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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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February 19, 2013

The Wages of Copy-Pasting

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Posted by Derek

A few weeks ago I mentioned this situation regarding work by Prof. Xi Yan. Two recent papers seem to have been substantially copy-pasted from earlier work published by completely different groups. Now See Arr Oh has some details on what happens to you when you have the nerve to do that in a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry: why, you have to publish a note regretting that you didn't cite the paper you copied from, that's what. "The authors apologize for this oversight."

There, that should square things up. Right? See Arr Oh is not very happy about this response, and I don't blame him for a minute. The RSC editors seem to be ignoring the word-for-word aspect of a substantial part of the new paper; it really is a paste job, and you're not supposed to do that. And the only problem they have is that the paper being stolen from wasn't cited? Oversight, my various body parts.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. BariTony on February 19, 2013 11:20 AM writes...

I once knew a professor who was fond of saying "A paper and its retraction constitute TWO publications!"

Maybe it's just a way for him to double his publication count?

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2. anon on February 19, 2013 11:41 AM writes...

It likely means he is being incentivised to publish more papers by someone or thing that can not discriminate between the two. To me this may mean a non scinitificly trained supervisor/dept chair or maybe a formula in his/her contract that dictates money with number of pubs.

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3. anon on February 19, 2013 12:11 PM writes...

I don't think this is a very grave issue. The world of publishing and academia is rife with far more serious forms of misconduct, corporate-driven publishing fraud, etc. If anything, this is a nice joke played on the publishing journal. We should send a care package to the authors for showing how RSC's standards have depleted.

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4. The Iron Chemist on February 19, 2013 1:25 PM writes...

I'm currently a junior faculty member in a lower-profile chemistry department. As such, I've spent much of the past five years really struggling to get stuff published.

I felt that I've been held to a high standard, and although I might gnash my teeth when something of mine gets into Inorganic Chemistry rather than JACS, I generally appreciate the beneficial effect that this has had on my published work. Even in my less highly regarded manuscripts, I am proud of the intellectual effort and scholarship that that my students and myself put into them.

On the other hand, when I see others get sloppily characterized and reported science published in journals that routinely give me a more difficult time, it really pisses me off. Sure, the same reviewers can't possibly oversee everything, but there have to be some consistently applied standards. Recently, I had a manuscript rejected from Dalton. Admittedly, it was a borderline for the journal, and I wasn't really surprised or offended by the decision in isolation. But THIS is what gets published instead? That, I do find surprising and offensive.

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5. Ed on February 19, 2013 1:58 PM writes...

Iron Chemist, scientific journals have never operated on consistent standards. The peer review process is inherently flawed by its lack of transparency, it's reliance on social networks, the subjectivity of reviews, and the variability and inconsistent quality of reviews.

Favoritism abounds. Submitters suggest reviewers who will do them the favor of a positive review. Editors will downplay or ignore negative reviews of papers submitted by friends/colleages, etc.

Success in scientific publishing is more about who you know than about quality science.

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6. B on February 19, 2013 2:10 PM writes...

@4 and 5: Unfortunate but true. I am a grad student in a very very high profile department and I know many professors who routinely call up editors to cell, mol cell, nature chem, science etc. and demand their work gets sent to review at the very least. When you have weight to throw around it's amazing what you can get published.

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7. anon on February 20, 2013 2:56 AM writes...

@6 As a fresh grad I also know this to be true. A friend of mine had a physician as his advisor. They submit the work to NEJB/Nature/Science/Cell, and make sure the editor gets it out to reviewers knowing full well that it will not get accepted. The tactic is then to see what the reviewers think it worthy and use it as a goal.

The problem with this is that you now have a PI who knows that X results = Nature paper and a lot of stress is put on people. Either to work around negative results by hitting the problem with multiple techniques and no mentioning the ones that gave negative data, being liberal with which replicates are the most representative, or out right lying.

By playing these politics you have the potential to be staring at a pot of gold (Nature paper, leading to grant $, promotions, etc) with just a couple of figures standing in the way.

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8. Iridium on February 20, 2013 3:24 AM writes...

"Sure, the same reviewers can't possibly oversee everything, but there have to be some consistently applied standards. "

Yes, there are standards.
I saw this kind of "reaction" from journals several times before.
They are consistent.

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9. London Chemist on February 20, 2013 3:25 AM writes...

I am glad I saw this: something else to put on my (quite long) list of reasons why I won't join the Royal Society of Chemistry (I'm now in my 20th year of working in the UK as a chemist)

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10. The Iron Chemist on February 20, 2013 9:03 AM writes...

