# How to handle plagiarism on method that does not affect outcome results when reviewing a paper?

I was reviewing a paper related to my field (computational fluid dynamics) a while ago and, while reading a part of the methodology section where the numerical scheme and the equations were explained, I had a weird sense of déjà-vu. Regretfully, I found out that the author had plagiarized about three to four paragraph from a paper published two years ago. What was even crazier is that the author had plagiarized me, since the paragraph he had copied were from a paper I actually had previously published, thus explaining the feeling of déjà-vu.

I obviously noted that in my review and in my message to the editor, but I did not reject the paper directly. I acted this way since it was in the methodology section and related to mathematical formulas and really did not affect the outcome of the result. Was I in the wrong? Should such small plagiarism warrant instant rejection or is it sufficient to point them out and let the editor deal with that?

• If they stole your paragraphs, it's possible they stole something else as well, you just didn't see it because it was from more obscure papers. Don't assume that plagiarism is small, it could be just the tip of the iceberg – Maxim Dec 7 '17 at 16:17
• When I saw "small unimportant plagiarism" I thought you were referring to a clause in a sentence. Three to four paragraphs is not small, unimportant plagiarism. – aeismail Dec 7 '17 at 16:26
• @aeismail Although there is some importance to context. If it's something like "The Navier-Stokes equations are "..." where rho is the fluid density, u is the fluid velocity ... then it's slightly more understandable. Then again, if that's managed to reach 4 paragraphs, then the paper might have other problems. – origimbo Dec 7 '17 at 16:29
• @SSimon I don't think journals commonly use them. – xLeitix Dec 7 '17 at 17:02
• This might, as always, be field dependent but at least in chemistry it is fine to reuse certain phrases in the experimental section in every single paper because it simply makes no sense to rewrite statements like "All chemicals were purchased from Sigma Aldrich and used without further purification.". And it also doesn't make sense to cite another paper for this. – DSVA Dec 7 '17 at 22:11

There is no such thing as unimportant plagiarism. And three to four stolen paragraphs is not small.

You did the right thing to report it to the editor. But I also would have rejected the paper. There is no place in academia for academic misconduct. It certainly shouldn't be published.

• Once plagiarism has been detected (in this instance it was detected with certainty, since the reviewer's own work was plagiarised), should one immediately reject on this basis? Or continue reviewing regardless? – user2768 Dec 7 '17 at 14:47
• @user2768 - one should immediately reject and inform the editor.There is not point in proceeding further. – Jon Custer Dec 7 '17 at 15:09
• Similar to how I read the first 2 sentences of this post and had the almost word-for-word thought as expressed in this answer... – SliderBlackrose Dec 7 '17 at 16:40
• Technically, reviewers do not reject papers. They recommend rejection to the editor. – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 7 '17 at 16:52
• @JonCuster If the paper is rejected, it will be resubmitted somewhere else, where the plagiarism might not be noticed. Wouldn't it be better to inform the editor of the plagiarism and request revision to remove the plagiarized material? – David Richerby Dec 7 '17 at 17:03

It is not for a reviewer to decide whether the plagiarism has actually happened and whether the paper has to be rejected because of it. This is the editor's call. However, it is reviewer's duty to note the similarity and express concerns about possible plagiarism to the editor, supported by evidence.

Plagiarism is a serious breach of academic integrity and should not be tolerated. The amount of the copied text is not really relevant here: authors should not pass someone else's words and work as their own, however big or small it is. If the text was borrowed, it should've been properly attributed. This is not about the validity of result, but about the principles on which the academic community stands.

