To catch a plagiarist

Scientific dishonesty is all the rage these days. No, the cool kids aren’t doing it.

Amidst the public gnashing of teeth at the IPCC over the Climategate report and the science blogosphere reeling from Pepsigate, Nature ran a piece last week detailing how it and other publications had started cracking down on plagiarism in their journals.

The topic isn’t new in science, but the ongoing plagiaristgate (copycatgate? cheatergate? Unattributed-recycling-of-previously-used-materials-gate? Sorry, part of being a journalist is unnecessary attachments of the word gate to any noun involved in a scandal.) shows that the problem isn’t only confined to high school English classes.

In 2008, several thousand publishers organized a non-profit plagiarism checker called CrossCheck that draws on the collective power of 25.5 million articles from nearly 50,000 journals to catch would-be cheats. To date, 83 publishers have joined the database, with many supposedly holding out over fear of sharing content.

According to the Nature article, one publisher responsible for thousands of publications on a broad range of topics, Taylor and Francis, found that since they started using CrossCheck six-months ago on three of their journals; one had to reject 6-percent of submissions because of plagiarism, another 10-percent, and the third had to reject a whopping 23-percent (13 of 56 submissions). The instances ranged from taking a few paragraphs to just copying and pasting other people’s articles entirely. However, the biggest problem they found was self-plagiarism.

The very small number of studies released so far have found much less rampant plagiarism than Taylor and Francis, but the most frequent violations are consistently self-plagiarism.

In the past, revealing a scientific fraud has left people sounding the trumpets of science’s self checking nature. You can lie, cheat and forge, and you’ll still get published. In the end though, someone will check your work. In an era of mega public-funding for scientific research, science can hardly afford to tolerate even these minor injustices when they threaten to undermine public support. The IPCC researchers were cleared of scientific fraud by several investigations, yet public confidence in all climate change research has dropped. That’s despite mounting evidence that shows climate change is a major concern and some in the news media taking the rare step to admit they blew it.

In 2002, arguably the world’s brightest young scientist, a physicist named Jan Hendrik Schön, was proven to be a monumental fraud. He deceived the most prestigious journals in the world like Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters (a publication of the American Physical Society who supplies this intern’s paycheck), with articles detailing fascinating advances he had made in transistors, lasers and superconductors. His peers did eventually find him out when other researchers had trouble replicating his results and in addition to making things up, he was also found guilty of taking data from one paper and simply dropping it into another (Eugenie Reich has an awesome book out about it).

A Nature editorial also released last week lists some times when it claims plagiarism might be justified and cites human judgment as the ultimate decider on what is and isn’t plagiarism. The editorial says sometimes a self-plagiarizing author might be bringing old material to a new audience, or other times a scientist with a poor mastery of English might paraphrase from the introduction of similar work.

Schön’s example is far more alarming than a tenure-thirsty professor recycling old material to get their name in print more often. However, public trust for science has been eroded by scandals in recent years and journals at least using CrossCheck are taking steps to make it easier for reviewers to check suspect material.

Most publications haven’t released data on how many submissions they’re rejecting after checking in CrossCheck. Nature says it’s only spot-checking its research articles and finds very little plagiarism, though it checks all of its review articles and has found higher instances there (still less than one-percent).

Someday CrossCheck’s use might work as a deterrent for would be cheats, but considering the media’s kneejerk reaction to the Climategate story, damage is easily inflicted and incredibly difficult to repair. Every publication should take at least the same steps as a tenth grade English teacher. Every field doesn’t need its own cautionary tale of Piltdown man, Climategate or Jan Hendrik Schön.

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