October 25, 2014

intihal - Plagiarism in Turkey - Copy, Shake & Paste

Debora Weber-Wulff
I was recently invited to speak at a symposium organized by the Inter-Universities Ethics Platform and held at the Eurasian Institute of the University of Istanbul on October 17, 2014. They kindly organized two interpreters who took turns interpreting the talks given in Turkish for me, and my talk into Turkish for those who had need of it. Apparently, even in academic circles English is not a common language. I will describe the talks as far as I was able to understand them here. The conference was focused on intihal, the Turkish word for plagiarism. 
The deputy rector of the Istanbul University welcomed the 60-70 people present (more would come and go during the course of the day), noting that he himself is the editor of an international journal that tests articles submitted for plagiarism. They reject half of the articles submitted for this reason.
The first speaker was Hasan Yazıcı, a retired professor of rheumatology who sued the Turkish government in the European Court of Human Rights and won. He first described his case, which was recently decided (April 2014) and is available online. Since he was speaking to a room of people who had followed the case more or less closely, he did not go into details, but they are given in the judgement:
In 1997 Yazıcı had informed the Turkish Academy of Sciences that a book by a Turkish professor (I.D.) and the founder and former president of the Higher Education Council of Turkey (YÖK) entitled Mother's Book was basically a plagiarism of the popular US book on rearing children by Dr. Spock, Baby and Childcare. In 2000 Yazıcı  published an article about the plagiarism in the Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a shortened version in a Turkish daily newspaper.
In the article Yazıcı praised YÖK for establishing a committee to examine the scientific ethics of candidates for associate professorships, and proposed that YÖK start the conversation about plagiarism by asking their founder to apologize for the plagiarism in his book. In response, I.D. filed charges against Yazıcı, stating that this publication violated his personality rights. In the following six years the case wound its way back and forth through the court system, with expert witnesses who were close colleagues of I.D. stating that they found no plagiarism in the book, but that the passages in question were "anonymous" information regarding child health and care and that this was a handbook without bibliography or sources, not a scientific work. Yazıcı was found guilty of defamation because his allegations were thus untrue and fined. Yazıcı challenged the selection of experts, and the Court of Cassation kept referring the case back to the lower courts. Again and again close friends were appointed experts, found no plagiarism, and thus Yazıcı was found to be guilty.
Yazıcı finally gave up on the Turkish courts, paid the fine, but took took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, stating that his right to freedom of expression—here stating that he found the book to be a plagiarism—had been interfered with and that the Turkish courts had not properly dealt with the case. He noted that due to the plagiarism, there was outdated information on baby sleeping positions in the book that had been updated by Dr. Spock in his 1998 edition, but was not changed by I.D. The European court found in its judgement that it is indeed necessary in a democratic society for persons to be able to state value judgements, which are impossible to prove either true or false. However, there must exist a sufficient factual basis, so the court (p. 13), to support the value judgement. In this case, the court found sufficient factual basis for the allegations, and ordered the fine paid by Yazıcı to be refunded and his costs for the court cases to be reimbursed.
Yazıcı made the point in his speech that the extent of plagiarism in a country correlates strongly with a lack of freedom of speech. He sees Turkey in the same league as China on this aspect. He noted that everyone knows about plagiarism, but no one speaks about it.

