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Appropriate Behaviour?

By Stephen Moston

Plagiarism by academic reviewers is hard to prove, and even harder to punish.

Most academics will be familiar with the processes for dealing with a case of suspected plagiarism by a student. The plagiarism is typically flagged by software such as Turnitin or SafeAssign. The lecturer can then view the submission, with passages containing suspected plagiarism highlighted with links to original sources. Often the plagiarism is an innocent mistake. Blatant cheating is rare.

Given this limited exposure, it comes as quite a shock when you suspect that your own work has been plagiarised by another academic. My own experience here might be informative.

About 2 years ago I first submitted a paper (written with two colleagues) to a journal (Journal A), where it was rejected. The same story repeated at Journals B and C. That process took a year. As I prepared to submit to journal D, I spotted a new paper at that journal in an “early view” version that bore a striking resemblance to my own paper. The logic, style and facts all matched. It looked very much like our own work had been plagiarised, or to use the term preferred by journals: “appropriated”.

The most likely source of the plagiarism: one (or more) of the authors of the new paper had reviewed an earlier version of our manuscript, and incorporated the ideas directly into their own work.

I first contacted the editor of Journal D, who promised to give the matter their full attention. Two months later, the editor apologised for not having reviewed the matter as he was new to the position. In the coming months I received several similar emails from the editor, each promising attention that never materialised.

While this period of inaction persisted, I set about researching the processes for suspected plagiarism. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) offers protocols that many journals follow. Those protocols did not inspire confidence.

The suspected plagiarist has multiple avenues to avoid both detection and sanctioning, particularly if their university or organisation chooses to take no action. In such circumstances, COPE suggests repeating requests for a response “every 3–6 months”.

Even if the system does work, as in the case of a reviewer clearly being identified as “appropriating” another person’s work, the COPE protocols might result in the reviewer being removed “permanently from the database”. Sadly, this isn’t anywhere nearly as sinister and dramatic as it sounds; it merely means they won’t be asked to review again by the journal from which they appropriated.

I also sent letters to journals A, B and C telling them about my concerns, and asked if any of the authors of the new publication had acted as reviewers on our manuscript. The editors of Journal A and B replied immediately. They had checked on the reviewers at their respective journals, their affiliations and so on, and offered very clear assurances that they vouched for the integrity of their reviewers. In both cases the editors acknowledged the severity of the matter and were sympathetic.

Journal C took another route. The editor would not directly answer my questions, and promised to refer the matter to the journal’s ethics board. After persistent prompting over many months they said the same thing again, and again, and again.

Just over 6 months after I had first contacted Journal D about my concerns, I received a brief email from the editor saying that our manuscript and the suspect manuscript did not show excessive matching in their plagiarism software. That was hardly a surprise, as it was the ideas that had been appropriated. The editor also said that while there were clear similarities between the two manuscripts, they would be taking no further action.

And that was that. After 6 months there would be no further investigation, and no action taken.

Acknowledging the possibility that it is all a strange set of coincidences, and there really was no plagiarism (it’s all in my head), I’m not sure how even a blatant case of appropriation (even the language is weak) would be detected and then sanctioned. The current system is premised on trust. Sadly, for me at least, trust is in short supply nowadays.

Stephen Moston is an Associate Professor in Psychology at CQUniversity.