Heads up: “Borrowing” your student’s work will earn you a partial retraction — and a five-year publishing ban

jeailWe have a curious case for the “avoiding the p word” files from the Journal of East Asia & International Law.

The paper in question, “Border Enforcement of Plant Variety Rights: A Comparison between Japan and Taiwan,” was written by Shun-liang Hsu and appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the journal. Here are the first two pages.

The notice is quite detailed. It begins with the allegations against Hsu:

Chart 1 and Chart 2 of the paper concerned on page 150 and 151, respectively, are essentially the same as Figure 4 (圖4) and Figure 5 (圖5) on page 62 and 63, respectively, of the unpublished master’s thesis written under the author’s supervision. These sources were originally attributed to Figure 4 to the slide of a Japanese expert, 高橋信慶, in footnote 206, and attributed the source of Figure 5 to the website of Japanese customs in footnote 208, the author of the paper did not attribute the source either to the student work, the Japanese expert’s slide, or the website of Japanese customs.

The editors continue with a timeline, saying that the committee responded to the person bringing the allegations immediately, on July 24, 2013, and also alerted Thomson Reuters about the “suspected violation of research ethics,” presumably because the journal is indexed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge. (The paper has yet to be cited, according to that database.) The next day, they formed a committee of “five(5) experts including one highly renowned copyright lawyer and one Taiwanese editorial staff” which asked for, and received, five days later, a PDF of the original master’s thesis in question.

In the meantime, Hsu emailed his defense of the article.

Here’s what the committee determined. Note the great lengths they go to distinguish “borrowed” and “misuse of sources” from “plagiarized:”

1. Type of violation

The two charts in the paper concerned are cited without correct sources, which constitutes <Citation Errors> in accordance with Article 2, Paragraph 8 of the Detailed Regulations to the Ethical Rule of the Journal of East Asia and International Law (hereinafter referred to as the “RULE”).

2. Grounds of Decision
For more careful examination, the committee also referred a guideline established by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (hereinafter referred to as the “CWPA”) to decide whether the case at issue should be regarded as plagiarism or mere “misuse of sources.” The CWPA guideline defines plagiarism as an ethical violation that: “……occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source.”

In the case at issue, the author borrowed two charts from a published material without acknowledging their sources. If the author had “deliberately” used the charts, and if these materials are not common knowledge in the academic community, then we could have concluded that the author violated the RULE and his work labeled as plagiarism.

Based on the allegation of facts, however, we could NOT conclude that the author DELIBERATELY copied the original work without giving credit to it. NOR we could conclude that the charts copied are UNCOMMON in the academic community. Rather the contents described by the two charts are fairly general and show a formal procedure, thereby can be similarly drawn by anyone who correctly understands the flow. Furthermore, the academic significance of the two charts throughout the entire paper is minor.

The committee may not have been willing to call this plagiarism, but they certainly sanctioned Hsu as if it was:

D. Sanctions

According to the RULE and its Detailed Regulations, Citation Errors will be a violation of research ethics. Thus, the following sanctions will be imposed on the author.

1. Partial Retraction
The Journal will ask Thomson Reuters, Elsevier and other relevant academic database companies to retract the two charts from their databases including Web of Science, SCOPUS, etc.

2. Notice
Journal of East Asia and International Law will notify this through its <Notice of Research Ethics Violation> at Volume 6, Number 2.

3. Prohibition of Publication for the Next Five Years
The author shall not be considered by the editorial board for possible publications for the next five years.

4. Notification to the Author’s Institution
The Journal will officially notify all the results to the author’s institution and request for take necessary and appropriate measures according to the ethics regulation of the institution.

We’ve contacted Hsu for comment and will update with anything we learn.

Update, 10 p.m. Eastern, 1/29/14: Hsu tells us:

I absolutely do not agree with the partial retraction in the JEAIL because the accuser sent out unauthorised copy to the journal, which has already violated copyright law in Taiwan.  I notified the journal but the journal not only accept this unlawful allegation but also acted against the investigator’s opinion.

