Fellow writers, editors, and teachers, please continue to preach the word: plagiarism is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
The editorial office received an e-mail from a reviewer who thought an assigned manuscript looked remarkably similar to something previously seen in a foreign-language journal. After some investigation, the reviewer discovered that the assigned manuscript was a word-for-word translation of the foreign-language article; everything (including figures and tables) in the submitted manuscript was identical to everything in the published article. After investigation, the editorial office determined that the lead author clearly stated on the submission copyright forms that “the manuscript has not been submitted elsewhere to any other publication, in any medium or language, for consideration.” The editor initiated an investigation, in which he asked the authors of the manuscript to explain their behavior. He indicated that this looked very much like a case of duplicate publication. Surprise and disbelief marked the authors’ response: they did not think that publishing the same article in a language different from the original was wrong. Wasn’t it only helping spread knowledge to a wider audience of readers who could not read the original language and who wouldn’t have the article indexed in their online databases?
Do the actions of the manuscript authors in this scenario constitute dual publication? Yes. Was their submission of a previously published article to a second journal ethically wrong? Yes. Is the translation of an article into a second language wrong? Not in and of itself, but this should have been clearly communicated from the outset to the editorial office, so that the second-language publication could clearly acknowledge the original source of the material and original language, and obtain proper permission for translation from the copyright holder. Most journals refuse to republish any articles that have been previously published, regardless of the language of original publication, primarily because they limit publication to original papers. Was this mistake on the authors’ part an honest misunderstanding that could have been avoided with minimal instruction on what constitutes dual publication? Most likely, yes. In this opening scenario, the authors attempted to commit duplicate publication; they submitted a previously published paper for consideration. Had it been published, the authors would have received double the credit or attribution for work expended on only one paper—in brief, duplicate publication or “self-plagiarism.”
SCOPE AND REASONS WHY PLAGIARISM AND DUAL PUBLICATION ARE A PROBLEM
A recent MEDLINE search for the word “plagiarism” yielded nearly 650 references. A broader Google search resulted in more than 6.5 million items. Unfortunately, plagiarism represents a broad-based problem that is on the rise in scientific writing.1–11,26 One article in Clinical Chemistry quotes two studies which estimated that various acts and degrees of plagiarism occur among 1.4 to 4.7 percent of researchers, with up to 10.5 percent of articles suspected of being duplicate publications by the same authors.1 A separate article reported that over 80 percent of students of a programming course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had plagiarized or cheated.4 Plagiarism and dual publication occur across all medical specialties and are a worldwide problem.10
Nearly every article on plagiarism or dual publication concurs that these are serious issues, constituting some of the most serious offenses in scientific misconduct.2,11,12 Why are they a problem? Among other things, plagiarism and dual publication:
- Take another person’s words, figures, and data and make them appear to be your own (theft of someone else’s “property,” words, and effort).
- Falsely represent another person’s work as your own (misrepresentation/falsification).
- Attempt to gain credit rightly earned by another (cheating).
- Short-circuit the clinical, experimental, and publication routes by which data and conclusions were honestly derived (circumvent the scientific process).11
- Clutter and “contaminate” the scientific literature with redundant literature.12
- Inappropriately give credit where credit is not due.
- Instill a loss of faith in the journal(s) and institutions involved, and discredit the scientific process and scientific reporting as a whole when the offense is discovered.
- Consume valuable time of the editorial office spent on investigating allegations of misconduct.
