Credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Dealing with plagiarism? Look at thy neighbour

Four doctors affiliated with Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal are going to be fired because they plagiarised data in two papers. The papers were retracted last year from the Bali Medical Journal, where they had been published. A dean at the university, Dipak Shrestha, told a media outlet that the matter will be settled within two weeks. A total of six doctors, including the two above, are also going to be blacklisted by the journal. This is remarkably swift and decisive action against a problem that refuses to go away in India for many reasons. But I’m not an apologist; one of those reasons is that many teachers at colleges and universities seem to think “plagiarism is okay”. And for as long as that attitude persists, academicians are going to be able to plagiarise and flourish in the country.

One of the other reasons plagiarism is rampant in India is the language problem. As Praveen Chaddah, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, has written, there is a form of plagiarism that can be forgiven – the form at play when a paper’s authors find it difficult to articulate themselves in English but have original ideas all the same. The unforgivable form is when the ideas are plagiarised as well. According to a retraction notice supplied by the Bali Medical Journal, the KU doctors indulged in plagiarism of the unforgivable kind, and were duly punished. In India, however, I’m yet to hear of an instance where researchers found to have been engaging in such acts were pulled up as swiftly as their Nepali counterparts were, or had sanctions imposed on their work within a finite period and in a transparent manner.

The production and dissemination of scientific knowledge should not have to suffer because some scientists aren’t fluent with a language. Who knows, India might already be the ‘science superpower’ everyone wants it to be if we’re able to account for information and knowledge produced in all its languages. But this does not mean India’s diversity affords it the license to challenge the use of English as the de facto language of science; that would be stupid. English is prevalent, dominant, even hegemonic (as K. VijayRaghavan has written). So if India is to make it to the Big League, then officials must consider doing these things:

  1. Inculcate the importance of communicating science. Writing a paper is also a form of communication. Teach how to do it along with technical skills.
  2. Set aside money – as some Australian and European institutions do1 – to help those for whom English isn’t their first, or even second, language write papers that will be appreciated for their science instead of rejected for their language (unfair though this may be).
  3. DO WHAT NEPAL IS DOING – Define reasonable consequences for plagiarising (especially of the unforgivable kind), enumerate them in clear and cogent language, ensure these sanctions are easily accessible by scientists as well as the public, and enforce them regularly.

Researchers ought to know better – especially the more prominent, more influential ones. The more well-known a researcher is, the less forgivable their offence should be, at least because they set important precedents that others will follow. And to be able to remind them effectively when they act carelessly, an independent body should be set up at the national level, particularly for institutions funded by the central government, instead of expecting the offender’s host institution to be able to effectively punish someone well-embedded in the hierarchy of the institution itself.

1. Hat-tip to Chitralekha Manohar.

Featured image credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Plagiarism is plagiarism

In a Nature article, Praveen Chaddah argues that textual plagiarism entails that the offending paper only carry a correction and not be retracted because that makes the useful ideas and results in the paper unavailable. On the face of it, this is an argument that draws a distinction between the writing of a paper and the production of its technical contents.

Chaddah proposes to preserve the distinction for the benefit of science by punishing plagiarists only for what they plagiarized. If they pinched text, then issue a correction and apology but let the results stay. If they pinched the hypothesis or results, then retract the paper. He thinks this line of thought is justifiable because, this way, one does not retard the introduction of new ideas into the pool of knowledge, because it does not harm the notion of “research as a creative enterprise” for as long as the hypothesis, method and/or results are original.

I disagree. Textual plagiarism is also the violation of an important creative enterprise that, in fact, has become increasingly relevant to science today: communication. Scientists have to use communication effectively to convince people that their research deserves tax-money. Scientists have to use communication effectively to make their jargon understandable to others. Plagiarizing the ‘descriptive’ part of papers, in this context, is to disregard the importance of communication, and copying the communicative bits should be tantamount to copying the results, too.

He goes on to argue that if textual plagiarism has been detected but if the hypothesis/results are original, the latter must be allowed to stand. His hypothesis appears to assume that scientific journals are the same as specialist forums that prioritize results over a full package: introduction, formulation, description, results, discussion, conclusion, etc. Scientific journals are not just the “guarantors of the citizen’s trust in science” (The Guardian) but also resources that people like journalists, analysts and policy-makers use to understand the extent of the guarantee.

What journalist doesn’t appreciate a scientist who’s able to articulate his/her research well, much less patronizing the publicity it will bring him/her?

In September 2013, the journal PLoS ONE retracted a paper by a group of Indian authors for textual plagiarism. This incident exemplifies a disturbing attitude toward plagiarism. One of the authors of the paper, Ram Dhaked, complained that it was the duty of PLoS ONE to detect their plagiarism before publishing it, glibly abdicating his guilt.

Like Chaddah argues, authors of a paper could be plagiarizing text for a variety of reasons – but somehow they believe lifting chunks of text from other papers during the paper-production process is allowable or will go unchecked. As an alternative to this, publishers could consider – or might already be considering – the ethics of ghost-writing.

He finally posits that papers with plagiarized text should be made available along with the correction, too. That would increase the visibility of the offense and over time, presumably, shame scientists into not plagiarizing – but that’s not the point. The point is to get scientists to understand why it is important to think about what they’ve done and communicate their thoughts. That journals retract both the text and the results if only the text was plagiarized is an important way to reinforce that point. If anything, Chaddah’s contention could have been to reduce the implications of having a retraction against one’s bio.