Virtually verbatim text earns retraction of neonate paper, gives authors a pass

jmfnmA pair of authors from Italy has retracted their 2012 article in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine for including chunks of text with a “high degree of similarity” from other published sources. But rest assured: the authors, we’re told, didn’t intend to do so.

The article, “Central venous catheterization and thrombosis in newborns: update on diagnosis and management,” appeared in a supplemental issue of the journal covering the proceedings of the XVIII Congress of the Italian Society of Neonatology.

According to the retraction notice (which, we’re told, was inadvertently behind a pay wall until we asked for it):

The Editors and Publisher regret to announce the following article published in 2012 has been retracted from publication in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine:

Sellitto M, Messina F. Central venous catheterization and thrombosis in newborns: update on diagnosis and management. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2012 Oct;25 Suppl 4:26–8. (doi:10.3109/14767058.2012.714974).

This article has been found to reproduce content to a high degree of similarity, without appropriate attribution or acknowledgement by the authors, from the following original articles:

Revel-Vilk S, Ergaz Z. Diagnosis and management of central-line-associated thrombosis in newborns and infants. Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2011 Dec;16(6):340–4. (doi:10.1016/j.siny.2011.07.003).

Veldman A, Nold MF, Michel-Behnke I. Thrombosis in the critically ill neonate: incidence, diagnosis, and management. Vascular Health and Risk Management. 2008, 4:1337–1348. (doi:

Shah PS, Shah VS. Continuous heparin infusion to prevent thrombosis and catheter occlusion in neonates with peripherally placed percutaneous central venous catheters. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Apr 16;(2):CD002772. (doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002772.pub3).

A high degree of paragraphs and/or sentences in the review article published in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine are almost word-to-word identical to the text published in these three referenced sources. Although, the authors have referenced the three previously published papers within their article, taking intact sentences or paragraphs from other published sources to this high extent is against the Journal’s policy on plagiarism, which can be found on our website:

The authors have been fully co-operative with our investigations and agree with the Editor and Publisher on this course of action to correct the literature record. It is important to note that these enquiries have not established any evidence of deliberate scientific misconduct by the authors.

The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine published this article in good faith, and on the basis of signed statements of the corresponding author regarding the originality and ethical reliability of their work. The article is withdrawn from all print  and electronic editions.

The paper has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Now, we feel like this is trying to be in both Milan and Minsk at the same time. Either the authors plagiarized or they didn’t, right? And if they did, then it’s deliberate scientific misconduct, at least according to the Office of Research Integrity, which defines plagiarism thusly:

The theft or misappropriation of intellectual property includes the unauthorized use of ideas or unique methods obtained by a privileged communication, such as a grant or manuscript review.

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.

Update Oct. 2, 2013, 3:22 pm

Didi Peng, an editor at Informa, which publishes the JMFNM, told us:

Following our investigations we believe the authors had the intention of providing an update on the catheterization procedure in the writing of their review article, by citing and make a practical summary of the state of the art. In attempting to obtain a complete and exhaustive vision of the topic, review and meta-analysis articles were cited, in parts literally, but the authors had included the other sources in the references.

Therefore, you are right that the authors were aware that they were using the text, but because of a lack of awareness of publication ethics and good authorship practices, their mistake was to take intact sentences and/or paragraphs from the other published sources to such a high extent, without understanding at that time that this was wrong despite the inclusion of the other published sources in the references list.

In summary, we agree that plagiarism is by definition misconduct. However, in this particular case we do not believe the authors were aware at the time of writing their manuscript that what they were doing constituted scientific misconduct.

7 thoughts on “Virtually verbatim text earns retraction of neonate paper, gives authors a pass”

  1. The paper with the duplicated text and data appears in a supplement to the journal, not in a regular issue, and is most likely included in a group of papers from a meeting. It is common for meetings- often those sponsored by an organization that also publishes a journal- to solicit and even require manuscripts from invited speakers. Such papers are often not given much thought by the authors, leading to a situation in which a previously published manuscript gets submitted to satisfy the demands of the meeting organizer. I am aware of other instances where this has sort of inadvertent plagiarism has happened. While I am not trying to justify it as an acceptable practice, I do think that why such a thing happens that it should be distinguished from plagiarism that arises out of pure dishonesty.

    1. I respectfully disagree with the characterization that these authors’ actions are ‘inadvertent’ (not deliberately planned) under the conditions that you describe. By that rationale, we would expect many papers from conference proceedings to also be ‘inadvertently’ plagiarized. If, in fact, invited speakers ‘do not give much thought’ to the quality of their intellectual products, then there is really something fundamentally wrong about our notions of science scholarship.

      1. What exactly is “substantial?” Is it 1% of text? Is it 5% of text? Is it 20% of text? Is it one paragraph? It is 5 lines? Meaningless words placed into rules and guidelines bring no justice and serve almost as discriminatory policies when they are not quantified. If an author feels that 1% is perfectly acceptable, and so does the journal, then would the ORI also then consider 1% to be acceptable? If not, why not? In this case above, Informa has the responsibilioty of defining exactly the level of plagiarism, and indicating the authors’ text and the original sources that they supposedly plagiarized. It is time that the scientific community stop accepting at face value these “substantial” decisions and requesting quantitative PROOF of what was plagiarized.

        1. I appreciate JATdS’ position and agree that not having an operational definition of plagiarism is problematic. However, I have come to believe that having a precise definition raises additional problems and may ultimately be equally undesirable. I also recognize that when it comes to publishing in science, those who are not fluent in English are at a clear disadvantage. But, I think we can agree that we need some rules that all must follow and, frankly, ORI’s are about the most flexible and reasonable.

        2. I agree with JATdS that the context of the copied words needs to be evaluated. As noted in the ORI definition that Adam quoted above (which I helped to write in 1992), common descriptions of the field of research and methods are not misleading to the readers in the field, who clearly see that they were not the original words of the most recent author — they simply are not significant enough to consider them to be “plagiarism” of the research. As Miguel (below) indicates, ORI’s policy is flexible and reasonable. Alan

  2. I believe that quote marks, ‘single’ or “double”, are very helpfully supplied on all standard keyboards. These could prove useful in such instances. Anatomically, on my keyboard they are on the third row down on the right, just after the colon and semi-colon (no relation!).

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