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Good practices

Misconduct in papers on misconduct

Zé VicenteThe organizers of the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity, to be held in Hong Kong in June, were surprised to hear from a reviewer evaluating papers submitted by event participants that one of the abstracts contained signs of plagiarism. Upon submitting all of the abstracts for analysis by the plagiarism-detection software Turnitin, they discovered that they had a significant problem. The software identified 12 cases of suspected plagiarism and 18 cases of self-plagiarism, which is when authors copy parts of their own previous work into a new paper. The proportion of repeated text in the abstracts ranged from 37% to 94%.

The organization chose to reject all cases of self-plagiarism for oral presentation, but allowed them to be presented in poster format. As it turns out, no rules had actually been broken. The public call for abstracts did not state that submissions should only contain work that had not previously been fully or partially presented. Furthermore, the abstract form did not allow for the citation of other articles. “For future conferences we will explicitly ask whether the work is novel and to provide references to earlier presentations or publications,” co-organizers Lex Bouter, Daniel Barr, and May Har Shan wrote in a text posted on the website Retraction Watch.

Of the 12 suspected cases of plagiarism, five were rejected by the reviewers for being of low quality or outside the conference scope. Ironically, two of the abstracts were about plagiarism. The authors of all papers were questioned. Six gave no response and one requested withdrawal of the abstract with no explanation. Among those who provided explanations, two were a husband and wife who reported that they authorized each other to reuse results they had presented at the previous conference held in Amsterdam in 2017. In one case, the author attempted to blame the technical staff of the conference itself. Two others verified that the copied excerpts were from previous works of their own. They were reclassified as self-plagiarism, while the others were all rejected. In the end, 2% of the submitted abstracts contained plagiarism and 5% self-plagiarism. “It is clear that plagiarism is not permissible. The importance of avoiding self-plagiarism is less obvious,” the three co-organizers noted. A conference presentation, they explain, often relates to a study whose results are still undergoing analysis and refinement before a scientific article is published. “We do not know how often largely identical abstracts are submitted by their authors to multiple conferences, but we believe that if that happens it should be disclosed to reviewers and conference participants.”