MDPI backtracks on claim that a thesis can’t be plagiarized

The publisher MDPI has reversed itself on one reason it said a paper does not need to be retracted following allegations the authors had plagiarized a thesis.

As we reported earlier this week, the editorial office at Nutrients told Solange Saxby, a postdoctoral research fellow at Dartmouth Health in Lebanon, NH, in May that it didn’t consider apparent overlap between a 2023 paper and her 2020 thesis plagiarism “because thesis materials are not classified as prior publications.”

Yesterday, MDPI did a 180, blaming a “mismatch in their internal communications” for the responses Saxby received.

“As a publisher, we do not support the statement that ‘the behavior did not amount to plagiarism because the prior work was a thesis,’” Rui Duarte, the public relations manager for  the company, said. “While we strive to maintain high standards of service and clear communication, occasional errors can occur.”

The corresponding author of the Nutrients paper has called the failure to cite Saxby’s thesis “an oversight” and said she has been working with the publisher to correct the error.

Following the publication of our story, the Nutrients editorial office told Retraction Watch that the investigation into this case was now closed, concluding “there was no plagiarism or any significant overlap.” The office said that a technical analysis and detailed comparison between the two manuscripts found less than 1% overlap.

Duarte reiterated the investigation was closed. He said the editorial board determined that the “similarities with Dr. Saxby’s thesis consist of well-established statements that exist within the wider body of the literature related to the Taro root and are cited as such.”

Here is a comparison of some passages of the Nutrients paper with Saxby’s dissertation. 

Saxby dissertation, page 15:

Taro contains a unique composition of protein polypeptides that have not been found in other root crops, and exclusively found in tubers from C. esculenta.

Section 3.3 of the Nutrients paper:

Taro contains a unique protein polypeptide composition that has not been found in other root crops and is exclusively found in tubers from C. esculenta.

Same paragraph, Saxby dissertation:

Furthermore, taro differs from sweet potato, cassava and yams, in that it contains two major types of storage protein: G1 (a mannosebinding lectin) and G2 (a trypsin inhibitor related to sporamin). Thus, the low protein content and gluten-free composition of taro makes for great hypoallergenic food and potential food substitutes for individuals with food allergies. 

Same paragraph, Nutrients paper: 

Furthermore, in terms of protein content, taro differs from other root crops as it contains two important types of protein: G1 (a mannose-binding lectin) and G2 (a trypsin inhibitor) [43]. Therefore, taro constitutes an excellent hypoallergenic food and a possible substitute for people with food allergies because of its low protein content and gluten-free composition.

MDPI said a correction to acknowledge Saxby’s work is “necessary” and “under preparation.”

Saxby declined to comment further.

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26 thoughts on “MDPI backtracks on claim that a thesis can’t be plagiarized”

    1. Yes, I spoke to MDPI editorial service for 4 years.

      They are just terrible and the staff changes everything 6 months : “thank you for your patience” is the only thing they say, hoping that you’ll give up ( which I finally did ….)

      They never handle a problem until it’s public

  1. At the very least I hope the correction will be completely thorough and give due credit to Saxby’s thesis for each discrete instance in which overlap occurred (i.e., paragraph and line numbers). But, I won’t be holding my breath.

  2. This really has to be field specific. In CS it’s common for a student’s thesis to be a bunch of their papers stapled together with an introduction that puts them all in context. Someone could easily have their thesis also include some unpublished content, and then they turn around and extend that content to a full paper which they submit for publication. Yes they should cite their thesis, but honestly I’d just recommend that for the historical record.

    1. But in this case the author of the thesis was not the author of the paper where the plagiarism occured; this was not self-plagiarism.

      1. Yeah I misunderstood and that completely changes the situation. Kind of wild that MDPI’s stance would ever have been “nah if it’s only in a thesis it’s fair game for you to take.”

    2. Word for word copying of published works without citation is plagiarism, is it not? If the new and original parts of the paper are not the result of plagiarism, then I would be OK with an amended version with citations and revision history.

      The paper should be retracted until the new version is published. There could also be a problem with incorrect citations in other papers, citing the problematic paper instead of the original.

    3. There is a very simple solution to this problem. Universities either allow or disallow “compilation style” thesis. Some students without academic aspirations might prefer the compilation route, while other might prefer the monograph route.

      Anyway… it has nothing to do with the case at hand.

        1. In your defense, I must say that I also misunderstood the situation. The introduction of this article does not make it sufficiently clear that this was not a case of self plagiarism as the author’s of the paper are not mentioned. I was always of the opinion that is fine and common to use parts of one’s own thesis as long as it is properly cited. Ideally, one would also bring up this potential issue with the editor to make sure they are ok with it.

          But, since this is a case of straight up plagiarism these finer points don’t apply and I completely agree that the journal should have immediately pulled the paper and blacklisted the authors.

  3. This kind of error must not go unpunished. Now that the story has some traction, they are doing a 180. They thought they could bully their way through it. Heavy fines must be levied for such behaviour and the author must be compensated for this harrassment.

    1. “This kind of error must not go unpunished.”

      The solution is simple: Don’t write, review, or edit for MDPI journals. And don’t read the stuff that they publish. It’s hard to say wich papers to trust, given the type of “quality control” they are exercising.

  4. Hi, I am not well versed with academic cheating. In the above case, what if the authors for both works is one and the same person? Can he be accused and “convicted” of plagiarising (his own work)?

    1. Yes, unless you’re MDPI apparently. Using your own work without citing it is just the same as using someone else’s. It invalidates the claim this is original research.

  5. I like citations about plagiarism from the commentaries. How do I quote them on my plagiarism paper?

  6. Excuse me, but as I read the story, Saxby wrote both the article and the thesis. It’s all her work, she didn’t steal anything from anyone. She didn’t claim anyone else’s work as her own. How is that plagiarism?

    1. It’s not the case, but if it had been it still would be plagiarism. This isn’t about taking other’s ideas but about ensuring original research is actually original (e.g. so an error only needs to be corrected in one place).

  7. Because several readers were confused, I suggest editing this post to explicitly state that Saxby was not an author on the paper.

  8. I was also confused by the wording of the article, it does seem that they are the same author based on how it is described. And edit would be helpful to make it clearer that this is not a case of self-plagairism.

    1. This is very interesting because I never thought of self plagiarism existence. I like the explanation on what plagiarism is provided by Allan, it make sense, as it enforces acknowledgement
      of of the original source. In this way it makes it legitimate even to those that would use the information to cite the original source. This talks to integrity of academic work.

  9. There’s using someone else’s work without citations, paraphrasing, which might be corrected by adding a citation,…

    …. and then there’s WORD FOR WORD COPYING of someone else’s work, which can only be corrected by retracting the paper entirely and declaring the plagarists persona non grata.

    This is the latter. The plagarist “authors” of the plagarist paper are committing academic fraud by claiming that those were their own words — a lie. This cannot be construed as an oversight or an honest mistake — this is intentional dishonesty.

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