Update, 7:15 a.m. Eastern, 1/30/14: We asked Hsu what he meant by “unauthorised copy “and “violated copyright,” because we’re not quite clear on how this relates to the allegations against him. He responded:

1. The material used by the accuser is a LLM thesis and the author declared reservation of  all copyrights, including publication electronically and in paper, duplication in part or in total, modification etc. (the thesis will not be published until Aug 1st this year)

2. the accuser, without the author’s authorisation, took the stock from the library (she was the dept. head and had full access to all the dept. facility and library collections) and copied 2 charts from the thesis and modified them and sent to JEAIL as proof.

3. Until now, the accuser still did not obtain of the author’s consent nor informed the author what she has done.

I am confident to say so because I have the author’s authorisation and has confirmed with the author that the accuser’s act was not to her awareness.  The university I work in, the journal are all well informed about this unlawful accusation, but nothing has been done so far, except partially retracting my paper and likely punishing me.

14 thoughts on “Heads up: “Borrowing” your student’s work will earn you a partial retraction — and a five-year publishing ban”

  1. From the information given, it would appear that the Professor/PI is being sanctioned for not adhering to the basic rules of the academic enterprise, which are drummed in (quite correctly) into all students. Looks right to me.

  2. I think the title is kind of misleading. It seems that the problem was not that the author did not cite the Master Thesis that he supervised, but rather that he did not cite in the paper the actual source of the charts, even though they were properly referenced in the Master Thesis.
    I particularly think it is ridiculous to automatically give authorship credit in a publication to a Master Thesis student. In my experience, in biomedicine, some master students provide significant intellectual input into his/her project, but others just do what they are told, and this is not a bad thing because they are under training. However, if any Master student is going to get intellectual property rights for the figures or conclusions included in his/her Master Thesis, independently of the criteria of his/her supervisor, I bet Masters around the world are going to be on the verge of extinction.

    1. I’m curious, jjpaff, what field you work in. In none of my interactions throughout my training would someone take the stance you do, nor would any of my colleagues (to my knowledge). Writing a thesis, by definition, is intellectual input. If they do not provide that, they should not be given a degree. Our difference in opinions leads me to conclude that either I misunderstood your point, I work with a different set of disciplines, or you simply have had vastly different experiences than I.

      1. Quite a harsh sentence. Nice. Yet, I can’t imagine if that author had a duplicate paper… a 10-year ban? The issue of publishing bans is rarely discussed on RW and would be nice to get more ideas about this. From what I have observed, retractions are not usually followed by bans, except in some high profile cases, or have I been reading most RW stories incorrectly?

        This story could be opening one of the Pandora boxes in science publishing. Some queries, where professors and PIs hold a lot of power, and access to finance, while demanding culturally superior (and generally unchallengeable) respect, that need a sea of whistle-blowers to investigate:

        a) how many PIs manipulate authorship or even position of authors based on their powerful position?
        b) how many MSc theses get mined for papers without the knowledge of students, especially long after the student has left the institute?
        c) what rules or laws do different universities have regarding the publication of students’ data? For example, 5 or 10 years after graduation, do PIs/professors have the right to free use of those data sets? If indeed, I understand the above argument correctly, the MSc would have not satisfied ALL of the ICMJE’s rules for authorship, so would publication of such old data sets be considered to be unattributed use?
        d) how many data sets have been published in two languages? There is a dual argument here. Proponents will say that it gives the authors the opportunity of reaching out to two widely different target audiences, one local, one international. Opponents would say that this is a form of self-plagiarism (text and data recycling). And how would the position of proponents and opponents change when the existence of the second publication (in another language) is declared, or undeclared.

        It is in these grey areas that the “profound” knowledge of “famous” copyright lawyers would be useful tot the scientific community, as a pro bono service and advice.

