Even potential participants of a research integrity conference commit plagiarism, organizers learn

One would hope that researchers submitting abstracts for a meeting on research integrity would be less likely to commit research misconduct. But if the experience of the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity is any indication, that may not be the case. Here, the co-organizers of the conference — Lex Bouter, Daniel Barr, and Mai Har Sham — explain.

Recently the 430 abstracts submitted for the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) were peer reviewed. After an alarming report of apparent plagiarism from one of the 30 reviewers, text similarity checking was conducted on all the abstracts received using Turnitin. This identified 12 suspected cases of plagiarism and 18 suspected cases of self-plagiarism. Abstracts with a Turnitin Similarity Index above 30% (ranging from 37% to 94%) were further assessed and labelled as potential self-plagiarism if overlapping texts had at least one author in common.

We did not investigate the 18 cases of suspected self-plagiarism further, but decided to exclude them from oral presentation and to consider them as eligible for poster presentation only. In the call for abstracts we did not say that submissions should contain work that had not been presented or published before. Furthermore, the abstract form did not allow for references to earlier presentations or publications. For future conferences we will explicitly ask whether the work is novel and to provide references to earlier presentations or publications. We do not believe that novelty is an absolute condition for eligibility as there may be good reasons to present important work to different audiences or to present important work that has recently been published but might have escaped being noticed.

Of the submitters of the 12 cases of suspected plagiarism, 6 had also applied for a travel grant. The reviewers – who were not informed about the results of the text similarity check – recommended 5 of the 12 abstracts with suspected plagiarism for rejection because of being out of the scope or of low quality. Ironically 2 of the abstracts had plagiarism as its topic. We demanded an explanation from all presenters of suspected plagiarized abstracts and decided to reject the abstracts if no credible explanation would be provided. No reply was received from 6 while 1 abstract was withdrawn without any explanation. Two submitters were a married couple and said that they had permission to re-use the work that the other had presented at the 5th WCRI. In one case the technical staff was blamed. One submitter explained that the abstract concerned the final results of a study of which the preliminary findings were presented by the same author and got a poster prize at the 5th WCRI. Another one made clear that the duplicated text came from their own earlier publication. We considered these last 2 explanations to be acceptable and relabelled both as suspected self-plagiarism. All other 10 abstracts suspected of plagiarism were rejected.

So the final diagnosis is that we had a bit more than 2% suspected plagiarism and somewhat less than 5% suspected self-plagiarism. It’s clear that plagiarism is not permissible. The importance of avoiding self-plagiarism is less obvious. The recently revised Netherlands Code of Conduct on Research Integrity labels it as a questionable research practice if it’s more than reuse on a small scale or of introductory passages and descriptions of the method applied. A conference abstract is not necessarily considered ‘published material’ but may be treated as ‘working paper’ with continuous improvement until the work is finally published. We do not know how often largely identical abstracts are submitted by their authors to multiple conferences, but we believe that if that happens it should be disclosed to reviewers and conference participants.

Somewhat sadder and wiser we have to conclude that potential participants of a research integrity conference are not immune for at least one form of research misbehaviour.

Note: Retraction Watch is a collaborating media outlet for the WCRI. Our coverage of any news from the meeting is independent of this collaboration.

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7 thoughts on “Even potential participants of a research integrity conference commit plagiarism, organizers learn”

  1. There is no excuse for misappropriating others’ work and passing it as one’s own (plagiarism), period. But, the fact that it is not uncommon for 1) authors to present the same, or largely the same, paper at different conferences, or as in one of the cases described above, 2) present a different or final set of results from a previously presented paper, illustrates the need for conference organizers to have clear policies that address these types of situations. Also, and given the absence of explicit relevant guidelines, I respectfully question the wisdom of moving the proposals that had recycled text from oral presentations to posters without any further evaluation of the quality of the presentations’ contributions.

  2. I agree with the previous comment: if a suspicion of plagiarism is detected , the work should be altogether rejected and the perpetrator swiftly punished ( whatever punishment means ).Moving it to a poster is simply ridiculous: is a poster less prone to plagiarism ? On final thought: these “researchers” thought:” well it is a conference on research integrity , they would never check “ !!!! Poor world!!!!

  3. Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

    Self-plagiarism is only possible if a person has multiple personalities, otherwise it is impossible for the person to steal from ANOTHER author.

    1. Always the same excuses. You can call it whatever you want, but it is still unethical and in some cases misconduct. And if you want to play wordgames, I think Adam’s recent wording about “intellectual spammers” was spot-on.

  4. Self-plagiarism is a problem in that it steals conference time and space from others who could have presented new research. It also improperly inflates conference presentations on one’s resume.

  5. I submitted an application to a conference, and was told that it was plagarism. I had submitted a very similar piece to arXiV, which is specifically designated as a pre-publication place. arXiV is not a publication in the sense of a traditional publication outlet. I wonder how many of these fake “self-plagarism” situations are pre-publication outlets like that. There is in many cases a value in publicity to several conferences.

  6. I am horrified to find out that anyone thinks that making the same or very similar presentations at two or more conferences is academic misconduct.

    This is done routinely in library conferences, and no one thinks ill of it.
    There are a lot of library conferences to choose from, and most librarians can only go to one or two at most per year, so if the best, most exciting, research is going to be heard widely, the researchers need to present at multiple conferences.

    I’ve always understood that the moral argument against self-plagiarism was directed at students, who are being “paid” academic credit for their course work and was cheating the university and their peers by getting double credit for the same work. That credit is not just some kind of moral prestige thing, but has actual dollar value (tuition) associated with it.

    In contrast, conference presentations are about disseminating information.The only “credit” that might be double-counted is in the context of promotion and tenure, and the duplicated work will surely be obvious by the committees that review the submitted portfolios. I have served for many years on such committees, and I have frequently seen presentation titles in CVs that are obviously the same topic presented at different venues and absolutely no one on the committee considered that a problem. I just contacted our VP who is in charge of the P&T committee about exactly this, and he agreed that in our deliberations we don’t consider this a problem at all.

    This sounds like an issue that is more about the egos of the conference organizers than safeguarding the integrity of scholarly communication.

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