Authors get away with throwing quotation marks around plagiarized passages. Again.

PNAS jan15Back in November 2013, we wrote about a correction in PNAS about a May 2012 paper by a group from Toronto and Mount Sinai in New York who, as we said at the time

had been rather too liberal in their use of text from a previously published paper by another researcher — what we might call plagiarism, in a less charitable mood.

The article, “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” contained many passages lifted directly from the other source without saying the words weren’t original. In other words: the authors plagiarized. But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what Merriam-Webster considers plagiarism to mean:

to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own :  use (another’s production) without crediting the source

Evidently, Mount Sinai and PNAS have a slightly different definition — one that evidently permits authors to lift text from other sources as long as they go back and throw quotation marks around the offending passages if they get caught in the act.

Wait, you say. One incident doth not a trend make. True enough. But now there’s a second correction for the paper, second verse same as the first.

According to the notice:

BIOCHEMISTRY Correction for “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” by Hong Wu, Natasha Moshkina, Jinrong Min, Hong Zeng, Jennifer Joshua, Ming-Ming Zhou, and Alexander N. Plotnikov, which appeared in issue 23, June 5, 2012, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (109:8925–8930; first published May 21, 2012; 10.1073/pnas.1114117109).

Several readers raised allegations of plagiarism concerning the work noted above. The authors note: “The review of this matter was conducted by a subcommittee of the Research Integrity Committee at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York). The subcommittee did not find that there was plagiarism, but there were findings of inadequate and improper citation of the work of others. Accordingly, we would like to respond and provide corrections to these specific citations as listed below. As this matter was addressed in a previously published correction (1) we will only address newly found issues here.

“On page 8925, right column, lines 2–6, the following section should be quoted: ‘combined with specific mutations in the N terminus of histone H3, caused defects in both telomeric gene silencing and resistance to DNA-damaging agents (7–9). Such defects are reproduced by the substitution of Lys for Arg at position 12 of histone H4, but not at position 5,’ and the article by Poveda and Sendra (2) should be cited.

“We wish to apologize for any confusion caused by these citations. Please be assured that interpretation of the experiments and the conclusions of this PNAS article are not affected by these clarifications.”

1. Wu H, et al. (2012) Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109(23):8925–8930, and correction (2013) 110:18339.

2. Poveda A, Sendra R (2008) Site specificity of yeast histone acetyltransferase B complex in vivo. FEBS J 275:2122–2136.

We guess the charitability of our mood hasn’t changed much in the past 14 months, because we still think this is plagiarism.

26 thoughts on “Authors get away with throwing quotation marks around plagiarized passages. Again.”

  1. The distinction between plagiarism and there were “findings of inadequate and improper citation of the work of others” is very interesting. I always thought that the improper citation of the work of others was plagiarism, but I must have been mistaken.

    1. I always thought that the improper citation of the work of others was plagiarism, but I must have been mistaken.

      Plagiarism is only one possible form of improper citation, and not obviously the very worst—I would reserve that distinction for deliberately quoting material in such a way as to misrepresent (or even contradict) the original author’s intended meaning. Then there’s quoting material from A. but citing it to B. (deliberately or carelessly), citing a non-existent source (ditto), and probably a few others I can’t think of off-hand.

  2. This then is the idea of “pure empiricism” in which authors merely tinker in the lab on the instruction set (provided by higher powers possibly) and without any knowledge of theories including those based on other empirical evidence.

  3. Curious solution. I don’t believe it is consistent with the COPE guidelines that, I believe, PNAS signed for. I have to say that instances like this I see often, especially in articles by non-English speakers. From how I was explained by some “perpetrators” (not these guys above) what often happens is that a writer through in some quotes at the outlining stage with full intention to replace them later and … then forget to do so.
    The principal on this paper had been around for a very long time and I really don’t see much reason for him to do this on purpose

  4. Uh oh – metaplagarism.

    You say: “But now there’s a second correction for the paper, second verse same as the first.”

