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.