A retracted retraction: Backsies for an anti-terrorism paper

Nasrullah Memon
Nasrullah Memon

The other day, we wrote about a puzzling situation that appeared to involve the ninth retraction for an anti-terrorism researcher. A book chapter by Nasrullah Memon, of the University of Southern Denmark, was marked “Retracted,” both in the abstract’s title and on the PDF. But Memon forwarded us an email from Springer, the book’s publisher, saying that they had decided to publish an erratum rather than retract.

And indeed, sometime after we published our post, the retraction was changed to an erratum, with the following notice:

Table 1 of the paper starting on page 430 of this volume was copied, without permission, from the paper “Countering Terrorism through Information and Privacy Protection Technologies” by R. Popp and J. Poindexter, published in Security & Privacy, IEEE (Volume 4, Issue 6), 2006.

Springer’s Anna Kramer tells Retraction Watch:

This shouldn’t have been a retraction and this has now been corrected. An Erratum was inserted, which was intentional and is still there. The paper is not being corrected.

Now, some Retraction Watch readers may be familiar with the distinction between an Erratum and a correction, but if others of you aren’t, that’s understandable. Here’s what the National Library of Medicine, which produces PubMed (Medline), has to say:

Corrections or corrigenda for previously-published articles are all uniformly considered by NLM to be errata. NLM does not differentiate between errors that originate in the publication process and those that result from errors of scientific logic or methodology, because journal editors do not make this distinction consistently or clearly.

We’ve covered a few retracted retractions, although we can’t remember one that happened because of an error. Or wait, is that a Corrigendum?

Update, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 1/13/14: We asked Springer’s Kramer how this happened:

I am afraid that the team who were instructed to upload an erratum, performed a retraction as well. To my knowledge, this is the first time that this has happened!

4 thoughts on “A retracted retraction: Backsies for an anti-terrorism paper”

    1. I have three hypotheses, and I use Springer since the case refers to Springer. But no other publisher should be relieved of any less scrutiny, especially those that publish books, including all main-stream publishers like Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor and Francis/Informa, etc. And including other almost 6000 publishers at http://journalseek.net/publishers.htm

      Hypothesis 1: Springer, which is probably the most prolific publisher of scientific BOOKS on the globe, doesn’t want a massive black box to be opened. After all, how does one retract a retraction that is clearly based on a clear case of plagiarism? When cases are black on white, but the issue of publishing ethics is made murky by the very same entities that are supposedly meant to be the defenders of ethics and rigor (i.e., the publishers), then one can sense a crisis. To date, academics have been doing post-publication peer review almost exclusively of academic journals, but have failed to focus on book chapters. I openly call for a wide-reaching and deep examination of Springer book chapters. Can you imagine if authors and academics start to examine the wealthy Springer book chapter literature en masse? I am of the belief that by backtracking and issuing a broader erratum (rather than wiping the slate clean with a retraction), Springer is safe-guarding itself to not having to retract future cases of unauthorized and/or undeclared duplication (= plagiarism = unethical behavior) of text, tables or figures in BOOK chapters.

      Hypothesis 2: since many scientists and institutions do not have (institutional) access to book chapters, the content has not been examined as much as journals. For example, my previous research institute, due to severe budget cuts, could only afford access to a limited number of Springer journals, thus cutting the possibility of accessing book chapters (i.e., access). Limited access = limited scrutiny. Can you imagine if Springer were to make its entire collection open access what level of fraud, plagiarism and duplication could be discovered?

      Hypothesis 3: BOOK CHAPTERS will be the house of cards that could implode Springer’s image. The image is already suffering from some high profile retractions. Springer is already starting to reel from an explosion of retractions caused by an exponential increase in awareness, thanks to RW and other blogs and the open access movement. I am of the opinion that independent of the medium (book, journal paper, proceedings paper, in English or in any other language), duplication (without declarations at the time of submission or publication) of another’s ideas, text, tables or figures constitutes plagiarism while duplication (also without declarations at the time of submission or publication) of one’s own ideas (i.e., self-plagiarism) are equally unethical, whether we are talking about one table, or the entire content of a paper.

      Thus, let’s get this absolutely straight (assuming that the information provided is true, and accurate): “Table 1 of the paper starting on page 430 of this volume was copied, without permission” by Nasrullah Memon is a PURE case of plagiarism (without permission = plagiarism, or theft). Springer goofed-up and the message sent to the academic pool is even worse: rather than a hard-core crack-down, leniency is being allowed. What message does this send the young scientists who are emerging from graduate and post-graduate courses? The message sent, so as not to be euphemistic, is that the theft of tables (or possibly even other academic information, ideas, figures, or text) is ACCEPTABLE, and the only thing the author will suffer is a little slap on the wrist and an erratum PDF file.

      May I suggest that in clear cases like this that a wave of peaceful protest take place. Maybe everyone who disagrees with the decision sends the editor board and publisher (in this case Springer) an e-mail saying that they disagree with the decision to retract a retraction, then maybe they will have no choice but to revert back to the retraction when a critical mass of “academic protesters” is reached.

      I also suggest greater quantification in terms of text.

  1. Best thing to be done is also test the remaining text for other possibly copied sections. Experience tells that most editors and authors disclose only part of the problem.

    1. In fact the paper has been analysed and text parallels have been documented: http://static3.wikia.nocookie.net/vroniplag/de/images/9/92/Nm2_Report_14_01_2014.pdf

      Reading this report one comes to two conclusions:

      1. Almost half of the text of the paper is lifted from elsewhere without adequate attribution. The table Springer mentions in the “Erratum” is only a small part of the problem.

      2. Almost all the paper has been recycled in other publications, most sections several times. Particularly similar (more than 50% text overlap) is a paper that has been retracted by the IEEE for plagiarism: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=4493536&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F4488216%2F4493499%2F04493536.pdf%3Farnumber%3D4493536

      I personally find it quite shocking that Springer decides not to retract this paper, and I believe the reasons are among those outlined in JATdS’s comment. In my eyes, Springer is sabotaging the scientific process here, when it should be one of its first defenders. This is of course unsettling for any scientist but it also shows a surprisingly short-sighted strategy on behalf of Springer, as in the end “quality” is the only real argument one can use to defend the current very profitable publishing model.

      Other relevant links:

      http://copy-shake-paste.blogspot.com.es/2014/01/just-erratum.html (Prof. Weber-Wulff looking at the same case in her blog)

      http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Nm/Comparisons (An overview of terrorism-related papers of N. Memon and some indication as to how affected they are by plagiarism. This analysis was originally motivated by the Vroniplag documentation of Memon’s PhD thesis: http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Nm )

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