What’s the difference between plagiarism and “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright?”

Weijmar Schultz
Willibrord Weijmar Schultz

In our work here at Retraction Watch, we’ve seen a number of euphemisms for plagiarism. (See slides 18-22 of this presentation for a selection.) Today, in following up on a case we covered last month, we’ve learned of a new way to avoid saying the dreaded p-word.

We reported in June that sex researcher Willibrord Weijmar Schultz had retracted two papers. One was for “substantial overlap between this paper and an earlier published paper by Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum,” while the other was for “breach of warranties made by the authors with respect to originality” and failure to cite a dissertation.

Two more retractions from Weijmar Schultz, for exactly the same reasons as the second one above, have just appeared. One was of a 1991 paper in Sexual and Marital Therapy (now Sexual and Relationship Therapy), while the other was of a 2003 article in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy notice reads as follows:

The Editor, Society, and Publisher received notice of an allegation of misconduct on the part of the Authors, namely, the Authors submitted the aforementioned paper to the journal without obtaining permission from Dr. Diana Jeffrey (formerly Dr. Diana Bransfield) regarding use of research from the following co-authored work in Sexual & Marital Therapy:

Weijmar Schultz, W. C. M., Bransfield, D. D., Van de Wiel, H. B. M., & Bouma, J. (1992). Sexual outcome following female genital cancer treatment: A critical review of methods of investigations and results. Sexual & Marital Therapy, 7:1, 29–64. DOI: 10.1080/02674659208404465

The aforementioned article also failed to reference the following dissertation:

Bransfield, D. D. (1985 June). Psychosexual functioning after irradiation for gynecologic cancer. Dissertation Abstracts International. 45 (12-B, Pt 1), 3990–3991.

The Editor, Society, and Publisher find this allegation to be valid. These actions constitute a breach of warranties made by the authors with respect to originality. We note we received, peer-reviewed, accepted, and published this article in good faith based on these warranties, and censure these actions.

The retracted article will remain online to maintain the scholarly record, but it will be digitally watermarked on each page as RETRACTED.

The Sexual and Marital Therapy notice refers only to the unauthorized use of the dissertation, but ends the same say.

We asked Weijmar Schultz for comment, and he forwarded our request to the University Medical Center Groningen and the University of Groningen press office. A spokesperson responded:

In a thorough investigation into affairs relating to the relevant publications by professor Weijmar Schultz and professor Van de Wiel conducted at the time, the University Medical Center Groningen and the University of Groningen concluded that there was no evidence of plagiarism.

With regard to the unintended and unknowing breach of copyright belonging to Dr. Jeffery, she and her lawyer agreed in 2007 that the researchers would send a letter of apology to all concerned (including chief editors of journals and sponsors of the research), asking the various editors to retract the relevant publications. This request was made by letter.

The researchers asked for six articles to be retracted. It was recently discovered that the publication: Weijmar Schultz, W.C.M., Van de Wiel, H.B.M., Hahn, D.E.E. & Van Driel M.F. (1992). Sexuality and cancer in women, Annual Review of Sex Research, 3:1, 151-200. was only very recently retracted by the editor concerned. It would also appear that despite the researchers’ request for retraction, two publications: Weijmar Schultz, W.C.M., Van de Wiel, H.B.M., Bouma J. * Lappohn R.E. (1991). Gynaecological conditions and sexual dysfunction. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 6(2), 177-194. and Weijmar Schultz, W.C.M. & Van de Wiel H.B.M. (1992). Sexual rehabilitation after gynaecological cancer treatment. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, (18(4), 296-293., have not been retracted by the editors concerned.

The researchers complied fully with the agreement made at the time by asking for the articles to be retracted. It is up to the editors to honour this request.

The UMCG and the University of Groningen obviously regret this course of events, but in view of the extensive investigation carried out at the time, they do not consider it necessary to take any further action.

So apparently there were six retractions requested, of which we’ve seen three. (The first two of the papers referred to by the press office are among those we’ve seen.) And there was the retraction related to Rosenbaum’s paper, which makes a total of seven. We’ve asked for a complete list. [See update at end of post.]

But we’ve also asked what seems to be a trickier question, which is the title of this post: What’s the difference between plagiarism and “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright?” And why, if the university said there was no evidence of plagiarism, do the retraction notices all say that allegations of misconduct were “valid?”

We’ll update with anything we learn.

Update, 12:30 p.m. Eastern, 7/28/13: The university responded to our questions. Turns out there are only six retractions overall; five related to Jeffery’s work and one related to Rosenbaum’s

Please notice that the researchers asked for five articles to be retracted (they mistakenly sent six letters to editors, of which two concerning the same article).

RW: Can you explain the difference between plagiarism and “unintended and unknowing breech of copyright?”

UG: What the researchers failed to do, was, to ask Mrs. Jeffery’s approval to incorporate this team wise paper into their thesis and did not offer a co-authorship for review papers that were based on the literature review they published before in cooperation with mrs. Jeffery.

