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I am relatively new to academic publishing. However, there is an uncomfortable situation which I have already encountered multiple times by now (about five). It is what I would call "low-key plagiarism". I will explain what I mean by this (completely made-up) term in the following.

I don't have many papers and citations yet, so I tend to check out papers that cite me to see how my work is being used and if the new result is relevant to my own work. In the mentioned occasions, I found that the authors used my work extensively or built directly on it. The way the citation was phrased, however, implied that my result was only tangentially relevant or somewhat helpful. Sometimes the relevance is also disguised by citing further irrelevant literature.

The goal of the authors in both cases seems clear: to mislead a reviewer or readers into thinking the result is more significant or innovative. Of course, an ideal reviewer should spot this. However, in highly specialized fields and if the formulation is sufficiently vague, this is very difficult and does not happen practically.

I am not sure if this should really be called plagiarism. It is the kind of borderline case where, most likely, nobody will bring up the argument publicly. If someone does, the authors will most likely say "but we cited you here and there". No matter if plagiarism or not, it is certainly misleading to reference in this way.

When I find a citation like this, it feels very uncomfortable to me. Especially for interdisciplinary research, people might start citing the newer result and forget the older one completely if the citation chain cannot be tracked properly. This is the exact same effect as completely leaving out the citation (i.e., plagiarism) would have.

How can I deal with this kind of misleading citation practice? Should one just get over it? Should one contact the authors to express disappointment without asking for consequences? Should one fully escalate and demand a correction or bring the editor's attention to it? Should one do it even if the chance of success is low and the chance of hurting one's own reputation by being perceived as petty is high?

Concrete example

As suggested by Dan Romnik, I've tried to come up with a fictionalized example for what the misleading paper might be saying. The example contains three tricks which I have encountered on separate occasions. 1. List citations to hide relevance. 2. Shifting the citation to a supplement and omitting the citation in the main text summary of the method. 3. Attaching the citation to a meaningless side sentence instead of to the main result.

Here is the example: Let the main text contain no reference to the paper, except for a bit in the introduction citing it as previous literature as part of a list citation. Instead, it is stated in the methods that

We derive our main result using some abstract formulation of the method for brevity.

The method summary thus misses the citation, which is shifted to a supplement.

In the supplementary material, it is stated that

Introductory discussion to notation. Eq. (1) coming straight out of my paper. We derive our main result based on this equation by solving some integrals for a special case. This includes a completely standard step, which was also investigated in [1]. Our result is then obtained this way: concrete formulation of the method which was abbreviated in the main text and which is a special case of my method.

where [1] is my paper. Therefore, even if the reader looks in the supplementary material, they will not know that the central Eq. (1) is straight from my paper. The citation is there, but attached to a completely meaningless side-sentence. Of course, a careful reader could go and compare the two papers, but without that, it is not clear how the result was used.

Even if the example is not great, maybe this gives an idea of what kind of tricks I mean. One of those can be accidental; in sum, they are likely intentional and designed to mislead. They certainly do mislead, but are they plagiarism?

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    To clarify: Your concern is that the sentence in which the citation of your work isn't appreciative enough? – Azor Ahai -him- Mar 22 at 19:10
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    Interesting question, upvoted and I think this can lead to a really good discussion. However: can you give at least one concrete example that illustrates the problem you are describing? This stuff about “assume that the citations are clearly misleading” isn’t very helpful because what I expect would happen (because I’ve seen it happen many times here) is that each answer will still make slightly different assumptions about what the problem is that you are describing, leading to confusion and pointless disagreements. So an actual example with (suitably redacted) details could really help. – Dan Romik Mar 22 at 19:29
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    Misleading them into what? Entire years-long projects are often reduced to single-sentence citations when people build on them. That's just how science is. What is someone supposed to do when they "[use] your work extensively"? Write a paragraph extolling it? I agree with Dan, please include an example. – Azor Ahai -him- Mar 22 at 19:30
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    Thanks, I think it’s a pretty convincing example and posted an answer with my thoughts. – Dan Romik Mar 22 at 21:34
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    Don't worry; the given example will not fool anyone. If a paper gives an equation out of the blue without explaining where it came from, that's a huge red flag. "Here is an equation we pulled out of our asses, ... and by coincidence, later in our paragraph, here is a reference to someone's paper[1]. If you happen to look into [1], try not to see the equation." – Kaz Mar 23 at 3:49
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I agree with your assessment that this is misleading behavior on the part of the authors. I have run into this kind of behavior myself, including from authors who were famous researchers (and who were famous because they actually did very good work and not because they were good at misleading people about doing good work). It seems like it’s just human nature for some people to feel a need (probably driven by insecurity and lack of self-worth) to play up their own greatness and belittle others’ achievements.

