Recursive plagiarism? Researchers may have published a duplicate of a study retracted for plagiarism

acta physica sinicaSometimes plagiarism, like an onion, has layers.

That appears to be the case in a paper brought to our attention by sharp-eyed reader Vladimir Baulin, whose work was copied in a 2006 paper that Journal of Biological Physics retracted for plagiarism.

But you can’t keep a good thief down: the plagiarizing authors just popped up in a new journal with a Chinese-language version of their retracted paper, that looks an awful lot like a knock-off. Here’s a note from Baulin:

I had a long exchange of emails with editors of J Biol Phys back to 2006 and they recognized the fact of plagiarism, but were telling that the paper once published cannot be unpublished and just made a comment on the web site of the journal that the original paper is somewhere else and the authors apologize.
This year the same authors has plagiarized their plagiarized paper in Chinese Acta Phys Sin. But if you look through, they have the same figures and even portions of English abstract taken from J Biol Phys.
Now the editors are not happy that this non-retracted plagiarized paper is copied again in another journal and try to do something.

The 2006 retraction from Journal of Biological Physics was short, to the point, and pretty unhelpful:

This article is retracted by the authors as they have carelessly (although unintentionally) copied parts of other papers.

The paper, titled “Nematic ordering pattern formation in the process of self-organization of microtubules in a gravitational field,” popped up again in the Chinese Acta Physica Sinica in 2013, with one of the authors missing.
Here’s the abstract from Baulin’s 1999 paper, published in Physical Review E:

The isotropic-to-nematic transition in an athermal solution of long rigid rods subject to a gravitational (or centrifugal) field is theoretically considered in the Onsager approximation. The new feature emerging in the presence of gravity is a concentration gradient that coupled with the nematic ordering. For rodlike molecules this effect becomes noticeable at centrifugal acceleration g;103– 104 m/s2, while for biological rodlike objects, such as tobacco mosaic virus, the effect is important even for normal gravitational acceleration conditions. Rods are concentrated near the bottom of the vessel, which sometimes leads to gravity induced nematic ordering. The concentration range corresponding to phase separation increases with increasing g. In the region of phase separation the local rod concentration, as well as the order parameter, follow a step function with height.

And the abstract from the retracted paper:

Papaseit et al. (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97, 8364, 2000) showed the decisive role of gravity in the formation of patterns by assemblies of microtubules in vitro. By virtue of a functional scaling, the free energy for MT systems in a gravitational field was constructed. The influence of the gravitational field on MT’s self-organization process, that can lead to the isotropic to nematic phase transition, is the focus of this paper. A coupling of a concentration gradient with orientational order characteristic of nematic ordering pattern formation is the new feature emerging in the presence of gravity. The concentration range corresponding to a phase coexistence region increases with increasing g or MT concentration. Gravity facilitates the isotropic to nematic phase transition leading to a significantly broader transition region. The phase transition represents the interplay between the growth in the isotropic phase and the precipitation into the nematic phase. We also present and discuss the numerical results obtained for local MT concentration change with the height of the vessel, order parameter and phase transition properties.

Here’s the Chinese paper’s abstract, run through Google Translate (the title, which appears in English, is identical to the 2013 paper):

By virtue of a functional scaling, the free energy for Cytoskeletal microtubule (MT) Solution system in the gravitational field has been theoretically proposed and in this foundation the influence of the gravitational field on MT’s self-organization process has been studied. A coupling of a concentration gradient with orientational order characteristic of nematic ordering pattern formation is the new feature emerging in the presence of gravity. Theoretical calculation results show that the gravity facilitates the isotropic to nematic phase transition,this is reflected in a significantly broader transition region and the phase coexistence region increases with increasingor MT concentration. We also discussed the numerical results obtained for local MT concentration change with the height of the vessel and some phase transition properties.

We’ve contacted the publisher of Acta Physica Sinica, and will update with anything we hear back.

Update, 3 p.m. ET, 7/16/14: Sonya Bahar, the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Physics, tells Retraction Watch:

The plagiarism was brought to our attention in 2006. We immediately investigated and concluded that the authors had copied portions of other work. At the time, Springer did not have a “Retraction” category, so the retraction was published as an Erratum. It has now been changed to a Retraction, since Springer now has the requisite category.

Retraction statements come from authors and in this case the authors’ wording was that the plagiarism was “unintentional”, and we permitted them to use this. We do not believe that the Retraction statement is unhelpful since it contains a full listing of all the articles from which material was copied, and is not as brief as implied in the initial Retraction Watch article. Once Prof. Baulin made us aware of the re-plagiarism in Acta Physica Sinica, we again investigated, and have concluded that the Acta Physica Sinica paper is largely cut and pasted from the retracted Journal of Biological Physics article. We have contacted the editors of Acta Physica Sinica so that they can take appropriate action.

Bahar is referring to the version of the retraction notice that will set readers back $39.95 — or, if you act before July 31, just $27.95! The freely available version is what we quote above. Readers can judge how helpful all of that is for themselves, and we note that editors are always free to write their own retraction statements.

16 thoughts on “Recursive plagiarism? Researchers may have published a duplicate of a study retracted for plagiarism”

  1. The authors claimed “unintentionality” at the time, and we permitted them to use that phrase in the retraction statement. Certainly their claim (dubious as it may have been at the time) is completely belied by their present re-plagiarism. We have contacted Acta Physica Sinica so that they can take appropriate action. These days, we run all submitted articles through the plagiarism detection software iThenticate, and reject many due to cut-and-paste plagiarism before even sending them out for review.

