Ethics and open science – Plagiarism
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
You have probably heard this phrase, commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, describing how progress is a collaborative process, learning from those who have come before you, and building upon their ideas, and this continues to be one of the main principles of the scientific method. For the ResBios team, this philosophy of innovation and collaboration is something we are keen to expand and promote as part of our mission to encourage research institutes to use the principles of responsible research and innovation RRI to[PS1] encourage open dialogue between researchers and society as a whole. However, for these relationships to flourish, there needs to be a great deal of trust, not just from society, but between researchers and academics, especially when career progressions are dictated by the number of publications you have and where, which is the case for most, certainly junior, if not all academics.
For many research institutes, as well as in the writing community in general, one of the longest standing safeguards to this trust, has been fostering a culture of proper citation when referring to the work of others, coupled with anti-plagiarism rules. These ideals are instilled into student bodies as a whole, with strict repercussions for those found to be breaking such rules. However recent studies and student surveys have shown that in spite of these efforts, plagiarism is still on the rise, and it is not limited to students, but also career academics who should know better (1). But why is this happening?
Many have blamed the onset of the internet and the migration of resources online as the cause of this rise, and there is certainly an argument to be made for this (2). With a world of information at your fingertips, perhaps the temptation to plagiarise is just too great for some individuals, but this is only part of the story. The internet is only a tool, and as it has become easier to plagiarise a piece of work, the technologies to detect such behaviours have also improved in parallel. Therefore it must be that either; for those who are willing to plagiarise another’s’ work, the rewards outweigh the possible risks, either because they are unlikely to be caught doing so, or that they do not think they will get heavily penalised if they are caught, or these people simply do not fully understand what is meant by plagiarism, what information exactly needs to be cited and how they should do so, especially for those who are writing in a second language (3).
Plagiarism is often presented as an issue for students and teaching staff; a few misguided undergraduates submit essays either wittingly or unwittingly featuring plagiarised information and how these bad apples might influence their grades and the grades of others. However, a few bad apples spoil the batch, and this plagiarism problem has far-reaching issues within the wider scientific community, with authors stealing ideas, data, or entire texts wholesale and submitting them as their own, often in several places simultaneously (paper mills) . However as often is the case, the issue returns to the pressure on academics to get published, by any means necessary. So how do we deal with this plagiarism pandemic?
As we move forward, academia and research need to do a lot of the heavy lifting to ensure that societal trust is maintained, if ideas are shared and spread without the correct validation, this will lead to a slippery slope where information is compromised through a game of academic “telephone” with ideas being watered down or taken out of context. However, along with a bottom-up approach, top-down changes also need to be addressed. Systems are required to vigorously check and penalise papers, as well as more effective ways of retraction papers featuring plagiarised material. One approach could be the wholesale refurbishment of the publication process, and a reviewing of how academics are appraised for their efforts, removing some of the pressure for academics to get published and stigmas for not doing so. However, this is not without its issues, decentralised publication and the current increase in open science publications may not have the infrastructure to police plagiarism and could result in further backdoors where plagiarised paper could enter circulation.
Unfortunately, this is far from a trivial problem to solve, with no easy solutions emerging. However, the way that cultures digest and share information has made what is, and what is not plagiarism increasingly muddy. We live in a culture that expects information to be freely available on demand and collaboration and remixing of content are more often expected. However, when it comes to building upon the work of others, especially in a scientific context, the appropriate citation is still mandatory.
So for the purposes of correctly citing my sources, the quote I opened this article with dates back much earlier than Sir Isaac Newton, and can be traced all the way back to the 12th century, and according to John of Salisbury, is attributable to French philosopher Bernard of Chartres (4).
Aside- Insights from Ali Tahmazov, Strike Plagiarism
“Strike plagiarism” was founded in 2002, and although the digital landscape has changed a lot in two decades, Ali tells me that he is still having the same discussions with Heads of Research Institutes, with many Heads of Departments claiming that plagiarism is not a problem in their organisation. However, it has become evident that this is categorically a problem and that we cannot bury our heads in the sand, and it requires collaboration between online services like Strike Plagiarism and research institutes. Over the past 20 years, the importance of plagiarism checking software has grown and the increasing ubiquity of the internet has yet again been a gift and a curse in the fight against plagiarism. With the digitalisation of work providing both the means to plagiarise but also the tools to help combat it.
Although the actual processes these types of software use is a closely guarded secret, and very complicated to explain, Ali outlines how it works in simple terms. Strike Plagiarism uses machine learning algorithms, pieces of digital machinery that learn to detect plagiarised material from examples that are provided to it, and the more examples it is provided with, the better it becomes at detecting these materials. This software is then able to scan through a piece of provided text, and cross reference that work with documents found on the internet, and research papers within an organisations database. The software is then able to detect where text has been copied, paraphrased, and if words have been substituted with other synonyms, even if the original text has been written in a different language. After this, the software can provide a fully annotated report, detailing what text in the scanned document has been copied, and the original source of the text, as well as a summarised report, with simplified similarity “scores”.
These types of plagiarism-checking software packages have now been adopted by universities and journal publications to check submitted texts for plagiarism; However, this is not a silver bullet to fix the growing plagiarism epidemic, and the way many institutes use this type of software, it is a blunt tool and does very little to actually fix the problem. Presently, many teaching institutes are training pupils how to use the software to check their own work, before they submit essays and reports, which still requires a large degree of “good faith” as to how the students use this tool, giving opportunities for them to tweak their work to try and fool the algorithms and pass off copied works as their own. But it can also become a top-down bureaucratic hoop to jump through, with papers that receive a “similarity score” above a certain threshold being rejected, and those which score below being accepted with little additional review by academic staff.
These tools must be used in partnership with good ethics governance and a robust code of conduct for both the students and the academic staff, and by shifting perceptions about responsible research. In addition, this highlights how important the continuing partnership between research institutes and industrial leaders is, and how through the use of quadruple helix principles, we are able to produce real-life solutions to modern issues facing research and the wider specific community. Working together to help ensure that prolonged positive changes can be put into place using the framework of RRI and the quadruple helix framework. Only then can we as an academic community start to truly tackle these problems in the future.
- Guy J. Curtis & Kell Tremayne (2021) Is plagiarism really on the rise? Results from four 5-yearly surveys, Studies in Higher Education, 46:9, 1816–1826, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1707792
- Miall, Caroline L. (2005) Plagiarism and new media technologies: Combating ‘cut ‘n paste’ culture. In OLT Conference 2005 Beyond Delivery, 2005–09–27–2005–09–27.
- Tran, T.T., 2012. The perceptions and attitudes of international students towards plagiarism. The ACPET Journal for Private Higher Education, 1(2), pp.13–21.
- Chen C. (2003) On the Shoulders of Giants. In: Mapping Scientific Frontiers: The Quest for Knowledge Visualization. Springer, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4471-0051-5_5