Plagiarism and dual publication have a long history. Blatant copying and dual publication occurred in the medieval period and among the great anatomists in the Renaissance and following periods. It was not until recently that Franz Joseph Ingelfinger (1910 to 1980), famous former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, squarely addressed the problem by instituting the so-called Ingelfinger Rule.13 Ingelfinger insisted that no article in his journal should be submitted simultaneously to another journal or published elsewhere beforehand and that a scientific claim should be validated before dissemination to the public.6,14
Plagiarism is elegantly and elaborately defined in a number of publications.4,6,7,12–22 Broadly stated, to plagiarize is to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another person as one’s own, to use another person’s work or effort without crediting the original source, to commit literary theft, or to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. Plagiarism is an act of fraud, which involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward.22 Loui quotes the Federal Register in defining plagiarism:
“[Research misconduct is] fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results …. Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.”15
Furthermore, Edmunds comments that the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers plagiarism as one of the primary components of scientific misconduct. He reports that the Office of Research Integrity defines plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.”12
William Parmley provides insight in his editorial, in which he cites a National Institutes of Health conference document on plagiarism:
“[F]our elements encompass plagiarism: (1) the use of another’s text, ideas, and/or illustrations; (2) failure to credit the original author; (3) implications that the material is that of the plagiarist; and (4) failure to get the original author’s [or copyright holder’s] consent.”4
Michael Cross determines that the most common type of plagiarism occurs when junior researchers copy passages from published work into their papers. Such authors may claim that they did not know they were doing anything wrong, especially if English is not their first language.17 Arguments presented by Yilmaz epitomize the thinking of some foreign-language plagiarists.23 He states that, “Borrowing sentences in the part of a paper that simply helps to better introduce the problem should not be seen as plagiarism. Even if our introductions are not entirely original, our results are ….” The Editors and Editorial Board of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery disagree with any such arguments; all authors need to realize that “borrowing better English” of other authors constitutes scientific misconduct (however, some offenses are genuinely made out of ignorance or misunderstanding). Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery wholeheartedly embraces all of the above definitions of plagiarism. We consider plagiarism to be scientific misconduct.
Dual publication, also termed “recycling fraud,” occurs when an author reuses his or her own text, figures, tables, video or audio material, or any other previously published material without attributing the previous publication and/or without obtaining permission to reproduce the material from the holder of the copyright.24 The recycling or duplication of previously published material may occur in the same journal as the original publication or in a different journal. The above-referenced definitions and discussion on plagiarism also sufficiently discuss and define dual publication, as much of dual publication is actually “self-plagiarism.”
A minority of authors would argue that duplication of published papers, in part or in whole, is acceptable because it disseminates the message more widely.25 As started previously, duplication of previously published material clutters the literature with redundancies. We approve only judicious, properly referenced, and properly authorized use of previously published material and not the wholesale use of improperly obtained material. With that said, we are aware that a number of dual-publication infractions are made out of ignorance, without malicious or duplicitous intent. This article endeavors to help guide authors, especially residents and young academic plastic surgeons, to avoid making those types of mistakes.
Obtaining Permission for Previously Published Material
It is important to stress that the appropriate use of referenced, previously published material–-obtained with the written permission of the copyright holder–-is acceptable and has great educational merit. Equally important to note and with few exceptions, very rarely does an author of a published article retain copyright to its content (either text, tables, figures, or videos). Almost universally, it is the journal, its parent society, or publishing company that owns the copyright of published material. Gone are the days when an author writing a manuscript could obtain permission to reproduce material from the author of a previous publication. Likewise, authors who want to reproduce a figure or table from their own previous articles need to obtain permission from the copyright holder, and need to cite their previous work, unless they have specifically retained copyright of those illustrations and obtained written confirmation from the journal.
NUANCES AND SPECIAL SITUATIONS–-GUIDELINES ON COPYRIGHT
Recent technological advances have expanded the dissemination of biomedical information. These include open-access journals and e-journals (whose content is available exclusively online). In addition to offering a different format for information and a different business model for the dissemination of articles, these types of publications also have different guidelines for the assignment of copyright and use of previously published material. Most, if not all, open-access journals allow the authors of the published material to retain copyright of their material. How does publication in an open-access journal or e-journal affect the issues of plagiarism and dual publication?
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery offers these guidelines to the above question:
- All of the material (text, tables, figures, videos, and so on) in any manuscript submitted to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery must be submitted to the Journal exclusively and cannot be concurrently submitted to any other publication (including foreign-language, open-access, or e-journals) for consideration while it is being considered.
- Any previously published material (including material published in foreign-language, open-access, or e-journals) that is included in a submission to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery needs to:
- a) Clearly reference the original publication of the previously published material.
- b) Be accompanied by a letter of permission from the copyright holder of the material. Any fee associated with permission to reuse previously published material is the responsibility of the author of the manuscript.
- If an author submits an article to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery that contains material to which he or she holds the copyright (figures, material from articles published on open-access or e-journals, and so on), he or she needs to clearly indicate that he or she holds the copyright and provide Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery with written permission to use the previously copyrighted material.
- All permission statements allowing Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to publish previously published material must extend to all print and digital media (so that material can be both printed and placed on the Journal’s website) and must not include any time limitations.
