In July 2015, DNA and Cell Biology began routinely scanning manuscript submissions for plagiarism using iThenticate; since then, it’s rejected between four and six manuscripts each month for that reason alone. Additional submissions have been rejected after the journal realized the authors had digitally altered figures. The level of misconduct “shocked” editor-in-chief Carol Shoshkes Reiss, as she wrote in a recent editorial for the journal. She spoke to us about the strict measures the journal has adopted in response to these incidents.
Retraction Watch: Why did you decide to begin scanning submissions for plagiarized text using iThenticate™ software in July, 2015? Did something prompt that decision?
Carol Shoshkes Reiss: Scientists evaluating more than one paper that summer indicated in their critiques that text was strikingly familiar to material they had read. Until that point, we had done the scans only when alerted by reviewers. We also were alerted by a careful reader of the literature that one paper published by DNA and Cell Biology appeared to have text in common with another paper.
We elected to err on the side of caution, to maintain high standards, and therefore to scan each submission before considering the paper. I know that at least one journal scans accepted manuscripts, but in my opinion, accepting a manuscript is a contract, and too late in the process to reject for plagiarism.
RW: You say you now reject 4-6 articles each month that include long stretches of copied text. Out of how many monthly submissions, approximately? (Just trying to get a sense of the rate of plagiarism.)
CSR: The number of papers considered each month varies. I do not include the number of papers sent back (unsubmitted) to meet our Instructions to Authors; there are eight unsubmitted papers in our active system today. The statistics I keep are the number of decisions made each month; these include rejection as inappropriate for the journal, rejection following peer review, major or minor revisions, redirected to the Open Access companion journal, or accept. As of 5/2/16, just under 200 papers have had decisions. 31 Accept, 5 referred to BioResearch Open Access, 11 Minor revisions, 46 major revisions, 17 rejected following peer review, 28 were rejected for either scientific misconduct (including digital manipulation of data and most recently dual submission of the identical paper to 2 journals — again we were alerted by the fortunate choice of a reviewer) or plagiarism. One accepted paper was withdrawn by the authors who found they could not replicate their work.
RW: How did you feel when you saw how many papers contained plagiarism?
CSR: Frankly, I am shocked by the abundance of this unprofessional behavior. Most would have “slipped through the cracks” if we were not vigilant.
RW: As you know, there are many other forms misconduct can take, besides plagiarism. What steps are you taking to identify duplicated or manipulated images, for instance, which one study recently suggested could affect as many as 1 in 25 published papers?
CSR: With the assistance of my section editors, we have examined the data figures (gel bands and microscopic figures). In most cases these have not raised flags, but, as I said, in 2016 so far there have been three (one photographs of cells and the other 2 were gel bands) submissions detected.
RW: You note that you now inform the authors’ institutions as well as funders if you find plagiarized papers. Do you know of other journals that take the same steps?
CSR: I do not know if other Editors do more than reject papers when they detect plagiarism or scientific misconduct. I offered two other Mary Ann Liebert editors the database I am developing of contact individuals in universities — currently there are 50 institutions, some with more than one instance of an issue in the last 10 months. Some of these email addresses are harder to obtain than others, and some foreign universities have web sites that are completely opaque; I have found that published fax numbers are often disconnected and I am unwilling to spend money to FEDEX packages of documents to foreign universities. I don’t know how to reach the integrity officers at companies, when the authors are associated with industry.
Yes, this has been a burden, no question about that.
RW: Some people have criticized plagiarism detection software, saying it can flag non-plagiarized text if it contains clichés or other familiar phrases. Have any authors defended their innocence?
CSR: We are not talking about a few words here and there. Much more than phrases or common language describing materials and methods (which we all know can be cookbook).
This week I received an email from one author, begging me to support him with his university; it appears that although the universities do not generally respond to me, at least a few read the messages I send. This author indicated that he was very busy with his numerous duties and not a native English speaker. For those reasons he borrowed language from papers he read.
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