Saturday, October 27, 2018

Seven Lessons Learned from Two Plagiarism Cases

Recently, I was presented two plagiarism cases in one month, which triggered this blog post.

Case #1

Research group A used an idea proposed by research group B a few years ago to publish two papers in a flagship journal. 

In the first paper, A applied B's method to an application where B applied the same method, but A did not cite B's original paper at all. In the second paper, A applied B's method to a different application. A cited the original paper where B proposed that method, but did not clearly specify that the method was first proposed by B. Instead, A only cited how B commented on the previous work, which was the motivation of B's original idea. In other words, by reading A's second paper, a reader would consider that the method was originally proposed by A

Since the two papers were published almost at the same time. It's clear that A was aware of B's work, but did not give proper credit to the original paper. The improper citation misled the editors and reviewers. 

I have no intention to defend the editors and reviewers who handled those two papers in the peer review process. Their irresponsibility was part of the problem! In fact, both papers are good papers if the authors had properly cited the literature. At least the second one deserved to be published by that flagship journal.

My recommendation to A was to retract both papers, and to apologize to B

Case #2

Last year, I worked on a proposal with a few collaborators, including the Lead PI (A), PI (B), myself, and a few others. In our proposal, we used B's idea, which he published in a paper for a different application. The proposal was rejected by the funding agency. A decided to complete the research and publish a paper with us, so she sent the proposal to her student (C) to continue the work.

A few weeks ago, A sent the manuscript to us coauthors, and told me that C completed the research, and the results looked very promising. I quickly glanced through the manuscript and found the list of references very disorganized, so I asked A to work with C to re-do the literature review. In addition, I found the results a bit fishy. The proposed method dominated its counterparts with a landslide win. I thought it's too good to be true (see THIS POST about my smoke tests). I asked A to revise the paper and check the results.

After some investigation, A told me that C manipulated the computational results to make the benchmark models look bad. She has asked C to present the full picture.

Last week, I received the revised manuscript. I briefly read through the manuscript, but still didn't like how references are being cited. In addition, I felt some sentences read familiar. I asked A to work with C to further enhance the reference list, and to validate that this manuscript did not copy sentences from other papers.

Yesterday, A told me that she found the method proposed in this draft identical to the method in B's paper. She was pissed off, because C told her that the idea was original. Moreover, the manuscript never specified that the same method was used in a different application. Again, the improper citation misled A. With such frustration, A wanted to kill the manuscript.

My recommendation to A was to properly cite B's original paper, and submit the manuscript to a first-tier journal.

Lessons learned

  1. Plagiarism is defined as "the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own." 
  2. Always give proper credit to the prior research by citing the papers in the right places!
  3. Every co-author should understand and be able to defend every piece of the paper. 
  4. Every reviewer and editor in the peer review process should carefully review the assigned paper.
  5. Do damage control ASAP. Don't wait!
  6. Don't over-react to plagiarism. 
  7. Make preventive actions to avoid plagiarism in the future. 
In the next blog post, I will further explain what "novelty" really means in the academic literature.

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