Last summer I wrote here about a plagiarism scandal involving more than 60 arXiv preprints, more than thirty of which were refereed and published in at least 18 different physics journals, some of them quite prestigious ones (see also the page at Eureka Journal Watch). At the time I wondered what action the journals involved in this scandal would take in response to it. Nearly six months later the answer to this question is now in: essentially none at all. As far as I can tell, almost uniformly the journals involved don’t seem to have a problem at all with being used to publish plagiarized material.
Unlike the journals, the arXiv has taken action. It has withdrawn the papers, replaced their abstracts with lists of where they plagiarized from, and put up a web-page explaining all of this. After the scandal became public, one journal, JHEP, did withdraw the one rather egregious example of plagiarism it had published. This was only done after JHEP originally refused to do anything about this when first contacted last March, arguing that since the plagiarized articles were cited in the paper it was all right, and besides, they would only consider doing something if the plagiarized authors filed a formal complaint. Copies of the correspondence about this (and much else) are at this web-site.
The nature of the plagiarism varied greatly among the papers withdrawn by the arXiv. Sometimes all that was involved was self-plagiarism (large parts of one paper were identical with others submitted by some of the same authors), but mostly what was being plagiarized was the contents of papers by others. Mustafa Salti, a graduate student at METU, had his name on 40 of the withdrawn papers, many of which have been published in well-known journals. I checked a few of the online published journal articles corresponding to the withdrawn papers and, besides the JHEP paper, I didn’t find any others where the online journal article gave any indication that the paper was known to be plagiarized.
A more complicated case is that of Ihsan Yilmaz, where the arXiv lists three of his eight arXiv preprints as withdrawn due to plagiarism and one as withdrawn due to “excessive overlap” with two other papers of which he was co-author. Very recently one of his Physical Review D papers, a paper that was not one of the ones on the arXiv, was retracted with the notation:
The author withdraws this article from publication because it copies text, totaling more than half of the article, from the articles listed below. The author apologizes to the authors of these papers and to the publishers whose copyright was violated.
After the scandal broke, Yilmaz had a letter published in Nature where he justified the sort of plagiarism found in his articles, claiming “using beautiful sentences from other studies on the same subject in our introductions is not unusual.” Evidently the editors of the journal General Relativity and Gravitation agreed with Yilmaz. They decided not to do anything about the papers they had published that were withdrawn from the arXiv, writing an editorial in which they defended the papers, while noting that “we do not regard such word for word copying of introductory and descriptive material by others as acceptable.”
I heard about the GRG editorial via an e-mail from a group of the faculty at METU, who write that:
The note is clearly quite unacceptable and insufficient in the fight against plagiarism. We cannot help but ask whether the Editors seriously believe that those who cannot compose their own sentences are in fact capable of producing genuine research worthy of publishing in General Relativity and Gravitation.
and note the retraction of the Physical Review D article, which they regard as a much more appropriate response
Update: Someone helpfully sent me pdfs of the two GRG articles, marked up to identify the plagiarized passages. Looking at these, I find it hard to understand why any journal would not withdraw such papers if they made the mistake of publishing them.
Update: The journal Astrophysics and Space Science is retracting four of the plagiarized papers, by putting up errata on-line which appeared today and are dated January 11, 2008, saying:
After investigation and at the request of the President of the Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara, Turkey, the Editors of Astrophysics and Space Science have decided to retract this paper due to extensive plagiarism of work by others.
The papers involved are gr-qc/0505079, gr-qc/0602012, gr-qc/0508018, gr-qc/0509022......