Ethics of Journals: When plagiarism is not plagiarism

When is plagiarism not plagiarism?

Apparently when the editor of the journal BMC Medical Ethics finds that a paper published in his own journal has copied large chunks from a different (competing?) Journal – in this case Bioethics.

As Retraction Watch points out the retraction notice issued by BMC Medical Ethics is less than satisfying:

BMC Medical Ethics has retracted a November 2010 paper by two authors from Mayo Clinic whose manuscript — “End-of-life discontinuation of destination therapy with cardiac and ventilatory support medical devices: physician-assisted death or allowing the patient to die?” — contained passages that closely echoed those in another article, “Moral fictions and medical ethics,” published online in July 2009 in the journal Bioethics.

Retraction Watch continues:

We find the retraction notice more than a little opaque and confusing. It’s unclear how “similar” the article was to the Bioethics paper it offended. But why not use the word “plagiarism” to describe the similarities? Also, how convincing is that “no intention” disclaimer? (Not very, as it happens, as you’ll soon learn.) And why is the article still available?

We’ve emailed the editor of BMC Medical Ethics for an answer to these questions and will update this post when we learn more.

Retraction Watch spoke to Franklin G. Miller, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health and first author of the plagiarized Bioethics paper

Miller, to whom the retraction notice specifically apologizes, said he discovered the offending material this fall when he chanced upon the BMC Medical Ethics article.

I first saw a citation to a piece of mine in Bioethics, but then I had the feeling some of this language sounded a little familiar to me. I looked side by side at the two articles and I found extensive passages that were lifted—some were verbatim, some had a couple of minor word changes. There was a citation, but only one, and no quotation marks. They had essentially appropriated our language, our arguments, and our analysis as their own.”

Miller said he contacted the journal, which conducted an investigation.

At first they said they were going to issue a correction, which I said was not satisfactory. Finally the legal dept of the publisher of Bioethics got into the act, and that led to the retraction.

Miller said he is “very dissatisfied” with the retraction notice for its failure to use the word plagiarism and its claim that the misappropriation was inadvertent.

To say that it wasn’t intentional is mind-boggling. You cannot systematically lift someone else’s text without intending to do it. It seems not possible. A sentence or two, maybe, but not paragraphs.

It seems to me that at best the retraction notice is mealy-mouthed and at worst it represents a certain hypocrisy by the editor of BMC Medical Ethics.

Or perhaps it is only plagiarism when other Journals copy material published in yours but not when others are copied and published in your Journal?

Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to “Ethics of Journals: When plagiarism is not plagiarism”

  1. Christian Munthe Says:

    Thanks for this! Your take on BMC MD seems to be spot on. Here’s my own take on it all:

    • ktwop Says:

      Clearly the entire BioMed Central “conglomerate” raises questions as you write in your blog-post. The ethics of Journals (and I include here their commercial interests, the acceptance and rejection of papers, the editorial ethics and the transparency of peer-review) needs to be a little more transparent. When Journals (even highly respectable ones) publish research results which are beneficial to the commercial interest of the party funding the research then I believe a greater degree of transparency by the Journal is required (as for example in this case:

  2. When plagiarism is not plagiarism : part 2 « The k2p blog Says:

    […] […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: