Paper by NASA scientists retracted for plagiarizing NASA report

레이아웃 1A team of researchers including NASA scientists have retracted a December 2012 article because it plagiarized…a 2000 NASA report.

Here’s the notice for “A Fosmid Cloning Strategy for Detecting the Widest Possible Spectrum of Microbes from the International Space Station Drinking Water System,” published in Genomics & Informatics:

The editorial committee of Genomics & Informatics has concluded that a substantial portion of the above article [1] was ‘copied and pasted’ from earlier publications without appropriate attribution. Although the plagiarized texts are detected only in the Introduction section [2], such a misconduct is unacceptable in a scientific writing. The authors have acknowledged plagiarism in the above article and requested retraction.

That earlier publication was an article published in 2000 by NASA, “Water on the space station.” Three of the Genomics & Informatics authors — including one of the corresponding authors, Kasthuri Venkateswaran — are at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of Caltech.

It’s hard not to see the overlap by comparing the paper’s first paragraph with the plagiarized material. From the now-retracted article:

Rationing and water recycling are an essential part of life at International Space Stations (ISSs) [1].

From the 2000 NASA article (which is not the [1] referred to by the paper):

Rationing and recycling will be an essential part of daily life on the ISS.

From the now-retracted paper:

Water purification machines on the ISS partly mimic these processes, but they do not rely on microbes or any other living organisms. These machines cleanse wastewater in a 3-step process. The first step involves a filter that removes particles and debris. The water then passes through multifiltration beds that contain substances that remove organic and inorganic impurities. Finally, the catalytic oxidation reactor removes volatile organic compounds and kills bacteria and viruses.

From the 2000 NASA article:

Water purification machines on the ISS partly mimic these processes, but they do not rely on microbes or any other living things.

The water purification machines on the ISS will cleanse wastewater in a three-step process.

The first step is a filter that removes particles and debris. Then the water passes through the “multi-filtration beds,” which contain substances that remove organic and inorganic impurities. And finally, the “catalytic oxidation reactor” removes volatile organic compounds and kills bacteria and viruses.

From the now-retracted article:

Once the water is purified, astronauts try to ensure that the water is used with maximum possible efficiency. Even with intense conservation and recycling efforts, the space station will gradually lose water because of inefficiencies in the life support system.

From the 2000 NASA article:

Once the water is purified, astronauts will do everything possible to use it efficiently.

Even with intense conservation and recycling efforts, the Space Station will gradually lose water because of inefficiencies in the life support system.

We’ve contacted the corresponding authors of the now-retracted paper and will update with anything we learn.

It’s worth noting that U.S. government works are not protected by copyright in the U.S. That doesn’t, however, mean that they can be copied and pasted without attribution in a scientific paper.

14 thoughts on “Paper by NASA scientists retracted for plagiarizing NASA report”

  1. This seems like a very silly “misconduct” finding to me — copying some introductory sentences from a report by the same agency for use in a later paper by agency officials. It should not be considered “plagiarism”

    It was for this reason that I helped develop a policy in the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to exclude from the definition of “scientific misconduct” such copying of material that would not be misleading to the scientific reader:

    “. . . . Substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work means the unattributed verbatim or nearly verbatim copying of sentences and paragraphs which materially mislead the ordinary reader regarding the contributions of the author. ORI generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance. . . .”

    Alan Price

    1. This is a very valid point. If you were to prosecute every author that ends their Discussion sections by “…more work is needed to substantiate this hypothesis” we would be rid of a big proportion of the scientific literature (…we are tempted to speculate!).

    2. With all due respect, the journal author guidelines explicitly state: ” No part of the accepted manuscript should be duplicated in any other scientific journal without the permission of the Editorial Board.” ORI guidelines have zero application here. This was misconduct because the authors agreed to that policy and, quite obviously, broke it.

      Also, you say that this shouldn’t be considered plagiarism. I suggest you check the definition of the word: “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author:” – Random House. Whether you deem this a punishable crime, it fits the definition of the word, and, therefore, it is plagiarism.

      Further, it should still fit the ORI guidelines of misconduct for several reasons:

      1) “ORI does not pursue misconduct for limited use…” there are ~126 duplicate words in an ~917 word intro. That’s ~14% of the introduction copy/pasted.
      2) “Describe commonly used methodologies” (not applicable for an intro) or ” describe previous research”: the copied article doesn’t even describe research itself!
      3) These stolen lines DO falsely attribute the work. They aren’t just your bland, “cancer is a very bad disease.” They are ideas in and of themselves and they weren’t even cited, leading a reader to think they were the author’s ideas.
      4) The authors themselves probably had a good idea that this was a bad idea… because they didn’t bother to cite the work that they stole the wording from. (OK, this has nothing to do with ORI guidelines, but still, they might have some ground to stand on if they at least cited it).

      How would you feel if someone copy and pasted your work into their own publication, changing only a few words, and didn’t cite you? I would be hurt. This wasn’t the accidental appropriation of a few sentences that are difficult to change, possibly from reading the same papers over and subconsciously copying. We’re taught that this isn’t cool in grade school and scientists should be held to a higher standard than 4th graders. Doing something like this would have gotten me kicked out of high school, no questions asked.

