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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 10, 2010

Cut-and-Paste Your Way to Publication

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Posted by Derek

The topic of plagiarism in scientific journals has come up here several times. In recent years, automated systems for checking similar blocks of text have become available, and a number of journals now run their submissions past such software.

The first journal in China to sign up for the most well-known of these (CrossCheck) is the Journal of Zhejiang University–Science. I'll freely admit that I'd never heard of it, not that I've heard of a lot of the Chinese-language journals. But I also have to take my hat off to them, both for using the plagiarism-detection service and especially for writing in to Nature with the results.

Since October 2008, they've found "unoriginal material" in 31% of all their submissions, a number they themselves call "staggering". (Here's an earlier report on their progress). The letter mentions some possible cultural problems, such as Chinese students traditionally being asked to copy things word-for-word from authorities, but I'd guess that there's plenty of the good old publish-or-perish at work here, too. At any rate, congratulations to them for publicizing such problems; that's the only way they'll ever get any better.

Comments (17) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. K on September 10, 2010 8:01 AM writes...

The related editorial in this week's issue also makes for interesting (and depressing) reading...

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2. M on September 10, 2010 9:41 AM writes...

As a Chinese native now living in the United States, I know that the culture in China does not respect intellectual property the same way as Western culture does. And plagiarism is not seen as such a bad thing. I'd be very interested to know if the "plagiarism rate" in European and American scientific journals is much lower than the 31% reported for the Chinese journal.

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3. Jim on September 10, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

I would also be interested to know what the incidence of plagiarism is in methods sections relative to the other sections of the manuscripts. This clearly seems to me to be almost acceptable, if not even "correct".

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4. Industry Guy on September 10, 2010 11:52 AM writes...

What I would find interesting would be the rate of Chinese/Japanese/Indian papers which are submitted to multiple Journals and published. Nothing annoys me more than finding a reaction reference which has many hits only to find the multiple hits are all the same paper in multiple journals.

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5. Anonym on September 10, 2010 2:04 PM writes...

@ Industry Guy.
I can't recall ever seeing any examples of a publication published multiple times in different journals unless a research group wanted to extend initial discoveries provided in a communication into a longer paper. Would you be averse to providing some examples?

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6. Chucky on September 10, 2010 3:54 PM writes...

The devil is in the details and unfortunately I don't have access to the paper but one would have to check to make sure that each instant of plagiarism wasn't a proper (or even improper) attempt at quoting another reference. I don't suspect the software can detect the difference so each incident would have to be separately verified.

A problem with scientific writing is that when you try to write something a little original or different you get hit with a variety of criticism because scientists such as chemists can be surprisingly intolerant of unique expression. The net result is that one paper in an area looks like the next and the next, especially the background and so on. I'd like to see greater acceptance and encouragement of more creative expression without being criticized for not expressing oneself scientifically (whatever the hell that means). I'd enjoy reading more papers written in the breezy style that, for example, Derek Lowe uses. I think there would be more honesty in communication and less boredom for the reader. Just sayin.....

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7. Curt F. on September 10, 2010 8:56 PM writes...

I know that the culture in China does not respect intellectual property the same way as Western culture does. The net result is that one paper in an area looks like the next and the next, especially the background and so on. Nothing annoys me more than finding a reaction reference which has many hits only to find the multiple hits are all the same paper in multiple journals.

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8. Indy on September 11, 2010 11:23 AM writes...

As editor of a scientific journal I can tell you that plagiarized material is everywhere.

Most of the time plagiarism is found in the introduction of a manuscript where the authors are expected to write with their own words the background information of their research.

If a sentence is beautifully written there is a good chance it has been plagiarized. A quick Google search of that sentence usually finds the original source of the plagiarized material and other manuscripts/authors that have plagiarized the same material.

Without picking on anybody I will give an example.

I just went to the first issue of Tetrahedron Letters (2010), identified a manuscript written by authors form non-English counties (page 27), copied the very first sentence in the Tet Lett paper, pasted and Googled it, and found that this sentence alone has been plagiarized and used in about 4-5 different publications such as ARKIVOC 2007 (xvi) 298-313, and most recently in Org. Lett. 2010, 12, pp 2852-2855.