In order to decrease plagiarism we have to speak about plagiarism. He stated in later discussions that it is imperative that Turkish judges understand what plagiarism is, most particularly because there is a law in Turkey now declaring that plagiarism is a crime punishable by prison, but it is still not clear what exactly constitute plagiarism. 
The second talk on "Plagiarism and Philosophy of Law" was given by Sevtap Metin. She described the Turkish legal situation, in particular the law of intellectual property. She noted that there are many sanctions for plagiarism, for example academics can be cut off from their university jobs or from funding. She also described the process for application for a professorship and noted that the committees are currently not doing their job in vetting the publications provided by the applicants. The reason for this is that if they note a suspicion of plagiarism that they cannot prove, they can be sued for defamation of character by the applicant. This discourages people from looking closely at publication lists. However, with Yazıcı recently winning his case in the EU, it must now be possible to speak freely about plagiarism. Citing Kant's categorical imperative, she feels that we must not plagiarize unless we want everyone to plagiarize. And if we tell our children not to lie, but lie ourselves, they will follow our actions and not our words. 
The third talk was by Mustafa Kıcalıoğlu, a former judge now retired from the Court of Cassation, on "Plagiarism in Turkish Law." He spoke about the problems that occur in plagiarism cases in which personality rights have to be weighed against intellectual property rights. He noted that Ernst Eduard Hirsch, a German legal expert who taught at the University of Ankara, was instrumental in drafting the Turkish Copyright Act. Kıcalıoğlu went into some detail on copyright and intellectual property, I noted in the discussion that plagiarism and violation of copyright are not the same things: there is plagiarism that does not violate copyright law and violations of copyright law that are not plagiarisms. Kıcalıoğlu also discussed another long, drawn out plagiarism case of a business management professor who plagiarized on 65 out of 500 pages in a book. He was demoted from the faculty after YÖK found that he had plagiarized, and he sued YÖK, but lost. This person is now a high government official. The discussion on this talk was quite long and emotional, as many people in the audience wanted to relate a story or call for all academic institutions to take action against plagiarism.
After a lunch and tea break I photographed this fine stature of a dervish before we got into the technical part of the symposium. Altan Gürsel of TechKnowledge, the Turkey and Middle East representatives of iParadigms (the company that markets Turnitin and iThenticate), spoke about that software. He first gave the definition of intihal from the Turkish Wikipedia, showed a few cases of cheating that made the news, and then launched into the standard Turnitin talk. He did note, however, that the reports have to be interpreted by and expert and cannot determine plagiarism, so it appears that my constant repeating of this has at least been understood by the software companies themselves, if not all of the users of such systems. He reported on some new features of Turnitin, for example that now also Excel sheets can be checked, and Google Drive and Dropbox can be used for submitting work. In answering a question, he noted that YÖK now scans all dissertations handed in to Turkish universities with iThenticate, but not those from the past. They are planning on including open access dissertations in the future in their database. 
I gave my standard talk on the "Chances and Limits of Plagiarism Software", noting that software cannot determine plagiarism, it can only indicate possible plagiarism, and that there are many false positives and false negatives. During questions a number of people were perplexed that there were so many plagiarisms documented in doctoral dissertations in Germany, since dissertations need to be original research and Germany has a reputation as having a solid academic tradition. They had only heard about the politicians being forced to resign, and wanted to know what was different in Germany that a politician would actually resign on the basis of plagiarism found in his dissertation. They wanted to know if judges in Germany understand plagiarism. I noted that indeed, they understand plagiarism much better than many universities and persons suing their universities because their doctoral degree have been rescinded. The judgements of the VG Cologne and the VG Düsseldorf are very clear and very exact in their application of law to plagiarism cases, as are the judgements in many other cases. 
After a tea break Tayfun Akgül, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the Technical University of Istanbul and the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee of the IEEE spoke on "Plagiarism in Science." Akgül is also a professional cartoonist, with a lively presentation peppered with cartoons that kept the audience laughing and caused the interpreters to apologize for not being able to translate them. He outlined the IEEE organizations and policies for dealing with scientific misconduct on the part of its members. He spoke at length about the case of Turkish physicists having to retract almost 70 papers from the preprint server arXiv. Nature reported on the case in 2007, the authors complained thereafter that they were just borrowing better English. 
Özgür Kasapçopur, the speaker of the ethics committee of the Istanbul University gave the facts and figures of the committee itself and the cases that it has looked at since it was set up in 2010. They have had 29 cases submitted to the committee, but only determined plagiarism in 3 cases. 
Nuran Yıldırım spoke about YÖK and plagiarism. She is a former prefect who was on the ethical boards of both the University of Istanbul and YÖK. The Higher Education Council was established in 1981. From 1998 plagiarism was added to the cases that are investigated there, as plagiarism is considered a crime that can incur a sanction. However, there was only a 2 year statute of limitations in place. This has been since removed, and all applications for assistant professor need to be investigated by YÖK. If they find plagiarism, they have a process to follow and if plagiarism is the final decision, the person applying for a professorship is removed from the university. However, this harsh sentence has now been changed to "more reasonable punishments", whatever that is. She noted that at small universities it is hard to have only a local hearing, as often the members of the committee to investigate a case are relatives of the accused. She had some fascinating stories, especially from the military universities, including one about a General Prof. Dr. found to have plagiarized. She also noted that people do accuse their rivals of plagiarism just to try and get them out of the way. Her final story was about someone who published a dissertation, and eventually found that all of his tables and data were being used in a paper by someone else. He informed YÖK, and the second researcher defended himself by saying that he had used the same laboratory, the lab must have confused the results and given him the results from the other person instead. YÖK then requested the lab notebooks from both parties, only the author of the dissertation could produce them. Since the journal paper author couldn't find his, he was found guilty of plagiarism.   
In the final round, İlhan İlkılıç, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Istanbul, on leave from the University of Mainz and a member of the German national ethics committee, presented a to-do list that included setting out better definitions of plagiarism and academic misconduct and finding ways of objectively looking at plagiarism without personal hostilities or ideologies getting in the way. Discussion about plagiarism is essential, even if it won't prevent plagiarism or scientific misconduct from happening.   
Sadat Murat, chairman of the Turkish national ethics committee, spoke about their work which is to investigate complaints about state servants. However, exempt from this are low-level state servants, as well as the top-ranking politicians. They only report on violations, however, they cannot sanction. They also try to disseminate ethical culture in Turkey by providing ethics training.  
I especially want to thank the interpreters for their work—any errors here are mine for not paying exact attention, they did a great job permitting me to understand a small portion of what is happening in the area of intihal in Turkey.

