March’s SoNYC: On setting the research record straight – Sound familiar?

Published in Protocols & Methods

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Dorothy Clyde (Dot), is a Senior Editor at Nature Protocols and has been with the journal since its inception in January 2006. In her previous life as a research scientist, she spent close to a decade studying various aspects of fruit fly development and genetics. In her guest post she explains the role an editor plays in avoiding plagiarism, giving advice to all parties. 

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but I doubt if anyone feels particularly flattered when they come across their own work – copied verbatim and unattributed – in someone else’s publication.  Unfortunately, instances of plagiarism are becoming more commonplace. As a result, tackling plagiarism has now become part of an editor’s job, and at Nature Protocols we work closely with our authors to avoid it. Once upon a time plagiarism was difficult to detect, but now that so much of the scientific literature is online there are a number of services that help us spot when parts of a submitted manuscript have already appeared elsewhere.

Thankfully, plagiarism of the classic kind is rare; when we do come across plagiarism, it usually takes the form of self-plagiarism (where an author reproduces uncited sections of text from one of their previous publications), or duplicate submissions (where the same manuscript is submitted to more than one journal, often simultaneously). Self-plagiarism, if detected early enough, is usually relatively straightforward to resolve. Duplicate submissions, on the other hand, are one of the more frustrating aspects of an editor’s job, as the problem often does not become apparent until the later stages of the editorial process – or worse, until both versions have been accepted and published in different journals!

Why is self-plagiarism a particular problem for Nature Protocols?

In order to ensure that our protocols are reproducible, Nature Protocols has a policy that all our protocols are based on a previous primary research paper from the author’s lab, in which the technique was used to generate data. If this supporting paper is very methodological, there may be some degree of overlap with the Nature Protocols manuscript. Alternatively, the authors may have published a protocol-type paper on a similar topic in another journal. In these circumstances, it is easy for sections of duplicated text to creep in, especially if the authors are unaware of the problems associated with self-plagiarism.

With respect to duplicate submission, we hope that all authors realise that it is unacceptable to submit identical manuscripts to more than one journal at the same time. However, duplicate submission (and self-plagiarism) problems can arise when manuscripts that were seemingly unrelated at initial submission, progressively become more similar as they pass through the editorial process, for example, when additional material is added in response to referee or editorial comments. In addition, some authors view protocols differently to other publication types and do not see a potential conflict in publishing the same protocol in more than one journal.

The role of editors in avoiding plagiarism

It is our job as editors to ensure our authors are fully informed about our plagiarism policies and to detect potential problems early in the editorial process. So how do we set out to achieve this at Nature Protocols?

  1. When an author agrees to submit a full manuscript to Nature Protocols, they will be sent an e-mail that reminds them we take plagiarism seriously and it must be avoided, directing them to “NPG’s policy on plagiarism” for further information. This e-mail also requests that authors make the editor aware of any methods/protocol papers they have previously written or have agreed to write on a similar topic – and, if possible, to provide us with a copy of these papers. We also ask authors to provide us with a copy of their supporting primary research paper. Editors will have already carried out extensive literature checks by this stage and may ask authors to upload specific publications that these searches have identified as being potentially overlapping or a source of potential problems. In such cases, the editor will make it clear that we expect the Nature Protocol to add substantial value to the existing literature and request that the author outlines to the editor how the manuscript expands upon previous publications.
  2. Authors are reminded of our policy again when their manuscript is returned to them for revision. It is also made clear in the editorial comments that duplication of text must be avoided and that all our manuscripts are cross-checked against the published literature before being accepted for publication. Thus, all authors are informed at least twice of our position on plagiarism.
  3. Nature Protocols (along with all other NPG journals) participates in the “CrossCheck initiative.” Prior to accepting any manuscript for publication, it is compared to the CrossCheck database using “iThenticate”.  iThenticate will generate an overall similarity score and provide a summary report that highlights instances of duplicated text in the submitted manuscript and links back to the original source(s). The editor then carefully checks each ‘hit’ in the report to determine its significance. Large sections, or multiple smaller sections, of highly similar text are an immediate red flag; if such sections are a clear indication of deliberate plagiarism or if the duplicated text cannot be removed by careful revision by the author (for example, by extensive rewriting or appropriate referencing) the manuscript will be rejected. We understand that paraphrasing sections of the Procedure can be difficult and not always helpful so in these cases it may make most sense to ensure the original source is prominently cited. However, the software will also turn up hits that are not plagiarism, such as isolated occurrences of partially similar sentences. Some standard phrases will be present in most of our manuscripts and can also be excluded, for example text reminding authors to follow institutional and national guidelines when performing experiments on animals. Another example where our editorial requirements make some duplication inevitable is the Materials section and so hits limited to this section can usually be overlooked.

Taking action

If self-plagiarism is detected before a manuscript is accepted for publication, the author is made aware of the offending sections and asked to either cite the original source or to rewrite the duplicated text. Duplicate submissions will be rejected outright as soon as they are detected. No manuscript will be accepted for publication until we are satisfied that all text is original and appropriately referenced.

Once a manuscript has been published, the course of action will depend on a number of factors, including: proof of intent; severity of plagiarism; policies of other journals involved. In cases where it is judged that the plagiarism is relatively minor and unintentional, authors will most likely be given the opportunity to correct the publication record by including additional citations or rewriting sections of text in the form of an official correction. In more serious cases, it is likely that we will retract the Protocol. That is about the limit of what we as editors can do ourselves although an author’s institution may well decide to investigate. In theUS, there is also the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) which will investigate complaints of plagiarism. We are of course happy to cooperate with Institutions, the ORI or equivalent authorities.

Limitations of our approach

Unfortunately, there will be cases of plagiarism that slip past the Nature Protocols editors unnoticed. Plagiarism detection software, such as iThenticate, is not foolproof; determined individuals will find a way to ensure their manuscripts evade detection. Services such as PubMed, Scopus or CrossCheck do not index content from every journal; neither do they index all content types from participating journals. And by definition, only published papers are included in these databases. Thus, concurrent submission of identical manuscripts to more than one journal is a serious problem with no immediate solution.

A closing plea to authors

Authors – remember, your editor is your friend when it comes to avoiding plagiarism. It is in everyone’s best interests to identify and resolve potential issues early in the publication process. To facilitate this, I would urge all authors to be honest and transparent with your editor. And if you are unsure about how the policies apply to your manuscript –just ask!

Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists and the in-person and online audiences talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC the topic for discussion is:  Setting the research record straight. We’re looking at issues such as retractions and plagiarism and how they relate to real or perceived increases in research misconduct.  More details about this month’s SoNYC can be found here.

To complement the event, we’re running a series of guest posts on Of Schemes and Memes, discussing what steps publications are taking to deal with fraudulent research practices and what is being done to investigate and deter such practices. We’ve already heard from Richard Van Noorden, Assistant News Editor at Nature. He gave us an overview of  what retractions can tell us about setting the research record straight, highlighting some recent high profile cases of retraction, explaining why retraction rates appear to be increasing. We also compiled a Storify from a session at February’s AAAS meeting in Vancouver on Global Challenges to Peer Review which touched on some of the challenges faced by journal editors. More guest posts coming soon.

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