Want to report a case of plagiarism? Here’s how

ethics and behaviorIf you’ve come across a case of plagiarism and want to report it to the proper authorities, a new article in the journal Ethics & Behavior would be a good place to start.

Mark Fox, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University, and Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, known for Beall’s List of questionable publishers, teamed up for the article. As they write in their abstract:

Scholarly open-access publishing has made it easier for researchers to discover and report academic misconduct such as plagiarism. However, as the website Retraction Watch shows, plagiarism is by no means limited to open-access journals. Moreover, various web-based services provide plagiarism detection software, facilitating one’s ability to detect pirated content. Upon discovering plagiarism, some are compelled to report it, but being a plagiarism whistleblower is inherently stressful and can leave one vulnerable to criticism and retaliation by colleagues and others (Anderson, 1993; Cabral-Cardoso, 2004). Reporting plagiarism can also draw the threat of legal action. This article draws upon our experiences as plagiarism whistleblowers with several goals in mind: to help would-be whistleblowers be better prepared for making well-founded allegations; to give whistleblowers some idea of what they can expect when reporting plagiarism; and to give suggestions for reducing whistleblowers’ vulnerability to threats and stress.

Of course, you could always not report plagiarism:

One unfortunate alternative to reporting plagiarism is to do nothing. In some cases inaction may be partly motivated by colleagues who provide advice such as: “No one will thank you for this”, “Be very careful that this doesn’t hurt your career”, or “Don’t be surprised that this gets covered up if you do complain”. As the authors of a Special Report on plagiarism in the Chronicle of Higher Education observe: “academe often discourages victims from seeking justice, and when they do, tends to ignore their complaints — a kind of scholarly ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy” (Bartlett and Smallwood, 2004, p. A8). However, inaction may lead those who have discovered plagiarism to experience a lingering unrest as to whether they have done the “right thing”. An Office of Research Integrity (1995) study provides some insight into whether whistleblowers regret their actions. For whistleblowers that experienced no negative actions, 86% would definitely blow the whistle again and a further 5% would probably do so. Surprisingly, 60% of those who suffered one or more adverse actions as a result of their whistleblowing would do so again; and 15% probably would do so.

The paper includes sections with useful tips, ranging from “Be Aware of What Constitutes Plagiarism” to “Some Allegations Will Be Taken More Seriously Than Others” to “Be Prepared for the Threat of Legal Action” to “Publicizing Allegations Through Mainstream Media and Online.”

That last section ends with

Also, carefully consider what, if any, use you want to make of Internet: Do you want to create a blog that highlights the plagiarism? Do you want to make a website such as Retraction Watch aware of any articles that have been retracted as a result of your whistleblowing?

Why, yes, you do, of course! We’ve also published a guide to reporting alleged misconduct, to which we would add trying PubPeer.

The authors conclude:

Do not assume that you will be applauded for raising allegations. In particular, it is unlikely that colleagues and friends of the plagiarist will applaud your actions. Indeed, they may retaliate by examining your own published works, so it is not a good idea to report plagiarism if you yourself have ever committed research misconduct. Others may wish that plagiarism allegations be dealt with quietly, as publicity may adversely affect the reputation of the institution or journals where the misconduct occurred. Having said this, you should keep in mind the benefits of reporting plagiarism, namely that this serves as a deterrent to others and helps maintain the integrity of the academic and scholarly record.

32 thoughts on “Want to report a case of plagiarism? Here’s how”

  1. The easiest part of whistleblowing on plagiarism discovered online is that one can make allegations anonymously, citing the source and the document containing plagiarized wording — and that can be investigated by the institutional or federal investigative officials without any need to know or communicate with the whistle- blower. Using Retraction Watch, PubPeer, SciFraud or other blogs with a pseudonym allows such anonymity

    1. All or almost all organizations have an explicit policy to take no notice of anonymous allegations. This practice goes back at least to Roman times. The organization can therefore ignore almost all allegations of wrongdoing that are reported to them.

      There is no benefit to championing the cause of a powerless and impotent whistleblower who feels they must remain anonymous for personal or professional safety. Therefore organizations and individual treat such whistleblowers as if they have Ebola.

