In this exclusive interview, researcher and co-editor-in-chief of an Elsevier scientific journal, Peter Blau, shines light on why miscondcut, particularly self-plagiarism, is a serious concern in research and publishing.
Listen and/or watch our interview:
J: Good morning Peter, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us your role and industry?
P: I am a researcher in materials science and engineering and I work at a government laboratory, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
J: You recently participated in a survey conducted here at iThenticate and we asked you about your opinion of plagiarism. Let’s go through the questions and take a look at your responses. The first question is: how big of a problem you perceived plagiarism to be at your field and industry? You gave it a 4 for ‘serious’ , on a scale of 4 out of 5. Why do you think you responded that way?
P: From time to time, I volunteer to edit conferences and edit or review papers for various technical societies and technical journals. More and more, I see an increase in papers, particularly from non-English speaking countries, in which the reviewers or I happen to catch an instance where the author may be self-plagiarizing. In my experience, that’s more common than an author’s plagiarizing other people’s work and repackaging it.
J: Do you feel that plagiarism in your field is decreasing, increasing or staying the same?
P: By virtue of the increase in submission of papers and the need to enhance one’s resume under very competitive situations for jobs and recognition, that there is a stronger temptation these days to use the same bit of research and write several papers that are very, very similar based on the same batch of data. The result is increased amounts of duplication and self-plagiarism.
J: How often do you personally encounter plagiarism by others? You answered ‘occasionally’.
P. Yes. For example, in a conference I am currently editing, a relatively small number, maybe 15-20 papers of the 250-300 we received turned up with evidence of self-plagiarism. While that’s a small number, it’s still disturbing.
J: Right. I am seeing similar numbers in the industry. I understand that, in the larger scheme of things, there is controversy that [plagiarism] is not really a big issue. But the flip side is that when there is an issue, it is a big problem. Next question: who is committing these acts of plagiarism? You answered ‘submitting authors’, which you talked about.
P: Or, it might be a co-author. It is hard to tell who is behind this if some papers have 3, 4 or 5 authors. If each one is submitting a portion of the paper, for example, it is not clear who it is who may be reusing material.
J: Right. I suppose if you’re a co-author on a paper and they’re using their own material, they are self-plagiarizing, and you may not be aware of that.
P: Yeah, that’s possible.
J: Next question: what is the main reason you believe people choose not to check for plagiarism? You answered ‘confidence in originality of work’.
P: Yes, I think there are a number of reasons in addition to that. One of them maybe is just naiveté. Maybe they aren’t looking for it or they don’t expect to see it. Maybe they are new reviewers and it’s not really utmost in their minds to worry about. Sometimes they don’t have access to the resources or the programs that could be used to check for it. Sometimes they don’t have the time to check for it. Perhaps it is a very well known author or researcher in the field with such an author's esteem, a referee would not expect them to plagiarize their own work or the work of others.
J: The top answers for that question were ‘not having the time’, ‘not having the money’, and ‘not believing that there is a problem’, which goes hand in hand with the confidence in the originality of work.
P: Yes. And there’s another aspect to that. If for example, in a particular field of science, there is a standard procedure for conducting a certain test. And the authors may look at different materials or different situations, but apply the same standard procedure. It might be just as easy to cut and paste that entire procedure into several papers if the procedure hasn’t changed from one study to another. So, that would pop up as finding self-plagiarism. But I don’t consider that to be as serious of a problem if it’s just repeating some standard test technique over and over again. So that maybe a false case, where it’s not as big of a concern for me as maybe plagiarizing an interpretation or plagiarizing a discussion, something of that nature, where you really are looking for novelty creativity and new insights.
J: What do you think is the most effective deterrent to plagiarism?
P: I think it is the knowledge that you are going to be found out if you do it. The increasing availability of resources to find these things is one aspect, but the authors have to realize that these resources are being applied to their work if they are going to plagiarize themselves, there is a higher probability they’re going to be discovered.
J: I agree. We work closely with journals and publishers to make sure that they have their ethics policies very visibly displayed on their websites, so that before authors and researchers submit their work, they see that the journal checks for plagiarism. I know that CrossRef and COPE also encourage journals to do so. I think that is a big deterrent.
P: Well, where I signed up was through the editorial system of Elsevier as I edited a recent conference. Subsequently, I was appointed co-editor-in-chief for one of their journals and I intend to continue to use plagiarism software in that capacity as well.
J: Excellent news, congrats! OK, next question: What is your opinion of self-plagiarism? Obviously, you answered that it’s ‘a concern’. Anything to add here?
P: I think it is a concern where it is being passed off as new work. Like I said, if you plagiarize a test procedure, that is not so much of a concern. I’ve had the opportunity to develop some ASTM standard procedures tests. In that case, the procedure is pretty much the same in order to conform to the standard. Writing that up is not particularly a concern. Where I would say plagiarism is more of a concern is when passing off someone else’s interpretation as your idea or that sort of thing. That’s clearly going beyond the boundaries of reasonable repetition.
J: I’ve talked to many editors and they have a similar point of view. A lot of people are just not aware of self-plagiarism. They don’t realize it is a problem. Some editors decide to go back [to the submitter] and say, “you’ve self-plagiarized” or “you’re duplicating your work and you need to make sure you cite this.” So it may not be considered to be on the high end of misconduct.
P: Sometimes you do see the reuse of figures and that gets into copyright. For example, I found a copy of a drawing I prepared for an ASTM standard. Some authors have cut and pasted that same drawing into their articles to show the schematic diagram of a test they ran. I recognized it immediately as a drawing I had done years ago. It was more convenient for them to use it, and I don’t mind if they use my drawing if it’s referenced and properly approved by requesting permission from the original publisher. It was just so blatant. That can happen in the self-plagiarizing area also. Somebody uses a very attractive photograph or a very attractive graphic that they might have used in another paper and not really attributed it or referenced it.
J: Again I think that goes back to the idea that people don’t realize that it’s an issue, and that it belongs to somebody. They see it on the web and they think, “Well I can use it because it’s there.”
P: I think where that is more of a problem is in presentations rather than publications. In PowerPoint presentations in technical societies, etc., people need a picture of an airplane so they go find a Boeing 737 on the web or whatever and they just paste it into their presentation without any attribution.
J: I’d love to hear about how you handled that incident, but for the sake of time, let’s jump last question: how many times you have used iThenticate, and what’s your opinion of it?
P: At this point, I may have used it a couple dozen times perhaps. As I’ve said, I don’t do it on every paper, but I’m becoming a little bit more cautious about plagiarism and probably using it more now.
J: I think it’s a good idea, just to be on the safe side. Looping back to one of the main responses that people don’t have enough time … iThenticate takes so little time (minutes) to check a paper, so from my point of view, there really isn’t any excuse for someone to say, “I don’t have any time to check it."
P: Right, you walk over and get a refill of your coffee and when you sit down again it’s done. I agree, but it could just be getting over that initial barrier of trying it out.
J: Good point. Peter, thank you for your time today! It was a pleasure speaking with you.