Plagiarism costs Canadian lab-on-a-chip researcher a paper — in his own journal

We have long (well, for the past two years) wondered about the pitfalls of publishing in one’s own journal, and here’s a case that illustrates precisely how fraught that practice can be.

The journal Microfluidics and Nanofluidics has retracted a 2010 article, titled “Induced-charge electrokinetic phenomena,” by Dongqing Li and Yasaman Daghighi, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, for what appears to be extensive misappropriation of text and data.

As the notice explains:

The article has been retracted by request of the authors. Unaltered text was taken from a pre-published version of Bazant MZ, Squires TM (2010) Induced-charge electrokinetic phenomena. Curr Opin Colloid Interface Sci 15(2010) 203–213. Moreover, a few reproduced figures from other published articles lack appropriate references. The authors apologize for their negligence.

The paper has been cited five times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, including by another paper on which Daghighi and Li are co-authors.

In 2010, Li, who holds a prestigious “Canada Research Chair (Tier 1)” at Waterloo, was the top editor of Micro/Nano — a journal he founded. Daghighi was then his graduate student, and it’s pretty easy to see him assuring her of a plum publication. What’s less clear is how either of the authors might have gotten their hands on a pre-publication version of a paper that appeared in a different journal.

In any event, Li eventually stepped down from the editorship of the journal — voluntarily, we’re told — but managed to keep his name on the masthead as a member of the editorial board. The interim editor, Roland Zengerle, has not responded to our request for comment. Similarly, we spoke to a couple of Li’s fellow board members but could not get a comment on the record.

Waterloo has been tight-lipped about the case. Pearl Sullivan, chair of Li’s department, said the university conducted its own investigation into the paper but said the conclusions were

private information. It’s something we’re dealing with.

We asked whether Daghighi was solely to blame for the episode, to which Sullivan replied:

It’s a bit more complicated than that.  It’s not a binary answer.

Sullivan said that Daghighi was still employed at Waterloo, to her knowledge, although we could not reach her for comment.

Bruce Mitchell, the school’s associate provost, responded to our request for an interview with the rather terse:

I am away from Waterloo on holidays, so am unavailable.

We figured that wasn’t an auto-reply, since the message came many hours after we’d initially emailed him (and we got silence to follow-up messages).

What’s interesting is that Mitchell is a staunch public advocate of academic good conduct. In the wake of a 2010 doping scandal that cost the school’s football team an entire season, his office launched an aggressive pro-integrity campaign. That includes online tutorials, videos and other materials, along with quotations from Waterloo students such as this:

Your degree is worth more if it’s from a school where rules against cheating are enforced. But there are grey areas where it’s not clear what is acceptable and what is not.  Teachers need to take responsibility to provide clarification. Sometimes students help each other because they do not think that the teacher is available. Also, students are more likely to commit academic offenses when they are under pressure to get ahead, to meet deadlines, to get the grades they need etc.  A lot depends on good contact with the teacher.”

We particularly liked this YouTube interview Mitchell conducted with the CBC and posted in April 2012:

As he states:

Our view is that integrity is something that everybody should have some interest and ownership of ….


Getting back to our first point, we’re curious what RW readers think about editors who publish their own studies in their own journals. Should “don’t print where you eat” be a new rule of thumb? Take our poll:

[polldaddy poll=6447004]

45 thoughts on “Plagiarism costs Canadian lab-on-a-chip researcher a paper — in his own journal”

    1. Yet another example that (as I have noted previously)
      “There is something VERY rotten in Canadian universities!”

      This case is illustration for the ultimate DUPLICITY in Canadian universities.
      Prima facie they have excellent Frameworks to deal with misconduct, and on words they all condemn any misconduct and say that they take every case “very seriously”.

      It might be truth in cases with students’ assignments (one-off case, seen by one person only), but when the misconduct is committed by a Faculty member, the ONLY thing they are serious about is COVER UP.

      I’d formulate the following law:
      The higher the position of the Faculty member and the more serious the misconduct is, the more contraventions of their own Framework they will commit to cover it up.

      1. “There is something VERY rotten in Canadian universities!”

        I’m sure you’ll find good and bad people everywhere. The pressure on academics is even more down south as compared to cold Canada.

  1. “What’s less clear is how either of the authors might have gotten their hands on a pre-publication version of a paper that appeared in a different journal.”.
    Maybe one of them was a reviewer of the manuscript from which text was subsequently lifted. It would be prudent to check if the “Microfluidics and Nanofluidics” paper appeared in print before the other paper. I am assuming the “Microfluidics and Nanofluidics” manuscript was the second to be submitted but publishing stuff in one’s own journal may turn out to be an exceptionally smooth process.

