Some researchers spot an issue with a paper, groan inwardly, and move on. Not Michael Dougherty. Over the years, the philosophy professor at Ohio Dominican University has sent us several tips about plagiarized papers, which have led to numerous editorial notices — including a correction to a more than 30-year-old paper written by a cat, and the outing of a prominent researcher who was mysteriously using a pseudonym. Last week, we reported that one of the world’s foremost economists had reused material in multiple papers — again, information that was revealed based on a tip from Dougherty. Of course, he’s not the only sleuth out there — journals regularly get queries from self-titled “data thugs” such as Nick Brown, James Heathers, and Brendan O’Connor. We spoke with Dougherty about how he finds the time for such a never-ending, thankless side project — and why he’s okay with the idea he might end up getting more papers retracted than he publishes himself.
Retraction Watch: You do a lot of plagiarism sleuthing — often a thankless job. What motivates you? And how time-consuming is it?
Michael Dougherty: The body of published scholarship in my discipline – academic philosophy – suffers from a host of authorship violations, including plagiarism, undisclosed pseudonyms, and duplicate publication. These problems appear to be largely unknown to many in the field, even though some of the most egregious cases have appeared with the top presses. Preparing retraction requests to send to journals and publishers (with extensive documentation) can be tedious and time-consuming, and cases can take years to be resolved. I typically spend several hours per week working on plagiarism cases. However, I find the work to be important: I want my students and my colleagues to have a trustworthy body of published scholarship. My wife jokes that over the course of my career I’ll have gotten more publications retracted in my field than I have personally contributed through my own scholarship. Perhaps that is ok: there are various ways to contribute to the betterment of one’s field.
RW: Do you remember the first case of alleged plagiarism you spotted? How did you find it, and how did you proceed?
MD: My first plagiarism discovery occurred in 2009: I was doing some research for a book I was writing on medieval moral dilemma theory, and I came across an article that provided a stunning experience of textual déjà vu. Via Facebook, I contacted the primary victim of the plagiarism (who had left academia and was serving as an MP in the Finnish government) and with his publisher we jointly requested a retraction on the basis of plagiarism. My first venture in correcting the scholarly record in philosophy for plagiarism resulted in a retraction. I was contacted by other colleagues, and we eventually sent retraction requests for more than 40 articles and book chapters by the same author of record (who thereby earned a brief appearance on the Retraction Watch Leader Board). So, my first foray in correcting the scholarly record for plagiarism went surprisingly well, but not all subsequent cases have gone so smoothly.
RW: What’s your typical procedure when you spot a potential publishing problem? When, if ever, do you contact the authors?
MD: In my experience, plagiarism in philosophy is typically serial plagiarism. When I happen upon a plagiarized article in my research, I treat it as an index case, and then I examine other articles by the same author of record. Cases can multiply very quickly. Also, colleagues now send me tips about suspected plagiarized articles in my field, and I am happy to assist them with advice or to send retraction requests myself if the evidence is there and they wish to remain uninvolved. Although I prefer not to deal directly with authors of record for plagiarized articles, I often contact the primary victims of plagiarism to let them know that I will be sending a retraction request to a journal or publisher. Their support can be helpful, but it is not necessary: it’s the documentation of evidence that counts.
RW: How have journals reacted when you contact them about a potential issue? What’s been the range of responses?
