Ask Retraction Watch: Ever seen a case of “meta-plagiarism?”

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr
Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

Do you know of any instances of meta-plagiarism, i.e. a paper plagiarizing a second paper, which plagiarized a third paper? Or even longer chains of this? I know one instance of meta-plagiarism, but there should be a few others out there, I guess.

We’ve seen one such daisy chain. No poll this time, but we look forward to any examples you come up with in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: Ever seen a case of “meta-plagiarism?””

  1. It might not count as plagiarism, but Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the origin of the common description of the size of eohippus and it’s repeated use. I refreshed my memory about this using Wikipedia, which has this to say (in the article at

    “In elementary-level textbooks, Eohippus is commonly described as being “the size of a small Fox Terrier”, despite the Fox Terrier being about half the size of Eohippus. This arcane analogy was so curious that Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about it (“The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone”, essay #10 in his book, Bully for Brontosaurus), in which he concluded that Henry Fairfield Osborn had so described it in a widely distributed pamphlet, Osborn being a keen fox hunter who made a natural association between horses and the dogs that accompany them.”

    As I recall, Gould tracked the phrase from one textbook to another, and he said that the apparently ubiquitous use of the Fox Terrier struck him as odd because he had no idea how large Fox Terriers are (or what they look like, for that matter), and no one he asked could tell him.

    1. A slightly different Propagation of Errors occurs when a paper is retracted, but continues to be cited. One such that I have followed has seen its citations drop only imperceptibly after being retracted! I assume this means (a) many papers that are cited are not even glanced at by their citers, or (b) the better hope is that the citers actually read the paper, but before it was retracted, and thus do not realize their error.

      1. how hard would it be for pubmed/google scholar to flag papers in a simple way that a simple program could check all citations for retraction/correction/expression of concern… the NIH could then develop a program that could scan bibliographies instantly (and this feature could be built into bibliography software as well).

        A simple requirement would be that prior to required pubmed central submission, a check must be run and all R/C/EoC papers cited must be marked as such in the bibliography. If the paper was unmarked at the time of submission for indexing, the author is off the hook and did their diligence… otherwise, the paper must be marked with a correction. (And we’ll give the authors a 48 hour grace period to be nice…).

    2. Errors are amplified by the citations of papers that are not understood. Where papers are difficult to understand, wrong ideas are thriving.

    3. My recollection of the essay was that the Fox Terrier analogy was started innpart because of the popularity of the dog “Asta” from the “Thin Man” movies. Long since relegated to obscurity.

  2. It is not concretely what you are looking for, but it is also kind of meta plagiarism. It is from VroniPlag, the association that brought down our German defence minister for the plagiarism in his dissertation. They write:

    “At the University of Münster, a text book on scientific writing for lawyers was found to contain massive plagiarism. Ironically, even the chapter on plagiarism was plagiarized. While the book told students not to use Wikipedia, the book itself contained 18 text fragments from the German Wikipedia. The dissertations of two of the book’s authors, who received their doctorates at Münster University, were found to show extreme text parallels.”

  3. I remember the case of the thesis of an undergrad student, which was lifted in the Master’s thesis of another student, which was in turn lifted in the PhD thesis of a third student, like a Russian doll. All with a single advisor, and all defending their thesis within the same year.
    Plagiarism was patent, not only because experimental results were transferred by osmosis from a level to the upper level, but also because large sections were just a carbon copy (particularly the Introduction Chapter).

  4. I once had to referee a paper by author A, who had plagiarized author B, who had plagiarized an earlier paper of author A, who had already plagiarized author C. Thus the passage from author C had been plagiarized at least three times by 2 different authors. I did not look any further to see if author C had also plagiarized someone else.

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