    “We asked whether Daghighi was solely to blame for the episode, to which Sullivan replied: “It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not a binary answer.””.
    So probably Daghighi was only partially solely to blame.

    1. “only partially solely to blame” – I like that! You should secure a copyright for that phrase, as it might prove popular in the ‘field’ of scientific misconduct.

      Neither Daghighi or Li are listed as editors for Vol. 15 of Current Opinion in Colloid & Interface Science, although of course either could have reviewed the apparently plagiarized 2010 Bazant and Squires paper (which is not to be confused with the 2004 Bazant and Squires paper with similar title). Curr Opin Colloid Interface Sci does not seem to publish a “thank you” to its reviewers, so I couldn’t determine if the alleged offenders have ever served as reviewers for that journal. The 2010 paper does not acknowledge either Daghighi or Li. So…how COULD either of them have access to a pre-published version of the paper? Logical answers seem few, but all are troublesome.

      It would be informative to learn how the editors of that, or any, journal react to one of “its” papers being plagiarized. Are the offenders formally removed from that journal’s reviewer roster? Are subsequent manuscripts received from such offenders returned without review? Are such actions on the part of the journal/publisher contingent upon results from a university/employer/government investigation of the offenders?

      1. Maybe Bazant or Squires had a pre-print up on their websites after they submitted in December? It’s not uncommon to do in the physical science. Things are not as cut-throat as the biological ones. No one is generally afraid on getting scooped, especially on a review article!

      2. Current Opinion in Colloid and Interface Science does not necessarily solicit peer reviews for the papers it publishes. Usually, the Section Editors identify authors and request them to prepare mini-reviews, which are published without peer reviews. The process is often a “family affair”.

  2. “What’s less clear is how either of the authors might have gotten their hands on a pre-publication version of a paper that appeared in a different journal.”

    Are you using publication dates to make this conclusion?

    For some reason, this fact – if true – strikes me as more heinous than ‘simple’ plagarism.

    1. One of them, or a colleague, was probably asked to peer review it and did not respect the confidentiality.

  3. In your survey ‘Should editors publish papers — other than editorials — in their own journals?’ I’m not sure that the middle choice you’ve got is the most appropriate.

    You have: ‘Yes, but only if there’s a a clear rule that they have to abide by peer reviewers’ recommendations’

    It’s the role of editors to evaluate reviewer comments and recommendations and advise authors which comments needed to be addressed/ignored and which revisions done for their manuscript to be accepted. Any editor who always basically says ‘do what the reviewers say’ isn’t doing his/her job. Reviewers can be wrong, ask for experiments that are unreasonable or unnecessary, and be unrealistic in their expectations of what warrants publication in a specific journal. It wouldn’t be right or fair to make any submitting author abide by all the peer reviewers’ recommendations, so this shouldn’t be the case for editors’ submissions.

    When an editor submits to his/her own journal it’s good practice that another editor takes complete responsibility for handling the submission and its review – choosing reviewers , decision-making, deciding on revisions, etc – and measures should always be put in place to make sure the submitting editor can’t access any information about the review, reviewers and decision-making process. Good journals have very rigorous processes in place for this. The COPE Code of Conduct for Journal Editors has some guidance (section 17.2): “Journals should have a declared process for handling submissions from the editors, employees or members of the editorial board to ensure unbiased review.”

      1. Hi Ivan, afraid I can’t point you to any published processes – maybe any editors/journals who do publish their processes can comment here? I’m going by my experience when I managed a journal and that of others I’ve spoken to. How one handles things also depends on the online manuscript submission/review system being used and its functionality. In the early days of online working we used to have to submit dummy records for editor submissions and deal with the review process by email offline as there was no way to keep that information confidential from specific users. Nowadays that can be done.

      2. While not publicized on their website, this policy (ie having another Editor oversee the entire peer review and assessment process for submissions from Editors-in-Chief) is followed by several BioMed Central independent journals

      3. My experience has been that it’s pretty routine in computing-related journals (and conferences, which often have a journal-level prestige). These typically have a large enough editorial staff that it’s easy to recuse editors with a conflict of interest. For example, the ACM has a well-specified process for all of its journals to follow, including the rationale for how it is balanced to try to minimize both improper favoritism and punishment for service:

      4. Thanks Reviewer #3 for posting the link to the Association for Computing Machinery’s policy and processes. They express very clearly why many journals don’t prohibit their editors from submitting to their own journals:

        “ACM does permit an EIC to be an author of a paper in the EIC’s journal. Outright prohibition of EIC authorship is considered too severe for at least three reasons. First, it can unduly penalize the EIC’s co-authors. In several computing disciplines the ACM Transactions is the premier, and sometimes the sole high quality, archival research publication. A strict prohibition will impact the EIC’s co-authors especially if they are just starting their research careers. Second, it can prevent high-quality papers from appearing in ACM journals. ACM’s stated mission is to be the publisher of choice. Good work should be evaluated on its merits and not on authorship. Third, it can be a disincentive for leading researchers to serve as EIC, especially insofar as this prohibition would affect co-authors particularly graduate students.”