    This sentence should be: “But now there’s a second correction for the paper, ‘second verse same as the first’ (Herman’s Hermits 1965)”.


  5. Oh, come on. What they did is they copied small parts from review articles while describing the findings of previous works. Sure, this is not okay, but certainly not cause for a retraction because the actual results of this work are completely unaffected. Therefore, issuing a correction is the right thing to do. Whether adopting this style of just putting quotations marks around it is the best thing they could have done is another question, but from a purely pragmatic point of view this is not really problematic.

    1. I agree that probably a retraction was not the best answer to this, but I am sure the majority is revolted mostly at the fact that outright plagiarism was not flagged as such. Best answer to this would have been as Expression of Concern.

    2. +1 for Bernd.
      This site discusses some important things: faked results, copied results, failure to cooperate with replication. But sometimes it obsesses about trivial matters, in a way that suggests neither charity nor a sense of proportion.

  6. EoC is appropriate when the issues are minor and cannot be fixed by a correction. Here, they could, so clearly not a case for an EoC.

  7. The classification of such poor academic practice often concerns “intent” ie plagiarism or “just“ academic misconduct; analogous (in English law) to murder or manslaughter. Our student regulations follow an existing elsewhere = proof rule not least because “intent” is difficult to show and even harder to “prove”.
    Another question this example raises is who, if any author among the seven listed, is responsible for the drafting or attribution of any particular phase or section within the whole article?

  8. Bernd
    EoC is appropriate when the issues are minor and cannot be fixed by a correction. Here, they could, so clearly not a case for an EoC.

    Interesting aspect. I always understood Expressions of Concern as some kind of public scalding, where something is wrong in procedures and the journal wants to publicly expose that and express discontent, which I think should be just the case. Something being wrong from a technical/scientific point of view should be in fact either corrected (probably what you meant by a minor error) or completely distrusted which is grounds for a retraction. In the case of textual plagiarism, technically there might be no wrong information published, thus the scientific community can still benefit from the paper, but it should be flagged as unacceptable behaviour somehow. I understood this is one of the ideal situations in which some public or editorial concern could be expressed. Maybe I got it all wrong?

      1. Good link, thanks! It indeed makes me rethink my position. But now I start wondering how should I proceed if I was the editor-in-chief of a journal that has found plagiarism in a otherwise-valid paper. I still think correction by using commas is not a good solution, but perhaps the best one then?
        Thanks for correcting me on EoC!

  9. Completely agree with Bernd. When one imagines writing a paper in Chinese or even a language one is somewhat familiar with (say French or Spanish), it becomes easier to understand how such issues can emerge. The relative unimportance of this particular “error” also becomes apparent when one considers that the authors would not have been censured if they simply showed some linguistic facility by rearranging or substituting the words in that short section of quoted text, as a more fluent English speaker would have done. A pragmatic and considerate approach is called for in such “purely linguistic” cases.

  10. I agree with Bernd and Suresh – and although I have not seen the MtS investigation report, with its conclusion – this matter does not appear to be sufficiently serious or significant to warrant a finding of research misconduct for plagiarism. While this post correctly cited the dictionary definition of plagiarism, the federal research misconduct regulations, which the institutional investigations have to use, requires that a formal finding of plagiarism conclude there was “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit” and “(a) a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and (b) The misconduct be committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.”

    In the two RW posts on the corrections that link to this paper, it appears that the missing quotation marks for sentences taken from others’ papers (almost all cited in the paper) were for sentences in the introduction of the paper describing the state of knowledge in the field (and a sentence in the conclusion again summarizing the field). This does not appear to be serious enough to warrant a finding of research misconduct for plagiarism. [see ORI’s longstanding policy on such minor issues at Thus, in this case, the correction – by adding the quotation marks and another review reference – appears to be sufficient to address the concern (and no finding of research misconduct for plagiarism).

