American Society for Investigative Pathology, June 2014, Vol 6, No. 2

Can You Trust What You Read?
Part 1: Plagiarism in Our Midst

Audra E. Cox, PhD, ELS (Managing Editor, AJP and JMD)

 

"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."               

– Samuel Johnson1

 

The goal of scientific writing is to advance scientific knowledge through presentation of data and discussion of results. Unfortunately, external pressures sometimes get in the way. Pressure to publish quickly, desire to publish in a high-impact journal, and the need to publish frequently can cloud judgment. In this article, the first in a series on integrity in scientific publishing, I will discuss plagiarism and how to avoid it.

 

I’m Just Borrowing a Few Sentences…

The Office of Research Integrity defines plagiarism as “the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and the substantial unattributed textual copying of another's work.”2 It is important to emphasize that plagiarism involves stealing not only another’s words but also their data, ideas, and images. If it’s been published, even if by you and even if you own the copyright, you cannot reuse it without quotes and proper citation. Such self plagiarism sometimes occurs with authors whose native language is not English. This may result from underdeveloped English writing skills, misapplied flattery or respect - possibly as a function of cultural mores, or from little knowledge of journal policies.

 

Most journals check a percentage of submitted manuscripts or all accepted manuscripts. The nonprofit CrossRef (Lynnfield, MA) maintains the database CrossCheck, which contains content from thousands of publishers that allow their articles to be indexed. Journals then use the web-based tool iThenticate (iParadigms, LLC, Oakland, CA) to compare submission against the database. Google is another search tool that cannot be underestimated as a plagiarism detection tool. In essence, you will get caught, so just don’t do it.

 

More People Will Read My Paper the More Places It Gets Published.

Redundant, or duplicate, publication is another trap to avoid. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors warns against “publication of a paper that overlaps substantially with one already published, without clear, visible reference to the previous publication.”3 Specifically, redundant publications share overlapping authorship (otherwise it would be plagiarism) and may involve reworking the data presentation or addition of small amounts of new data to obscure the similarities between works. Redundant data misleads by giving the false appearance that independent studies have reached the same conclusions. There are, however, some acceptable forms of duplicate publication. Multiple journals may copublish an article to increase awareness of position statements and guidelines from societies or the government. Another acceptable example is foreign language translations, which are often produced by the journal itself. Both of these examples require editorial/publisher approval as well as transparency.

 

While translations may be acceptable with publisher permission, you cannot publish an article in a foreign-language journal and then resubmit it for consideration to an English-language journal without full disclosure. Similarly, prior online posting of raw data is commonly considered previous publication. This includes pre-review journals, such as the now discontinued Nature Precedings (2007–2012), and online blogs and poster repositories. When submitting a manuscript, cite original data sources and any related publications. State if the data were previously presented as a poster or meeting talk or in a dissertation; provide confidential copies of other related works in preparation/review. Transparency goes a long way if you are unsure how to handle your manuscript.

 

It’s My Paper; Can’t I Do What I Want with It?

The final pitfall is copyright infringement: “When a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright holder.”4 The implementation of copyright in scholarly publications has changed substantially in recent years. Generally, copyright in journals is owned by either i) the journal, following copyright transfer; ii) the author, with copyright retained and execution of an exclusive publication license or one of various Creative Commons license or with copyright retained and the Publisher/owner waiving copyright, or iii) the government, as for content generated by government employees as part of their official duties (eg, for US government employees or UK Crown Copyright).

 

Proper permission is required when reusing or modifying previously published materials whether text; images from book chapters, journal articles, or dissertations; or other media. Permission can be obtained directly from the copyright holder or indirectly via the Copyright Clearance Center (Danvers, MA). It is considered courtesy to request permission from the original author even if they no longer own the copyright. Once permission is obtained, be sure to properly cite the original publication. Lastly, remember that permission is also required for posting to such online spaces as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

 

Consequences

The penalties for plagiarism-related offenses can be severe. For scholarly publications, a manuscript may be rejected or have its acceptance withdrawn, and published articles may require a Correction, Erratum, or even a Retraction. Serious cases can involve sanctions from an author’s institution and/or the US Office of Research Integrity as well as lawsuits from copyright holders. Finally, damage to one’s reputation can take years to repair.

 

Avoid these consequences by writing with integrity. Use common sense: Is the action trustworthy? Be transparent. When in doubt seek the advice of a senior colleague. For more information, explore these online resources:

 

  1. Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE): http://publicationethics.org;
  2. CSE’s White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications: http://www.councilscienceeditors.org;
  3. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE): http://www.icmje.org;
  4. Office of Research Integrity: http://ori.hhs.gov.

 

Portions of this article were previously presented at the American Society for Investigative Pathology 2014 Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology in San Diego, CA, April 26-30, 2014.

 

References

  1. Johnson S: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Edited by JP Hardy. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999
  2. ORI Provides Working Definition of Plagiarism. ORI Newsletter. 1994, 3:5-6
  3. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors: Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals; Duplicate Publication. Available online at http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/publishing-and-editorial-issues/overlapping-publications.html#two; last updated August 2013
  4. US Copyright Office: Definitions; What is copyright infringement? Available online at http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html; last accessed June 10, 2014