August 9, 2014

Some thoughts about the suicide of Yoshiki Sasai - Scientific American ( Doing Good Science )

In the previous post I suggested that it’s a mistake to try to understand scientific activity (including misconduct and culpable mistakes) by focusing on individual scientists, individual choices, and individual responsibility without also considering the larger community of scientists and the social structures it creates and maintains. That post was where I landed after thinking about what was bugging me about the news coverage and discussions about recent suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor of retracted papers on STAP cells.
I went toward teasing out the larger, unproductive pattern I saw, on the theory that trying a more productive pattern might help scientific communities do better going forward.
But this also means I didn’t say much about my particular response to Sasai’s suicide and the circumstances around it. I’m going to try to do that here, and I’m not going to try to fit every piece of my response into a larger pattern or path forward.
The situation in a nutshell:
Yoshiki Sasai worked with Haruko Obokata at the Riken Center on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency”, a method by which exposing normal cells to a stress (like a mild acid) supposedly gave rise to pluripotent stem cells. It’s hard to know how closely they worked together on this; in the papers published on STAP. Obokata was the lead-author and Sasai was a coauthor. It’s worth noting that Obokata was some 20 years younger than Sasai, an up-and-coming researcher. Sasai was a more senior scientist, serving in a leadership position at the Riken Center and as Obokata’s supervisor there.
The papers were published in a high impact journal (Nature) and got quite a lot of attention. But then the findings came into question. Other researchers trying to reproduce the findings that had been reported in the papers couldn’t reproduce them. One of the images in the papers seemed to be a duplicate of another, which was fishy. Nature investigated, Riken investigated, the papers were retracted, Obokata continued to defend the papers and to deny any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, a Riken investigation committee said “Sasai bore heavy responsibility for not confirming data for the STAP study and for Obokata’s misconduct”. This apparently had a heavy impact on Sasai:
Sasai’s colleagues at Riken said he had been receiving mental counseling since the scandal surrounding papers on STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells, which was lead-authored by Obokata, came to light earlier this year.
Kagaya [head of public relations at Riken] added that Sasai was hospitalized for nearly a month in March due to psychological stress related to the scandal, but that he “recovered and had not been hospitalized since.”
Finally, Sasai hanged himself in a Riken stairwell. One of the notes he left, addressed to Obokata, urged her to reproduce the STAP findings.
So, what is my response to all this?
I think it’s good when scientists take their responsibilities seriously, including the responsibility to provide good advice to junior colleagues.
I also think it’s good when scientists can recognize the limits. You can give very, very good advice — and explain with great clarity why it’s good advice — but the person you’re giving it to may still choose to do something else. It can’t be your responsibility to control another autonomous person’s actions.
I think trust is a crucial part of any supervisory or collaborative relationship. I think it’s good to be able to interact with coworkers with the presumption of trust.
I think it’s awful that it’s so hard to tell which people are not worthy of our trust before they’ve taken advantage of our trust to do something bad.
Finding the right balance between being hands-on and giving space is a challenge in the best of supervisory or mentoring relationships.
Bringing an important discovery with the potential to enable lots of research that could ultimately help lots of people to one’s scientific peers — and to the public — must feel amazing. Even if there weren’t a harsh judgment from the scientific community for retraction, I imagine that having to say, “We jumped the gun on the ‘discovery’ we told you about” would not feel good.
The danger of having your research center’s reputation tied to an important discovery is what happens if that discovery doesn’t hold up, whether because of misconduct or mistakes. And either way, this means that lots of hard work that is important in the building of the shared body of scientific knowledge (and lots of people doing that hard work) can become invisible.
Maybe it would be good to value that work on its own merits, independent of whether anyone else judged it important or newsworthy. Maybe we need to rethink the “big discoveries” and “important discoverers” way of thinking about what makes scientific work or a research center good.
Figuring out why something went wrong is important. When the something that went wrong includes people making choices, though, this always seems to come down to assigning blame. I feel like that’s the wrong place to stop.
I feel like investigations of results that don’t hold up, including investigations that turn up misconduct, should grapple with the question of how can we use what we found here to fix what went wrong? Instead of just asking, “Whose fault was this?” why not ask, “How can we address the harm? What can we learn that will help us avoid this problem in the future?”
I think it’s a problem when a particular work environment makes the people in it anxious all the time.
I think it’s a problem when being careful feels like an unacceptable risk because it slows you down. I think it’s a problem when being first feels more important than being sure.
I think it’s a problem when a mistake of judgment feels so big that you can’t imagine a way forward from it. So disastrous that you can’t learn something useful from it. So monumental that it makes you feel like not existing.
I feel like those of us who are still here have a responsibility to pay attention.
We have a responsibility to think about the impacts of the ways science is done, valued, celebrated, on the human beings who are doing science — and not just on the strongest of those human beings, but also on the ones who may be more vulnerable.
We have a responsibility to try to learn something from this.
I don’t think what we should learn is not to trust, but how to be better at balancing trust and accountability.
I don’t think what we should learn is not to take the responsibilities of oversight seriously, but to put them in perspective and to mobilize more people in the community to provide more support in oversight and mentoring.
Can we learn enough to shift away from the Important New Discovery model of how we value scientific contributions? Can we learn enough that cooperation overtakes competition, that building the new knowledge together and making sure it holds up is more important than slapping someone’s name on it? I don’t know.
I do know that, if the pressures of the scientific career landscape are harder to navigate for people with consciences and easier to navigate for people without consciences, it will be a problem for all of us.