Issues of copyright, reuse of material, and proper citation/attribution can be complex. In some cases an author may not know what to do. The Editorial Board of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery recognizes these challenges, and we are sympathetic to authors who endeavor to do what is right but who may make an honest mistake. We always encourage authors to contact the editorial office if they have any questions regarding such items. Communication of any questions or concerns with our office at the beginning of the submission process is welcomed and will avoid potential difficulties later in the editorial and publication process.
EDITORIAL OFFICE PROTOCOLS
A variety of sources contact the editorial office about potential incidents of plagiarism or dual publication: reviewers, journal readers, other editorial offices, and new electronic detection services. Many articles provide insight on how to conduct investigations involving allegations of plagiarism and dual publication.12,15,18,19 Assisted by these articles, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery has developed the following protocols that guide our investigation in these matters:
The Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery editorial office obtains as much information as possible from the person or group making the allegation of plagiarism/dual publication.
We then conduct an internal investigation of the allegation. We review all pertinent manuscript and correspondence files with our own peer review system, and study copies of published articles in both Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and any other journal involved. We endeavor to uncover the full nature of the allegation and establish the chronology of events. (If the alleged author has numerous manuscripts or published articles with Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, we investigate those manuscripts as well, to determine whether a pattern of plagiarism is suggested.) It is our office policy not to make any initial judgments–-either for or against–-an author on an allegation of scientific misconduct. We strive to maintain a dispassionate attitude by discovering and focusing on the facts.
Next, we contact the author who is being accused of plagiarism or dual publication. We provide the author(s) as much detailed information as possible and ask the author to explain his or her side of the story. The seriousness of the potential offense is always stressed in this first letter. The identity of the person who raises the accusation is always kept confidential. We contact the editor-in-chief(s) of any other journal(s) involved to collaborate with him or her in the investigation. Typically, we give the accused authors one month to reply.
Once an author responds, we evaluate his or her reply in light of the results of our own investigation and in collaboration with the editor(s) of any other journal(s) involved. It is crucial to state that each allegation of an offense is evaluated individually; there can be numerous factors specific to each situation that need to be assessed. If an author is forthright and helpful in his or her response to us, we factor that into our assessment. Equally, if an author is not cooperative, furtive, or hides information, we consider that as well. After careful research, evaluation of both the accusation and the response of the accused, and input from other journals, the Editor-in-Chief makes a determination. If an instance of plagiarism or dual publication has occurred, a letter to the accused author is drafted that includes penalties that will be imposed for the offense. That draft is then reviewed by American Society of Plastic Surgeons legal counsel.
Once legal counsel approves of the letter and any penalties, the Editorial Office sends the letter to the accused author, with copies to the editor-in-chief(s) of other journal(s) involved. If the penalty involves removing an article from the published record, letters are sent to the Journal’s publisher, who then issues retraction paperwork to PubMed and other indexing agencies. While we impose penalties on authors that pertain to articles in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, we do not suggest any course of action or penalties to the editors of other journals.
The editors and editorial board of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery take all accusations of scientific misconduct very seriously. We always give accused authors the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to provide their side of the story. We always hope that an honest mistake has occurred, in which case the situation can turn into an overall positive learning event. Nevertheless, when an incident of misconduct has occurred and is verified, potential penalties will ensue.
SCHEDULE OF PENALTIES FOR PLAGIARISM AND DUAL PUBLICATION
Just as there are articles that provide guidance on how to conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct, numerous sources provide suggested penalties for plagiarism and dual publication.12,15,18,26,27Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery applies uniform procedures to implement appropriate penalties on cases of plagiarism and dual publication, and urges other journals to follow suit. Cooperation (or lack thereof) on the part of accused (and guilty) authors, along with mitigating or compounding circumstances, is considered when determining final penalties.
If we determine an author has incorrectly or inadvertently used a figure or table without proper acknowledgment or permission, we publish a correction or erratum to rectify the situation. If a permission violation has occurred, we direct the author to retroactively obtain correct permission and pay any permission fees associated with that permission.
Authors found guilty of plagiarism will have their manuscript removed from consideration. If they have published an article in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery that was plagiarized, their article will be removed from the official record. In addition, all guilty authors will be banned from submitting manuscripts to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery for a period of up to 2 calendar years, depending on the unique circumstances of the case. Any other active manuscripts they have with Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery may be withdrawn from consideration and/or the publication schedule, if the circumstances of the case warrant such action.