@#5-7: I know of these practices all too well; I'm not THAT junior of a faculty member plus I've seen/heard about similar things during my own graduate education. It was common knowledge that one big name in my old department would pitch a fit until his Tetrahedron-level work got accepted to JACS. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when the name of the corresponding author seemingly carries more weight than the results and discussion.

That said, the Dalton paper is blatant theft. If I had to choose between the two, I'd rather see lower-quality work in a journal than MadLib-style scholarship.

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11. KissTheChemist on February 20, 2013 10:01 AM writes...

This undermines everything science is about. If you can pass off work that is not your own even in the face of such overwhelming evidence, then we may as well shut up shop beacause nothing that is published can be believed.

I urge you all to email Dalton and get a retraction and apology published in all of the RSC journals to set the record straight. Cheats like Xi Yan MUST be admonished and at least as publicly as the article they published.

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12. eugene on February 20, 2013 3:29 PM writes...

"It was common knowledge that one big name in my old department would pitch a fit until his Tetrahedron-level work got accepted to JACS. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when the name of the corresponding author seemingly carries more weight than the results and discussion."

My old boss, who is a very big name in the field, never did this when I was around. Easily he could have done this, but we kept our fingers crossed stuff would get sent out to review, and then didn't complain about the decisions. That's why I have a couple of articles that were first rejected from JACS published elsewhere. And we really thought they were high quality too and could have complained if name recognition matters. So, not everybody plays this game. Some people are pretty ethical and still get ahead. (Though I do wish sometimes I had those two published in JACS...)

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13. Curt F. on February 20, 2013 9:17 PM writes...

@ 12. eugene -

I understand where you are coming from, but is it really "unethical" for a famous professor to call editors to ask about their articles and/or otherwise 'throw their weight around'?

Peer review is an imperfect process, and the professors that have access to editors probably feel quite strongly that their work is high quality.

I agree that this kind of closed-doors influence peddling is a sad state of affairs, but I can't really blame professors for it. Editors and reviewers are where the problem is.

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14. eugene on February 21, 2013 9:47 AM writes...

I guess I have a different understanding of "unethical". I see that word as more of a range, with serious and non-serious unethical lapses. I don't care if a politician got their friend to fix the roof on their house for example, and the friend probably didn't charge as much. A famous prof writing letters to an editor to influence a decision on their manuscript is indeed unethical, because new professors don't have access to that type of influence and science and its evaluation are supposed to be as objective as possible. This kind of practice directly disadvantages others. The journal is probably going to accept less articles from others, such as those who will not write a letter to the editor because they know they will be laughed at.

I don't see this type of "unethical" as being even close to plagiarizing or just making up data though. It wouldn't bother me if the prof didn't get any punishment at all for it, just as long as they were aware that others think this is wrong. As you say, peer review is inherently a bit unfair (although not to the degree that some make it out to be), so maybe a few strings here or there doesn't change things much. Plus sometimes you do really get hostile reviewers or those incapable of understanding the article who do the review anyways. Then it's legitimate to write to the editor and complain. And then your name might make a difference, but if it was done in good faith...?

I personally wouldn't use personal networks and name recognition because I know it's wrong and I have a good example now. But I'm sure I've done some other small unethical stuff. For example, I promised I would proof read an article yesterday, but I just spent time on some blog instead and listened to music, and then I said I was 'busy' with other work. So, I lied; that's also unethical in my book and I'm okay with it. Still, it's also to a smaller degree than by influencing outcome of scientific publications via personal networks.

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15. Stu on February 21, 2013 10:54 AM writes...

#B (commenter 6) - I'm going to call bullshit, at least in part, on what you said. I can't speak for other journals, but I've got a pretty good idea how Nature Chemistry works (I'm the editor). We actually get very (very) few phone calls from authors (so, 'routinely' eh?), and I don't recall anyone demanding that their paper be sent out to review (it may well have happened once or twice, I don't remember). Sure, people appeal decisions not to send manuscripts out to referees, but very few, if any, 'demand' things (they usually offer reasoned arguments that either lead us to change our minds or not). And just let me point out that we don't respond well to demands. We've had some (what I would call) high-profile profs declare they will never send stuff to us again after they've been rejected. You know what. That's cool with us; just means we don't have to deal with their egos again - it's not like we sit here crying into our keyboards.

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16. Sili on February 21, 2013 1:41 PM writes...

Oh bother. I just filled out a questionnaire about the RSC's image and reputation yesterday.

Not that I assume they'll actually pay any attention to me.

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17. Curt F. on February 23, 2013 7:28 AM writes...

A famous prof writing letters to an editor to influence a decision on their manuscript is indeed unethical, because new professors don't have access to that type of influence and science and its evaluation are supposed to be as objective as possible.