As for what to do, I’d say just keep publishing good work and don’t worry about it. It’s not worth the time and energy it would take to fight such petty misconduct, especially when there is no hard evidence for a dishonest motive. Moreover, the advantage that these authors derive from such underhanded behavior probably does not outweigh the disadvantage of other people looking down on them and not wanting to work with them (I’m willing to bet you’re not the only one who noticed this), so their behavior is self-defeating and self-punishing. And your own contributions are documented in the scientific literature, so in case a dispute ever arises over something important, the truth will will be easy to establish and will come out.

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    +1. I like this answer a lot, because it has a very positive and constructive mindset. The input I got from people around me was more harsh, either in the direction of "just leave it, you're being oversensitive" or even along the lines of "we'll do the same to them in our next paper then". I'll reserve the accept tick for a bit to motivate others to contribute. – Wolpertinger Mar 22 at 22:33
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    "it’s just human nature" It's the nature of the science funding system. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 22 at 22:35
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    @AnonymousPhysicist sure, some of it is competition-driven. But the famous researchers I mentioned did not have any funding problems. So I stand by what I said that it’s human nature. – Dan Romik Mar 22 at 22:58
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    Regarding the human nature, with good people there is also a reasonable chance that they came up with the ideas independently and only found the prior work at the last moment. This makes it much more tempting to just add a single, barely sufficient citation somewhere in the introduction, instead of replacing large parts of the paper with a comment that X did it first. Though this seems not to be the case in the question, where even the notation was copied. – mlk Mar 23 at 19:22
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It isn't plagiarism to suggest that your work is less relevant than you think it is. It is only plagiarism if they use it in any way without a citation and then give the impression that the ideas in the work are their own and not yours.

But, if they are clear about whose ideas are whose, then you should let it go - as plagiarism anyway.

Saying misleading things, or misinterpreting your work to others is also malfeasance, of course. People need to be honest about their own work and the work of others.

And if they say that you did X and they did Y when, in fact, you previously published Y then that is back to plagiarism again. But "almost Y" rather than "Y" likely doesn't count.

I'll also note that if the citation is there, then a reader can settle in their own mind how much of an advance the newer paper makes over your original contribution. It is when citation is absent that the thread of scientific knowledge is broken.

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    Thanks for your answer and +1! I think this is very useful already in getting the terms straight. Would you mind also having a look at my edited question including examples of some of the tricks I was alluding to? I believe that this fulfills "the thread of scientific knowledge is broken", but a concrete statement on such a case would be useful. – Wolpertinger Mar 22 at 19:59
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I agree with the other answers, in that you should probably let it go. But I think it would also be helpful to point out a broader lesson that I learned through similar experiences: take your frustrations as opportunities to get better.

Like you — and most researchers — in my early years I was particularly anxious for the recognition that I felt my hard work deserved. Naturally, I would get annoyed when I saw other people getting recognition for work that was based off of mine, but didn't give me any credit. I actually had two really egregious examples of this during grad school, and they ate away at me. It upset me, which just made life less enjoyable; it embittered me, which led me to close off from possibly productive collaborations and friendships; and it distracted me from my own work. These were all bad for my career and for life outside of my career.

I realized that this was heading in a bad direction, and resolved that every time I start to get annoyed with colleagues I should take a step back and think about what I could have done better to avoid this situation in the first place. This helps because I stop thinking about those annoying colleagues for a moment, and therefore become more objective in seeing the situation for what it is. More often than not, it actually helps me see things from their perspective, which gives me much greater peace of mind and helps me be more effective going forward. This is true for everything from teaching and mentoring, to how I give talks and write papers, all the way to office politics.

So let's apply this to the concrete example above. The basic fact here is that your work didn't have the impact you wanted it to. This is undeniable. This may be due to intentional malfeasance or negligence on the part of those other authors, but that won't get you anywhere. You also need to consider other possibilities. Maybe your paper didn't actually say what you thought it said; you might just understand parts of their paper because of all the background work and thinking you've done on the topic, but didn't actually include that in your paper. Maybe your paper wasn't as clear as you thought it was. Was Eq. (1) so novel that it was the main point of your paper, or was it just the starting point for both you and them? Was it clear to them that their result was actually a "special case" of yours? Was yours couched in esoteric general formalism that they found hard to apply to their case? Should you have talked specifically about that special case in your paper? Was the result given context that was explained clearly and prominently in the abstract and/or introduction? Did you discuss your work with people other than you supervisor and/or collaborators before publishing so that you could work out how to explain things better? Did you use the referee reports during publication to actually improve the paper, rather than just respond to comments to placate the reviewers. Did you go to conferences and interact with people after publishing to make your paper known? Could you have possibly done a better job on any of these points? The answer to that last question is always yes, so focus on that.

To summarize: stop thinking about them, and start thinking about yourself.