• I this instance, it is known that plagiarism has actually happened, since the author plagiarized the reviewer's work. – user2768 Dec 7 '17 at 14:48
• In addition, according to the OP, it seems even if it had not been their work, it was said to be copied implying verbatim plagiarism, which is beyond argument. – JNS Dec 7 '17 at 15:22
• @SSimon The plagiarism checkers are computer tools which have to be operated and double-checked by people. A lot of journals, including some famous once, do not have enough staff to check all submissions, and delegate the task to reviewers. – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 7 '17 at 16:55
• @DavidPostill Plagiarism is passing someone else's work as your own. It is not about the number of similar words or sentences, it is about the fact that they were used from another source without reference. Occasional match, even large, is not a plagiarism. Intentional failure to cite the source is. – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 7 '17 at 20:16
• @user2768: No, we don't know for sure that plagarism happened. When you write things like "where $\rho$ is the density, $p$ the pressure" (which I copied from a comment above :-)), there are only a few ways, possibly only one, to write concisely and understandably, especially in scientific fields where phrasing is often formal and stereotyped. Calling something like what this appears to be "plagiarism" is just plain nuts, headed for a reductio ad absurdum where every single formula, even every single word, has to be cited. – jamesqf Dec 8 '17 at 4:34

Regarding unimportant plagiarism, I have to note that sometimes plagiarism is unintentional. Last year, we submited a paper to a top-tier conference, where we accidentally plagiarised two sentences from a paper of the program chair (who we were pretty sure that were also one of the reviewers). The paper was still accepted to be published.

That program chair published a well-known paper 10 years ago, which formalized a model, and proposed a naive algorithm (brute-force) to compute some entities on this model. The approach was demonstrated on some toy programs, written in a toy language, with a couple lines of code.

We were the first, in 10 years, to propose a practical algorithm for this model, which scales to thousands of line of Java. Of course, all of us read that paper countless times, and discussed it for several months. As a result, many of its sentences stuck in our heads, and somehow made their way to our paper. Notably, two sentences were exactly identical, since they described the settings for the problem.

One of the reviewers, whose review only appeared after the rebuttal phase, explicitly said that he did not read technical details, and only wanted to give editorial comments. So we were almost sure that he was the program chair.

That reviewer was extremely upset about our discussion in the related work, since we only compared our algorithm with the naive brute-force, and he felt we did not give credit to the model that we implemented (we formalized the model in a different way). In particular, he pointed out those two sentences that we lifted verbatim from that well-known paper, as a proof of the influence of his paper to ours.

But that didn't result in a rejection, and it was not a conditional acceptance, i.e. they didn't review our paper again.

• It seems like it would be harder to explain 3-4 entire paragraphs as accidental. Anyone with that level of eidetic memory should also be able to remember where they read it. – Barmar Dec 7 '17 at 20:56

I think that you did the right thing. I believe that some unimportant parts can be copied and a limited amount (certain percentage) of plagiarism is unavoidable. If the author wants to refer the same thing which is included in your paper, it makes no sense to change the wording a little so that it doesn't get caught in plagiarism issues. If the majority of the work that the author presents is original and not published before, then copying a small amount of essential details should be acceptable. How large were the 3 or 4 paragraphs and did they really capture the essence of the whole paper are the questions, which only you can answer. The gist of what I want to say is that if the author has presented a new, novel and an original idea, which has not been published before then a small amount of copying must not matter. These are my personal views. Of course, you can refer it to the editor with your views on it and let him deal with it in whatever way he finds it appropriate

• If another paper's description of a concept is good, and doesn't need to be tailored to the publication at hand to support the novel elements it presents, then the source material can be explicitly quoted with a citation. Honestly, I wish large quotations of stock background material were more broadly accepted practice, as it would spare a lot of effort rewriting these descriptions over and over. – Phil Miller Dec 7 '17 at 16:30
• @Novelocrat “Before continuing here, consult [Reed, Tehfu, King, Man et al. 1743] as a general introduction to the subject”... – leftaroundabout Dec 7 '17 at 20:28
• @leftaroundabout I cannot find that can you send me in pm? – SSimon Dec 8 '17 at 8:12
• @SSimon There's no such thing as a PM on this site. – wizzwizz4 Dec 9 '17 at 10:54
• really> it is called private chat @wizzwizz4 – SSimon Dec 9 '17 at 12:37

I agree with others that this is not a small act of plagiarism. With that said, it's hard for you to identify the motive behind it. What if they had copied it as placeholder material with the intent of replacing it later or properly citing it, and simply forgot?

