I'm in the second year of a post-doc, and currently participating in my first experience as a peer-reviewer (my lab PI recommended me to the editor because he's too busy to do it right now). I noticed a section of the Methods that seems to be completely out of place. It describes statistical analysis of data that were neither generated nor reported in the manuscript, and is generally a source of confusion for me as a reviewer. So I did what I would have done grading papers in grad school, and pasted that section into a free online plagiarism detector. It came back with a 100% match for the full paragraph from an article published earlier this year. My suspicion is that this wasn't any sort of intentional plagiarism or research misconduct, but rather a case of someone using another text as a guide for how to structure that section of the text and simply forgetting to make the necessary changes, or possibly even submitting the wrong version.

I should mention, for context, that it's not uncommon to follow the methods of another paper exactly in experimental biology, but that's clearly not what happened in this case. My primary concern is that I can't properly review the reported results and conclusions without information that should be provided in this section of manuscript, which I've already discussed in my review comments. I'm just wondering if I would also be expected to point out the possibility of unintentional plagiarism, or if that's considered outside the scope of my responsibilities as a peer reviewer.

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    Is the matched article by the same authors? – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 26 '20 at 19:17
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    Let me note that if the copied section is entirely standard methodology then it isn't actually plagiarism, since the "ideas" aren't being appropriated. That doesn't make it right, of course, just not plagiarism. Copyright infringement, perhaps. It would only be plagiarism if the copied section was itself novel in some way. But, "We collected a buncha' data and ranna' buncha' statistics on it..." is about the only "intellectual content" of many methodology sections. – Buffy Oct 26 '20 at 20:03
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    Did you read the terms and conditions of that free online plagiarism detector? That is, do you know what you've agreed to let the owners of that site do with the text, and what types of litigation you've agreed to indemnify them against? – Daniel Hatton Oct 26 '20 at 21:23
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    Plagiarism is surely a thing that a referee could spot and report. For "is this plagiarism?" see Azor's comment. In my opinion is just a brutal copy & paste (personally I do try to avoid it for whatever part of a paper incl. Experimental one, but its my taste). Point to the only relevant part, ie you need info that should be in that section but it is not.... – Alchimista Oct 27 '20 at 8:58

I would immediately communicate your findings to the editor and do no further reviewing until you hear back from them.

In the best case, like you say, they forgot to edit it, and can resubmit. Communicating to the editor will let them stop the other reviewers so they don't waste their time either.

In the worst case, it's poorly executed plagiarism and you would have to contact the editor anyway.

To answer the title question, of course there's no issue looking for plagiarism, and you seem familiar enough with the field to understand the implications of your results.

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    Actually, I'd suggest a slight modification. Notify the editor immediately and pause your review waiting for advice from them. In the best case it will save time and in the worst case it will wind up in the same place. – Buffy Oct 26 '20 at 19:26
  • @Buffy That's what I meant to imply, thanks for the comment. Edited. – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 26 '20 at 19:28

I'd probably contact the editor and point out the paper version submitted isn't ready to review without a relevant methods section, and hopefully they will reach out to the authors to remedy. Your call on whether to mention plagiarism - but if the section is truly irrelevant and from another paper and was a placeholder, it could be a mistake.

  • I agree. But this is already a form of reviewing. – Alchimista Oct 27 '20 at 8:53
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    Maybe it's what you meant, but whether or not the word "plagiarism" is mentioned, the fact that the section is a verbatim match of a section from another work should be mentioned. There's no use in letting the editor guess what exactly you mean by "not ready to review". – O. R. Mapper Oct 27 '20 at 10:03

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