    3. Consider each scientific paper as a new work. When in it parts of older papers are recycled, it is in any case a sign of poor science. And science needs a clean image, otherwise we loose trust and respect. It is therefore laudable of NASA to have withdrawn the paper.

      Those who advocate allowable recycling or plagiarism (and the precise definition is immaterial) confuse the probability of incidental plagiarism with a perceived right to copy up to a level. That is – with due respect – silly.

      1. Could you reformulate this sentence in a different but similarly effective and syntetic way?

        “Rationing and water recycling are an essential part of life at International Space Stations (ISSs)”

        or if the machine works in a three step phase, how can reformulate?

        “The water purification machines on the ISS will cleanse wastewater in a three-step process”

        the number of reformulations of this sentence is a finite number, after that we cannot accept more studies about a three-step machine on ISS because al the grammatical ways has been previously used?

        This level of plagiarism seems ridiculous.

  2. On one hand, there are some ideas about the state of the art, and some factual statements, that would be very hard to express in a different way in every text written on the topic. Reusing material for a few sentences in an introduction does not seem very harmful. On the other hand, it’s not like the author actually reused material from his own earlier writing: he lifted text from someone else, which makes it harder to justify.

    1. Alan Price is 100% correct. I have called on the scientific community, time and time again, to quantify the level of plagiarism that is acceptable. How many words are acceptable? How many sentences? How much as a percentage of the total? Of course 0% is impossible, so what is a reaosnable number or amount? In science publishing, 1% or 5% is considered to be significant. So, how much, percentage-wise, of the NASA report text was copied? The most important question is: Did the authors reference the 2000 report, or not? A few months back, during the submission stage, a paper of mine was rejected since it had about 400 words of text that were identical or similar to previous studies. Not surprising considering it was a review paper. Imagine that iThenticate called my work plagiaristic and the journals editors just rejected the paper without any reasonable evaluation. Turns out that in fact two sentences were identical, and the remainder were similar. However, all ideas were fully attributed to the source. Worst yet was that only 1.7% of the total text was “plagiarized”. We are entering the phase of witch-hunting in science publishing where some editors simply cannot even decipher plagiarism from honest mistakes. In such a case, where during the submission stage, “plagiarism” is detected, then why are authors not given the opportunity to correct the error? Why is a savage, ruthless rejection required? Some of these editors think they are demi-gods. As for post-publication, without quantification, the above rejection sounds like a political move to me. Any COIs by a NASA or Caltech competitor (hypothesis)?

      1. As a reviewer, I would recommend rejection of a review that had 400 words of plagiarized text. As an author I would be very bothered by someone using 400 of my words in their article – whether or not they cited me.

        Changing “many” to “a lot”, or “often” to “frequent” does not get someone off the hook.

        If you are good enough to do a review, you are good enough to use your own words. No excuses.

  3. I think this is a ridiculous and needless retraction. To me this would be comparable to copying and pasting from a grant proposal written years earlier. Why would I do that, actually?
    Clearly in 2000 the NASA report (is that an official publication? An in-house report? Does a report have any scientific weight in terms of being a real “publication”?) is making predictions and in a way in 2012 these have turned into a testable hypothesis.
    Don’t know who wrote the report, of course, but I doubt it’s a scientist looking for credit in Genomics and Informatics. If so, credit where credit is due. But plagiarism? Come on.

  4. Reblogged this on lab ant and commented:
    I think the lesson to be learned is DON’T be lazy and invest some time and thought! Its Ok to get inspiration but never copy paste….. Something I tried to teach every one of my students….I think the problem starts during the undergraduate years and must be fixed at this stage.

  5. The introduction is usually not intended to include original material. Therefore copying it cannot mislead anyone as to the origin of any original work. Its purpose is simply to provide useful background information. Anyone whose introduction has been copied should be flattered. Of course, usually one will reference this material too, unless it is so widely available that this is not needed. More seriously, this sad case shows that one can NEVER let one’s guard down – the officious pompous idiots are always with us, twisting good ideas into bad ones, turning the search for integrity into a witch hunt.

  6. I guess the final question is more about “what are we supposed to cite”? It’s not that the introduction shouldn’t have citations (it does in every journal); but the question is does Science@NASA justify citation?
    (Note: Don’t plagarize what I hear on NPR’s Science Friday, I will get a retraction?)

    I feel that some people think only journal articles, books and the like are “worthy” of citation, and maybe anything less than that isn’t? This is what happened here: and it turned out that Science@NASA was worthy of citation.

    Alternatively, journals should adopt a standard program or workflow to judge plagarism: even using something like turnitin (used on hapless undergrad term papers) to pre-process and yellow/red-flag papers before submission to peer review would be immensely helpful. It would push the work of ensuring proper citation back to the submitter, and reduce the workload on the unpaid(?) and very busy peer reviewers.

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