Q: How do I respond to a potential case of plagiarism in a paper I am reviewing?

Detailed Question -

I have to review a paper sent by a journal. In the conclusion, the authors have mentioned a country that is different from the country analyzed in the paper. Is this a sign of plagiarism? If so, how do I react/respond to this?

1 Answer to this question

This is a good catch… and a thought-provoking question. One of the main responsibilities of a peer reviewer, as you may know, is to spot and flag possible misconduct. As you may know too, handling possible cases of misconduct (like possible plagiarism, in this case) needs to be done professionally and politely. This is also because not all apparent plagiarism is intentional. Here, for a moment, let us assume that the authors made an honest mistake, accidentally inserting the name of a country different from that being referred to – a Freudian slip or parapraxis, if you will. Nevertheless, the error would need to be flagged, and you would need to query the authors about this.

Coming to responding to this, as you have yourself asked (whether this is a sign of plagiarism) and as we just discussed, this may have been a careless mistake rather than plagiarism. All the same, you may think about the following considerations and address the situation accordingly.

On going through the relevant literature (or from your expertise in the field), did you feel that the topic was not original?

Has the same problem been approached in a similar manner in another country? If so, you will need to highlight this in your peer review report, saying that the study is not original or that it is incremental, at best. Back this up with references to the pertinent study/studies. As you may know, your report, along with that of (the) other peer reviewer(s), will inform the editor’s decision.

Are there chunks of text with language or style differing from the bulk of the text and no attribution of the source?

A Google search with some suspect sentences in double quotes will lead you to a source from which it was lifted. If so, inform the author that it has come to your attention that some of the wording in the manuscript is identical to that from another source. Again, provide evidence in the form of the relevant reference. You may go ahead and explain that the authors need to add quotation marks if they want to use the exact phrasing, and also cite the source. Alternatively, they may paraphrase the text, citing the source. (Perhaps the authors were not aware of these solutions.) Again, based on your report, the journal editor will take a call on the next steps.

Finally, as you are probably aware, many journals use text-matching software to screen submissions for plagiarism. So, this can be verified at that step, if it hasn’t already been done. If it has, the editor perhaps didn’t catch it or may have let it pass for now.

Again, this is a good catch, and shows that you have a keen eye as a reviewer. :) So, if you’d like to bolster your reviewing skills, you may wish to turn to this expert-developed peer review training course: How to become a great peer reviewer! (Basic and Advanced training)

Note: The course is available from R Upskill, a sister brand providing learning programs for various aspects of a researcher’s work, from writing to publication to research promotion and even career progression. Incidentally, the platform also has a few courses on ethics (as your question touches upon research ethics). So, do check it out.

Hope that helps. Happy reviewing!