A few notes:

This process shouldn't get you down on yourself, or exacerbate any impostor syndrome. You're in the position you're in because you are good, but every one of us can get better.

Also, don't be afraid to be an academic rainmaker — someone whose work provides inspiration and a starting point for others. That's exactly the position you want to be in. You won't always get the credit you deserve, but eventually it will build up.

I still get annoyed at colleagues all the time. In fact I'm currently writing a paper that shouldn't need to exist. Don't people know that a simple boost is just a special case of a general BMS transformation?! They should have just understood my first paper, and not written all those papers that misapplied it so badly and got everything wrong ARRGGG!!! ... Ah, but I guess I was striving for generality like a mathematician, without thinking about the astronomers who actually need to use it for relatively simple cases. Readers misunderstood my paper, but maybe it's not all their fault. My point is: You get to feel your feelings, but use your brain to try to understand and redirect those feelings.

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    Excellent answer. I particularly like the point about engaging with reviewers. If a reviewer misinterprets something that I wrote then it means I was not clear in my explanation, not that the reviewer is an idiot (thought the latter might also be true) – JenB Mar 24 at 0:29
  • A bit of a heads up to Mike. Saying you "agree with the other answers" is a bit dangerous, since others might later appear that you don't agree with. Also note that the ordering of answers isn't fixed. It is a bit safer for yourself to specify which answers you agree with. Even "earlier answers" can be a bit ambiguous with editing. I sometimes edit posts when it is obvious at the moment, but can't guess here. Not a criticism, just something to think about. – Buffy Mar 24 at 15:58
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Let it go, you won't be able to get a published paper changed in retrospect.

But if you review papers, keep this in mind and ask the authors to give proper credit to cited work. This would be the right point to change misleading texts when changes are likely.

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    useful comment, not really an answer. OP proposes multiple ways to deter people citing them specifically (not just whomever they get to review) from this behavior in the future, the only justification here ("won't be able to retro-change") does not concern that. – Leif Willerts Mar 23 at 12:08
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Based on your example it sounds possible that the authors actually do consider the "completely standard step" to be completely standard. In other words, they could've done the step without your paper to guide them. As an elementary example, say you need to compute the derivative of a complicated function. You could work your way through it, or you could cite the paper that did the calculation for you. If you opt for the latter, giving it heavy credit might not be warranted.

If the above does not apply to your case, then blame the culture of asking for sexy results. Everyone (and I mean everyone, including non-academics like journalists or the government) want sexy results. We want Big News that generate excitement, citations, and funding. It's why theories such as MOND, which tries to do away with dark matter, attracts so much press time even though they're on the fringe of astrophysics; it's why null results are hard to publish.

Given that, writing a paper with "these guys did awesome work, we extended it in XYZ" is like saying "these guys did awesome work, you should've published their paper [and not mine]". If you've ever received a rejection not because your paper was wrong, but because it's not novel enough, you'll know what it's like. It also means that when you submit to a new journal, you'll need to make your paper sound more exciting ...

Ultimately this culture won't be changeable by one person, and it's not clear how one would change it even if one could do so (e.g. Nature wouldn't be Nature if it started accepting all technically correct papers regardless of novelty). You'll probably have to learn to live with it. On the bright side, your contribution is marked in the academic record, and you will be able to point out what you accomplished if it's ever necessary.

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    So OP should “blame the culture of asking for sexy results” for people making a conscious decision to behave dishonestly, instead of blaming those specific people? What about all the other researchers who operate in the same culture but don’t make such decisions? Perhaps we should acknowledge that culture or no culture, people are still responsible for the decisions they make as individuals? I might accept that the culture was a contributing factor, but the way you present it seems very one-sided. – Dan Romik Mar 24 at 7:52
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Nice, you have another citation to show! Great. :-)

Is that plagiarism? No. They built on what you published and referenced your work.

Is it fair? Depends. I can imagine it's a mixture of

  • Perhaps they read your paper a while ago when they started out with that research and mentally incorporated it into their idea of a general canon of prior art, and made it mentally their own. We all do that when we learn. They would then indeed — inadvertently — misrepresent the importance your paper has for their work.
  • They really think (as Allure said already) that the "stepping stone" they built on which they took from your paper is pretty standard.
  • It is also possible that your work is indeed one of several works about the same theme complex, and that you don't know as many of the other, similar works as they do. You would then consider your paper more unique than it seems to them. The differences to other papers may seem larger to you as the author than to uninvolved third parties. (This does not diminish your achievement; often certain things are "in the air" and worked upon independently by more than one group or person, often with similar results.)

In general, I'd be happy that somebody could use what I wrote. Since they work in a related area: Do they do interesting stuff? Would it be worthwhile to get to know each other? Keep an eye out for them at the next congress, once we can travel again!

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