Halloween is my favorite holiday: you aren’t strong armed into unhealthy levels of conspicuous consumption, the costumes and pumpkins are creative and fun, the autumn colors are fantastic, and the weather is typically quite pleasant (or at least it was in pre-climate change/hurricane Sandy days.) You don’t even have to travel at all! So in honor of Halloween, I’m going to tell a (true) horror story about…
Back in August, I was asked to referee a paper for a certain prestigious physics journal. The paper had already been reviewed by two referees, and while one referee was fairly clear that the paper should not be published, the other gave a rather weak rejection. The authors replied seeking the opinion of a third referee, and that’s when the editors contacted me.
I immediately noticed that something was amiss: the title of the paper was nearly identical to a paper that my co-authors and I had published in that same journal a couple of years earlier. In fact, out of 12 words in the title, the first 9 were taken verbatim. I’m sorry to say, but it further raised my hackles that the authors and their universities were unknown to me and came from a country with a reputation for rampant plagiarism. Proceeding to the abstract, I found that the authors had copied entire sentences, merely substituting some of the nouns and verbs as if it were a Mad Lib. Scrolling further, the authors copied an entire theorem, taking the equations in the proof symbol-by-symbol and line-by-line!
I told all of this to the editor and he of course rejected the paper, providing also an explanation of why and what constitutes plagiarism. A strange twist is that my original paper was actually cited by the copy. Perhaps the authors thought that if they cited my paper, then the copying wasn’t plagiarism? They had even mentioned my paper directly in their response to the original reports as supporting evidence that their paper should be published. (“You published this other paper which is nearly identical, so why wouldn’t you publish ours?”) Thus, at this point I was thinking that it’s possible they simply didn’t understand that their actions constituted plagiarism, and I was grateful that the editor had enlightened them.
Fast forward to today.
I receive another email from a different journal asking to referee a paper… the same paper. They had changed the title, but the abstract and copied theorem were still there. Bizarrely, they even added a fourth author. The zombie paper is back, and it wants to be published!
Of course, I can also raise my previous objections, and re-kill this zombie paper. And I’m considering directly contacting the authors. This clearly isn’t a scalable strategy, however.
It got me thinking. Is there a better way to combat plagiarism of academic papers? One thing that often works in changing people’s behavior is shame. My idea is, perhaps if we build a website where we publicly post the names and affiliations of offenders, then this will cause enough embarrassment to stem the tide. Sort of like the P vs. NP site for erroneous proofs.
What’s your best idea for how to deal with this problem?