McGill dept chair says she was blindsided by coauthor’s plagiarism

When Parisa Ariya was invited to write a review for a special issue of the journal Atmosphere, she asked one of her former doctoral students to take the lead. But she soon regretted that decision after discovering Lin (Emma) Si had plagiarized and duplicated significant portions of the review.

Ariya, chair of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University in Montreal, told Retraction Watch that she believes it’s important to foster the careers of young women in science and was excited for her former student, Si, to take on the challenge of writing her first review. (Si was cc’d on our email communications with Ariya, but did not respond to our individual request for comment.)

Si, now an assistant professor of chemistry at Auburn University at Montgomery, wrote the manuscript, and Ariya revised, commented and edited it. The review, “Recent Advances in Atmospheric Chemistry of Mercury,” was published online in Atmosphere in late February. Ariya told Retraction Watch:

I was very happy for her.

But a few days later, Ariya and Si received a troubling email from the journal: A reader had complained that the review had plagiarized from various papers. (An anonymous commenter also flagged the alleged plagiarism on PubPeer). Ariya said her first response was disbelief:

I was shocked and trembling. … I never expected someone in my group to copy.

Ariya told us that Si immediately revised the review to eliminate the duplicated or plagiarized text and sent the corrected version to the journal within 48 hours.

But after Ariya received the journal’s report highlighting the plagiarism, she saw the problem was extensive and knew what needed to be done:

I asked the journal to retract the review. I also decided not to try to publish the corrected version.

The journal has not yet retracted the review. We asked the editor-in-chief, Bob Talbot, when it plans to retract the review and why it didn’t catch the plagiarism prior to publication. Martyn Rittman, the publishing services manager for the publisher, MDPI, responded and informed us that the matter is “still under active investigation and we prefer not to comment at this stage.”

Ariya forwarded us the retraction notice she proposed to the journal, which explains that Si’s copying was unintentional but “ethically wrong and should not be tolerated in the scientific community.”

Ariya said she believes Si made “an innocent mistake” and that her lack of experience writing review papers and not being a native English speaker may have been contributing factors.

Ariya now wants to make sure this type of situation doesn’t happen again:

I want the scientific community to be better, particularly at a time when cheating and lying have become the norm.

Ariya said she has since acquired plagiarism detection software for her lab “to avoid any future headaches.” And she accepts responsibility for not checking the paper for plagiarism:

It didn’t even cross my mind because everything was cited and I trusted her.

Update May 31, 2018 17:43 UTC: The journal told us it decided to correct, not retract the paper. Here is the notice:

The published paper [1] has been updated to remove instances of copied text from other publications [2,3,4,5,6]. Changes have been made throughout the paper, with the most significant alterations made in Sections 2.1, 2.4, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, and 4.
The authors wish to provide the following explanation. Ref. [1] is a review article that was invited for the journal Atmosphere. The author Lin Si took the lead in writing the article, although this is the first time she has undertaken writing a review paper. Sections copied were cited, and a number of them were taken from Parisa A. Ariya’s previously published articles. The authors offered to retract the paper. As scientists we are seeker of the truth, and our integrity and ethics are the most precious gifts that we leave to future next generations.
This Correction was deemed necessary to avoid the impression that the text presented in [1] was the original work of the authors. The Editorial Office accepts that the authors did not intend to misrepresent the work, however, the original wording did not make it sufficiently clear that a number of passages were direct quotations.
We wish to thank the authors for their cooperation and apologize to readers that this case was not detected earlier. Atmosphere routinely checks submitted manuscripts for duplication, but issues were missed in this case due to human error.

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15 thoughts on “McGill dept chair says she was blindsided by coauthor’s plagiarism”

  1. Was this Review paper properly passed the peer review process? Perhaps it was reviewed by some people who review hundreds of manuscripts every month or give it to their inexperienced “lab members” to do the job or outsource. The blames for this case, if there is any, should be shared by the main author (LS), her supervisor (PA) as well as the journal editorial team and the reviewers. It was found and disclosed by an anonymous reader, not by one of these people in charge. There was no misconduct, just a mistake due to lack of experience, in my view; the manuscript could and should be revised and updated by the authors without retraction. Such review papers presenting the advances of research in a specific subject are very useful for the scientific community and public at large.

