Should plagiarism lead to retraction in all circumstances?

Should plagiarism lead to retraction in all circumstances?

Plagiarism is often one of the commonly cited reasons behind retraction of papers. However, should plagiarism in any form necessarily result in retraction? Dr. Praveen Chaddah, a condensed-matter physicist and former director of the University Grants Commission in India, raises this interesting question in an article in Nature: Instead of retracting plagiarized papers as a rule of thumb, should journal editors make an attempt at assessing the concerned author’s intent before deciding on retraction?

To explain this concept further, Dr. Chaddah tries to segregate intentional plagiarism or scientific fraud from accidental plagiarism. He classifies plagiarism in these categories:

  • Text plagiarism: Copying chunks of text in the introduction and/or conclusion section from research papers without altering them comprises text plagiarism. Authors who engage in this are likely unskilled in English language, which is the dominant language of science publication. As a result, “text that has been copied and pasted without proper attribution is now a common reason for papers being retracted,” Dr. Chaddah opines.   
  • Plagiarism of methods and results section: This is a form of intentional plagiarism wherein authors copy the research ideas without acknowledgement and try to pass them off as their own. As rightly described in an article published in SciElo in Perpective, researchers find it difficult to write an original text about some methodology that has been described many times before and the biggest mistake they make is they fail to cite the original source.

Plagiarizing text is indisputably unethical but if compared, it is not as offensive as plagiarizing methods or results from other papers, as the latter amounts to taking credit for someone else’s research. Unlike text plagiarism, which is easy to spot using plagiarism detection software, plagiarism of ideas and data often goes undetected unless the work is carefully reviewed by experts familiar with the literature or combined with plagiarized text. Although plagiarism amounts to scientific misconduct, every instance of plagiarism might not be intentional. Certainly, it might not be an easy task for journals to decide whether the text in a paper was plagiarized intentionally or unintentionally. However, this nuanced distinction could play a vital role in determining whether good research reaches publication.

Journal editors usually take the route of retraction when they uncover any instance of plagiarism. Thus, papers that merely copy text but are based on original research face retraction, whereas seemingly original papers with plagiarized ideas reach publication. This may in fact be harming science than protecting its integrity. To change this scenario, editors should consider the viewpoint that retraction is a way of alerting readers to the questionable credibility of a study and is not a punishment. Thus, journals can use a correction notice rather than retraction in cases wherein textual plagiarism clearly stems from the authors’ inability to reword information so as to package their original research findings well.

As Dr. Chaddah puts it, “To scientists, plagiarism of an idea strikes at the heart of research as a creative enterprise.” Hence, when journal editors stumble upon plagiarized content, it would help for them to investigate further to determine the gravity of the situation and make a decision that is in the interest of science, rather than to follow the norm of automatic retraction that could prove to be a loss for scientific progress. 

Do you agree or disagree with this line of thinking? Please share your views in the comments below.

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