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Good practices

When plagiarism doesn’t appear to involve bad faith

BoasPraticas aDaniel BuenoA recent consultation submitted to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a research ethics forum for publishers of scientific journals, illustrated the challenges of fairly evaluating suspected cases of plagiarism.  The publisher of a scientific periodical, the identity and origin of which were not disclosed, reported to COPE that it had begun using special software to detect plagiarism and had recorded a high incidence of short passages or sequences of sentences copied from other articles.  The problem affects 30% to 50% of the manuscripts submitted and in some papers even compromises the originality of as much as one-third of the text.

Although it may seem shocking, according to the publisher the authors do not seem to be acting in bad faith, since the copied sentences were short and came from more than 60—in one case, from more than 120—different sources.  “It is as if copying a segment containing what is thought to be an elegant turn of phrase might make up for the inadequacy of the researcher’s linguistic competence,” wrote the publisher, referring to the large number of authors for whom English is not their native language.  “At any rate, it is unacceptable that one-third of the passages in a text could be inspired by other sources.  It is not what we consider good practice in scientific writing.”

COPE responded to the consultation by recommending a case-by-case analysis that takes into account the characteristics of the recycled text.  Duplication in the results section is more serious than when the offense occurs in the introduction or methods sections.  Phrases copied in a review article that is composed of critical evaluations of existing literature compromise text originality more than do duplicated sentences that appear in a traditional paper, one that reports unprecedented results.  According to the forum, a publisher should demand explanations from an author who has failed to attribute authorship in too many segments of the article and should take more drastic action when the ideas defended by the author belong to other people.

“Publishers should continue to check all the manuscripts using anti-plagiarism software and reject articles that have a moderate or large incidence of superimposition of texts,” suggests COPE.  The institution with which the author is affiliated should be warned if there is, in fact, a suspicion of misconduct or if the publisher obtains evidence that the researcher is working in an environment that does not observe good scientific practices.

“If the authors are young researchers, a publisher could ask them to re-write the copied passages and submit the article again,” COPE recommends.