Plagiarism: It’s just an “approach” to writing papers, right?

chemistry coverWe’ve heard a lot of rationalizations for plagiarism on this beat — “I didn’t know I had to cite that text”; “That author said it better than I ever could”; etc. — but here’s a new one for the wall of shame.

Chemistry – A European Journal is retracting a 2012 article, “A New Indicator for Potassium Ions at Physiological pH by Using a Macrocyclic Luminescent Metal Complex,”  by a group of Chinese authors who used the cut-and-paste method to put together their manuscript. That’s not unusual. But the notice is:

The following article from Chemistry—A European Journal, A New Indicator for Potassium Ions at Physiological pH by Using a Macrocyclic Luminescent Metal Complex by Xi Yan, Shasha Lv, and Rong Guo, published online on December 7, 2012 in Wiley Online Library ( and in print (Chem. Eur. J.2013, 19, 465–468), has been retracted (February 21, 2013) by agreement between the authors, the Journal Editor-in-Chief Neville Compton, and Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co KGaA. The retraction has been agreed due to the fact that the paper was constructed by copying a number of passages from the paper entitled “A Highly Selective Luminescent Sensor for the Time-Gated Detection of Potassium” by Aurore Thibon and Valérie C. Pierre, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (J. Am. Chem. Soc.2009, 131, 434–435). The authors apologize for this approach.

Sorry, but plagiarism is an “approach” to writing the way armed robbery is an approach to banking (well, not quite, but you get the idea).

Update, 12 a.m. Eastern, 5/7/13: Stuart Cantrill points us to this earlier example of the same “approach” by the authors of this retracted paper, as covered by SeeArrOh in February. In that case, involving a paper in Dalton, the paper earned an “Addition.” SeeArrOh also pointed out the problems in the now-retracted paper in January.

24 thoughts on “Plagiarism: It’s just an “approach” to writing papers, right?”

    1. Emmm, I know that, as Rossiter pointed out below, dump replications are common in Chinese journals – in that case it is common too for the replicators to translate the original (often English) text into Chinese and publish the paper. But these authors are “courageous” enough to do this in English journals.

      This is where the perpetrators work:

  1. Having worked in Chinese academia, I can tell you that especially at the lower-level universities or institutes where the authors are pressured to produce papers, a common approach is to do your own research following exactly a published English-language paper (so, the data is yours but the experimental design / research questions are not) but the paper is cut-paste with your numbers substituted for the originals. The rationale is, it’s valid science (i.e., the experiments and data are correct) so who cares if we follow a template? The original must be good…. but this is a deeper issue in current Chinese culture in general, called by the brilliant author Yu Hua’s ‘Chinese in Ten Words’ “copycat” culture (山寨) — an insatiable desire to copy an original because it’s presumed to be excellent. Think Elvis impersontators.

    1. I continue to have mind-blowing epiphanies on this site. I had never thought of impersonating Elvis as an attempt to emulate the excellent, but it explains a lot.

    2. Eastern EU scientists see it in a similar light. Many of them are excellent scientists, but English is their 3rd or 4th language and they are very, very paranoid about ensuring they have used the “absolute correct” words to explain rather tricky concepts. Also, they have a very different attitude about textbooks in general: “book learning” is seen as less valuable than “skill learning”. Many do not understand what a huge market there is in the USA for texts, nor the attitude of “publish or perish”.

      Sure, some of them are deliberately trying to pass off others’ words as their own. But most of them simply do not understand why they should not use the words that said it best without explicit attribution to the original work. Attribution & one’s citation record is not as important in hiring or promotion decisions as it is in USA schools- they don’t quite understand why, if you re-print several paragraphs from someone else’s paper, you should state this explicitly, not just put the citation at the end like one would do if paraphrasing.

      I’ve ahh….been working on this, most are quite reasonable once you explain why you have to explicitly state “the following was taken directly from ____” before you start quoting verbatim from the seminal work.

