Tag Archives: falsifying data

Plagiarism and cheating in the science community

In late January 2012 there seemed to be a bit of a flutter over scientific plagiarism. There was the Jan. 24, 2012 news item on physorg.com about Howard (Skip) Garner’s work detecting signs of scientific (specifically, medical science) plagiarism,

Garner, creator of eTBLAST plagiarism detection software, identified numerous instances of wholesale plagiarism among citations in MEDLINE [online database of medical science articles]. “When my colleagues and I introduced an automated process to spot similar citations in MEDLINE, we uncovered more than 150 suspected cases of plagiarism in March, 2009.

“Subsequent ethics investigations resulted in 56 retractions within a few months. However, as of November 2011, 12 (20 percent) of those “retracted” papers are still not so tagged in PubMed [clone sister to MEDLINE database]. Another two were labeled with errata that point to a website warning the papers are “duplicate” — but more than 95 percent of the text was identical, with no similar co-authors.”

Garner and Mounir Errami published a comentatary in the Jan. 24, 2012 online edition of Nature magazine about their joint study of plagiarism,

Are scientists publishing more duplicate papers? An automated search of seven million biomedical abstracts suggests that they are, report Mounir Errami and Harold Garner.

Given the pressure to publish, it is important to be aware of the ways in which community standards can be subverted. Our concern here is with the three major sins of modern publishing: duplication, co-submission and plagiarism.

I was quite interested to see the definition of these ‘sins’,

 The most unethical practices involve substantial reproduction of another study (bringing no novelty to the scientific community) without proper acknowledgement. If such duplicates have different authors, then they may be guilty of plagiarism, whereas papers with overlapping authors may represent self-plagiarism. Simultaneous submission of duplicate articles by the same authors to different journals also violates journal policies.

That last one about simultaneous submissions of the same article has never made sense to me. As long as you’re not pretending it’s different than the pieces being published elsewhere, I don’t see a problem other than the journal wants exclusive rights to your work. (I’m talking about scholarly publishing only.) If it’s yours, I think you should be able to publish it in as many places as you can.

After all, no one has time to read every single journal that might apply to their own specialty or look at journals that don’t apply but might have useful or applicable materials. In the interests of scholarship and sharing information, there’s a much better chance of stumbling across something if it’s published in a number of places.

Apparently, I’m not the first to think of this, although they are primarily considering the situation from the perspective of language (from the Nature Commentary),

One argument for duplicate publication is to make significant works available to a wider audience, especially in other languages. However, only 20% of manually verified duplicates in Déjà vu are translations into another language. What of the examples of text directly translated with no reference or credit to the original article? Is this justified or acceptable? And is such behaviour more widespread for review-type articles for which greater dissemination may be justified? We do not yet have answers to these questions.

The authors don’t seem to have considered this issue the problem of finding relevant material in a very ‘information-noisy’ environment.

As for self-plagiarizing, I’m a little muzzier about that. It’s not like you’re taking credit for someone else’s work (which is how I’ve always defined plagiarism). However, presenting your own work as if it’s new when it’s not is unacceptable to me.

Leonard Lopate did an interview with Garner and Professor Melissa Anderson about plagiarism in scholarly and medical journals for this NPR (National Public Radio) show Jan. 19, 2012. I haven’t listened to it all since Anderson begins by discussing the downloading of music from various archives. It seems she’s confused file sharing with plagiarism. She did go on to discuss plagiarism but had lost credibility with me and this is an almost 30 min. interview (or investment of my time).

I do think that plagiarism and cheating have a negative effect on the practice of science and I agree with the observers who all note the tremendous pressure placed on scientists to produce in a very competitive environment.  I just wish they had communicated a little more clearly.

Here’s an example of my problem with their discussion of duplicates (from the Nature Commentary),

In general, duplicates are often published in journals with lower impact factors (undoubtedly at least in part to minimize the odds of detection) but this does not prevent negative consequences — especially in clinical research. Duplication, particularly of the results of patient trials, can negatively affect the practice of medicine, as it can instill a false sense of confidence regarding the efficacy and safety of new drugs and procedures. There are very good reasons why multiple independent studies are required before a new medical practice makes it into the clinic, and duplicate publication subverts that crucial quality control (not to mention defrauding the original authors and journals).

If the duplicate lists someone other than the original author(s), wouldn’t it be plagiarism? This is my problem, there is a lack of clarity in this commentary.

Around the same time this commentary was published, Dennis Normile wrote an article, Whistleblower Uses YouTube to Assert Claims of Scientific Misconduct, for Science Insider about a Japanese whistleblower (I’ve removed links, plse. go to the original article to find them and more information),

ScienceInsider tracked down the whistleblower using an e-mail address connected to a blog linked to the Japanese version of the video. A man who said he posted the video agreed to a phone interview and later answered additional questions by e-mail. He asked to be identified by his online handle, “Juuichi Jigen.”

Juuichi Jigen means “11 dimensions” in Japanese. The phrase is taken from a case of misconduct (English, Japanese) the whistleblower had written about on his blog that involved a researcher who claimed to have developed an “11-dimensional theory of the universe.” According to University of Tokyo press releases, that scientist, Serkan Anilir, plagiarized numerous publications and falsified his resume. He resigned from an assistant professorship at the university in March 2010.

Jigen, who claims to be a life science researcher in the private sector, says his interest in scientific misconduct began in late 2010 when he couldn’t reproduce results reported by a researcher at Dokkyo Medical University in Mibu, Tochigi Prefecture. “This wasted time and money,” he says. After documenting problems with the papers, Jigen notified the university and posted all the evidence on a Web site. According to local press reports gathered on Jigen’s Web site, the researcher resigned his position. Many of his papers have been retracted, according to the Retraction Watch Web site.

Jigen has created separate Web sites for half a dozen cases in Japan in which he alleges scientific misconduct has occurred, and last week he posted details of what he believes is a case of image manipulation by researchers at a U.S. institution.

Not being able to reproduce the results means the data could have been an anomaly. However, if researchers cannot duplicate results from various research projects, then the data has been falsified.

In reading about ‘Juuichi Jigen’s’ work, it would seem that if you find someone who’s plagiarizing work, you might want to check the research data. I think that’s a much more compelling way to discuss plagiarism than worrying over copying and duplication. Ultimately, it’s about the practice of science.