August 8, 2014

Yoshiki Sasai: A tribute to an outstanding scientist - The Guardian

The scientific community was shocked to hear of the death earlier this week of stem cell researcher Yoshiki Sasai, who apparently committed suicide in the wake of a high profile case of scientific fraud at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, where he had worked.
Two papers from the RIKEN CDB, co-authored by Sasai and published in the journal Nature in late January, described a simple method for converting mature cells into embryonic stem cells, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).
It seemed to good to be true – and it was. The findings were challenged and other labs tried but failed to replicate the method. Lead researcher Haruko Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct and in July both of the papers were retracted. Sasai himself was cleared of any involvement in the misconduct, but Obokata did the work under his supervision, and so he was criticised for oversights while the papers were being written up.
I had been working on a feature article about Sasai’s own work for Mosaic, and travelled to Japan earlier this year to visit his lab, as part of my reporting for the article. By coincidence, I arrived the day the STAP method hit the news - the Daily Telegraph had accidentally published their story about it too early - and so found myself competing with several film crews for his attention.
As a result, my visit to the lab was cut short, and I spent far less time there than had been planned, but nevertheless I managed to interview Sasai and two of his colleagues and take a look around.
The story was originally scheduled for publication on 26th August, and my editors at the Wellcome Trust have decided to go ahead and publish it on the scheduled date. They felt that it should mention of these tragic events, without letting them overshadow the real focus of the story, and so, apart from several small changes to the main story, and the addition of a brief epilogue, it is unchanged.
I spent very little time with Sasai but he struck me as a very proud man, and the remarkable work being done in his lab gave him every reason to be, so I do not doubt reports that he had felt “deeply ashamed” about the STAP cell papers and the disrepute they had brought to RIKEN, in the weeks leading up to his death. During this time, an independent committee had recommended that the CDB be dismantled, and Sasai’s mental and physical health had by then suffered considerably, so I feel doubly honoured to have visited him there when I did.
Sadly, many of the news stories about his death have focused on the unfortunate circumstances that mired the last few months of his life. We would like to send our deepest condolences to Sasai’s family and friends and hope that that the Mosaic story will serve as a sensitive and timely tribute to the pioneering work of an outstanding scientist.
This is an unedited version of an article I wrote for the Mosaic blog.



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