A. Should people who only need 6 hours of sleep a night be forced to lay in bed 2 hours longer before heading into the lab, because not everyone has access to that kind of extra time, and science is supposed to be as objective as possible? What about people who are good at writing cover letters for submissions? Should they write less good cover letters because science is just about the paper, not the cover letter, and it's supposed to be as objective as possible?

B. How do you know that the influence exerted by a famous prof's letter is any bigger or smaller than the influence exerted by a letter from any other person? Is it wrong to write a letter only if you are famous?

C. Do you have any evidence that any journal shares your view of what is ethical? Do guidelines to authors ever say that sending a letter inquiring about a certain editorial decision amounts to unethical interference? Do journals ever say that after you submit a manuscript you have no rights to ever ask about the disposition of the manuscript?

I'm not sure I can be very open-minded on this issue. Your version of ethics seems to be a highly idiosyncratic invention. Lying to your fellow scientists is *less wrong* than writing a letter to an editor, in your book? What kind of scientist are you?

You believe that writing or calling journal editors to ask about the disposition of your manuscript or further argue for its importance is wrong. I think you are deluded.

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18. eugene on February 24, 2013 8:10 AM writes...

I tried to answer you in good faith, Curt, but now you're calling me a liar and deluded? It's fighting language and if you step back, you'll see how wrong you are.

A. Sleeping less time to get more done, and your level of English command have nothing to do with pulling strings. The first two are ethical, the third isn't.

B. I know because I worked for an assistant prof and a really famous prof. Based on just my experience, I know that your results need to be a lot better for the same journal with an assistant prof.

C. I have no evidence of that. As I said earlier, it is unethical in my book. Please do not ascribe to me something which I have not written. I will not answer the rest of point C.

Yes, I lied that I was going to check that paper that evening. I was tired. I'm also an excellent and overall ethical scientist. Based on my knowledge of how often people lie and about what, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you probably lie more than me in daily life because I actually think about it often. But that's normal to lie so you shouldn't beat up yourself. I've read somewhere that people lie at least 20 times a day depending on conversation frequency. Most are white lies and if you don't do it, then you probably can't exist in society. I'm certainly not going to tell the other person that I didn't check their paper because I didn't feel like it and wanted to read some blogs. I will tell them that I didn't get around to it because I was busy, because I don't want to start doing that and end up in a mental institution a few months later.

I don't believe that calling journal editors to ask about the manuscript is wrong, or arguing for its importance. Did you fail to properly read my previous post? I believe that complaining with a tantrum and throwing your weight around is wrong, especially if it works. Not every journal can afford to be as selective as Stu's.

"I think you are deluded."

So, am I supposed to finish with a one-liner now? Something like "What kind of a scientist are you Curt? Are you unethical?" Thanks god I can keep it together on the internet better than others so I would never write that.

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19. Curt F. on February 25, 2013 10:42 AM writes...

@18. eugene

Eugene, thanks for the responses--I do appreciate them.

You say that "complaining with a tantrum" and "throwing your weight around", and "pulling strings" are wrong, but that calling journal editors to ask about or argue for manuscripts is OK. It isn't clear to me how to tell one from the other.

My earlier post was written from the assumption your view was that communicating or arguing with journal editors was unethical. That assumption was one I feel very strongly is unjustified. If you weren't making that assumption, then I apologize for misconstruing your point and for my strong words.

But now I have to ask what you mean by "pulling strings" or "complaining with a tantrum" if those phrases do not, in your mind, include questioning or arguing with journal editors. How are scientists of the world supposed to know whether eugene thinks they are unethical?

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20. eugene on February 25, 2013 3:04 PM writes...

"But now I have to ask what you mean by "pulling strings" or "complaining with a tantrum" if those phrases do not, in your mind, include questioning or arguing with journal editors."

See Stu's post #15: "We've had some (what I would call) high-profile profs declare they will never send stuff to us again after they've been rejected."

That is a prime example. A journal that is not nature chemistry might feel like losing out by not accommodating high profile groups. A professor should never write things like that. You can say that the decision is wrong and you disagree with it, but saying 'never again' is a threat whose gravity depends on the gravitas of the prof. Complaining about hostile reviewers without specifically engaging the review and asking the editor if they used the 'suggested reviewers' are another good example.

There are usually journals with similar recognition in any chemistry field. If the editor and the reviewers didn't recognize the greatness of your article on the first try in Andjewandte, maybe you can try in Jackass before coming down on the guys? Then after the second time, you can argue politely without throwing your big name around, but keeping in mind that two different sets of reviewers and editors have now rejected your article. After all, the peer review process is a bit flawed and mistakes can be made.

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