      1. I offer that it would be appropriate to explain which Eastern EU countries does the author have specifically in mind. There is a huge difference in attitudes toward the legitimate scientific approach between, say, Poland and, say, Belorussia. These need to be kept in mind, if not for any other reason than for the reason that overgeneralization can be a form of plagiarism.

  2. Cut-and-paste plagiarizers — they’re the cheap Elvis impersonators of experimental science.

    Though the analogy breaks down since unlike Elvis impersonators, they presumably want you to think that they are the real thing. Or maybe it’s more like finding some old unreleased Elvis tapes in a garage sale, remixing them with Pro Tools, and releasing a single under your own name, giving no credit given to Elvis Presley…?

    This could potentially be an interesting ethical grey area, though, if the researchers think that what they are doing is OK because they are merely following a template (no less wrong than apprentice shoemakers who re-use the designs passed on to them by their masters). A key question would be: are the academics who are doing this kind of thing intentionally doing it with relatively obscure source papers in hopes of not being noticed? Or are they shamelessly using as “templates” even the most famous, highly-cited papers in their fields? The former case implies something dodgy; in the latter case, it really could be a cultural difference about what constitutes good research.

    1. My unscientific anecdotal sample favours the second: they do not shy away from good and well-known papers. However, many of these authors choose to submit to English-language journals published in China, often quasi-incestuous with their institute. The key is that the Chinese government decided to only count papers written in English for many scientific fields, but did not match that with any effective journal quality control. I review for a Chinese-origin English-language journal (Pedosphere, now taken up by Elsevier but originating in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nanjing Soil Science Institute) that has “western” (e.g., Elsevier) scientific standards and ethics, and the behaviour being discussed here would not be tolerated.

    2. My experience (as a manuscript editor) also favors the latter interpretation. It typically reveals itself by abrupt shifts from head-scratching prose to passages of complete lucidity, and then if one starts looking at the references to try to figure out what the authors were talking about in the first place, it becomes depressingly clear that every single suspect is going to have to be tracked down and rewritten. I doubt it will surprise anyone that this level of attention is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

  3. Concerning Brazil I would not say plagiarism is the rule, however it is unfortunately quite common. The only cultural local thing about it that I see is that quite few Brazilian would truly mind if someone copied a bit from them, thus they see little harm in copying (portions) from others. Yet, contrary to what copycats claim when caught in the act, they know it is wrong. Extensive plagiarism is, however, usually frowned upon.
    Another issue concerning this local tolerance to “small plagiarism” is that Brazilian periodicals will seldom retract papers “just because of that”.

    1. I’ve come accross this ‘small plagarism’ too, from clinicians in Argentina. They seem to think it’s acceptable when writing in an English language scientific journal but they know fully well that it would be totally unacceptable if they were writing for a Spanish or Portuguese language scientific journal.

  4. Off-topic, but given some recent reactions I wonder if any bank robber will threaten you with a lawsuit.

    1. Probably only if you call him (her?) a “bank robber”. It might be politically correct to call that person a “financially challenged person” — then you’d dodge the lawsuit. Likewise, if you called some of the people involved in the cases you’re alluding to “empirically challenged persons” (for data fabricators) or “originality-deprived persons” (for plagiators), this and other sites might be spared some of those lawsuit threats…

  5. That the authors lifted some text from another paper is small fries. The major flaw of their paper stems from the fact that it is very substance is highly derivative. The problem is exacerbated because the uthors plagiarized the text from and based their work on the very same paper while burying the citation of the said paper deep in a composite footnote. If the reviewers had been made aware of this, the paper would not have seen the light of day. Not in Chemistry—A European Journal anyway.

