Tuesday, October 12, 2010

But I Didn't Cut and Paste Text!

A commenter recently questioned my definition of plagiarism as well as my recommendation to avoid using students or other trainees in conducting manuscript reviews.  These are important points that warrant further discussion, so I'll spend a bit of time in this post expounding on my views.  Note that these are my views, based on my experience, my discussions with colleagues, and my reading about the issues.  Others certainly have the right to their own opinions (especially what is acceptable within their specific fields), and I'm not trying to say that my view is the only acceptable view.


The American Association of University Professors defines plagiarism as..."...taking over the ideas, methods, or written words of another, without acknowledgment and with the intention that they be taken as the work of the deceiver." The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) also defines plagiarism as involving the taking of words, ideas, etc. from an author and presenting them as one’s own.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy (1999) defines plagiarism as: "... the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts."

I would define plagiarism similarly, even without having read these organizations' definitions. However, I recognize that some may wish to limit the use of the term "plagiarism" to the appropriation of text only.  The problem with this (aside from not being an accepted definition) is that students may get the idea that the taking of other things (ideas, methods, hypotheses) without attribution is OK because it's not "technically" plagiarism.  I've encountered students who expressed this belief to me.

Plagiarism of ideas is "Appropriating an idea (e.g., an explanation, a theory, a conclusion, a hypothesis, a metaphor) in whole or in part, or with superficial modifications without giving credit to its originator." The ORI goes on to say "In the sciences, as in most other scholarly endeavors, ethical writing demands that ideas, data, and conclusions that are borrowed from others and used as the foundation of one’s own contributions to the literature, must be properly acknowledged. The specific manner in which we make such acknowledgment varies from discipline to discipline. However, source attribution typically takes the form of either a footnote or a reference citation."

The ORI offers an interesting example of a situation in which an ethical author cited an unusual source of inspiration for his theory on light perception:

"Even in such cases, we still have a moral obligation to credit the source of our ideas. A good illustrative example of the latter point was reported by Alan Gilchrist in a 1979 Scientific American article on color perception. In a section of the article, which describes the perception of rooms uniformly painted in one color, Gilchrist states: 'We now have a promising lead to how the visual system determines the shade of gray in these rooms, although we do not yet have a complete explanation. (John Robinson helped me develop this lead.)' (p.122; Gilchrist, 1979). A reader of the scientific literature might assume that Mr. Robinson is another scientist working in the field of visual perception, or perhaps an academic colleague or an advanced graduate student of Gilchrist’s. The fact is that John Robinson was a local plumber and an acquaintance of Gilchrist in the town where the author spent his summers. During a casual discussion, Robinson’s insights into the problem that Gilchrist had been working on were sufficiently important to the development of his theory of lightness perception that Gilchrist felt ethically obligated to credit Robinson’s contribution."

Some scientists would scoff at Gilchrist's acknowledgment of a plumber and argue that this was unnecessary.  I think his action shows integrity and, moreover, a deep understanding of the concept of plagiarism.  Gilchrist clearly recognizes that his reported insights on light perception would not have occurred (or would have been quite different) had he not had the input of the plumber--and was obligated to acknowledge that source of inspiration.

If students are taught that plagiarism is only the cutting and pasting of text, they may think that appropriation of ideas, hypotheses, methods, etc. is not unethical (or at least not labeled as plagiarism and therefore not subject to sanction).  This would be a serious mistake with potentially severe consequences.

Even if one is aware of this aspect of plagiarism, it is very easy to inadvertently appropriate someone else's idea or concept (sometimes called "unconscious plagiarism").  Our minds can play tricks on us, and an idea that we think is original may in fact be something we read and later remembered as our own (as my memory deteriorates with age, I'm more concerned with this point now than when I was younger).  Most of us, however, are careful to cite the originator of major theories, hypotheses, or concepts in our papers.  But sometimes, the way the text is worded, the impression may be given that another's idea is our own.  Another error is when an author, working from notes, inadvertently uses the exact wording of another author, thinking that the notes were his/her own words summarizing the other work (always place word-for-word notes in quotes so that you do not make this error).

One exception to the plagiarism of ideas is "common knowledge".  It is appropriate to make statements based on widely-recognized phenomena without attribution, e.g., "plants capture CO2 through the process of photosynthesis".  A rule of thumb offered by the ORI is that if the idea or concept is widely-known among high school and college students, then it is common knowledge.  What about ideas that are not common knowledge of students, but are widely recognized by experts in the field?  Here's where things can get tricky, and the decision requires some experience and understanding of what's common knowledge and what requires citation (students often need guidance here).  If the work is to be published in a technical journal, and the target audience is the expert, then statements based on a large body of work might not need a citation.  For example, one might have an opening statement such as "The sensitivity of higher plants to elevated concentrations of CO2 depends on the specific photosynthetic pathway of each species.....we compared the responses of C3 versus C4 species." Not perhaps common knowledge of the average student, but certainly so for people working on photosynthesis.  However, if you made the statement that 82% of C3 species respond to elevated CO2 with increased rates of photosynthesis, then this would require citation(s).

