Jeff Offutt, a professor of software engineering at George Mason University, has some stories to tell. He says that when one of his students wrote his first paper, the student reused four paragraphs from another source, not knowing he couldn’t do that. And then he tells of attending a PhD thesis defense where the student presented interesting data from human research, but had no idea he needed approval from an Institutional Review Board – and neither did his advisor. And Offutt’s own ideas, he says, have been stolen by other researchers three times. Three times. (We asked him for the names of those who’d stolen them, but he declined to say.)
In a recent editorial in the Journal of Software: Testing, Verification and Reliability, Offutt argues that these examples – and all the others any researcher can provide – illustrate the need for ethics training, especially for PhD students.
Retraction Watch: You note in your editorial that you have seen your ideas published by other groups three times. Do you think you’re an outlier?
Jeff Offutt: I have no reason to think I am. Maybe I’ve seen more because I published more than some. So relative to the amount of publications I have, I suspect most scientists with a similar record would say the same.
RW: Can you tell us more about the plagiarism?
JO: All three times, the ideas were included in papers that I’d submitted to a conference but were rejected. In one case, the person later admitted to it – and said it was my fault for not having written a better paper!
Another incident took place when I was in my last year as a PhD student. A faculty candidate came to my institution to interview for a position, and I told her about my research, since we were working in a related area. We ended up both sending papers to the same conference, and she included three terms I had invented as part of my PhD. They were the exact same terms, and the exact same concepts. But her paper didn’t mention me or my work. The program committee came back to us and said since both papers used the same terms they should reference each other. I did, and made sure to also reference a technical report that predated both papers. She did not, and published her paper in the conference with my ideas—unattributed. She also used them in future papers, and never did acknowledge my papers.
The third time was an out-and-out theft of a new way to test software web applications. I discovered this when I was accused of plagiarism! The paper I supposedly plagiarized had actually plagiarized my previous submission. In effect, I was accused of plagiarizing the plagiarizer. Luckily, I also had a time-stamped technical report and was able clear things up with the editor.
RW: Since all three thefts involved submissions to conferences, do you think this is a common source for people looking to lift others’ ideas?
JO: A very basic ethical principle is that private and confidential ideas must be protected. Whether we are reviewing a conference submission, a journal submission, a grant proposal, or a student’s class paper, we are under ethical professional obligation to not use the ideas in any way until the ideas are published in archival form. But it happens. Sometimes knowingly and willfully, sometimes without realizing it’s wrong, and sometimes people probably forget where we read the idea and think it was our own.
RW: Do you think plagiarizing ideas is worse than plagiarizing text? Why or why not? And what can scientists do to protect their intellectual work?
JO: Although both are types of plagiarism, my opinion is that stealing ideas is worse than stealing words, from an ethical perspective. In my field, words are valuable, but ideas are far more valuable. In some sense, the most fundamental requirement of my job is that I invent new ideas. I then embody them in algorithms, software, or data, and disseminate them in words. So stealing my words is more akin to borrowing my expertise with the language without “paying” me, whereas stealing my ideas can directly reduce my value as a scientist.
I think another way to separate the two is to consider intent. If I invent a new way to automate software testing, and someone else claims he invented it, that’s deliberate theft with the intention benefit himself by hurting me. However, if I write a paragraph that summarizes three papers on a similar idea to mine, it’s quite possible that many people also need to summarize those three papers. If someone copies my paragraph verbatim because he can’t think of a better way to write it, at worst that’s being lazy, and at best it’s a compliment to my writing. I don’t actually lose anything from that copying. This kind of thing happens a lot and is usually by people who are simply not good writers.
I actually wrote at length on this in another editorial.
We can protect ourselves from this kind of theft. Publishing aggressively is one way. Releasing technical reports with time stamps has worked for me in the past. Maybe the modern version would be to write a blog.
RW: Your editorial argues that PhD students need training in publication ethics. But many of the problematic anecdotes you provide suggest that more seasoned researchers do, as well.
JO: Yes, that’s a subtle undercurrent to suggesting young scientists need help…so do their professors! If students are missing a key sense of ethics, that means they aren’t getting it from their advisors. Everyone should be getting this training. Maybe it’s too late for some experienced scientists, but if we can get ‘em when they’re young…
As the editor of a journal, we find 15 to 20 really clear cases of plagiarism every year. We find them by using plagiarism detection software, and also because reviewers tell us they’ve already seen the paper. In 2015, a reviewer told us a submission sounded familiar, and he searched the literature and found it had taken 90% of the text, ideas, and figures from a paper published in 1975. The only changes the “author” made was to add some additional references to make the paper seem more current. The fact that a reviewer was able to find that earlier reference, which isn’t digitized so was not included as part of a plagiarism scan, is kind of shocking. What are the odds? So most people who would do this would get away with it. And the fact that we found one makes me think others are also doing it.
RW: In many universities, students are required to complete Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR); so how would the ethics training complement that?
JO: First, not all fields and not all institutions offer RCR training. My university does, and as part of that I give a talk on the ethics of publishing. But it’s only required for students in social sciences and life sciences—it may be an NIH thing. So my software engineering and computer science students don’t take it.
I haven’t thought much about the specifics of how ethics training should proceed, but it should probably include case studies, and opportunities for students to discuss among themselves. It could take the form of a course that’s part of their degree, which teaches them how to write academically, publish in an ethical fashion, assign authorship, and some of the many issues that arise. When I talk with Mason’s course, I mostly tell stories like the stories we started with.
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