Why it's important to address plagiarism

Plagiarism is a tricky issue. If it’s straightforward to you, ask yourself if you’re assuming that the plagiariser (plagiarist?) is fluent in reading and writing, but especially writing, English. The answer’s probably ‘yes’. This is because for someone entering into an English-using universe for the first time, certain turns of phrase and certain ways to articulate complicated concepts stick with you the first time you read them, and when the time comes for you to spell out the same ideas and concepts, you passively, inadvertently recall them and reuse them. You don’t think – at least at first – that they’re someone else’s words, more so if you haven’t been taught, for no fault of yours, what academic plagiarism is and/or that it’s bad.

This is also why there’s a hierarchy of plagiarism. For example, if you’re writing a scientific paper and you copy another paper’s results, that’s worse than if you copy verbatim the explanation of a certain well-known idea. This is why former University Grants Commission chairman Praveen Chaddah wrote in 2014:

There are worse offences than text plagiarism — such as taking credit for someone else’s research ideas and lifting their results. These are harder to detect than copy-and-pasted text, so receive less attention. This should change. To help, academic journals could, for instance, change the ways in which they police and deal with such cases.

But if you’re fluent with writing English, if you know what plagiarism and plagiarise anyway (without seeking resources to help you beat its temptation), and/or if you’re stealing someone else’s idea and calling it your own, you deserve the flak and (proportionate) sanctions coming your way. In this context, a new Retraction Watch article by David Sanders makes for interesting reading. According to Sanders, in 2018, he wrote to the editors of a journal that had published a paper in 2011 with lots of plagiarised text. After a back-and-forth, the editors told Sanders they’d look into it. He asked them again in 2019 and May 2021 and received the same reply on both occasions. Then on July 26 the journal published a correction to the 2011 article. Sanders wasn’t happy and wrote back to the editors, one of whom replied thus:

Thank you for your email. We went through this case again, and discussed whether we may have made the wrong decision. We did follow the COPE guidelines step by step and used several case studies for further information. This process confirmed that an article should be retracted when it is misleading for the reader, either because the information within is incorrect, or when an author induces the reader to think that the data presented is his own. As this is a Review, copied from other Reviews, the information within does not per se mislead the reader, as the primary literature is still properly cited. We agree that this Review was not written in a desirable way, and that the authors plagiarised a large amount of text, but according to the guidelines the literature must be considered from the point of view of the reader, and retractions should not be used as a tool to punish authors. We therefore concluded that a corrigendum was the best way forward. Hence, we confirm our decision on this case.

Thank you again for flagging this case in the first place, which allowed us to correct the record and gain deeper insights into publishing ethics, even though this led to a solution we do not necessarily like.

Sanders wasn’t happy: he wrote on Retraction Watch that “the logic of [the editor’s] message is troubling. The authors engaged in what is defined by COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) as ‘Major Plagiarism’ for which the prescribed action is retraction of the published article and contacting the institution of the authors. And yet the journal did not retract.” The COPE guidelines summarise the differences between minor and major plagiarism this way:

Source: https://publicationethics.org/files/COPE_plagiarism_disc%20doc_26%20Apr%2011.pdf

Not being fluent in English could render the decisions made using this table less than fair, for example because an author could plagiarise several paragraphs but honestly have no intention to deceive – simply because they didn’t think they needed to be that careful. I know this might sound laughable to a scientist operating in the US or Europe, out of a better-run, better-organised and better-funded institute, and who has been properly in the ins and outs of academic ethics. But it’s true: the bulk of India’s scientists work outside the IITs, IISERs, DAE/DBT/DST-funded institutes and the more progressive private universities (although only one – Ashoka – comes to mind). Their teachers before them worked in the same resource-constrained environments, and for most of whom the purpose of scientific work wasn’t science as much as an income. Most of them probably never used plagiarism-checking tools either, at least not until they got into trouble one time and then found out about such things.

I myself found out about the latter in an interesting way – when I reported that Appa Rao Podile, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, had plagiarised in some of his papers, around the time students at the university were protesting the university’s response to the death of Rohith Vemula. When I emailed Podile for his response, he told me he would like my help with the tools with which he could spot plagiarism. I thought he was joking, but after a series of unofficial enquiries over the next year or so, I learnt that plagiarism-checking software was not at all the norm, even if solutions like Copyscape were relatively cheap, in state-funded colleges and second-tier universities around the country. I had no reason to leave Podile off the hook – but not because he hadn’t used plagiarism-checking software but because he was a vice-chancellor of a major university and had to have done better than claim ignorance.

(I also highly recommend this November 2019 article in The Point, asking whether plagiarism is wrong.)

According to Sanders, the editor who replied didn’t retract the paper because he thought it wasn’t ‘major plagiarism’, according to COPE – whereas Sanders thought it was. The editor appears to have reasoned his way out of the allegation, in the editor’s view at least, by saying that the material printed in the paper wasn’t misleading because it had been copied from non-misleading original material and that the supposedly lesser issue was that while it had been cited, it hadn’t been syntactically attributed as such (placed between double quotes, for example). The issue for Sanders, with whom I agree here, is that the authors had copied the material and presented it in a way that indicated they were its original creators. The lengths to which journal editors can go to avoid retracting papers, and therefore protect their journal’s reputation, ranking or whatever, is astounding. I also agree with Sanders when he says that by refusing to retract the article, the editors are practically encouraging misconduct.

I’d like to go a step further and ask: when journal editors think like this, where does that leave Indian scientists of the sort I’ve described above – who are likely to do better with the right help and guidance? In 2018, Rashmi Raniwala and Sudhir Raniwala wrote in The Wire Science that the term ‘predatory’, in ‘predatory journals’, was a misnomer:

… it is incorrect to call them ‘predatory’ journals because the term predatory suggests that there is a predator and a victim. The academicians who publish in these journals are not victims; most often, they are self-serving participants. The measure of success is the number of articles received by these journals. The journals provide a space to those who wanted easy credit. And a large number of us wanted this easy credit because we were, to begin with, not suitable for the academic profession and were there for the job. In essence, these journals could not have succeeded without an active participation and the connivance of some of us.

It was a good article at the time, especially in the immediate context of the Raniwalas’ fight to have known defaulters suitably punished. There are many bad-faith actors in the Indian scientific community and what the Raniwalas write about applies to them without reservation (ref. the cases of Chandra Krishnamurthy, R.A. Mashelkar, Deepak Pental, B.S. Rajput, V. Ramakrishnan, C.N.R. Rao, etc.). But I’m also confident enough to say now that predatory journals exist, typified by editors who place the journal before the authors of the articles that constitute it, who won’t make good-faith efforts to catch and correct mistakes at the time they’re pointed out. It’s marginally more disappointing that the editor who replied to Sanders replied at all; most don’t, as Elisabeth Bik has repeatedly reminded us. He bothered enough to engage – but not enough to give a real damn.