    1. Wow…I find your comments a bit harsh.

      It is not that easy to catch plagiarism. There is so much work being published on a daily basis around the world.

      And, even placing a small amount of blame on the journal’s editors and reviewers is not productive if we are to stop the problem. Saying that it was “disclosed by an anonymous reader, not by one of these people in charge”…well, that anonymous reader could have been one of the people who was copied from. In my case, I can recognize my own work from 10 years ago. Or, it is someone who just recently read it.

      I think Retraction Watch is great in terms of highlighting some of the problems that occur in research. But we shouldn’t be quick to judge and also appreciate the work that some of the journal editors, reviewers, etc. do.

  2. “I want the scientific community to be better, particularly at a time when cheating and lying have become the norm.”
    Seriously? The norm?
    If that is the case, which I believe it is not, then we might as well pack up and head for the exits.

    1. If lying and cheating are the norm, what are the scientific community doing about it? Are there any figures for the numbers of institutional investigations when allegations of research misconduct are made in the UK or US?

      We should not be so quick to dismiss Professor Ariya’s wise words after she acted so quickly and honestly to remove potential
      scientific misconduct.

  3. I don’t believe the ‘innocent mistake’ excuse at the doctoral level, let alone for someone who is currently an assistant professor.

    You can blame the Chinese cultural/non-native english background as an undergraduate for a first offense, but not after completing a doctorate at a Western university.

    1. Agree. As an assistant professor, Si must be advising her own graduate students at the moment. Her university should not take this incidence easy but provide her with proper training that her adviser apparently failed to provide.

    2. I agree. Someone serving as an Assistant Professor at an English-medium university after obtaining a PhD from another English-medium university should not hide behind ignorance of that language.

      1. I also agree. At our uni, right at the undergrad level we strongly emphasize the severe consequence of plagiarism and this is repeated again and again at every stage of teaching straight into postgrad school.

        At postdoc level, “innocent mistake” excuse is not acceptable.

  4. I’m not in their field of chemistry but I feel odd that a department chair (a full professor) felt happy for her student publishing a review paper. Do people in chemistry really need one review paper to mount the number of publications for their career advance? But anyway that’s not the excuse for plagiarism

  5. If someone has come through your lab and received a Ph.D, playing the ‘not being a native English language speaker’ card just doesn’t fly. And a lack of experience writing review papers? EVERYONE who writes their first review paper is inexperienced. If your advisor hasn’t taught you proper scientific publishing procedures while in her lab, you should ask for your money back.

    1. “If your advisor hasn’t taught you proper scientific publishing procedures while in her lab, you should ask for your money back.” Yes, indeed.

  6. Few people here seem to react to a procedure where a paper is outsourced to an underling.
    How much editing can have taken place if the plagiarism is as obvious as reported?
    This looks like a free ride for the senior scientist: Take the credit but none of the blame.
    Is this really accepted procedure? Then we have more problems on our hand than a retraction.

  7. “It didn’t even cross my mind because everything was cited and I trusted her.” Right. Whatever happened to actually reading the references they are citing in a review? And if prof. Ariya did not do even that, what was her contribution and why was she even a co-author?

    1. Anonimous makes a key point that I didn’t initially consider: how much checking did Department Chair do of her student’s work? It’s review paper so references were the entire foundation for the paper (i.e., there were no lab data to assess). How does a 2nd author of a review check the writing of a 1st author without making sure the review accurately utilized the references?

      While I don’t EXPECT students who take my course to plagiarize or inappropriately cite references in their class papers, I still check their references (and these are just papers for a class, not for publication). If parts of a student’s text are particularly polished, there is even more reason to carefully check their use of references.

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