July 12, 2009

The insider’s guide to plagiarism

Editorial
Nature Medicine, 707 (2009)

Scientific plagiarism—a problem as serious as fraud—has not received all the attention it deserves.

Reduced budgets are affecting research just as they are every sector of the economy. So, how can struggling scientists increase their chances of securing their share of financial resources in these tough times?Publish, of course!

What? You don’t have the resources to do the experiments? Don’t worry! A little creative writing might be all you need to sail through the financial crisis. Here’s how: use a solid paper as your base; carry out a parallel set of experiments in your favorite model; tweak the data so that the numbers are not identical but remain realistic; and, when you’re ready to write it all up, paraphrase the original paper ad libitum. Last, submit your new manuscript to a modest journal in the hopes that the authors of the paper you used as ‘inspiration’ won’t notice your ‘tribute’ to their work—even though imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, their approval of your ‘reworking’ of their paper cannot be guaranteed. If all goes well, getting a couple of these manuscripts under your belt might make all the difference when you apply for that elusive grant.

Does this strategy work? Unfortunately, all too often it does, even though many eyes examine every paper before it ends up on a printed page. And when scrutiny identifies cases of potential plagiarism, serious corrective action doesn’t always take place. Consider a recent report (Science 323, 1293–1294, 2009) in which software tools and manual comparison helped identify cases of suspected plagiarism. When the authors of 163 suspicious studies were contacted, about 30% disavowed misconduct, and over 20% of coauthors claimed no involvement in writing the papers.
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