      1. I have no expertise in “Roman” history, ancient or modern, but in my 17 years of experience in the United States’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI), we routinely considered, and encouraged institutions to consider, anonymous allegations (especially ones of plagiarism). As noted in the preamble (Part III.C.) to the 2005 ORI regulation, http://ori.hhs.gov/FR_Doc_05-9643: “. . . it has been longstanding ORI practice to accept oral allegations, including oral, anonymous allegations . . . [which] may contain relatively complete information. . . . or lead to more complete information. . . . We also note that the Offices of the Inspector General at various Federal agencies routinely accept oral and anonymous allegations. . .” As noted in the paper that I wrote as an ORI official on such cases, published in Academic Medicine 73: 467-472 (1998) — http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Abstract/1998/05000/Anonymity_and_pseudonymity_in_whistleblowing_to.9.aspx — “. . . from 1989 through 1997. . . the record shows that research institutions and the ORI have treated such allegations seriously. . . . however, very few anonymous complaints have been sufficiently substantive to be pursued in formal inquiries or investigations. . . ” In my ORI experience, few institutions have formal policies requiring that complainants have to identify themselves.

        1. I should not have written “explicit policy”. I think ‘de facto’ would be better.

          Don’t you think the low fraction of ORI reports attributed to anonymous reporting indicates that many anonymous communications are simply discarded?

        2. Well I have done some whistleblowing before and I must say that almost all times anon complainers are ignored. Someone using an alias has to an effort to get some answer (which 60% of times will be ‘blablabla+what is your name, phone number and affiliation’), and a great effort to see some action taken, and a major effort to see positive action being taken. I think ignoring the complaints work more at the individual-receiving-the-email level than on an official, organisation level. Oh yes, and many organisations have these encouraging statements that ‘any complaint will be taken seriously’ however have ignored complaints and asked for IDs.
          Also Pubpeer entries are usually still ignored.

          I have suffered negative effects, and I did and will do it again. I still believe in the readers who will heed the reported irregularity, and all works from that source will more rapidly fall into the big trash bin where most scientific literature eventually end. I think science only works well in the long term, but we can catalyse the self-correcting mechanisms with few simple actions.

  2. People interested in the issues discussed here should have a look at what was reported by Jorge Luis Borges already in 1939 in his article “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. An extreme case of plagiarism!

  3. Two most recent examples of apparent self-plagiarism and data duplication:

    Case 1. Data presented during the Society for Neuroscience SfN2013 meeting (abstract 118.03, Dutta et al., Mtor pathway mediates diazoxide preconditioning in cultured neurons) http://www.abstractsonline.com/Plan/ViewAbstract.aspx?sKey=b63ffa4a-63ff-40d4-bb7a-72d0612504eb&cKey=c0396af2-1f2f-4263-9ef1-24a50024776b&mKey=%7b8D2A5BEC-4825-4CD6-9439-B42BB151D1CF%7d

    appears to be identical to the abstract presented by the same group at the American Physiological Society’s Experimental Biology EB2013 meeting earlier this year, and published in FASEB Journal (Dutta et al., 2013; 27: 691.1) http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/meeting_abstract/27/1_MeetingAbstracts/691.1?sid=72a6ec8f-2723-4fc6-a55b-b7b5be38b4c7

    Case 2: Data presented during the SfN2013 meeting by the same group (abstract 144.05/06 by Rutkai et al.) http://www.abstractsonline.com/Plan/ViewAbstract.aspx?sKey=29fb0bb7-b3d1-45bb-8cd5-cc0a4f8334b8&cKey=8b3186fd-b1be-4f7d-965d-8ba86594f430&mKey=%7b8D2A5BEC-4825-4CD6-9439-B42BB151D1CF%7d

    appears to be highly similar to the abstract presented at the Experimental Biology EB2013 meeting earlier this year, and published in FASEB Journal (Rutkai et al., 2013; 27: 1131.10) http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/meeting_abstract/27/1_MeetingAbstracts/1131.10?sid=94027d44-8d11-4193-999d-40ee7ef378c2

    mTOR Pathways

    1. I don’t think many people consider it unethical (or unusual) to present the same data at multiple meetings.

      1. too bad if they do not think it is unethical, because they should
        It also violates Ethical Policies of the conferences’ Societies too (which request all presented data to be novel)

        1. I’m with Dan Z on this one.

          However, a lot depends on where and how the abstracts will be published. If in a regular edition of a journal, searchable online, then it’s probably not OK to duplicate an abstract. If in a special edition abstract book, only available to those who attended the conference, then it doesn’t really count as a publication because it’s not on PubMed and not findable in the public domain. Abstracts typically do not show up on PubMed, and are not counted as publications on CVs, or counted toward h-index or other citation metrics. Some journals won’t even let you cite them in a paper.

          If you paint with a wide brush and classify all abstracts as published, then what if I print out an abstract I just wrote, give a copy to my colleague, and then file it on the shelf in my office. Technically it’s now published because someone saw it, but I don’t think you’d find anyone who would say it’s unethical to take such an item and publish it “for real” in a journal after that point.