RW: Professor Weimar Schultz also had to retract this study for “substantial overlap” with another author’s work: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1464-410X.2011.10101.x/pdf Was that examined by UMCG and the University, and if so, was it considered plagiarism?

UG: With regard to the retraction of the article in the British Journal of Urology International (BJUI) Dr. Van Driel et al in 2009: this article is published online and is retracted by the researchers because a paragraph text was recorded from a review article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine without adequate reference. It is a lamentable mistake based on miscommunication between the authors and certainly should not have happened. After this observation by the author of the original article, Van Driel et al withdrawn their product directly and send letters to the editor as well BJUI / JSM and sent their sincere apologies to the author of the original article. About this case, interviews were conducted between individual researchers and research dean and the Ombudsman research of the UMCG. The researchers were severely reprimanded with entry of this incident in their personnel file.

11 thoughts on “What’s the difference between plagiarism and “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright?””

  1. Some people may think that plagiarism needed the intention to trick, falsify or copy data or not acknowledge others’ ideas and work, although it should be clear that one has not to proof the intention, if something is clearly wrong. Unfortunately, my bad experience with a plagiarism supporting university is that there is no way to win against plagiarists and have a university investigated by their own rules of misconduct (students, postdocs, professor involved, not acknowledging my very genuine idea, my pioniering unpaid work as guest PI and my initiated intl. cooperations and reproduction of my results without any acknowlegding yet but accepting millions of funds now). Of course, “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright” is a very clear example of plagiarism, although many other forms of plagiarism exist. This example of not confirming plagiarism just shows how some universities behave in a questionnable way.

    1. I certainly agree that lack of proper attribution in someone’s work needs to be corrected. However, regardless of the labels used, we must somehow differentiate between plagiarism as a form of cheating and simple honest error. And honest error can easily occur in many contexts, as rules for attribution can sometimes be rather tricky. This is especially true with dense technical material (as in Mathematics) where it may be unclear as to what needs to be cited, and what is public domain. (e.g. Should you cite Newton when you use Calculus?) When it comes to citation of sources, people genuinely make mistakes. Paragraphs may be improperly paraphrased, and a citation or two can get missed.

      The concern here is that by using the p-word too liberally, we effectively “cry wolf”, and crying wolf will be beneficial to the cheaters, as people will tend to dismiss charges of plagiarism (“oh nowadays they say everyone is a plagiarist”) allowing people to get away with fraud.

      All this is especially relevant to disciplinary boards at Universities, where a verdict of plagiarism is associated with a determination of misconduct, based on how the word is generally applied . Note that plagiarism.org (as with other sites) defines plagiarism is strongly moralistic terms: “plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward”. Somehow, a different word must be used if only honest error is involved.

      (Note: I’m speaking generally here, as I have not read the paper in question.)

      1. I totally agree with JuJuBee that we should differentiate between the cheating forms of plagiarism and the “unintended honest errors”. I really wanted to point out that the victim of university supported plagiarism does not need to proof why others plagiarized or if they intended or not to plagiarize. It could be a student is in the honest belief the material, the idea, the collaboration and the “dirty laboratory secrets” to perform my experiments are more or less common knowledge in a lab – and it may have escaped to the people supporting a master thesis (and a PhD thesis), as well as a failed Habilitation thesis, that one should acknowledge the originator of a pioneering project, the initiator of collaborations after all the details of the planned experiments where shown in, for example, a mouse system, that the reproduction with the originators organized material needs at least some acknowledgement, if not co- or senior authorship, as well as participation of millions of funding later.
        In such a case, where the student claims not having known who the originator of the idea is, who the originator of the pioniering results is, it would not matter if there was intention or not – it still should be considered plagiarism – although this would not be the case in Germany.

        1. I have also witnessed too closely an investigation of alleged plagiarism, of a retracted paper figuring in this very blog.
          The university supported the authors claiming that the first author was just a student (that is, a postdoc) that did not know that he was doing plagiarism, and that the copied sections (which accounted for 90% of that paper) were “few” and “not important”, and also that the tutor/last-author had no responsibility as he could not possibly know “all narrative of all papers in his field by heart” as to perceive the frau–sorry, the mistake before submission.
          The final conclusion was that the accuser was the one infringing the rules, for bringing up suspicion and disturbing peace without knowing absolutely all the details over the questioned paper and of precisely that topic of study. Accuser got punished.

          1. Ugh.
            That reminds me, have people ever seen the reasoning that plagiarism/false citations/misrepresentation do not count as such in the introductory/background sections of a paper, only in the new results parts?

