’s safe. However, getting plagiarised material published “under the radar” so to speak, doesn’t make it theirs. I’ve seen it happen, and apparently it’s not uncommon. Unfortunately, academics in teaching positions vested with the responsibility of detecting plagiarism in their students are also those best placed to know how to get around the system.

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