Unusual: Author uses a reference list to accuse a paper of plagiarism

Here’s an unusual way to allege plagiarism: Do it in the reference list.

That’s what Brian Levine, a professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, did when he came across a paper he wanted to cite but suspected of plagiarism. When Levine published his 2017 paper, he cited the paper in question as:  

R.Rajan, “ Feasibility, Effectiveness, Performance and Potential Solutions on Distributed Content Sharing System [plagiarized],” Intl. J. Engineering and Computer Science, 5(1):15638–15649, Jan 2016 http://www.ijecs.in/ issue/v5- i1/30%20ijecs.pdf.

Levine’s paper, which explores a way of identifying perpetrators of online child pornography, provides no further details about the nature of the plagiarism or from what source the paper allegedly plagiarized.

Levine told Retraction Watch that the 2016 paper, which he found during a literature search (and which the journal has since removed), “appears to be an exact copy” of a 2013 paper, published at a conference and which Levine also cites in his 2017 paper.

Levine explained that he labeled the 2016 paper “[plagiarized]” as “a way of calling out the problem:”

While plagiarism is not nearly as horrific as the topic of our paper itself, it’s a serious issue for academia. … Given that papers are regularly published to the web and indexed by search engines, it’s brazen to plagiarize as a professional.

We tried reaching Rajavelu Rajan, the sole author on the 2016 paper Levine is accusing of plagiarism, and a research scholar at the University of Kanchipuram in Tamilnadu, India, but he did not reply.

Miguel Roig, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University who has written about plagiarism and duplication in academic writing, told us he has never seen a plagiarism allegation of this type before:

Given that plagiarism comes in many forms and varies in the seriousness of the offense, citing a paper and just marking it as ‘plagiarized’ is not enough for readers….Especially in this case, the reader needs to know the exact role the plagiarized work played in support of the newer work.

(Roig is a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization.)

Anupam Datta, who ran the IEEE International Workshop on Privacy Engineering that published Levine’s 2017 paper, told us that the reviewers and editors had not noticed the “[plagiarized]” note in reference 12, but have followed up with the authors and reviewed the situation:

In our assessment, reference #12 indeed appears to be a plagiarized version of reference #7 in the paper. An examination of the two papers reveal direct copying of large blobs of text.

Datta said it was the first time the editors of the conference had seen an author alert readers to potential plagiarism in this manner; he added that the editors are not planning to take any action to remove the “[plagiarized]” note.

Levine told us that he had not contacted the authors or editors of the 2016 paper he believed plagiarized, nor the authors or editors of the original 2013 paper. We asked Levine whether he had considered posting his concern to PubPeer, but he said he had not heard of it.

We asked Levine if he had considered adding a note in his 2017 paper, “Statistical Detection of Downloaders in Freenet,” explaining the nature of the alleged plagiarism. Levine said:

Some tag other than “[plagiarized]” might have been more specific, but I didn’t think of that at the time.

Matthew Wright, a professor and director of the Center for Cybersecurity at Rochester Institute of Technology, and a co-author on the 2017 paper, also told us:

It is necessary to discuss and cite any closely related work to your own, which this paper is … We don’t want a reviewer’s search to find this work and cause them to say that our work is not novel because they found a related paper that addresses our problem. Rather than including that discussion in the related work section, the label “plagiarized” covers it, saying implicitly that our discussion of why our work is novel in light of Tian et al.’s contributions also applies to this plagiarized version. This shows how plagiarism can harm future authors as well as past ones, since it makes writing related papers harder.

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5 thoughts on “Unusual: Author uses a reference list to accuse a paper of plagiarism”

  1. Labelling the reference with the term ‘[plagiarized]’ is ambiguous. Is this reference the plagiarizer or the plagiarizee? In other words, has the reference been plagiarized itself or has it plagiarized another (or others)?

    1. Given the stringent page-length requirements imposed by IEEE journals/conferences (the paper in question appeared in Proc. IEEE International Workshop on Privacy Engineering), I doubt the author(s) would have liked to use an appendix.

      An alternative that occurs to me (which also addresses the ambiguity issue) would be to add text at the end of the reference item (rather than bracketed inside the item’s title) along the lines of “Plagiarized from” (or perhaps “Apparently plagiarized from”) followed by the bibliographic information for the source (or, if space is very short, just the reference number in the reference list—as the author points out above, whenever a reference that is known to be plagiarized is cited so should its source be, for both practical and ethical reasons).

      1. An alternative that occurs to me (which also addresses the ambiguity issue) would be to add text at the end of the reference item (rather than bracketed inside the item’s title) along the lines of “Plagiarized from” (or perhaps “Apparently plagiarized from”) followed by the bibliographic information for the source

        I realize that conference proceedings aren’t edited, but with my old editorial hat on, this strikes me as a plausible approach. I’d have to look at the IEEE bibliographic format to see whether it could be tweaked, but that’s not happening.

  2. I like this strategy, but I think the criticism is fair – detail must be given about the nature of plagiarism. As Roig notes above, “the reader needs to know the exact role the plagiarized work played in support of the newer work”. Perhaps an appendix would be an appropriate means to resolve this tension.

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