I agree with you that it should not have been immediately rejected, but not because I view it as minor plagiarism. Instead, the results of their research have the potential to contribute to science. By rejecting it on the merits of the author instead of the merits of the research, you could be doing more harm than good for science. The issue of plagiarism should be addressed some different way; for example, by the editor notifying the author's institution so that they can handle the issue, which will be better equipped to determine why the plagiarism occurred. If it becomes a recurring issue, then the editor can consider simply blacklisting the author from submitting in the future.

• If it were a sentence, I might agree. It could be accidentally remembering something verbatim, or even coincidentally saying something the same way. However, copying several paragraphs verbatim at a minimum requires extreme negligence in the paper-writing process. It's serious misconduct even if there was not an intent to plagiarize. In my opinion, this deserves rejection and an investigation at the authors' institution(s). The rejection is absolutely necessary, because there may additional undiscovered plagiarism or other serious problems with the work. – user24098 Dec 9 '17 at 8:34
• If the underlying science is sound and valuable, it will likely end up being published in the future. – user24098 Dec 9 '17 at 8:39
• @dan1111 Let's assume there are other issues. If they're allowed to resubmit, then the editor can apply extra scrutiny because they are aware of the previous issue. But if they're rejected, the author simply might just submit to a different publication, which probably won't be aware of the previous issue and be less thorough in looking for others. There is literally no advantage to that. The misconduct should be handled by the institution – anjama Dec 10 '17 at 2:26

Once published, the plagiarized text will "haunt" the authors for the rest of their life. If the fragment is not important with respect of the original contribution, but merely useful to the reader to understand the concept, suggest a simple reference like "[BlaB at all] provided the explanation of Prandtl-Glauert Singularity equation on transition to supersonic speed:" << add here the "plagiarized" explanation >>. This is still bad if the review is performed by non-specialists using software. For them, "rewording" the phase is more useful, even if you "steal" the concept.

You can also tell the authors that entire paragraphs are just copy and paste work from ref (your work) and this is detrimental to the overall paper as it might even open discussion about plagiarism. You think that they can easily rephrase the methods section.

They will suspect it is you as likely just the original author can recognise that. But they shall be grateful for ever as you didn't rejected as well as you didn't start a big unpleasant issue. It is likely a lazy young that will likely take the lesson.

I think you should reject it until the plaigiarism is corrected then if all else is good it can then be published.

The correct example should be set - this should be a simple correction for the author.

• I'm not sure how one "corrects" plagiarism. We do not, e.g., allow students who've been caught plagiarizing to resubmit without the plagiarism for a regrade, so why should the standards for a journal be more lax? If you reject a paper for plagiarism, I think it should remain rejected. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 7 '17 at 16:39
• Can you also "correct" the act of stealing by giving the item back to the owner and go free? – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 7 '17 at 16:56
• @NicoleHamilton The paper of a student only has value as an assessment: generally no one cares about the results except that they demonstrate that the student has learned the material. The paper of an academic could be very important despite having some plagiarized material. What if Einstein's Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper'' had a plagiarized paragraph? Should it be rejected forever? I agree that the academic should be punished in some way, but we should not necessarily discount their discovery. – Steven Gubkin Dec 7 '17 at 18:23
• So, the general opinion is that any person caught plagiarising needs to be flogged at the stake, hung then drawn and quartered.... And whatever the discovery it should be lost, buried and not used... – Solar Mike Dec 7 '17 at 20:26
• @SolarMike Basically, yes. It is the kiss of death in academia. It is important to know that so you don't do it. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 7 '17 at 22:26