  4. The Canada Research Chair program is a case-study in slop, incompetence, and corruption from all angles. It’s a national embarrassment, not a feather in our CDN cap. Shut it down entirely and move back to all public sector university faculty having equivalent rank status (i.e., asst, assoc, full, and emeritus) and grants obtained in the old-school truly competitive manner (rather than cronyism). Better yet, privatize the CDN university system so this nonsense doesn’t happen on the taxpayer’s dime.

    1. I have to agree. I have served on NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) panels for such chairs and have served as referee for candidates. The standards expected and quality of the applications are not always high, and the candidates seem to be selected despite poor proposals and doubtful professional accomplishments. My letters to NSERC recommending a sincere and serious review of the chair program have received only the standard “thank you for your valuable input” letters. (I am not a faculty member in a Canadian university and have NOT been a candidate for the chair positions.)

      1. The CRC appointments are very often political – either internal or external politics – rather than purely merit based. Hiring and appointment processes appear to be rigged in many cases. There are also a number of demonstrably incompetent chairs. NSERC is an exceedingly corrupt and incompetent granting agency. Canadian science funding needs a complete overhaul from the ground up.

        What does this all mean? It’s Canada, of course! We won’t change a single thing. Why alter a substandard tradition?

    2. The CRC program is really a joke in Canada. Some of these people are weak researchers with poor research records. They were nominated by their schools due to internal politics. A person from Australia has published only 3 journal articles at the time of nomination, and then received a Tier 2 CRC appointment. Then she cut and pastes her journal paper and subsequently published in 4 or 5 different conference proceedings. This is a waste of taxpayers’ money, not to mention the digrace act of self plagiarism.

  5. I would not oppose Editors publishing in “their own” journals as long as the Journals have set up procedures that guarantee integrity and proper ethical guidelines. For example, an associate editor can handle the manuscript, get reliable anonymous peer reviews and make decisions that he or she would have made in the case of other manuscripts. But unfortunately such is not always the case.

    The senior author in this case should be appropriately reprimanded. I am familiar with other such cases. In one instance, an editor-in-chief, a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, published a paper based on incorrect analysis of the data despite his private acknowledgement that the interpretation was faulty.

  6. The Geological Society of America has a very nice set of guidelines which are themselves adapted from Academy of Science and societies in physics, chemistry, and math:

    In terms of conflict, the guidelines are very clear: “The Editor should not handle manuscripts for which there is a real or perceived conflict of interest. Examples include, but are not restricted to, past (within the last 5 years) or current collaboration, personal friend, employer or employee, family relationship, institutional relationship, past or present graduate advisor or advisee, someone with whom the reviewer has had a past or on-going scientific controversy, or situations where the Editor could stand to gain economically by publication or rejection of the manuscript. Editorial responsibility should be delegated to another Editor, Associate Editor, or Editorial Board member.”

    1. It’s impossible to take such guidelines seriously.

      So an Editor submits a manuscript to his own journal which is handled by an Associate Editor or Editorial Board member, all of which obviously still have a very close and ongoing professional relationship (and often, personal relationship) with the Editor? Odds of a truly objective treatment of the manuscript? Very low. It’s equivalent to rather than marking your own exam, having one of your best friends mark your exam for you (i.e., a joke).

      1. “So an Editor submits a manuscript to his own journal which is handled by an Associate Editor or Editorial Board member, all of which obviously still have a very close and ongoing professional relationship (and often, personal relationship) with the Editor.”

        Great point. Based on these guidelines, it would be hard to vote “yes”.

        But what about a more likely scenario. One of the associate editors submits a paper. There are 20 or 50 or 100 other associate editors. They don’t all know each other, so there are multiple options for an editor that can handle the paper without conflicting with the rules regarding ongoing professional (or personal) relationships. Is *that* okay???

      2. I’d be shocked if there was a journal where all the editors in a particular discipline didn’t all know each other, and rather well. Been around science too long and seen too much to buy that. Come to think of it, science in general suffers from this problem. Peer review is fatally flawed in many disciplines due to positive and negative relationships. Question is – is it like democracy whereby it’s a problematic system but the best one out there.

      3. I previously worked for an open access publisher setting up new journals. Preempting issues like this is why we ALWAYS had at least 2 EiCs at the highest editorial level.

