Entire paper about cell division plagiarized

Chinese med jA paper about the role of specific proteins in the separation of newly replicated chromosomes is being retracted from the Chinese Medical Journal, after editors found out that the entire article was plagiarized.

The study, “MreBCD Associated Cytoskeleton is Required for Proper Segregation of the Chromosomal Terminus during the Division Cycle of Escherichia Coli,” names Feng Lu as the corresponding author and claims that the work was done in his lab at the Medical School of Henan University in Henan, China. The misappropriation came to light when a member of Lawrence Rothfield’s lab at the University of Connecticut saw the paper after it was published online last April, and realized that it was an exact replica of an unpublished paper that Rothfield’s own lab had produced.

Here’s the retraction note from the journal:

It has been brought to the notice that the author Feng Lu used unpublished data of Lawrence Rothfield and his laboratory researcher Dr. Cheng Cui. He was previously working in the same research group. Therefore, on the grounds of data fabrication, the article is being retracted.

Although the note says the data were fabricated, Rothfield told us that wasn’t the case. But the authors didn’t just use some unpublished data without permission – they lifted a complete study, he said:

The entire paper, including figures and tables, was a word-for-word copy of our report, with the exception of one sentence referring to the method of construction of chromosomal recombinants that was slightly changed from the original version.

Cheng Cui, the first author on the original paper, is listed as a co-author in the plagiarized version.

Rothfield added that his lab was still working on the paper:

The data was entirely unpublished. We had not submitted it for publication because we felt it needed an additional experiment to firmly establish the conclusions.

Lu worked in the Rothfield lab from 2009-2012, while the experiments in question were underway. Rothfield said that the research was discussed frequently in lab meetings during that time, and that the manuscript itself was easily accessible on lab computers.

Neither the journal’s editors nor first author Feng Lu responded to requests for comment.

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10 thoughts on “Entire paper about cell division plagiarized”

  1. This does not like a “plagiarism” but is more like a dispute who own a publication right. Did Lu participate in the original work? Was he an author of the previous paper? If the data used in the current paper existed and their presentations are valid, then it should not be called as “data fabrication”.

    1. Copying and pasting paragraphs written by someone else *is* plagiarism. If you think he had a right to take something from that lab and publish it under his own name, then please explain why he did not include the lab director as a co-author, or the person who was first author on the draft at Connecticut. After all, Feng Lu did not finance the study at Connecticut.

  2. Well, it’s a fabrication if he said the work was done at his lab in China but it was really done in the lab in Connecticut. There is no suggestion that this is a publication right issue. On the fact of it is definitely plagiarism since the paper was readily available within the lab.

  3. I didn’t read the paper when I post my previous comment. Now I read (part of the retracted) paper and saw its Acknowledgements actually contains: “We thank Lawrence Rothfield (University of Connecticut Health Center, USA) for helpful comments, suggestions and critical reading of the manuscript”. Also, the authors claimed the “Source of Support” as three grants from different organizations in China. It would be good to have the previous version of the manuscript circulated in Rothfield’s lab for a comparison to verify the existence of a plagiarism.

  4. The following two sections, especially the second part, of the US Office of Research Integrity’s definition of plagiarism strike me as most applicable to this case:

    “As a general working definition, ORI considers plagiarism to include both the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and the substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work. It does not include authorship or credit disputes.
    The theft or misappropriation of intellectual property includes the unauthorized use of ideas or unique methods obtained by a privileged communication, such as a grant or manuscript review”.

    See complete definition here: http://ori.hhs.gov/ori-policy-plagiarism

    Based on the available information, it seems as if the author of the retracted paper had no right to misappropriate the unpublished paper, even if he felt that he had made substantive contributions to earn him authorship in that unpublished manuscript.

  5. Pressed that button too soon!!

    On the other hand, the author of the retracted paper may have felt, incorrectly, entitled to use the entire paper. Thus, this other section of ORI’s definition may be relevant:

    “Many allegations of plagiarism involve disputes among former collaborators who participated jointly in the development or conduct of a research project, but who subsequently went their separate ways and made independent use of the jointly developed concepts, methods, descriptive language, or other product of the joint effort. The ownership of the intellectual property in many such situations is seldom clear, and the collaborative history among the scientists often supports a presumption of implied consent to use the products of the collaboration by any of the former collaborators”.

    See complete definition here: http://ori.hhs.gov/ori-policy-plagiarism

  6. This must have been a difficult case to adjudicate given that the alleged plagiarism was of a non-published paper. Did the editors take Dr. Rothfield´s word for it or was there another way to judge that the work had not been done, and written up, at the Chinese lab?

    1. Toby, if the file was created in MS Word, the metadata from the original file can be examined to determine when the document was created, saved, printed, etc.

  7. In response to specific questions raised by Dr. Shi V. Liu:
    1. Dr. Feng Lu did not participate in any aspect of the work described in the plagiarized manuscript, nor did any member of his Chinese laboratory. All of the scientific work was performed by Dr. Cheng Cui who was in my laboratory at that time and who is listed as first author on our unpublished manuscript.
    2. I was unaware of his manuscript prior to its submission, and only became aware of it several months after its publication, notwithstanding his statement thanking me for “helpful comments, suggestions and critical reading of the manuscript”.
    3. The work was wholly supported by my NIH grant and was not supported by the Chinese granting agencies cited in his published paper.
    4. Our unpublished manuscript was made available to the Chinese Medical Journal for comparison with his published paper. The identity of the CMJ paper and our unpublished manuscript was the basis for the Journal’s request that he withdraw the paper.
    5. The date of the unpublished manuscript was easy to establish because a dated copy of an email containing the unpublished manuscript as an attachment was still available. The dated copy of the email with the attachment was also forwarded to the Journal to establish that our manuscript antedated the submission of Dr. Feng Lu’s paper.

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