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Recently I came across a paper on a topic I'm interested in. I started reading the paper and realized this was a later version of a paper I reviewed roughly 6 months prior. That paper was rejected then due to a large amount of plagiarism that I identified, mostly in the introductory sections.

Despite the plagiarism, I tried to be as helpful as possible to the authors, recommending a different approach than what they used. Turns out that they quite liked parts of my approach as they made many of my recommended changes to their paper. They even liked how I described it, because roughly 3 sentences were copied nearly verbatim from my review. There was no mention of the help of an anonymous reviewer either.

I contacted the journal, who so far has refused to acknowledge that plagiarism occurred. I've received two somewhat contradictory responses (paraphrasing the journal staff):

  1. Plagiarism can only occur if the copying was from a published source. As my review was not published, the alleged copying can not be plagiarism.

  2. The passages I highlight are not similar.

Point 1 is absurd. A student would fail an assignment if they tried that one. Point 2 is also absurd as the sentences I highlighted are near verbatim copies, and there are many ways the same points could be made. I was really surprised when they made that argument.

What are my options at this point? I'd like for the plagiarized passages to be rewritten, but the journal staff refuses to bulge on that.

It's worth noting that this was published in a reputable journal. The paper is outside of the field of the journal in my view, but the reputation of the journal in general is good.

  • somehow reminds me of the prisoner's dilemma, only that the journal's reputation vs. your integrity is at stake if both don't want/allow cooperation... – user847982 Apr 11 at 23:48
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    Copying sentences from a referee report is a gray area — referee reports are not meant to be published, but to help the authors revise their paper, so plagiarizing a referee report, while it might be unethical, is not actually doing any harm to the referee. – Peter Shor Apr 12 at 16:36
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    Thought about this. Regardless of whether directly copying from reviews is kosher, I have changed my personal policy in reviews to immediately reject a paper at the first sign of plagiarism, and remove all technical evaluations of the work from the review. I won't be writing papers for free for verified plagiarists. Knowingly doing so seems unethical to me. – Ben Trettel Apr 15 at 1:24
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    The authors removed almost all of the plagiarized content from the previous article, but not all. I provided the journal/EIC a list of plagiarized passages including a plagiarized sentence from earlier and the new plagiarized sentences from my review. I attached a copy of my previous review. I did not forward correspondence with the editor. To their credit, the journal staff did modify the article in response to some of the plagiarism from earlier, but they seemed unwilling to acknowledge the new plagiarism. I left these details out for simplicity. – Ben Trettel Apr 17 at 2:35
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Contact the editorial board. It sounds like the journal's staff aren't very familiar with academic norms, so they don't know what to do; besides they likely won't do anything without the editorial board's approval. So approach the editorial board, probably the editor-in-chief, with evidence of the plagiarism.

I should say it further sounds like the paper has been published, which narrows the options available. They can't send the paper back to the author for revision; they can't recall the copies that have already been sent to subscribers and/or printed. If the editors agree with you that the paper is plagiarized, their most likely action is to retract the paper.

  • I have been in contact with the journal staff and editor-in-chief. Any advice for contacting the editorial board members? Is it okay to start with a random member? I don't know any of them. Also, the paper was published online but has not been printed yet to my knowledge. – Ben Trettel Apr 12 at 0:19
  • If the editor-in-chief isn't helping I think you're at a dead end unfortunately: editorial board members are not likely to want to go against the EiC. Being published online is almost equivalent to being published: the articles have been copyedit, typeset, author changes implemented, etc, with the only thing still left to do is to assign an issue. I'd still say retraction is the most likely outcome if the editors agree with you. – Allure Apr 12 at 0:29
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    @Allure: If I was a member of the editorial board, and somebody contacted me about a paper in the journal that had blatant plagiarism in it, which the editor-in-chief had dismissed as unimportant, I would consider resigning. (It would have to be blatant and substantial plagiarism, though). Editorial boards have been known to threaten to resign en masse because of an unethical EIC. – Peter Shor Apr 12 at 12:07
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I think this actually falls into a bit of a gray area.

