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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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May 7, 2013

One Case of Plagiarism Down. Two Zillion to Go.

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Posted by Derek

You may remember this case from Chemistry - A European Journal earlier this year, where a paper appeared whose text was largely copy-pasted from a previous JACS paper from another lab. This one has finally been pulled; Retraction Watch has the details.

The most interesting part is that statement "The authors regret this approach", which I don't recall ever seeing in a situation like this. The comments at Retraction Watch build on this, and are quite interesting. There are many countries (and cultures) where it's considered acceptable (or at least a venial sin) to lift passages verbatim from other English-language papers when you're publishing in that language. I can see the attraction - I would hate to have to deliver a scientific manuscript in German, for example, which is the closest thing I have to a second language.

But I still wouldn't do it by copying and pasting big hunks of text, either. Reasons for resorting to that range from wanting to be absolutely sure that things are being expressed correctly in ones third or fourth language, all the way to "Isn't that how it's supposed to be done?" The latter situation obtains in parts of Asia, where apparently there's an emphasis in some schools on verbatim transcription of authoritative sources. There's an interesting cite to Yu Hua's China in Ten Words, where one of those ten words is "copycat" (shanzhai):

As a product of China’s uneven development, the copycat phenomenon has as many negative implications as it has positive aspects. The moral bankruptcy and confusion of right and wrong in China today, for example, and vivid expression in copycatting. As the copycat concept has gained acceptance, plagiarism, piracy, burlesque, parody, slander, and other actions originally seen as vulgar or illegal have been given a reason to exist; and in social psychology and public opinion they have gradually acquired respectability. No wonder that “copycat” has become one of the words most commonly used in China today. All of this serves to demonstrate the truth of the old Chinese saying: “The soil decides the crop, and the vine shapes the gourd.”

Four years ago I saw a pirated edition of [my novel] Brothers for sale on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the street outside my apartment; it was lying there in a stack of other pirated books. When the vendor noticed me running my eyes over his stock, he handed me a copy of my novel, recommending it as a good read. A quick flip through and I could tell at once that it was pirated. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” he corrected me earnestly. “It’s a copycat.”

This tendency isn't a good fit with a lot of things, but it especially doesn't work out so well with scientific publication. I haven't seen it stated in so many words, but a key assumption is that every scientific paper is supposed to be different. If you take the time to read a new paper, you should learn something new and you should see something that you haven't seen before. It might be trivial, it might well be useless, but it should be at least slightly different from any other paper you've read or could find.

Now, as the Retraction Watch comments mention, some of these plagiarism cases are examples of "templating", where original (or sort of original) work was done, but the presentation of it was borrowed from an existing paper. That's not as bad as faking up results completely, of course, but you still have to wonder about the value of your work if you can lift big swaths of someone else's paper to describe it. Even when the manuscript itself has been written fresh from the ground up, there's plenty of stuff out in the literature like this. Someone gets an interesting reaction with a biphenyl and a zinc catalyst, and before you know it, there are all these quickie communications where someone else says "Hey, we got that with a napthyl", or "Hey, we got that with a boron halide catalyst". Technically, yes, these are different, but we're in the land of least publishable units now, where the salami is sliced so thinly that you can read a newspaper through it.

So the authors regret this approach, do they? So does everyone else.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. Peter Ellis on May 7, 2013 9:56 AM writes...

you still have to wonder about the value of your work if you can lift big swaths of someone else's paper to describe it

Plagiarism in the materials and methods section is one that's always hard to assess (in my mind at least). Just how many different ways are there to describe how to set up a PCR reaction?

The usual solution is to say something along the lines of "The Foozlewhatsit assay was performed as per Boggis et al (1993) with minor modifications. Briefly..." and then go on to give an outline of the method with particular attention to any variable parameters such as number of PCR cycles, length of wash/incubation steps, etc.

The problem is that anyone needing more detail then has to go to Boggis et al (1993), which probably references some other paper from a few years previously... and so on for daisy chain of half a dozen cites-of-cites before you find the nitty gritty of how to actually do something. And it doesn't really solve the problem, because then when they publish their next paper using the same methods on a different gene, or different cell line, you have to find another way to re-word things, or end up plagiarising themselves.

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2. pgwu on May 7, 2013 10:08 AM writes...

The euphemism for the word "stealing (偷)" in Chinese is "take it when no one is around (看不见拿)". It has much more to do with personal characters than others. Getting ahead by any means is the way to go for some.

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3. Anonymous on May 7, 2013 11:46 AM writes...

but a key assumption is that every scientific paper is supposed to be different.

Apparently this assumption is not clear to some people, and not just people of other cultures - the Breslow "space dinos" review would seem to be an egregious example.

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4. dave w on May 7, 2013 12:24 PM writes...

It's my impression that the Western academic emphasis on "originality" is not shared globally - in some parts of the world, "the good student" is the one who can remember and recite appropriate quotes from respected soruces (rather than effectively express his synthesis of the material in his own terms)...

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5. a. nonymaus on May 7, 2013 7:26 PM writes...

I have just had a revelation. Science demands reproducibility, and these people doing copycat studies are a potential source of exactly that. If a publisher were to start a Journal of Reproducible Chemistry and basically have these would-be plagiarists go all Blog-Syn on the literature it could be potentially useful. Sure, it would likely be a low-tier journal, but it could be widely cited, especially by original authors who can now have endnotes like XX) a) Mbogo, J.; Boggs, R. J. Foobar Chem. XX, XXXX X-XX; b) results reproduced in: Sumyungai, X.; Oldgai, Z. J. Repr. Chem. XX...
Since much of the text is likely to be the same, I could see just having the articles require prominent citation of the work being reproduced and original text in the article printed in red or something. Whether or not this would result in dry-labbed submissions is another question.

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6. anonymous on May 8, 2013 12:14 AM writes...

Congraulation, Derek, your forum is transforming into a harbor of China-India haters, losers, and narcissists.

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7. Slurpy on May 8, 2013 12:28 AM writes...

@1 Peter Ellis:

But isn't that what the SI is for? Make sure to cite properly in the main manuscript, and don't worry if your SI and Boggis et al. both say, "Refluxed the mixture for 45 minutes under argon" to describe the reaction setup. The main manuscript is clear, that's what matters.

Like you said, there's only so many ways to write up a reaction, especially with the minimization we tend to use in writing up technical details.

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8. darwinsdog on May 8, 2013 9:46 AM writes...

In western protestant blah-blah culture we inculcate our young in the wrongfulness of plagiarism and stealing. The former is more or a norm than a natural mores since as young children we learn penmanship by copying text and recite rote passages in school. (KIDS plagiarism is bad, OK). It seems to me that ‘Permanency’ is perhaps an aspect to plagiarism since the term isn’t attached to the spoken word. Or said another way it is a techy term that came along with the invention of the block-printing press. Now the internet/on-line publishing is challenging the value of the original word. One neat tech thing I saw on the anachronistic "TV" the other night was some new tech company in the facebook-space boasting that after you send a file to their site to IM someone that they promise to sweep all trace of it off the servers it passed through - kind of a facebook for people who don’t want to have every boring detail of their boring lives made to exist in perpetuity. I doubt the robustness of such a thing but if it can be solved it would seem a good evolution of the internet forum - so that my great great grandchildren don't have to find this blogpost or the idiot coming after me copying this in order to boldly declare that they are, for the record, against plagiarism.

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9. darwinsdog on May 8, 2013 9:48 AM writes...

@ darwinsdog – “plagiarism is bad, OK.” I don’t think you mean that.

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