        1. Sorry, I’m not drinking the propaganda kool-aid. I know more corrupt journal editors than non-corrupt ones. The system is a joke, and broken. Time to end any and all taxpayer support for this rotten house of cards.

  7. As a non-scientist I am rather unphased about an Editor publishing himself – perhaps some steps to distance himself from the process. Particularly if the field is specialised – top of the range journals might need to show more discretion.

    Surely anyone that does work that reaches a certain minimum standard of rigor should be published somewhere and should be able to reach their fellow reseearchers in the field. Isn’t that the entire purpose of journals? It should not be about establishing pecking orders etc – even though that is an inevitable expression of the nature of scientists these days. Peer review is about checking that minimum standards have been met, simple alternative explanations have not been over-looked and to assist groups to improve their work – not some complex power play. In the end most scientific papers are going to end up being disproved.

    Of course, the scientific culture is exactly what scientists have created. It is not forced on them by outside forces

  8. I have published in the journal of which I am Chief Editor. The whole process was handled by our Deputy Editor who choose the reviewers and ultimately decided whether to accept based on the revision in light of the reviewers comments/suggestions. With my published paper was the following Conflict of Interest statement: “Rob Siebers is the Editor of the New Zealand Journal of Medical Laboratory Science. The handling of this manuscript, selection of independant reviewers and ultimated decision of acceptance was undertaken by the Deputy-Editor. The author had no input in this process or decision”.

    This makes it clear to the reader that the whole process was open.

      1. I hope no one will take offence, but I could imagine filling the pages of the New Zealand Journal of Medical Laboratory Science on a monthly basis might call for some ingenuity.

        Conflict of Interest declaration: having failed a New Zealand Medical Laboratory Science degree I may not be the kindest of judges of the scientific rigour in that particular field.

  9. I agree with all the comments about the editor needing to hand over control of the evaluation process to someone else when s/he submits a manuscript to the journal which s/he edits. I voted “yes” for the second option, even though it falls short of the necessary rigor, because I do not think it is fair that a person should have to give up submitting to the best journal or the most appropriate journal for his/her research as the price of taking the job of editor at said journal.

    Perhaps the entire process could be blinded, with a VDS for Very Delicate Situation stamp put on the manuscript and with neither the assistant editor nor the reviewers knowing who the author is and with the author not knowing which assistant editor and which reviewers are assigned to the task. There would need to be a list of multiple categories of authors who would be included in the VDS category, so that the VDS stamp does not automatically signal who the author is.

    types of people who would be included

  10. Why isn’t this paper, or its retraction, mention on neither Li nor Daghighi’s list of publications on their respective websites? I know it must be an unpleasant moment for them, but honest/full disclosure goes a loooooong way in a situation like this.

  11. Why do you think people want to be Editors? It’s a painful job. Typically, the drive is ego boost and power. Some people may be genuinely interested in improving their field. Once you are editor you can reject stuff that conflicts with your ideas and promote stuff that is consistent with those ideas. Not saying all of it is deliberate (though in many cases it may well be), but we all know the kind of biases involved. Blatantly publishing in your own journal may be a bit over the top, but it’s very easy to get around that. You know the Editor of another journal, so all you need is some kind of agreement that he publishes your stuff, you publish his.

  12. I guess I am, as a non scientist, still missing the central point: which is why do we want to put barriers in the path of people publishing.

    Microfluidics and Nanofluidics is more specialised than I would even want to get involved with, but I am sure they are crucial in the development of a number of technologies we are becoming to depend on. As far as I am concerned if someone wishes to dedicate their career to that field they should be allowed to publish all they like – provided they don’t annoy their peers in the field.
    I would even support a 2nd Microfluidics and Nanofluidics journal being established, if the existing one does not have enough pages to accommodate everyone.

  13. As long as an independent person makes the decision to accept or reject the paper, editors should be able to publish in their own journals.

    In fact, surely the journal with the most appropriate scope for their research would be their own journal?

    Also, if they submitted elsewhere, it might be seen by the field as an indication that there is something “wrong” with the journal.

  14. “private information. It’s something we’re dealing with.”

    These words from Pearl Sullivan (chair of the department) remind me of what the dean of faculty of applied science at Queen’s University (another Canadian university) wrote couple of years ago about several serious cases of research misconduct:

    We are dealing with the issue, “take it seriously but do not broadcast it. That would be inappropriate. We are dealing with the very essence of an academic career.”

    So we waited patiently for the administration and NSERC to deal with more than 22 duplicated papers, misuse of funds, and numerous cases of data fabrication and falsification. But they did not deal with the misconduct. They did not correct the record. They thought the best thing to do would be to cover up. Read the rest of this story here:

    It would be good to have transparency index for the Canadian Universities and the federal funding agencies like NSERC.

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