Attributing things to (anonymous) referees is a more modern practice. I personally vary rarely see such things in papers from several decades ago, while it's extremely common to see in papers from the last few years. I doubt reviewers have become radically more helpful; rather the culture has changed. I think to a lot of people, reviewers are (still) presumed to be voluntarily offering up what they say for direct use (in a way, that's one of their functions), and the authors only have to recognize their assistance if they choose to do so. And with doing so being a professional courtesy to avoid awkward feelings and reactions, such as your own, or feeling compelled to acknowledge a very significant contribution (e.g. providing a proof of a significant new theorem).

The exact culture here will also vary between fields, which may be relevant to your situation as you say the paper is "outside the field" of the journal. It's not quite clear if you feel the paper and authors are well within your field. But if not, the authors may come from an academic sub-culture where the attributions you seek are abnormal.

On the other hand, the legal reality is perhaps a bit more clear. Unless the journal had you submit a transfer of copyright form along with your review, then you both have and retain the copyright on your review. Whether or not it was published is irrelevant. The acquisition of the copyright is immediate upon the works creation and does not require you to disseminate or share it in any way, nor is it necessarily lost by doing so.

So you could in principle elevate this to the legal theater, though this would be a drastic move that is likely to burn a lot of bridges. You'll have to ask yourself if a fight over this is worth that. And as with most legal matters, it can be difficult to predict the outcome: if there's a jury involved then that's always got a random element, or a judge might rule that your work is not adequately original, etc.

You mention in some comments you have contacted the Editor in Chief (EiC). If you've provided your review and journal it was provided for, and he does not take action you find favorable, then there's not much more you can do, beyond the aforementioned elevation to the legal theater. The offer to submit and publish a response to the paper may be worth seriously considering. Some people even go to the lengths of talking about such issues on social media. Though note this may carry some bridge-burning risks, too.

If these risks aren't acceptable to you, the best thing you might do is make a note of who the authors are and decline to review papers for them again in the future (you generally do not have to specify why you decline to do a review, and it is generally wise to not specify). You may also opt to stop reviewing for this journal, if you are convinced this is a serious issue with the journal itself.

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    Technically, the copyright for the review might belong to his employer rather than himself, depending on his local laws and the wording of his employment contract. – nick012000 Apr 15 at 2:37
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Beyond what was mentioned in the other answers, here's what I did:

  • I sent a DMCA take down notice to the host of the journal. zibadawa timmy suggested legal action would burn my bridges with the journal, but as far as I'm concerned the journal staff and editor burned the bridges. While they did not capitulate entirely on this, they were now willing to get the authors to acknowledge the contributions of an anonymous reviewer. I'd recommend this in the future if someone in a similar situation finds a journal to be stubborn on plagiarism.

  • The journal staff had earlier suggested that I write a reply to the article since I also had technical issues with it. I said I'd be willing to do that if they removed the plagiarized passages. That wasn't acceptable to them. It seems the best I'll be able to get at the moment is the acknowledgement, so I'll take the additional opportunity to criticize the article. I'm not doing this as revenge. The plagiarism is really just the tip of the iceberg. The technical problems are not as obvious.

Update: I've been periodically checking the article for the changes I requested, and so far I haven't seen the plagiarized passages removed. However, as of today (2019-04-26) the article was removed entirely. (404 error.) It's still listed on the journal's website, but the abstract and PDF file links from before do not work. I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't think that it's a response to my DMCA request as I sent a followup saying to cancel the DMCA request and never received a reply, but perhaps they are particularly slow and never read my followup message?

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I know of one reviewer who convinced an editor to force some authors to acknowledge in a paper he was reviewing that the core idea for a paper came from a conference conversation they'd had with him, the reviewer. I think whether you can do this sort of thing obviously depends on your standing with the editors and the editors' attitudes, but more concretely that there needs to be a specific suggestion about a way forward. Why waste your review and the authors' efforts? Think of a way to make the improved paper publishable. They should at least acknowledge an anonymous reviewer, and possibly you could reveal your identity (or suggest a relevant citation) if you really think that makes the situation better.

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