ORI on Plagiarism

September 11, 2007

The Office of Research Integrity’s latest newsletter has a bit on their approach to plagiarism (ht writedit).

They start with a point that confuses non-scientists fairly frequently and new trainees as well. The latter are usually flummoxed when they start writing “their” first paper in the lab and the PI says, “Here, start with the Methods and stuff from our last paper”. I can’t tell you how much time gets wasted with trainees trying to “say it in their own words” which is in part due to a well-trained avoidance of anything that smacks of plagiarism. This is why I thought it worth mention. From ORI:

In this new regulation plagiarism is defined as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.”

The “words” part is where it gets tricky but ORI emphasizes that it is acceptable practice to self-plagiarize in “minor” fashion:

ORI interpreted its definition of plagiarism to apply to the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and/or the substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work. ORI’s interpretation does not include authorship or credit disputes or “self-plagiarism” of one’s work from one paper to another or from a paper to a grant application.

Further specification of the point:

When modest amounts of language are reused (sentences, paragraphs, or even whole pages) without proper attribution that can be considered background information, or the boilerplate language often seen in descriptions of methods, and the copied material is not misleading,
ORI generally does not consider this to be sufficient to be considered plagiarism

One important point is that concepts of “research integrity” can be variable and ORI considers itself to be a lower common-denominator.

Institutions may have internal standards of conduct different from the HHS standards for research misconduct … an institution may find conduct to be actionable under its standards even if the action does not meet this part’s definition of research misconduct

Now we move onto concepts which were either new to me or not really considered by me. Perhaps the more experienced readers will find this of interest. What about intentionally re-publishing a figure as if it were new data? Clearly verboten going by journal requirements and by most standards of scientific practice, right? ORI agrees but refuses to get involved!

… efforts by scientists to publish the same data in more than one journal article. Assuming that the duplicated figures represent the same experiment and are labeled the same in both cases (if not, possible falsification of data makes the allegation significantly more serious), this so-called “self plagiarism” does not meet the PHS research misconduct standard. … ORI notes that this behavior violates the rules of most journals and is considered inappropriate by most institutions. … ORI will notify the institution(s) from which the duplicate publications/grants originated, being careful to note that ORI had no direct interest in the matter. [emphasis added, DM].

Perhaps more understandably but still a bit funny, ORI refuses to get involved in authorship disputes either.

ORI generally pursues plagiarism allegations when, for example, wholesale copying of language and data has been used to produce crucial portions of a grant application such as the preliminary results. …when reuse of data and language involves former or current collaborators, ORI does not consider this to be plagiarism, but an outcome of the joint development of ideas, data, or language where it frequently is impossible to objectively sort out who was responsible for what.

Oi. So if you are in a dispute over academic / intellectual ownership and your institution is backing the other side, don’t go looking to ORI for help. This seems odd to me. It is the NIH that is funding this stuff, after all. The “frequently is impossible to objectively sort out” business seems like a cop-out. “Too hard / expensive to sort it out so we’re not even going to try”. Well why not? Who is supposed to sort out problems, the local institute? But they have the inevitable conflict where their interest is always going to be in backing the continued acquisition of NIH funds. Which usually means, “Back the biggest cheez” and/or “Make this go away as quietly as possible”; goals which usually coincide.

One Response to “ORI on Plagiarism”

  1. Thomas Robey Says:

    Oi is right!

    I have always wondered about, but never received a satisfactory answer about methods reuse. I usually over-site, just to make sure, but now it seems as though it is ‘okay’ not to cite at all? I wouldn’t settle for that, myself, but I guess if ORI is okay with not calling it plagiarism…

    It seems ORI is trying to remind us that the critical parts of science that we should worry about plagiarism are results, ideas and conclusions.

    As far as punting the issue when a dispute comes up, give ’em a break! I mean, hey – they just write the rules. You can’t expect ORI to do anything about them!


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