          So, it really comes down to where you draw the line and classify something as published. For me, that line is whether it’s in PubMed, has a DOI, is in a journal with an ISBN, and is findable in the public domain. In the above cases CR lists, while technically the abstracts are available online, they are not listed on PubMed and are not found by Googling for the author’s names and key words. They’re in special editions of the journals which are only accessible and searchable through the proprietary web pages of the conferences in question. Now granted, the authors may still have broken the rules of the respective conferences, but it’s not a clear cut case of publishing the same thing twice because it could be argued that these are not true publications.

          On a side note, BTW, there’s technically nothing wrong with presenting the same scientific data at different conferences in the form of a talk. It’s often advantageous to present data to different audiences and get different reactions/feedback. Would it be right to say to a scientist “you gave that talk already, talk about something else or we’ll report you for self-plagiarism”? Try saying that to a stand-up comedian and see how far you get. This being the case, now consider the poster question again – if you can’t stop a person from presenting the same talk at 2 different conferences, why would you consider it OK to stop someone presenting the same poster twice? After all a poster is just like a talk, a kind of performance in front of an audience.

          1. How about practicing some measure of transparency with respect to the recycling of our previous work? Whether it is a paper being presented at a conference, a key note address or plenary lecture, simply include a note or a slide that indicates the degree of recycling, saying something to the effect that this paper has been presented (in part, perhaps) at such and such a conference or group, or that various slides from this presentation were presented elsewhere, etc., etc.?

      2. I also agree with Dan Z. So does Elsevier (and probably other publishers): here is the statement from the Elsevier Submission Declaration section of the Guide for Authors: “Submission of an article implies that the work described has not been published previously (except in the form of an abstract or as part of a published lecture or academic thesis or as an electronic preprint,…”

        Presenting the same talk at multiple meetings to presumably largely if not wholly different audiences and the discussion that occurs in doing so is good for science. That activity is not the same as republishing printed material.

        1. This is relevant to full-length articles but does not cover abstracts (which are a separate type of publications). If you present the same talk many times, it is fine – but if you present an abstract with real data several times – it is self-plagiarism, and we shall teach our students from Day 1 that this is a bad practice

        2. You have assumed that Elsevier is ethical. Alot of evidence points to the contrary, including flawed peer reviews, biased editors who suffer no punitive action by Elsevier, scandals related to the weapons industry by the parent company Reed-Elsevier, journals linked to conflicts of interest, and so much else that suggests that not all is well (ethically) at this publisher. Hence their massive marketing campaign to show that they are ethical. That means that Elsevier’s guidelines are somewhat folly. An abstract is simply a window onto the larger picture. So, indeed, if an abstract is ONLY an abstract, of a meeting, then that’s fine. However, usually an abstract is usually the “window” to what was presented at the meeting, either as a poster or as an oral presentation. If someone were to use, to use a clear example, Martin Luther King’s quotations from his speeches, without due attrribution or without the use of quotation marks, surely you will call this pure and blatant plagiarism. One could even say that Barack Obama is guilty of self-plagiarism because he does not list all the speeches where he first stated “Yes, we can”, and I assure you, that was self-plagiarized a zillion times. So, too is the recycling of one’s own words, either written or spoken, at a scientific meeting. Just because it can’t be tracked doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. A self-plagiarized abstract is, in my view, an unethical act, because it most likely represents (very realistically) the self-plagiarism of ideas that were already shared (i.e., published as words or ideas) to the scientific public. Kenrod, I also strongly disagree with your notion that presenting the same presentation at different meetings is not plagiaristic in nature, and think that your concept of “is good for science” is problematic. This kind of reminds me of professors who just recycle the same notes, lectures, and speeches, year in, year out, at universities. Why aren’t they charged for gross self-plagiarism? Perhaps Miguel Roig could weigh in here, or Alan Price, based on their extensive experience.

          1. JATdS, the appropriateness of making the same or similar presentation in two or more conferences can be a somewhat complicated issue and one that I feel has yet to be fully addressed by the research integrity community. In fact, my sense is that there has been little formal discussion on the topic.

            No one can deny that there are benefits to communicating our data and/or ideas to the widest possible audience and I want to believe that it is, in part, on this basis that researchers present the same work in two or more conferences. But, I think that if an organization allows for the presentation of previously disseminated data, then it is still very important that such presentations be done with the utmost degree of transparency (see my earlier post). This especially important in terms of how we represent ourselves to those who must evaluate our research productivity for purposes of promotion and tenure, for multiple presentations of the same ideas/data, like duplicate publications, can also be used for purposes of vita padding. My general view about duplication of abstracts is this: As long as the audience (and the reader of the published abstract) is clearly and unambiguously alerted to the fact that the material was previously presented, then I don’t see such instances as self-plagiarism.

