How Big of a Problem Is Plagiarism in the Academic & Research Community?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The most recent Town Hall on Plagiarism and Intellectual Credit organized by ASIST and the Duke Office of Scientific Integrity is part of a monthly series intended to serve as a public space for interactive discussion, meant to contribute to a cultural shift where research integrity is fostered at all levels and in all aspects of research.

When Donna Kessler, Misconduct Review Officer at Duke, reported the incidence of plagiarism found in national studies of research misconduct, gasps were heard from the audience of our most recent Research Town Hall. According to the National Science Foundation Inspector General quoted by Science[i], more than 80% of research misconduct cases between 2003-2013 involved plagiarism and, in the same time interval, allegations of research misconduct tripled[ii]. A study cited by NASEM’s report “Fostering Integrity in Research”, shows that plagiarism made up for 22% of the 3,631 retractions in all disciplines from 1980 to 2011[iii].

Whether it is about learning how to avoid plagiarism or how to deal with it, the topic is of interest for the entire academic and research community. About 190 faculty, staff and trainees attended the February 6 Town Hall on Plagiarism and Intellectual Credit organized by the Duke Office of Scientific Integrity. The event is part of a monthly series intended to serve as a public space for interactive discussion, meant to contribute to a cultural shift where research integrity is fostered at all levels and in all aspects of research. Attendees were able to provide input on the topic using live audience polling (see full results here). 

People’s perceptions about the prevalence of plagiarism are at least as interesting as the findings above. Not one single respondent polled at the Town Hall thought that plagiarism is not a problem in the scientific community. 66% of the audience thought that it is a moderate (55%) or a very large problem (11%), while the rest of the audience reported it as a slight problem. Additionally, 43% of the respondents witnessed or suspected plagiarism in their own careers.

Despite the apparently simple definition – “taking of words, images, processes, structure and design elements, ideas, etc. of others and presenting them as one’s own” (Source: ori.hhs.gov/plagiarism), plagiarism is a very complex matter with a broad scope – as Dr. Kessler pointed out during her town hall presentation. Someone could inappropriately attribute research ideas, methods, design, data or data analysis. For example, using someone’s data without acknowledgement or even submitting a grant application based on a research idea seen while reviewing someone else’s manuscript could, perhaps, constitute plagiarism. But can we be absolutely certain? “We need to look at the details,” Donna Kessler answers cautiously when asked by Chris Simon - bioethicist affiliated with the Duke Trent Center for Bioethics and Humanities and the event moderator – to comment on a hypothetical case study about a postdoc who feels betrayed by his PI who had not acknowledged his novel method in a grant. “One side may think that is plagiarism and the other side thinks it is not”, added Donna Kessler. It depends on how the ideas/data came about and how they fit in the bigger picture of the research or writing product. She stressed the three key attributes in diagnosing the inappropriate use of intellectual credit as research misconduct: knowing, intentional or reckless. Dr. Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering, an internationally recognized contributor of modern thermodynamics, asked a philosophical question from the perspective of plagiarism victims. The word plagiarism comes from the latin plagiarius, meaning kidnapper. Professor Bejan saw a profound metaphor in this etymology: “Stealing ideas and words is akin to stealing someone’s child - and is a serious issue for the victim (from whom something has been stolen)”.

Read next: Is It Plagiarism or Not? When Is It OK Not To Cite?

[i] Jeffrey Mervis, “NSF Audit of Successful Proposals Finds Numerous Cases of Alleged Plagiarism”, Science, March 8, 2013, 2:35 pm, available at http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/03/nsf-audit-successful-proposals-fi...

[ii] “5 Incidence and Consequences." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21896

[iii] Grieneisen, M.L., and M. Zhang. 2012. A comprehensive survey of retracted articles from the scholarly literature. PLOS ONE 7(10): e44118 in “5 Incidence and Consequences." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21896

Reporting Plagiarism

For a concern about potential plagiarism, contact the department chair or division chief, Dean, other appropriate institutional official or the misconduct review officer, Donna Kessler.
For a concern about authorship that cannot be resolved within the school, department or unit, contact the chair of the Authorship Dispute Board.
Any integrity concerns can be reported the Duke Office of Scientific Integrity (DOSI) or the Office of Audit, Risk, and Compliance (OARC).
To report an integrity concern anonymously, call the integrity line at 1-800-826-8109.  The call will not be traced.  You do not need to provide your name.

Acknowledgement: ASIST and Duke Office of Scientific Integrity would like to thank the moderator and distinguished panelists for their participation in the Research Town Hall ”Plagiarism and Intellectual Credit”:

Chris Simon, Associate Professor in Population Health Sciences
Donna Kessler, Research Misconduct Review Officer
John Klingensmith, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Graduate School
Cary Moskovitz, Professor of the Practice in the Thompson Writing Program
David Hansen, Associate University Librarian for Research, Collections
               and Scholarly Communication