MD: The optimal outcome, of course, is when a journal publishes an unambiguous retraction. Non-optimal outcomes are quite varied. Sometimes editors do not respond at all when I provide documented evidence of plagiarism, or they promise to respond “in due time” which never arrives. Some editors seem genuinely surprised to learn that their editorial accountability extends beyond getting articles to print; they have to be reminded that they are ultimately the gatekeepers of any published corrections that might appear within the pages of their journals. The failure by editors to issue retractions for demonstrated plagiarism seems to me to be more egregious than the original acts of plagiarism themselves. Editors who fail to issue retractions for demonstrably defective work leave to their editorial successors the problem of cleaning up for their failures. In my kind of work, I see the darker side of the profession. To give an example: a few years ago, two editors at a Taylor and Francis journal wrote to a senior administrator at my university – on the journal’s letterhead – to complain that my retraction requests constituted a waste of my university’s time and that “the ethical basis for those actions is highly questionable.” Their attempt at apparent whistleblower harassment was unsuccessful, and the philosopher they were seemingly trying to shield has earned, to date, 10 published corrections: five retractions, two errata, and three corrigenda. In short: my efforts to correct the scholarly record are not always appreciated, and occasionally an institution will go to unusual lengths to discourage plagiarism whistleblowing. A few people mistakenly assume there is something personal in my retraction requests, but I’ve never met nor corresponded with the plagiarists. I’m not interested in plagiarists, but I am interested having a reliable body of published scholarship for students and colleagues.
RW: What feedback do you get from your colleagues about this side project?
MD: I certainly didn’t set out to work on plagiarism in philosophy; this side project would never have happened if I hadn’t stumbled upon the various cases of plagiarism while pursuing my own research. Nearly all of the negative feedback comes from afar: critics send emails, post comments online, or send messages through intermediaries. In person, however, nearly everyone with whom I have discussed plagiarism has been generally positive and open to discussing how to improve the body of published literature in philosophy. Occasionally at conferences I’ll be characterized as “that plagiarism guy” or “the plagiarism hunter from America.” A few times I’ve met someone in my field for the first time, and after mentioning that I have a side interest in plagiarism, I’ll be told about some retraction that – unbeknownst to the speaker – I’ve worked on. I maintain a busy research agenda in medieval philosophy outside of plagiarism, but I don’t see this side project going away anytime soon. I expect to have a book out on the topic of academic plagiarism next year. It has been remarked that journal editors must hate to see emails from me in their inboxes. Perhaps this is true to some degree, but I’ve been privileged to work with some excellent editors who are committed to correcting scholarly record by issuing retractions for plagiarism and other authorship violations.
RW: How often do you identify potential issues in the literature? Once per week, etc.?
MD: It is hard to give a precise average. At this moment, I have a queue of 10 open cases. There is more work to do than I have time for. As noted above, since plagiarism tends to be serial plagiarism, examining the remaining published output of someone who has had an article retracted for plagiarism can be a massive enterprise. This is especially the case when a plagiarist has published articles in philosophy in more than one language. The same holds true for other kinds of authorship violations that I work on: philosophers who use pseudonyms tend to do so on more than one occasion, and those who engage in duplicate publication tend to do that more than once, as well. I’ve spot-checked this “plagiarism is always serial” hypothesis in fields other than philosophy, and it seems to hold (e.g., 1, 2). There is much work to be done.
RW: Do you think philosophy has more potential issues than other fields? Or do you just find more because you are actually looking?
MD: I am not sure. But I can say that solving the plagiarism problem in philosophy is more difficult than doing so in other fields for at least three reasons. First, an article in a philosophy journal generally has a longer shelf-life than, say, an article in an oncology journal. This means that citable literature can go back very far, and that defective articles can have a long-lasting destructive influence. Second, the basic tools for maintaining a reliable record of the scholarly literature in other disciplines are not currently available to philosophy. Much of the scholarship in philosophy is not citable through a DOI. This means that it cannot be discussed on the excellent DOI-based post-publication review venue PubPeer. Third, unlike the MEDLINE database for the biomedical disciplines, the two major databases in philosophy, The Philosopher’s Index and PhilPapers, do not update their entries to indicate when articles have been retracted or subject to a published correction (e.g., corrigendum, erratum, or expression of concern). So, in short: post-publication review in philosophy is more difficult, and even if a publisher issues a correction, it isn’t reflected in the standard databases of the field. Working on retractions in philosophy is not for the faint-hearted; even if one succeeds in getting a plagiarized article retracted, the retraction might remain unknown in the field. It is very common to see retracted articles in philosophy still cited in the downstream literature.
RW: Anything you’d like to add?
MD: I’m generally hopeful that the situation in philosophy will improve, but right now there is much work to be done.
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