  11. This problem is potentially solvable. Plagiarism detection software may be expensive for individual labs. If institutions were to host a package as part of their library resources, then every paper could be run through the software prior to submission. Each submission could include an attestation (or some sort of ‘electronic watermark’?) certifying that it was run through PlagDetect v8.7 or whatever, immediately prior to submission. This would save a lot of heartache for honest PIs, coauthors and everyone along the chain of scientific publication.

  12. Except of course, I do not know whether the computational resources required to properly implement this for academic publishing would be too prohibitive!

  13. As a non-native speaker, I disagree with those who say it’s not such a bad thing especially if the authors are not native speakers.

    You do not copy-paste verbatim phrases, period. In biomedical literature, there is almost never a need for verbatim quotes. This is somewhat different in the social sciences, where the exact wording of someone else is often important to analyse the point of the original speaker (in a historical study, it might very well be useful to cite directly, what e.g. Churchill said: “”I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” ).

    In natural sciences, you only report on previously found facts and results in the introduction and the discussion, with a citation indicating whos finding that was. And then report your own findings. You can and have to do so always in your own words. Copy-pasting whole sentences is plagiarism, period.

    What Alan Price refers to is this passage of the ORI Policy on Plagiarism at :” ORI generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance.”
    This certainly covers sentences like: ” DNA was extracted according to standard protocols.” You will find this sentence or very closely related phrases in literaly hundreds of thousands of papers. In copyright law, you would say that such a phrase does not reach the threshold of originality required for copyright protection.
    But clearly individually phrased sentences are not to be copied verbatim. IMHO, you definetly cross the grey line once two or more sentences (directly back-to-back) get copied. Taking both corrections together, I think this case is really borderline. The quotation marks in the corrections are often set in the middle of a sentence and it seems that sometimes the authors stiched sentences together from different sources.

    I did not take the time to look into the original sources, so whether a retraction would be warranted here is difficult to say. The quotation mark solution is not very elegant….. If you really think the work is important and should not vanish, it might actually be a better correction to actually correct the error of the authors by rephrasing the passages. One seriously has to ask whether PNAS would have accepted the manuscript if the authors had added the quotation marks right from the beginning. If the answer is no, and I have no doubt that such a manuscript would have been rejected, then why is it now ok as a correction?

    Does a non-native speaker have a more difficult time to rephrase current research knowledge? Definitely. But I don’t think that changes anything. Life is not fair and research is anglo-american centered. The language barrier is actually the least of the problems non-anglo-americans have with the anglo-american centric research world…..

    1. Three thoughts: a) Life should be as fair as possible b) Your English is too good for your “I am a non-native speaker” to be relevant and c) Your point that “I have no doubt that such a manuscript would have been rejected” is yet another part of the problem. If one finds a couple of sentences that precisely summarize what one wants to say in the Introduction, then why not use it with quotes attached ? What social or scientific benefit is obtained from the ability to rewrite sentences in one’s own words – something that is trivial for a fluent speaker but extremely difficult for someone who is not confident and fluent ?

  14. The issue of quotation marks is not about the English language or about being a native English speaker! Would a German, Spaniard, Frenchman, or Brazilian accept the use of another’s words in their respective languages without acknowledging the source appropriately, i.e., with inverted commas? Most likely not. So, this is not about language, it is about the appropriation or misappropriation of thoughts and ideas and how much misappropriation constitutes plagiarism. The problem might not lie with the scientists, but instead with the education system that did not correctly, or sufficiently, educate them. Actually, I am curious, in language systems that do not use the alphebatized system common to Latin-based and Germanic languages, are quotation marks used in the same way, let’s say in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Vietnamese, etc? I tried to find a paper on this but unsuccessfully. Any insight welcome. In Japan, the use of double is common to represent another’s ideas, but the topic in the Japanese scientific literature should be explored.