Another possible exception is the semi-technical article or book chapter requiring a less "formal" style of writing.  Editors may ask for text that is unbroken by numerous citations (as one would expect in a technical paper) so that the writing appeals to the non-expert reader.  In these cases, the article or chapter would be accompanied by a list of "additional reading", which was used in the preparation of the piece and contains the cited material.

I plan to write more about plagiarism in future posts--it's a complex topic, many aspects of which authors are not always fully aware (including me).  Even the most experienced can unknowingly commit errors or may be uncertain how to proceed in specific situations.  I'm certainly no expert on plagiarism, but hope to explore the topic by writing about it and, in the process, refine my understanding of its various forms.

The views of readers of this blog definitely help shape such explorations.

Students and Trainees as Manuscript Reviewers

The concern here is about using students or other trainees to perform manuscript or proposal reviews for their mentors (who were asked to do the review).  As an editor, I would question the capability of a trainee (especially someone who has never authored anything) to provide an expert review--which is what the journal expects (or should be seeking in soliciting a review). As an author, I would be concerned that my work was reviewed by an inexperienced trainee, even under the mentorship of a senior person.  I'm expecting a fair evaluation carried out by a peer who is well-versed in the topic of my work and who has published (i.e., is an expert and therefore qualified to assess the quality of my work and if it contributes significantly to the field).

No matter how good or conscientious a trainee, they are not equal to an expert.  If they need "close supervision" by a senior person, one might argue that this confirms they are unqualified to be conducting an official peer review.  How would the journal or funding agency defend such a review, if challenged? They would have no way of determining whether the PI closely supervised the trainee or instead simply forwarded the trainee's review without looking at it.  I know the latter happens because I was often asked by a previous lab director to do his reviews for him (when I was a graduate student).  Back then, I did not know any better and never questioned this practice.  One might argue that I probably did a better and more thorough job than the director would have, but what if I had not?  He did not even read the manuscripts or proposals, so he did not know if my reviews were fair or accurate. 

The point is not whether a trainee can provide a passable review (some certainly can) or that they are supervised by a mentor.  The concern is the author's expectation that their manuscript or proposal has been assessed by an expert and that the scores and ultimate acceptance/rejection are based on the evaluations of those qualified to make that judgment.  The trainee (especially a student) may not meet that expectation.  A post-doc who has published at least one first-authored paper or prepared one proposal may be qualified to conduct reviews of manuscripts/proposals.  However, if the mentor is the one asked to do the review, s/he should inform the journal that the review is to be carried out by a trainee and how much supervision will be involved.

If a trainee (e.g., a post-doc) has the necessary credentials to be considered a "peer" and is capable of performing a review (based on the mentor's judgment), then it would be safe to recommend that trainee as a reviewer.  If the journal or funding agency has a mechanism to allow the use of "assistant reviewers", then at least the review can be assessed with that knowledge.  More importantly, the identity of all contributors to the review are formally documented and known to the journal or funding agency (in the event of a challenge).  Journals in my field, however, have no such mechanism (that I'm aware of).  In that case, it seems most appropriate for the mentor to suggest their post-doc as a substitute and let the journal editor extend the invitation--which provides a means to formally document the person who actually carries out the review.

Personally, I would not want to become embroiled in an investigation in which an author claims that a review was unfair (and it's discovered that my review was mostly written by a trainee, a substitution that was not formally documented by the journal).  So, my advice would be to proceed with caution if you have trainees doing....I mean helping with, your reviews.

I don't think that the need to train students is a valid reason for using trainees to conduct reviews.  Students can be trained to review manuscripts without involving them in the actual review process. A mentor can use published papers ranging from excellent to poor (there are plenty in the literature to choose from) and use them to train students to conduct reviews.  Another possible method is to use unpublished manuscripts that the mentor reviewed in the past, have the trainee conduct a mock review, and then compare the trainee review with the actual review submitted by the mentor (caution would need to be exercised in ensuring that the trainee not know the identity of the author or make use of any information contained in the manuscript).   

Training may be the motivation of some PIs in using assistant reviewers, but such training may be accomplished in other ways.  In my experience, the reason that some (many?) PIs use assistant reviewers is simply to relieve themselves of the task (and justify it as training).  As I said before, if you don't have time to do the review, you can decline the request.

What distinguishes this situation is that there are two competing obligations. A mentor definitely has a moral obligation to help their trainees, but there is also the obligation to ensure an "expert" review.  If the journal welcomes "assistant reviewers" and has a mechanism for documenting their involvement, and the trainee is capable, then the PI may be safe in using them.  A side benefit may be experience for the trainee, but that should not be the primary justification.

Image Credits (created with images from Flickr, iStockphoto, and http://www.rmu.edu/SentryHTML/images/gallery/students/group2/student_professor3.jpg)

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