A Question of Ethics: plagiarism and ethical infringement in publishing

“The last week was my most terrible one as an Editor-in-Chief”, a recent email read. “I had to reject four newly submitted papers because of blatant self-plagiarizing (in one case almost a whole paper, substituting copper for zinc)…”

The vast majority of papers published raise no ethical concerns. But when it a case like this arises, it can be time consuming and frustrating.

The Editor went on to ask “Is anything being done to curb this?”

The answer is: Yes! Elsevier is taking a number of steps to help identify plagiarized articles.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the passing off of another’s work as one’s own. In its simplest form, plagiarism may be verbatim copying, but paraphrasing of text, tables, figures or even ideas without proper citation also constitutes an infringement.

Self-plagiarism, meanwhile, refers to the practice of duplicating one’s own previous work without reference to prior publication. In some cases, duplicate papers are submitted to and end up published in multiple journals simultaneously. Alternatively, authors may make a few strategic changes (such as substituting copper for zinc in the case raised by the Editor above) and submit a previously published (or even rejected) article as a new piece of work.

While it is a concern, we are not been inundated with unethical submissions. Elsevier receives over 500,000 submissions per annum. Of this high volume, only a few require any legal oversight: ”I get one or two cases of alleged plagiarism across my desk every week,” says Mark Seeley, Senior Legal Counsel for Elsevier.

Taking Action

Although plagiarism can be difficult to spot, Elsevier has taken a number of steps to try to limit the number of cases we see. We begin by helping authors to understand their ethical responsibilities, and we provide tools for both editors and peer reviewers to help identify cases.

Helping authors

In 2005, Elsevier issued a ‘headline’ statement on EES, providing clear guidance for authors that all papers submitted should:

• be the authors' own original work, not previously published elsewhere;

• reflect the authors' own research and analysis in a truthful and complete manner;

• properly credit the meaningful contributions of co-authors and co-researchers;

• not be submitted to more than one journal for consideration;

• and be appropriately placed in the context of prior and existing research.

Authors are required to tick a box indicating that they have red and understood these stipulations.

Helping Editors

Individual journal homepages on Elsevier’s website link to our Publishing Ethics Resource Kit, or PERK, which gives comprehensive information on acceptable ethical practice. In addition, many editors have chosen to include information about ethical standard within the guides for authors for their journals.

More recently, to ensure that editors have access to independent advice and guidelines on dealing with suspected or proven plagiarism, we launched our Publication Ethics Resource Kit (PERK), a single point of access to information, procedures and guidelines on Publishing Ethics, IN addition, all editors have been offered full membership of COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics. Membership of COPE, alongside adherence to Elsevier’s guidance and policies, sends a signal to authors that a journal upholds the highest publishing ethical standards, and that appropriate action will be taken in cases of possible misconduct.

Until recently, use of this text matching software in scholarly publishing was not altogether effective, but this has changed with the introduction of CrossCheck powered by iThenticate (see www.crossref.org/crosscheck).

With CrossCheck, any paper can be checked against a database of published scholarly content from some of the top scientific publishers, as well as against a repository of other web content. We are currently integrating CrossCheck into our editorial workflows with a view not only to detecting plagiarism, but also to deterring it.

Helping Reviewers

“Peer reviewers play a crucial role in helping identify cases of fraud and plagiarism,” says Liz Smith, Head of Journal Development at Elsevier. “Reviewers see the results of research in their fields of expertise on a regular basis.” This familiarity, Smith asserts, means that they are ideally placed to spot duplicates or recognize when work has been borrowed or built on without appropriate referencing. “We don’t expect reviewers to catch every infringement, but we make sure we give them tools that can help.”

Those tools include 30-day access to Scopus, which can be used to find an author’s related articles and references via the search bar in EES. More recently, we have begun to roll out reference linking. Reference linking means that by clicking on the hyperlinks listed alongside the referenced articles, reviewers are brought to the abstracts of those articles and to the full text in Science Direct (depending on the reviewer’s or their institute’s subscription entitlements, they may also be able to link directly through to the full text in other publishers’ journals).

Can We Eradicate Plagiarism?

It is unlikely that we will ever be able to eradicate plagiarism altogether. However, we seek to minimize the risk by ensuring that authors know we will deal promptly with every case brought to our attention.

Mark Seeley adds: “We take every allegation seriously and work intensively with our editors on them where needed, but it’s important to remember that these cases form a very small proportion of the overall number of articles that are published by Elsevier.”

To help educate authors, we run author workshops to help teach about proper citation practice, and with the introduction of CrossCheck we will ensure authors know their papers may be checked with plagiarism detection software.

“Reviewers will continue to be a strong link in the chain that is scientific publishing”, says Liz Smith. “Without them there simply is no guarantee of quality or originality.”

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