            But, I do have concerns with ‘duplicate’ conference presentations in situations when changes are made to the second version of the same presentation that make it appear as if it is new, when in fact it is not. For example, a second presentation may contain minor changes to the abstract, title, and/or to the authorship, that could conceivably lead to confusion as to the exact relationship between each set of data described in the slightly different abstracts. Then, there is the question of whether a second conference presentation which reuses data from an earlier presentation in different ways and/or combine some new data with old data that are then packaged as a ‘new’ presentation. The fact is that there can be all sorts of permutations of these conference presentations that could lead to much confusion (new added data with modified text and title, old data reanalyzed with new text and title and different authors, etc.). Mind you, some of these activities may be perfectly acceptable AS LONG AS THE READER IS MADE FULLY AWARE OF WHAT IS BEING DONE, but given that they may ultimately result in a published one paragraph abstract, can the material in these abstracts be misinterpreted? I think these scenarios can lead to problems. I note that these types of issues equally apply to actual publications and, again, the activities may be equally acceptable if readers are fully informed as to what is happening with the various data sets. Of course, if fully informed, most journals would reject this sort of duplication if there is no acceptable rationale for the different analyses, etc.

            Ultimately, I think the important question is not so much whether it is self-plagiarism to publish the same or similar abstracts in two different proceedings. The question for me is whether any such duplication, even if allowed by the different societies and with full transparency, can lead to confusion as to how the material presented is ultimately interpreted within the larger scientific record. If the practice leads to misinterpretation, and I think it has the potential to do so in some cases, then, it is problematic and should be curtailed.

          2. To JATdS– I have no experience with abstracts and “self-plagiarism” — as I have said before, I consider “self-plagiarism” to be a non-sequitur — there is only “duplicate or redundant publication” since “plagiarism” is the use of other person’s words or ideas without giving appropriate credit. I tend to agree with vhewig’s views (above), but I do not disagree with Miguel Roig’s thoughtful response. Alan Price

    2. Most conferences have specific policies regarding abstracts. Some meetings absolutely require that all data presented be new, while others do not. The former is more common when the abstracts are going to be printed in full in an ISI or Pubmed indexed publication, which is rare. In either case, the same data will most likely be published later in a journal article, which is the primary mode of scientific communication. Meeting presentations are not that serious – usually just an excuse to travel to the meeting destination.

  4. I reported a case of possible self-plagiarism just over a week ago, partially following recommendations from JATdS. I chose not to contact the authors directly, and I chose to do it anonymously. I emailed multiple editors to both of the journals involved, thinking it might be easy for a single editor to ignore an anonymous email but not so easy for multiple editors and journals. Besides providing links and citations to the two articles in question I very briefly described the issue. I received a reply from one of the editors of the journal with the most recent publication within two hours. That response was cc’d to the entire distribution list plus someone who appears to be on the staff of the publisher. The editor promised an inquiry and a response back to me. We’ll see how this goes.

    1. The keynote addresses and ‘overview’ abstracts may be similar for years – but presenting the same DATA twice is not. The Society trusts the investigators to present novel data, and not to present data already published with a different conference.

      We can take votes, but the fact remains: self-plagiarism is not acceptable. A graduate student would have been punished for this – why PIs are any different? Lets be honest, and change the culture

  5. Wow, this is absolutely amazing timing for this post. I came to this page specifically (I follow it regularly, and this was the first place I thought to go with this question…) because I stumbled across something that I am not sure what to do about. I am in the beginning stages of a new research project and have been doing some pretty extensive reading on one specific theoretical construct over the past several weeks. Just a few minutes ago, I was reading a dissertation on the topic and realized that what I was reading sounded familiar…TOO familiar. And I am not talking about a sentence or two…I am talking about entire paragraphs that were lifted (almost completely verbatim, including entire sentences that WERE verbatim) from another paper on the subject, including all of the citations and the same, very peculiar and not-by-accident word choices. And it’s not just the wording; they really took someone else’s original idea about the dimensional structure of a construct and claimed it as their own…for their dissertation. The original paper was published by a team of researchers in the U.K. in 2002, and the dissertation was written in 2010, by a student in the U.S., with no mention of contributions from any of the authors on the original publication.
    What would you do? Any advice (at all!) would be greatly appreciated. I have never encountered a situation like this and have no idea how to handle it. Thank you in advance 🙂
    PS- I really love this blog!