In addition to the above penalties, these authors will be banned from submitting to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery for a period of up to 5 calendar years. Lastly, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery will contact the chairman of their department or academic dean of their medical school and report the incident to that person, if warranted by the circumstances, as well as the ethics committee of their academic institutions and/or professional organizations of which they are members.
In addition to the above penalties, all of these authors’ published articles in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery will be reviewed for potential plagiarism or dual publication; if any of those articles are found to have involved plagiarism, those articles will also be removed from the permanent record. Such authors can be permanently banned from submitting papers to Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and the ethics committee of their academic institutions and/or professional organizations of which they are members will again be notified.
HOW TO AVOID PLAGIARISM
In light of the serious nature of scientific misconduct and the devastating consequences once it is discovered, the best course of action is to avoid it altogether. How? Knowing what constitutes these offenses in the first place will help an author avoid them. Numerous sources and websites provide a wealth of information in this regard.19,21,22,24,28–30 In addition, Loui provides excellent advice to authors in preparing manuscripts15:
- Do not put your name on a manuscript written by someone else unless you have significantly contributed to it. This is particularly important if a medical writer is involved or if the manuscript is supported by industry resources.
- Do not insert someone else’s text as a place-holder in a draft manuscript.
- Do not copy verbatim the background section of someone else’s paper.
- Include references to all sources, with appropriate citations, in all manuscripts and grant proposals.
- Take allegations of plagiarism to a research integrity officer or similar person.
To those, we add the following:
- Contact the editorial office if you have any question regarding plagiarism or dual publication. It’s better to ask a question than to take a risk.
- All authors need to take responsibility for their manuscripts. If your name is on a manuscript, make sure all of the material in the paper either is original or is properly cited and has proper permission to be reproduced. If you have a question about the originality of any part of a manuscript, verify it with your coauthors. Senior authors should pay special attention to what the junior authors are doing and where they are sending their manuscripts.
- If you realize you have made an error of dual publication or plagiarism inadvertently, proactively contact the editorial office. It is much better to come forward of your own volition than to have an accusation made against you.
- Take a course on how to conduct scientific research and how to write a manuscript.
- Take an ethics course on scientific misconduct.
Part of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery’s educational task is to assist authors in learning how ethically to write, submit, and publish original clinical and experimental research. Content, how that content is developed, and how that content is disseminated are of utmost concern to us. Our guidelines are intended for honest people, and our purpose is to educate by disseminating high-quality biomedical information. We would rather not have to police and investigate claims of fraud or deception.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS ON THE PURSUIT OF INTEGRITY
Although plagiarism and dual publication may have been difficult to detect in the past,1,14,16,17,31,32 technology is making detection easier and easier. Editorial offices do not have all the resources needed to detect instances of misconduct. As a result, the occasional allegation is brought to the attention of editors and journals by a reviewer or reader who has noticed similarities between articles. That situation is changing, however. New and sophisticated software programs are beginning to detect similarities in published articles.1,17,32–35 The technology is still in its germinal stage, with many “false positives” being detected. Because of this, editorial offices must continue to exercise vigilance and conduct careful investigations to determine when plagiarism has indeed occurred. However, in the two instances that Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery has been contacted by the staff of the new “Deja Vu” system, we found plagiarism had occurred.
Furthermore, the Journal’s online submission system now employs a system called “Cross Check,” a system utilized by the Journal’s publisher across all of its journals to detect similarities in submitted manuscripts. We anticipate that it will help us discover instances of misconduct at the earliest stages of manuscript submission. In addition, we continue to encourage the review panel to contact our offices whenever they suspect a duplicate submission. We foster and support open and collegial communication among editorial offices of various journals. Lastly, we will begin to publish additional guidelines in our Information for Authors on what constitutes dual publication and plagiarism, so that there will be no question in authors’ minds when they write their manuscripts.
By all counts, scientific misconduct continues to be a serious problem in biomedical publication. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery encounters typically between four and seven allegations of plagiarism and dual publication each year; we suspect much more goes undetected. Although our office is limited—as, indeed, are all editorial offices—in what it can do to combat misconduct, we remain committed to the highest ethical standards and to vigorously, fairly, and uniformly prosecuting all who commit offenses. We call on other journals to join us to adopt uniform procedures of investigation and a uniform measured series of penalties for all instances of proven misconduct.
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