    1. I think many of us would be interested to know what proportion of submissions are plagiarized according to iThenticate.

        1. If you include cut-and-paste of text, rather than plagiarism of results, my experience is much higher than that, based on submissions to our journal — probably up to 40% (though I have not done an article-by-article tally, so this number is an estimate).

          1. Dear Sonya, your willingness to share some of this “background” information is useful, and important, especially since many editors fail in their transparent responsibility towards the scientific community, either because they are afraid of the repercussions, or because the publisher silences them. It is very rare to have the EIC of a journal that retracted a paper to come forward at RW and offer commentary and to respond to peers’ and society’s queries, so your interaction is commendable. Your revelation of 40% is actually not surprising for me. So, 40% sounds actually quite realistic (representing the first wave of attempts trying to break the barrier). I have a few queries of my own:

            a) Do ALL Springer journals automatically use iThenticate for initial screening, or is this your own choice? If so, and assuming that each Springer journal will be making a different choice, can I assume that, hypothetically, a paper rejected by your journal JBP for plagiarism (ideas or cut-and copy) could be resubmitted to another Springer journal and be accepted (since plagiarism had not been detected)?

            b) What level of “similarity” do you use as your cut-off level for rejection, and is this clearly indicated on your web-site? I have seen journals cutting off or rejecting papers from anything between 1.5% to 20%, so this now needs to become a standard. Yet, despite public calls to quantify this level for at least a year now, journals and publishers continue to ignore this very essential fact. This becomes particularly troubling when one considers that many such journals with contradictory or different levels of “acceptable” similarity (aka plagiarism) are all COPE members.

            c) Is your journal a member of COPE (i.e., formally listed on COPE’s list)? If yes, what are your views about being a paying member and what real benefits does your journal obtain from paying a per-journal annual fee? COPE is not transparent about real tangible benefits to the public, so this is an excellent opportunity to get your real-life take on this. This is because I am critical of COPE for charging money for membership when its flow diagrams (PDFs) appear freely online.

            d) Have you followed the flow of rejected manuscripts? In other words, have you seen were manuscripts that your journal has rejected, based on plagiarism, have finally been published? I think such an analysis would do a massive favor for science in trying to understand how one rejected paper finally gets accepted and published elsewhere, potentially with the “rejected flaws” still in them (in this case of our discussion, plagiarism). I personally plan to do a tracking of all rejected papers at the now defunct Global Science Books to better understand where these papers finally landed up, but I think mainstream publishers and especially journals with impact factors (i.e., that proclaim quality control) should conduct a downstream analysis like this.

            e) Do you believe that it is ethically correct for iParadigms to be charging money for the use of iThenticate (i.e., the commercialization of ethics) or do you believe that they have a greater responsibility towards science and society by making that software free for scientists and the scientific community to use (like Google or Google Scholar)? Do you feel that it is odd that amongst a world of IT specialists, that nobody has yet devised an easy and free software to compare texts with the literature (in a bid to eliminate the risk of plagiarism)?

            I understand that being an editor is a voluntary function, and one that is appreciated, so if you could offer any clues about my 4 queries, or better yet, quantification, then this could be a valuable input into our black hole of the understanding of background events that lead to retractions later on when they could have been prevented upon the act of submission. I do admit that I have not examined your journal web-site in detail, so I apologize if the answer to any of my queries already appears there.

          2. Speaking of Springer – A colleague of mine just had a paper, submitted to a Springer journal, rejected by a two-sentence referee “report”. The editors then urged him to send the paper to SpringerPlus, a gold OA journal charging $1205 per paper. What kind of light does this shed on the editor’s opinion about their own journal?

          3. Re Part b) – a threshold is not sufficient for making a decision. There are novel published papers which were worth publishing which have many tens of per cent of re-used texts but with new numbers or results. A threshold can serve like a flag – it can not replace an editor’s mind.

            Re Part d) but not on the basis of plagiarism – “Nature” or “Science” noticed that many works which it rejected were published withina year or two in another journal.

            Re Part e) – iParadigms was criticized for example on

  2. I think it is also important to note that the full retraction statement is not as simplistic as implied above. It contains a full list of the plagiarized sources. Prof. Baulin states above that we “were telling [him] that the paper once published cannot be unpublished”. That is a fact of publishing. Even articles retracted by Science or Nature do not completely disappear. The retraction statement is linked to the article, but the article itself, unfortunately, cannot be made to vanish.

    1. Is there anyway to tweak this policy a bit? Say if we start a letter writing campaign to your journal, will your boss let these trash papers get a thick black line running across the title and plastered with a sticky that says ‘bad cheater’ — I would reserve the word ‘cheater’ for people who fake their data. Does your journal (and/or maybe others) keep track of the offending authors and ‘punish’ them? I reviewed and caught a self-plagiarizing paper a while back. It was pretty clear cut even to my 10 year old niece that these guys copied their own paper. Yet they challenged my claim; I could not believe it. Anyway, the editor settled the issue with a third internal reviewer. The big twist is that within a couple of months the same authors submitted another paper to the same journal and I was asked to review it. It was basically the same paper but different context and with all the equations rearranged. They are clearly abusing the system and me. I am shocked that this journal does not have a black-listing policy. I think these guys should be shamed and banned from publishing for at least a year or two.

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