Plagiarism on the Rise?

I recently reviewed a paper where, a few paragraphs into the introduction, the words seemed strangely familiar. After some cross-checking, I realised that the author of the paper had copied about two paragraphs verbatim from one of my papers. After a bit more digging, I found other places in the paper where the author had copied from other researchers’ work as well. In all cases, no quotation marks had been used nor any reference had been provided. The papers the author had copied from were listed in the reference section though.

Today I received a letter from the journal’s editor, informing me that the paper had been rejected. The editor considered this a minor case of plagiarism, as it was not clear whether the author was doing this intentionally or simply had not had enough guidance and experience in academic conduct. The actual research work, while faulty and shallow, seemed original. Maybe putting the copied-from papers into the reference section had been smart way of guarding against accusations of malicious intent.

In a strange coincidence, today the University of Bayreuth declared the dissertation of one of its graduates, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, former defense minister of Germany, a case of intentional plagiarism.

Quo vadis, academia?

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  1. Frederik Kramer Avatar

    @Dirk I very much like Red Hats’ marketing slogan “we grow when we share”. I am aware of this “don’t steel my idea” effect but i think especially computer scientists should carefully look at what Linus Torvalds did and what was the result of it.
    People that know him in person repeatedly reported that he never credited himself for work of others. So to me it is very much about culture whether an open (public) review process will be sustainable. But if we (i.e. the scientists) don’t give it a try we’ll never know.
    @Ann and Dirk As of your theory on the future impact of past sins, i think the reason for the observed phenomenon is todays selfish society. Lots of humans seem to believe, the impact curve of sins will decrease over time. Actually i think the opposite will be the case.
    If one is feeling better off with just more money in his/her pocket, than there might be still an overall positive outcome of fooling others to gain titles and power and taking the risk of being discovered in the future. If one in turn takes the potential negative impact on the three upper levels of Maslow’s pyramid into account as well, the result should become clearly negative.
    In the case of Germany i think the aftermath of the KTG plagiarism will be important to recover principle behavioral rules. If there will be a significant monetary impact on the former Minister as well (one might think of pension cutting and salary payback), than it will probably become generally obvious that plagiarism is foolish.

  2. Dirk Riehle Avatar

    @Ann I guess it is an arms race. My title was somewhat rhetorically – plagiarism is certainly on the rise, and so are tools to counter it. I agree that journals should routinely throw submissions to such plagiarism checkers.
    As to unintentional plagiarism – well, the editor made the choice she made. The submission had been from a university I had never heard of and a country that is famous for a somewhat different social system and values. It is hard to say whether this was intentional. (And I don’t know the repercussions for the author as to submitting to this journal again or beyond.)

  3. Dirk Riehle Avatar

    @Frederik I’ve been thinking about open (public) peer review too. I think many authors in computer science might balk because they fear theft of their ideas. But I wonder whether putting work out early actually has the opposite effect.
    What I don’t quite get is the stupidity of people who plagiarize. They may get away today, but what about tomorrow? Plagiarism checkers are continuously improving, and 5 or 10 years from now someone will run an elaborate cross-checking experiment on all the papers and will uncover the sins of the past.

  4. Ann Avatar

    It seems to me that one of the first steps in reviewing a paper should involve phrase matching to see if it resembles existing works (this should be done automatically by journals). Given digital copies in a format which allows exact text to be compared, that should be possible. Of course that wouldn’t stop plagiarism, but it would require would-be plagiarists to work harder to seek out unpublished or older text not yet available online.
    I don’t believe a defense of ‘unintentional plagiarism.’ Universities always seem to spend some time in the student introduction explaining the consequences of plagiarism, and what constitutes plagiarism, and, at any rate, it is something all students are taught by secondary school at the latest (certainly those who aspire to university have no excuse for not understanding what constitutes plagiarism). Until universities ruthlessly punish all detected plagiarism (with firing/expulsion/withdrawing the degree instead of warnings), it will continue to be profitable (for a certain sort of person) to plagiarize.

  5. Frederik Kramer Avatar

    Even if i would consider myself as relatively unexperienced with regard the do’s and dont’s of academia in general, i am deeply embarassed by the constantely rising share of plagiarism in academia.
    It seems that reverting the double-blind review procedure by testing the quality of reviewers becomes increasingly popular. I hope that well-established researchers propose something beyond the “create a new journal /conference series – make it popular – obtain more manuscripts – make money” cycle by bringing up a real and globally accepted Open Access agenda to the heart of academic research.
    I wonder whether there is any good reason why non-academics should’nt be able to help evaluating the originality and quality of research by using an internet based and entirely transparent publication and reputation space.

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