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Plagiarism and Dub-Pubbing in Science

- February 3, 2008

In the internet age, plagiarism looms as a vexing problem on college campuses. Sometimes, though, it’s the professors, not the students, who are the culprits.

In a paper (“A Tale of Two Citations”) published in the January 24 issue of Nature (here, gated), Mounir Errami and Harold Garner of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center report on the results of their foray into plagiarism detection in biomedical research.

Errami and Garner used eTBLAST, a text search program, as an initial screener of papers in Medline, the widely used online database of biomedical abstracts. Medline contains millions of records, and at the rate eTBLAST performs its searches, it would have taken Errami and Garner many years to perform a complete search. By taking some understandable shortcuts, they identified a large number of suspicious-looking abstracts, “manually” a subset of a few thousand of these, and turned up what they called 73 “plagiarism candidates.” Each of these “candidates” was a paper by one author or one set of authors that appeared to duplicate a paper by another author or set of authors. Errami and Garner stop short of describing these as cases of plagiarism, because such a charge is extremely serious and is subject to verification by editorial boards and university ethics committees and to counter-actions for libel or slander. In related work, Errami and Garner have identified a much more widespread tendency toward duplication of papers by the same author or authors; indeed, they characterize the rate of self-duplication as about 33 times higher than that of apparent duplication of others’ work.

What can be done? One problem, Errami and Garner note, is “the lack of clear standards for what level of … re-use is appropriate,” but “probably the single most important factor” is “the belief that one can get away with” such re-use. Consequently, they recommend that journal editors begin using the new computational tools to detect duplications and let it be known that they are doing so. “Above all, the fear of having some transgression exposed in a public and embarrassing manner could be a very effective deterrent,” they conclude.

Unfortunately, that deterrent is rarely employed. Rather, those who detect these ethical transgressions tend to sweep them under the rug — a tendency with which I have some second-hand experience.

Although it’s now dated, the most telling analysis of plagiarism I’ve ever encountered is Thomas Mallon‘s book, Stolen Words, a review of which appears here. As the reviewer indicates, the “star case” in Mallon’s book was a faculty member at Texas Tech University, who, as luck would have it, occupied the office next door to my own. After being caught in the act, he was quietly let go — exactly the course of action against which Errami and Garner warn.