      2. Thank you Andrew for your comment. I think there are big differences between a PhD Thesis (a 4 years endeavor) and a Master Thesis (4-6 months task). You will never ever hear me to say that a PhD should give up rights over any work done to achieve his/her degree. A Doctoral Thesis requires originality, commitment, and huge effort. However, a Master Thesis, at least where I am from, has became merely an introduction to laboratory course, in which the student could barely learn some lab techniques and reproduce some of the ongoing experiments performed in the lab.

        1. Most Master’s Theses I know of are about 1 or 2 years. Some are 3. This is for biomedical and chemistry degrees. What you describe sounds like an undergraduate research thesis (although mine was a year long project); or a thesis for a very clinically-orientated program. (The MD students don’t really have time for serious lab work.)

          PhDs in biomed in the States can be well over 5 years, for a variety of reasons. (Chemists can be a bit quicker, my PhD was about 4.) EU PhDs tend to be much shorter, since their students have pretty solid lab and math skills from intensive high school and undergraduate preparation. But, they tend to be much more highly specialized than USA PhDs; and less familiar with long-term planning over whole sub-fields.

        2. The issue of the extent and nature of students’ input in their own theses/dissertations is something that I have been interested in for sometime. My sense is that such input varies widely across departments within a single discipline. At both, Masters and doctoral levels in various disciplines, I have encountered situations where the student merely works on the professor’s research with minimal input on design/methodology vs. situations where the student pursues his/her own original research albeit within a domain of expertise of the mentor. The American Psychological Association has specific guidelines on authorship in dissertations (see below). Perhaps associations from other disciplines have similar guidelines?

          From http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx?item=11

          8.12 Publication Credit

          (a) Psychologists take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they have actually performed or to which they have substantially contributed. (See also Standard 8.12b, Publication Credit.)

          (b) Principal authorship and other publication credits accurately reflect the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status. Mere possession of an institutional position, such as department chair, does not justify authorship credit. Minor contributions to the research or to the writing for publications are acknowledged appropriately, such as in footnotes or in an introductory statement.

          (c) Except under exceptional circumstances, a student is listed as principal author on any multiple-authored article that is substantially based on the student’s doctoral dissertation. Faculty advisors discuss publication credit with students as early as feasible and throughout the research and publication process as appropriate. (See also Standard 8.12b, Publication Credit.)

          1. Could you please explain, in some detail, how this definition is in agreement with the definition for authorship as defined by the ICMJE? It appears as if authorship, according to APA, is attributed in the psychological sciences (and thus related journals) for doing much less than in the bio-medical sciences. Would my interpretation be correct, based on what you have described for theses, especially MSc theses? In other words, MSc students who only do experimental work, but who do not plan, or design, or who do not necessarily assist in writing papers (because perhaps of their lack of experience), but who are listed first, or somewhere on a paper, appear to be valid authors in an APA-based journal, but this would fail the requirements for authorship by the ICMJE. After expanding on this issue, it would be useful to also provide a web-site that lists all journals that follow the APA guidelines and not the ICMJE guidelines for authorship. Finally, on a slightly provocative note, if guidelines are merely guidelines, and not laws, then what right do publishers have to enforce such “guidelines” upon authors that submit to their journals?

          2. JATdS, I neither have the time nor the inclination to carry out the analysis you request. As both policies are publicly available, you could take a look yourself, see how these might differ and draw your own conclusions. More importantly, you seem to have misinterpreted what I wrote, which is that the variability of student intellectual input into theses and dissertations seems to vary across disciplines as well as from department to department within a single discipline. I posted the APA guidelines on authorship to illustrate that when it comes to dissertations, some disciplines (well, at least psychology in the US) operate under some very specific rules. I have no reason to believe that when it comes to theses and dissertations, the intellectual input from students in one discipline differs from that of some other discipline.

          3. Here are the APA authorship criteria:
            “Authorship is reserved for people who make a primary contribution to and hold primary responsibility for the data, concepts, and interpretation of results for a published work (Huth, 1987). Authorship encompasses not only those who do the actual writing but also those who have made substantial scientific contributions to a study. This concept of authorship is discussed in the “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (APA, 2002), Standard 8.12, Publication Credit, which is reprinted in Appendix C and discussed in section 8.05.”