So now you have 3 publishers (Elsevier, ACS, ARKAT USA Inc.) with a problem in their hands to figure out how to handle this situation... and there are more published articles in their journals with the same plagiarism problem.

When I identify plagiarized material in a submitted manuscript and confront the corresponding author (usually a professor) about it I generally get an apology, the corresponding author promises will tell her/his students not to do that again, and that she/he will see that the next revision will not contain plagiarized material.

And the most common excuse I get is that the professor asked the students to write part of the manuscript and that either because of laziness or language barrier the student(s) thought it would be easier to take material (word for word) from other article and get it over with.

I don't know what process/protocol journals and publishers are using, but plagiarism is at an alarming high level that is clearly not being detected/scrutinized and the current amount of published plagiarized material is staggering and increasing rapidly.

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9. Mike on September 11, 2010 3:50 PM writes...

Well played, Curt.

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10. GladToMoveToProcess on September 12, 2010 12:43 PM writes...

Re#6, 2nd paragraph: Roald Hoffmann wrote a wonderful paper on this topic a long time ago: ACIEE 1988, 27, 1593-1602.

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11. Daniel Levy on September 12, 2010 1:12 PM writes...

GladToMoveToProcess cites a paper by Roald Hoffman relating to this post. The issue of plagiarism is much deeper - going into ethics. As scientists, we must be bound to high ethical standards - at least regarding honesty. After all, without honesty, we scientists can have no credibility. Without credibility, who will believe the results we place before our community.

At the Boston ACS meeting, Roald Hoffman spoke on science and ethics. He absolutely has it right when he points out that humans make choices based on need. Hopefully, the needs upon which we scientists make our choices are overwhelmingly to the benefit of progress and not for more selfish or individual purposes.

As stated by Roald Hoffman "Scientists must live with the consequences of their actions. It is this which makes them actors in the glorious tragedy that is life and not comic heroes on a pedestal. It is this responsibility to humanity that makes scientists human."

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12. abos on September 13, 2010 12:41 PM writes...

Publishing another labs RESULTS is bad, but copying an introduction sentence seems rather trivial to me. I'm assuming that the article the sentences are taken from are cited??

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13. Gillespie on September 13, 2010 3:10 PM writes...

I just had the experience of reviewing an article that was almost identical to one published 5 years ago- text was 90% similar, the figures were IDENTICAL, except for changing the growth factor measured from VEGF to HGH. However, that was nothing compared to what I found when I looked up the individual authors- I found 6 articles had already been published using this same strategy- copy almost the entire paper, rewrite the intro, and switch one growth hormone (i.e., VEGF) to another (usually HGH). I contacted all the authors who had been plagiarized, and none of them had any idea it had happened. The guilty parties have been publishing in my general field of interest, and there are several articles I know are copies, but have not yet found the original sources to prove it. You can bet I do not trust any articles that come from these authors, but when I contacted the journal editors about some kind of solution, I got nowhere- they would not do anything to stop them from publishing in the future…

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14. Kate Ebneter on September 13, 2010 4:33 PM writes...

It isn't even just in scientific publishing. I recently bought a book of electronic projects that turns out to be plagiarized almost entirely from commercially available kits and some web sites. None of the material is properly attributed. An email to the publisher is still unanswered.

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15. Anonymous on September 14, 2010 2:24 AM writes...

While plagiarism is obvious, the underlying problem of immorality is deeper. As bad as it sounds, it's best to avoid cooperation with other universities and institutes. This is because they'll take your results and shamelessly publish them as their own. And there's no mechanism to stop this. No wonder science looks cryptic to the outside world, since textbook knowledge is the only part of work that you can mention in public.

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16. Brendan on September 15, 2010 6:35 AM writes...

I was reviewing a paper recently where the authors copied intro of one of their papers word for word however each noun was substituted with a synonym. I'll bet there is a computer program that can do that. I doubt that the automated methods for picking up plagiarism would find something like this though.

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17. Peter Lund on September 18, 2010 12:10 PM writes...

Isn't the problem a lack of blacklisting and public shaming?

Industry Guy, Gillespie, Kate Ebneter, and Brendan don't provide names or references. Indy provides (some) references but no names.

But that is in fact what you should all do: list references and names and affiliations.

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