            I mean:
            *not that some specific cases are evaluated and found not to rise to misconduct, BUT
            * categorically, one ignores this in introductory material

          2. I’m afraid that that is a common reaction in Germany, at least. And now the myriad bodies such as DFG and HRK have actually codified this. They say that accusations made public or in bad faith are themselves bad scientific practice. University boards will not discuss openly accusations of plagiarism, but play them down as being “only in the methods section”, “only in the introduction”, “technical weaknesses”, etc. VroniPlag Wiki has documented extensive plagiarism in theses that the universities have found to be okay, without going into any detail whatsoever. Here are some unexplainable ones:

            1) http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Nk is over 75 % plagiarized from the habilitation of her advisor, the university is happy with this
            2) http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Dd is over 44 % plagiarized from various sources. In addition, the person who was paid to do the research has come forward by name. Still, the university only sees “technical weakness” in the thesis and did not rescind.
            3) http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Ut is a habilitation that includes verbatim material from 3 dissertations prepared at the same lab as well as from prior group publications that is not marked. One dissertation was not published until after the habilitation, however, althought the habilitation refers to figures in the text with the same numbering as in the dissertation, although the figures included in the habilitation are numbered differently. The university has said that it is okay, as the doctoral students were happy with their words being used in this manner. And it was all group work. Case closed.

            There are more, many many more. @John Mashey, this “reasoning” is often used by German universities who don’t want to admit that a mistake was made at their university. Somehow, they feel that they are only good universities when they don’t have any cases of scientific misconduct. What they are missing is that good universities *deal* with misconduct and look into how to avoid it in the future. But as long as universities are funded by number of publications and the holy citation index is important for getting a job, we will still be seeing this happening.

        2. I recall being educated about the proper use of terms. In this sense the first commenter is spot on about the current witch hunt related to this so-called plagiarism that apparently can mean anything. Quote: “In such a case, where the student claims not having known who the originator of the idea is, who the originator of the pioniering results is, it would not matter if there was intention or not – it still should be considered plagiarism – although this would not be the case in Germany.” This in turn reminds of the software industry and the infamous patents. Besides, I know many fields (e.g. mathematics, statistics) under which decades old results have been rediscovered (!) in the later literature. Nothing to do with plagiarism. I mean a paper published in the 1970s was actually outlined by a guy in the 1920s. And this is always a delightful occasion shared by the community. It means we as scientists have a history of science to rely on. But don’t get me wrong. The real frausters should burn.

  2. More information can be found on the weblog of a Dutch journalist that covered this case:
    (the blog is in Dutch, but 3 out of 4 of the linked files are in English).

    Bransfield-Jefferey seems to have two main complaints. The first regards her dissertation. This contains a literature review. She states that the review article of which she is co-author, for the relevant time frame and subject, covers largely the same literature. She also states that a few sentences of that co-authored review article are paraphrases of sentences in her dissertation.

    Her second main complaint is about re-use of material from this review article of which she is co-author by her co-authors in other articles (the now retracted ones). She acknowledges that she didn’t write a sentence of this review article, she only ever saw the completed version (but see her first main complaint). She does clearly document this re-use of material from the review article, but these for the most part are NOT the sentences that she claims are paraphrased from her thesis.

    This is most definetely not a straightforward plagiarism case. It is more a case study about what havoc a co-author can cause.

    Regarding the “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright”. This is also explained in the linked files. There is apparently a difference between “co-authored work” and “joint work”. In the former any co-author can block re-use, whereas in the latter this is not possible. So you can quite easily commit “unintended and unknowing breach of copyright”: you think that it was “joint work”, but your co-author asserts that it is “co-authored work”.

    1. I find your statement “It is more a case study about what havoc a co-author can cause” as blaming the individual whose work the Dutch team used without permission or attribution. Bransfield sent the Dutch team a copy of her dissertation in 1985. Their subsequent articles claim they independently conducted literature reviews although there is >99% overlap of references used in their articles and the Bransfield dissertation for references published before 1985. Bransfield’s literature review included articles published in obscure journals (e.g., Kansas Journal of Medicine), and in Czech, Finnish, Danish, Italian, and German language journals. Bransfield translated these articles and organized her iterature review into post-treatment, then pre-post treatment, a rather peculiar type of organization. The Dutch team organized their literature in the same manner. In at least two of the retracted articles, they did not even mention Bransfield’s work.

      In a “joint” project, there is a melding of ideas that make it difficult to distinguish where ideas originate. Bransfield independently wrote every word of her dissertation and worked with the Dutch team beyond their co-authored paper.

  3. What’s the difference? “Plagiarism”, I would guess, is an intentional wrong, and the wrong is in telling other you are the author. “Copyright” violations, on the other hand, can be non intentional. All you have to prove for a breach of copyright is access to the material copied and the fact that it is a copy and it is not in the public domain. The wrong is in copying, whether or not you say you are the author or not.

    1. I disagree: Plagiarism at a university level includes also “unintended” use of others’ ideas without really intentional stealing: a PhD or master student may just assume – due to lack of honest support in her lab – that the ideas she is working on and the collaborations are not based on specific others’ work who already had left the lab. It still could be the fault of the student who fails in proper research who the real originator of her project was, who established the experimental and secret know-how within the lab, who initiated her later collaboration, organized her cell line, molecules, chemicals, activators, inhibitor – and who already provided the final results of her later experiments. After informing the student – and having her publish her master thesis, her PhD thesis, as well a a publication – this can (in this example) only be judged as “intentional” if the originator of the work is not acknowledged. A university supporting this intentional lack of acknowledgment or not sharing co- or even senior authorship should be declared as fraudulent university and not get any German funding.

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