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The following didn't directly happen to me, but it came close. I'm using first person anyway for clarity.

A paper is submitted to a journal for which I'm an editor. During review, it's noticed that the paper is plagiarized. The plagiarism is relatively minor and benign: only a few paragraphs are plagiarized, the plagiarized text is in the Introduction and involves only non-crucial background information, and the text was rewritten to the extent that it's not detectable by automated plagiarism checkers. But the text is still plagiarized (see edit below for example).

The paper has several authors, one junior (an undergraduate) and several senior (professors). It's difficult to believe that any of the senior authors would have done this, so a guess is that the junior author wrote the offending text without realizing that this kind of rewriting is still plagiarism, and the senior authors didn't notice.

Clearly the journal should do something, but what? The obvious thing to do is to alert the corresponding author and let them handle it, but 1) there's a nonzero chance that they are the one that is responsible for the plagiarism, and 2) I am concerned about potential damage to the junior author's career, since this will likely alert all the authors to the plagiarism & potentially also trigger institutional academic misconduct policies, and the paper looks like a good piece of work otherwise.

Edit: Here's an example of how the plagiarized text looks. Take this sentence from the above:

The plagiarism is relatively minor and benign: only a few paragraphs are plagiarized, the plagiarized text is in the Introduction and involves only non-crucial background information, and the text was rewritten to the extent that it's not detectable by automated plagiarism checkers.

And the rewrite looks like:

Only a few paragraphs are plagiarized, and in a non-malicious way: the affected text is located in the Introduction, providing background information to the problem, and was paraphrased to the extent that plagiarism detectors are unable to spot it.

The ideas involved are the same, some distinctive phrases are reused, and the text is immediately recognizable if you also have access to the original; but it's substantially rewritten and difficult to detect.

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    the plagiarized text is in the Introduction and involves only non-crucial background information -- In mathematics papers, especially when about a currently popular niche topic (papers on this topic in the last 10-15 years is a good example), this may look like plagiarism to outsiders when it's actually fairly standard boilerplate stuff. However, given your experience in these matters, I assume you're discussing something well beyond "standard boilerplate stuff" (and also probably not mathematics). May 8, 2023 at 11:04
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    "It's difficult to believe that any of the senior authors would have done this" - I wouldn't be so sure.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 8, 2023 at 13:04
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    I want to highlight, that after reading just 5-10 papers in a topic, it is very hard to write the background info in a way that sounds original. Also, in our case, there are some stuff, that we a struggling to rewrite (probably near impossible) for our new papers, without repeating ourselves. Can it be sth similar?
    – aqua
    May 8, 2023 at 13:31
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    As long as previous papers are correctly cited, this sounds like rephrasing of previous knowledge (which is good in an introduction), and not plagiarism (which would be bad). @DaveLRenfro's comment and following are spot on. May 8, 2023 at 14:16
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    It's your call as editor to define what you consider to be plagiarism, but to my mind, if the introduction to a paper gives a summary of previous work in an area, then it's highly likely that this summary will be similar to that given in other papers in the same field and it's not an area where originality is required or even desirable. May 9, 2023 at 8:11

2 Answers 2

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My suggestion is that you assume the best and that, assuming it was plagiarized, it may have been unintentional, either because they just missed it, or had a different definition of plagiarism as, sadly, many do.

If the information presented is general knowledge in the field, then it can often be repeated without citation and without plagiarizing. In math, for example, the work of the ancients is general knowledge (among mathematicians), so we don't need to cite Euclid and Pythagoras for everything. Also, the plot of Les Miserables could probably be treated as general knowledge.

However, as an editor, you are correct to take a stricter view. I suggest informing the corresponding author of your concerns with a suggestion that they need more citations (or whatever) to bring the work to your standards. If they object to that, suggest that you will likely desk reject the work as it is.

You don't need to assume that it was intentional and you don't need to make accusations. You may, however, need the paper to be improved.

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    It seems, also, the editor thinks they know which paper this passage was <strike>inspired by</strike> plagiarized from. It might be appropriate for the editor to just outright say "The introductory sentences 9-11 of paragraph 4 should be cited from 'Emotional Commitment Of Indeterminate Duration' (Astley R., 1987)", instead of leaving the authors guessing. May 10, 2023 at 1:53
  • @ShernRenTee wow, did this just happen to me on Academia StackExchange? Nowhere is safe apparently. May 10, 2023 at 13:04
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The journal should have a clear policy for what constitutes plagiarism, and what the consequences should be based on different scenarios. For example, the IEEE provides a lot of guidance for how such cases should be handled.

https://www.ieee.org/publications/rights/plagiarism/index.html

For the IEEE, they offer this guidance concerning paraphrasing: https://www.ieee.org/publications/rights/plagiarism/id-plagiarism.html

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing will always be a difficult area to adjudicate. Since plagiarism involves not only the unacknowledged reuse of some else's words but also someone's ideas, it is possible to render a properly paraphrased section of text and still be open to a charge of plagiarism if proper credit for the idea has not been given. Even so, we should be able to agree that changing only a few words or phrases or only rearranging the original sentence order of another author's work will be defined as plagiarism.

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