A quick fix for plagiarism

It doesn’t seem right. In fact it sounds like an abdication of responsibilities and like covering up a crime if and when the crime is discovered.

But it also sounds a simple fix. A stroke of genius – somewhat crooked but very clever. Just eliminate the plagiarism by punctuation!

If accused of plagiarism, just put the impugned text within quotation marks!

Retraction Watch has the story:

PNAS has a curious correction in a recent issue. A group from Toronto and Mount Sinai in New York, it seems, had been rather too liberal in their use of text from a previously published paper by another researcher — what we might call plagiarism, in a less charitable mood.

To paraphrase Beyoncé: If you like it, better put some quotation marks around it. But we’re pretty sure she meant before, not after, the fact.

The article, “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” had appeared in May 2012, in other words, some 17 months ago. It has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

……..

Parthun is Mark Parthun, a professor at Ohio State University. It was he who brought the misused text to PNAS’s attention. He tells us:

I read this paper with great interest because my lab also studies the Hat1 enzyme.  While reading this, a number of the passages in the Introduction and Discussion sections started to sound very familiar.  These passages were familiar because they were plagiarized from a review article I had published earlier (Parthun, M.R. Oncogene 26:5319–5328, 2007).  I also found some sentences that were plagiarized from another manuscript from another lab (Campos, et al, NSMB 2010).  I brought this plagiarism to the attention of the editors at PNAS and suggested that this manuscript be retracted.  After more than a year, PNAS published a correction (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/45/18339.full).  This correction lists all of the passages that were plagiarized and simply says that they should have had quotation marks around them.  This seems like a woefully inadequate response.  PNAS has essentially made plagiarism irrelevant because if you are caught, all you have to do is retroactively say that you should have used quotations.  Is this a common practice with journals.  I hope not because I think this represents a serious step in the erosion of scientific ethics.

….

We asked Daniel Salisbury, a PNAS editor, why the journal opted to correct rather than retract the paper. This was his reply:

In light of recent concerns from the author of the plagiarized text, we are following up with the PNAS authors’ institution.

Parthun, who said he received a similar message, was not impressed:

My problem with his response [is] that they are simply passing the buck.  I would have thought that PNAS had the ultimate responsibility for the manuscripts that it publishes.  I don’t understand why they need Mount Sinai to tell them when something is improper.

To which we say, we agree.

We’ve emailed Plotnikov for comment and will update this post if we hear from him. Meanwhile, although we think there might be room in science publishing for correcting improperly attributed text, an instance of multiple examples of frank plagiarism such as this probably isn’t the test case.

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