            There is no mention of agreement with ICMJE, which is an important nn-association.

  3. I did not read all the details here, but there usually is, for example in Germany, a major difference in a so-called diploma work (most likely comparable to a Master thesis in other countries) and a PhD thesis. As far as I know, the PhD thesis clearly is and has to be totally the students work, i.e. he/she is responsible to declare any help and all ressources used. The intellectual part belongs to the student. In contrast, a Master thesis should only demonstrate a students’ ability to perform in a scientific way, for example, persuing experiments discussed with his/her PI. Although it is usually very welcome to develop and include own ideas and solutions to a scientific problem, the nature of such a short task is under the strong responsibility of the PI – and clearly includes the PIs’ ideas. The result usually does not belong to the student, but to the university.
    Therefore, a university usually makes PhD theses publicly available, but protects the master theses (diploma theses). In an assumed case of plagiarim in Munich the university does not allow me to check the master thesis in question since it belongs to the university. Interestingly, the student is not mentioned as former student of the lab.

  4. I’m confused by all commenters that seem to say “Copying from a Master’s thesis is OK because it wasn’t really the Master students’ original work in any case” — either it’s the original work of the Master student (and they should be accredited as such!) or it’s the PI’s work, in which case the Master thesis should not have contained the work. Even if you just use the raw data, the student should be cited for their work.

    After all, if you suggest the inverse, it’s also OK to ask for someones raw data, do some new analysis on it and publish that without citing the original authors. That doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

  5. OK so: In the States, PIs and their students usually collaborate heavily on the design of the trials the student carries out, and thus the subsequent thesis material/data. The students is expected, therefore, to know something of trial design– and, how to make and design all the nice figures that are in both the thesis and the published manuscript.

    Those papers where the student is 1st author means the student wrote the majority of the manuscript, made most of the figures, and ran the project under the mild direction and brief words a few times a week from the PI. Well. They used to, at any rate.

    Many EU PhDs and Masters are far more skill-based than they are ………. hmmm……..grant-writing ability based, I suppose. Coming to a balance between the two ideologies is likely key to actually getting anything done in science.

  6. hi, I am Dr. Hsu, the accused author. When the ad hoc investigation committee in my university reached the conclusion that I am not guilty, I feel all the more sorry to read the report of Retraction watch. I do include the source of those two charts in question not by referring to student’s work but the original Japanese law. ( Question raised: What is the usual practice of citation in the academic world, citing the first-hand and original material or all the references before your paper ? I chose the former one.)

    My case was carefully reviewed by an external investigator from the journal and an ad hoc committee from my university. Both opinioned that I am ok. Reasons are simple 1. student’s citation was wrongly indicated. 2. not a case of plagiarism (the paper dratfed 2 years before student’s enrollment). I attached the journal investigator’s comment with my e-mail back to Mr. Ivanorasky and argued that it’s the journal editor who is not making the right decision but unfortunately all these were not published in this case report.

    Mr. Ivanorasky has limited knowledge about Chinese language, nor has he access to the MA’s thesis but he seems to neglect the important information attached in my e-mail and respect for professionalism. Moreover, Mr. Ivanorasky without challenging the stance of the journal to find the truth but just do cut-and-paste from the journal information. All these just diminish the credibility of Retractionwatch. If I am allowed to say more, I think in addition to selectively reveal the truth, Mr. Ivanorasky apparently has poor knowledge about law and privacy protection. Reason 1. Illegally obtained evidence can not be used as evidence in court for one (principle of prohibition of hearsay evidence). Reason 2. I never gave my prior informed consent to Mr. Ivanorasky to publish my e-mails to him. Mr. Ivanorasky never asked whether he can publish my e-mail or not and in what form but just do it.
    Putting the four points together, neglecting vital fair information to me, no respect for professional review, poor legal sense, and lack of prior informed consent to come out this biased report with a scare title, apparently it is another media bully. Who are you to judge and where is your journalism ethics, Mr. Ivanorasky?

    ps. supporting documents will be happily provided under request.

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