  15. Repeated behavior.

    Please examine

    Crystal structures of human CDY proteins reveal a crotonase-like fold
    Hong Wu, Jinrong Min, Tatiana Antoshenko and Alexander N. Plotnikov
    Proteins: Structure, Function, and Bioinformatics
    Volume 76, Issue 4, pages 1054–1061, September 2009

    Please compare the following sentences from the Wu et. al. paper with those of the Dorus et al. below. Sometimes the similarity consists of statements about a different paper cited in Dorus et al. and not about Dorus et al. itself.

    “It is believed that the progenitor of the CDY gene family arose de novo in the mammalian ancestor via domain accretion.”

    “This progenitor later duplicated to generate the two autosomal genes CDYL and CDYL2”

    “Before human- mouse divergence, a processed CDYL mRNA retroposed onto the Y chromosome to create the CDY gene”

    “thus implicating the CDY family of proteins functions in both somatic development and spermatogenesis”

    This sentence doesn’t really make any sense but betrays its origin in the sentence noted below.
    Hum Mol Genet._ 2003 Jul 15;12(14):1643-50.
    The CDY-related gene family: coordinated evolution in copy number, expression profile and protein sequence.
    Dorus S Gilbert SL Forster ML Barndt RJ Lahn BT

    “We show that the progenitor of this gene family arose de novo in the mammalian ancestor via domain accretion.”

    “This progenitor later duplicated to generate CDYL and CDYL2”

    “Prior to human–mouse divergence (and perhaps preceding the eutherian radiation), a processed CDYL transcript retroposed onto the Y chromosome to create CDY, the Y-linked member of the family.”

    “Expression data indicate that the CDY-related family functions in both somatic development and spermatogenesis”

    The statement in Wu et al., “In mammals, spermatogenesis occurs in the male testes and epididymis in a stepwise fashion,” is also identical to others on the Internet (Wikipedia?).

    Journal was notified months ago.

  16. Why, in the age of Google is there no free online plagiarism software that is linked to all these data-bases? Surely such a sftware would benefit scientists, their institutes and publishers? Maybe Google should be contacted. With their economic prowess, and technical skills, maybe a plea for such software might actually be considered. Even Apple with its US$ 100 billion+ in reserve. Justa tiny fraction of that could be a revolutionary change and would remove the greedy companies currently in place capitalizing upon faulty ethical policies by journals and their publishers.

  17. As an academic, I view this case, as well as many other similar cases, as illustrating a problematic gap between plagiarism that rises to the level of research misconduct, which as Alan Price rightly points out this case does not meet according to ORI’s criteria, and plagiarism that fits within most definitions of scholarly or academic misconduct (see Mic Porter’s post), which this case clearly fits. My problem with this situation is that here is a scholarly transgression that, had it been committed by students at most North American academic institutions (and academic institutions from many other nations as well!) their actions would likely have resulted in more severe consequences. Thus, as others in the research integrity/academic integrity literature have pointed out, there seems to be a two tier system in place where faculty members who are guided by institutional research integrity policies that adopt definitions of plagiarism consistent with those of ORI can and will get away with transgressions of scholarship for which most students who commit them would be severely penalized.

    One other note, would PNAS have accepted a manuscript with quoted material exactly as described in the corrections? My sense is that they wouldn’t mainly because doing so is not aesthetically acceptable in empirical reports and a rare practice in the biomedical sciences. Thus, I imagine that upon receipt of a manuscript with quoted text from other sources, even if correctly cited, PNAS editors would ask authors to paraphrase/summarize the quoted text. If this is so, then I am afraid that these types of corrections may inadvertently send the message to authors that it is ok to use others’ text by placing it in quotations when, in fact, it is not an acceptable practice. Then, again, given the rise of submissions from authors who do not have a good command of English and who may not have the financial means to acquire good writing/editing assistance, perhaps it is time for journals editors to acknowledge this reality and to allow the practice in some circumstances.

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