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Should Research Plagiarism Cause an Automatic Retraction

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Jul 24, 2014 9:30:00 AM

In a recent article for Nature, Praveen Chaddah argues that, while text plagiarism is a form of misconduct, that scientists are not authors and that the offense of lifting words is not nearly as severe as the lifting of ideas.

iStock_000004918192SmallAccording to Chaddah, in cases where only words are taken and not ideas, such as the reuse of text in an introduction or a description of an experiment, it should be adequate to correct the paper rather than retract it and remove valid research from the body of work in the field. However, cases where the plagiarism was part of a broader fraud, such as claiming credit for another’s idea or faking results, should be treated just as serious as they are today.

Cheddah certainly has a point, there are forms of text plagiarism that don’t impact the quality of the actual research. It’s very possible to have plagiarized text in a paper but have conducted a perfectly valid study that furthers the field.

However, plagiarism is also a warning sign. Though sloppy writing doesn’t means sloppy research, it is often an indication of a larger problem. Papers with ethical issues often have multiple problems and text plagiarism, currently, is one of the easiest to detect.

As Cheddah pointed out, text plagiarism could also be a sign of plagiarism of ideas or research, but it could also be a sign of general sloppiness in the research or that work on the study was hurried or incomplete.

The discovery of text plagiarism may not always warrant a retraction, but it certainly warrants an investigation. Any research where unattributed text is found should be further scrutinized to ensure that the text plagiarism is the only problem.

But as common as plagiarism detection tools are in paper retractions, they are far more widely used in weeding out papers that are printed. During the review process, papers with text plagiarism, even if the plagiarism doesn’t impact the research, are routinely discarded for papers without such issues. This is a product of the competitiveness in journal publishing right now and the fact that there is more high-quality research than can be printed, especially in high-impact journals.

So while the question of retracting papers with plagiarism is an important one, the larger issue is the use of plagiarism detection tools in the review process.

However, exactly how plagiarism detection technology is used in the review process is largely undisclosed and it’s different from publication to publication. Overall, it’s an issue that is determined more by the competitiveness of the journal, how available editors are to address and help fix plagiarism issues and so forth.

In short, while plagiarized text does not always mean bad research, it is a warning sign and it still can prevent otherwise high-quality research from being published.

Given how competitive journal publishing is currently, it makes sense for authors, editors and everyone else involved in the publishing of research to use the tools available and treat the results seriously.

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of iThenticate.