    1. Exactly. The story is damaging the reputation of Chemistry-A European Journal, while the authors of the retracted paper consider that only “the approach” was wrong, not the work by itself. Yes, reviewers obviously didn’t check for reference [14d], otherwise they would have noted that even the supplementary material was assembled following the JACS pattern… I guess the authors submitted their manuscript with a standard letter to the Editor, just mentioning “please review our well written paper, it’s a nice, original piece of work”, omitting the essential information about the previous JACS paper.
      However, from my point of view, the major flaw remains in the chemistry, rather than in the approach. Figures 1 in both papers are organized in the same way (although with different styles for arrows: Chinese arrows are really nice). The single difference is the formula of the antenna, benzophenone in the case of the Chinese paper, vs. azaxanthone in the JACS. The latter is an essentially planar tricyclic ring system. This feature is clearly represented in the ball-and-stick model of the Tb-1.K+ complex (JACS, Fig. 1). Unfortunately, a similar planar conformation for the antenna has been maintained in the Chemistry paper, even if the benzophenone group in the complex is almost certainly not planar: in the solid state, the dihedral angle between phenyl rings in the stable polymorph of benzophenone is 56° [Fleischer et al. (1968). J. Phys. Chem. 72, 4311]. Conformational flexibility may be expected in solution for the benzophenone antenna, however, a planar antenna, similar to that of the JACS paper, is very unlikely… Such a difference is expected to have dramatic consequences regarding the energy transfer towards the lanthanide, and, in turn, to impair the lanthanide luminescence. Indeed, this is exactly what is observed by the Chinese team with luminescence data at 545 nm (see Figs. 2), but the point is never commented throughout their paper. In other words, I feel that these authors did a sound work, which was an actual positive contribution to the field. They were however completely wrong in their “approach”: they assumed that following as closely as possible the JACS paper, the resulting manuscript would be necessarily excellent, because the JACS was excellent.
      Make a decent copy of Mona Lisa is not very difficult for good art students. But only one genius in the world was able to produce the first Joconde.

  6. It may be going a bit too far to use value-laden expressions like “wall of shame” and “armed robbery” in this case. The journal’s retraction notice does not use the word “plagiarism”. Instead, it is worded to report what was actually observed: “the paper was constructed by copying a number of passages from the paper” and “The authors apologize for this approach”. Perhaps the editors of Chemistry – A European Journal decided that it would not be appropriate or helpful to publicly label what the authors did as “plagiarism”.

    As other have pointed out, researchers under pressure to publish in a language they are not entirely fluent in often resort to writing approaches variously termed cut-and-paste, copy-and-paste, patch-writing and mosaic writing. This is often done not with the intention of misleading readers and stealing credit from the original authors, but as a way to avoid rejection because of “problems with the English”. There seems to be no evidence in this case that the authors intended to steal credit.

    Researchers unfamiliar with editors’ expectations for appropriate citation and attribution of sources need training in acceptable citation practices, not excoriation over presumed ethical failings. Researchers I’ve worked with in several countries are entirely willing (indeed, eager) to learn what (mostly western) editors expect of them, but in many settings there is nobody available locally who can teach them about this.

    1. It is plagiarism and the authors should be ashamed. With respect to the inner workings of the authors’ minds, see the Addition to the Dalton paper. When you read it, keep in mind that the authors were told in no uncertain terms that their work copied extensively from a JACS paper from Chuan He’s group. These guys ARE trying to mislead readers, steal credit, and get away with as much as they can.

      That Dalton allowed them to resolve this with a half-assed correction is also a travesty, but perhaps a topic for another thread.

  7. this is exactly why we should all switch to a policy where if you dont want to write a paper, you can at least publish ur own data online. sorta like twitter for science i guess.

    1. The hybrid model you suggest, mixing scholar papers and online data reservoirs is highly desirable, indeed. However, you will never force “all” researchers to switch to this model at the same moment. That’s impossible, for instance, in China: according to some reports I’ve seen, the main author of a paper published in a scholar journal based outside China is rewarded with 800 USD, regardless of the actual content of the publication (maybe contributor D G Rossiter could confirm this figure). With such a policy, how do you want motivate researchers to publish only results which really deserve a publication?

      1. The exact amout of money might vary between universities and also depend on the journal the article was published in, but it is a common practice in China to give substantial monetary incentives for the publication of papers.

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