    1. Sure. Call or write to the Research Integrity Officer for graduate students (may be the Associate Dean for Research at the Graduate School, or the Associate Vice President for Research of the University) — you should be able to find their name on the institution’s website (or write to me in confidence, and I will find it for you). Simply show the RIO what you have observed.

      1. So, in this kind of case, a dissertation has been accepted/published and one finds plagiarism (and other irregularities) years later, what happens? I know of a situation similar to publichealthwatch’s and the person has held several uni teaching positions (including one in which this person ironically served as ethics adviser), all based on a PhD not honestly earned.

  6. The paper titled “The Method of Control Solution to Deal with the Dynamics in Designing” , by Xiaolong Shen, Hunan Industry Polytechnic in the IEIT Journal of Adaptive & Dynamic Computing, 2012(4), 5–9, 2012, seems very similar to “Control of Designing” , by Hou Yuemin, Ji Linhong, in the Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Frontiers of Design and Manufacturing, June 10~12, 2012, Chongqing

  7. I found an interesting case of plagiarism dating back over 100 years ago while preparing a book for republication on Createspace. While preparing this republication I ran across an apparent century old secret. The author of this book, Rev. Leighton Grane engaged in what appears to be plagiarism. I ran across this while searching for the book “A Crime Against the Soul” which he mentions in the below quote. It took quite a bit of time to find the book in question, as the actual work has a different name completely. I did find a passage by one Theodore T. Munger that was almost the same as the one in the book, only the time difference was off by about 20 years. Some words were different, and as it goes the two passages become less alike, but the same idea is there. I think when you read the two passages side by side you will see quite clearly that this is a classic case of plagiarism. Grane provides plenty of references for the works he used in this publication. So why not with this one? I can only guess from what I could learn from the original author is that Grane did not agree with Munger’s theological position. Grane was Anglican, while Munger was a Congregationalist. Anyone with a passing knowledge of English Church history will know that Congregationalists were borne out of confrontation with Anglicanism. It may be that Grane was not humble enough to admit his source of information was from someone he considered a theological opponent, or even a heretic. Of course this is just conjecture and you can make your own mind up about it.

    When, sixty or seventy years ago, the famous Caspar Hauser appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, released from a dungeon in which he had been confined from infancy, seeing no human face, hearing no human voice, nor ever seeing the full light of day, a distinguished German lawyer wrote a legal history of the case, which he called, A Crime Against the Life of a Soul. It was a fitting title. But it is even more accurately descriptive of the process to which so many voluntarily subject their own spiritual nature. Men muffle the voice of conscience, and next time its warning falls weak and muffled upon the will. And the weakness of remonstrance and the ease of resistance grow with every repetition of this wilfulness. Impulses of reverence are drowned in a sea of triviality: men walk by sight until the faculty of faith languishes and dies. Time and the petty concerns of this life so engross us that the intuitions of Immortality lose their force, and Eternity fades into nothingness. Paralysis sets in, not of the body perhaps, but (still more to be dreaded) of the soul, paralysis which can have no other end than spiritual death. Leighton Grane: The Hard Sayings of Jesus Christ, 1899

    When, a half century ago, the famous Kaspar Hauser appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, having been released from a dungeon in which he had been confined from infancy, having never seen the face or heard the voice of man, nor gone without the walls of his prison, nor seen the full light of day, a distinguished lawyer in Germany wrote a legal history of the case which he entitled, A Crime against the Life of the Soul. It was well named. There is something unspeakably horrible in that mysterious page of history. To exclude a child not only from the light, but from its kind; to seal up the avenues of knowledge that are open to the most degraded savage; to force back upon itself every outgoing of the nature till the poor victim becomes a mockery before its Creator, is an unmeasurable crime; it is an attempt to undo God’s work. But it is no worse than the treatment some men bestow upon their own souls. If reverence is repressed, and the eternal heavens are walled out from view; if the sense of immortality is smothered; if the spirit is not taught to clothe itself in spiritual garments, and to walk in spiritual ways: such conduct can hardly be classed except as a crime against the life of the soul. Theodore T. Munger: The Freedom of Faith, 1883

  8. What we need is a website where one can publish side by side plagiraized text and the alleged original text from where it was copied. Academics will never turn against each other pubically only anonymius website wehre you can clearly see it will force them to face reality

  9. It is really not a good idea to be a whistle blower on plagiarism, leave that work to editors of the journals and reviewers.

  10. Someone I know sometimes reports plagiarism to the journal itself. However, there were times that the journal responds quite unexpectedly, where even after showing them proof of misconduct (copied text, combining sentences from different sources, etc., possible falsification of results), the journal chooses to back the authors. If this happens, then should the whilstleblower just stop there?

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