Friday, April 17, 2015

Lazy or Plagiarism?

Did you ever read something and swear you have read it somewhere else before?  It happens to me now and then, particularly when something is so memorably awful that it burns a special place in my brain.

Here is one such instance.  A 2015 paper published by Hilbeck et al, co-authored by luminaries including Shiva, Hansen, Heinemann, Antoniou and others, is substantially lifted word for word from a 2013 website. 

Since its publication in January 2015, anti biotech activists have reminded us again and again, of the peer-reviewed journal that soundly declares no consensus on GMO crops. The paper, published in Environmental Sciences Europe, is a 'Discussion' paper, which means it is a non-peer reviewed opinion piece.

As a scientist, reviewer and editor I have a lot of problems with such work.  I do appreciate clearly marked Letters and Correspondence, and certainly welcome Opinions.  These can spark discussion and speculation, but are obviously distinguished as ideas representing a viewpoint that may not be supported by evidence.  After all, if they were actually supported by data, then such articles would constitute research reports. 

The part that bothers me is, that aside from an abstract, reference numbers and concluding paragraph, it is virtually word-for-word cut-n-paste from a website constructed in 2013.  Use of online plagiarism check tools indicate that there is 0% chance of the published work being original. 

However, the original statement on the ENSSER website was credited to the 2015 paper's lead author, so the journal-resident work is not a group of authors borrowing someone else's text.  Sort of. 

The pages below use yellow highlight to show how much of the 2015 ESE paper matches the website. 

The yellow highlight shows the direct matches between the 2015 published work and a 2013 website.  Such efforts would be considered an ethical breach in most universities, and certainly students have been reprimanded or excused for less.

Is it plagiarism?  That's tough call.  Certainly it falls under the definition of plagiarism in that it is a direct reprinting of text from an original published source.  The gray area comes because the lead author is the author of both pieces, and it remains to be debated if the ENSSER website is an "original source". 

"Verbatim copying of significant portions of text from a single source" is one of Springer, the publisher's, own criteria for plagiarism.

At the very least, it is supreme laziness, the desire to produce a political document that could be published in a journal, producing an air of scientific legitimacy on a position refuted by the broad scientific community. The fact that the author of the original work didn't take the time to simply re-write their own work is rather telling too. 

The journal is known for publishing scientifically flimsy political pieces. Here one is cut-n-pasted from a website, and that speaks very badly about the journal and the publisher. 

Sad.  I like Springer.  They've published lots of my work. 

It also is kind of unfortunate that it took a team of 15 authors to lift text from a website, then craft an Abstract and concluding paragraph.  Did all fifteen participate?  Sure did, according to the postscript on the article:

 "All authors contributed equally to the writing of the document" which I guess means that each one of them copied and pasted some text from the website? 

And you read it right--- the authors, some the most established activists in the field profiting directly from positions espoused in the manuscript, declare no competing interests.  Of course, the Springer website addresses that too, but nobody seems to care. 

Financial or other personal considerations from authors that could bias professional judgment and objectivity?  I guess when someone makes a living opposing accepted science, a paper they'd write saying that accepted science is junk might be a little conflicty.

I'm not the journal police.  I let the publisher know that this work pushed, if not crossed,  quite a few ethical lines. They've elected to not take action. That's fine. 

I think it makes a better point if it is left exactly where it is.  

It shows that there is an activist movement masquerading as a scientifically-vetted enterprise.  It shows their laziness, and a certain kind of irresponsible bravado, as authors hijack a journal and then don't even bother to populate that published opinion space with original work. 

But what do we expect?  Integrity?  Accuracy?  Sound science? 


This is just another great reminder that the movement comes first, facts, evidence and science are a remote consideration.  It also gives me a teaching tool and will be incorporated into our classes, as we train our scientists on how not to prepare a scientific work.

A Response to Carey Gillam