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Around a month ago, I was requested to review a paper submitted to a well-known APS journal. The main idea introduced in the paper was nice and the experimental implementation had fairly good results. I therefore sent my approval with some minor revisions.

Last week, I was shocked to find (through a poster presented at an international conference) that the idea in the work I refereed had been blatantly plagiarized from another work published earlier this year. In fact, a few sentences had even been simply copy-pasted.

In the course of reviewing, I had checked all the references in the paper and not surprisingly, the original work had not been cited.

I immediately sent a correspondence via the APS referee interface to revert my earlier decision and reject the paper outrightly. The editor later sent me a detailed reply saying that the paper has been rejected by the journal and the authors have been made aware of the original work.

But anyhow, the question I wish to raise here is: whose responsibility should it be to find out if a work submitted for publication is an act of plagiarism ?

While I feel both referees and editors must work on this aspect, I think the primary onus should be on the editors/publishing team. They have far more resources to investigate plagiarism. Furthermore, in contrast to editors, referees do not get paid and are doing this job mainly because of their belief in the edifice of peer-review, to add to their CV, etc.

Perhaps the experts and experienced researchers can give their opinion here?

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    I do not know about APS journals, but an editor of another physics-related journal told me some years ago that editors automatically get the result of an automatised plagiarism check for every new article they handle. – Wrzlprmft Sep 10 '14 at 10:35
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    Neither. The primary responsibility belongs to the author. – JeffE Sep 10 '14 at 14:34
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    @JeffE: The work I refereed is a case of blatant plagiarism. – jayann Sep 10 '14 at 14:56
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    @JeffE It's the responsibility of the author not to commit plagiarism. Detecting plagiarism is an issue of enforcement, since there is always the possibility of an unscrupulous author. – Kyle Strand Sep 10 '14 at 18:34
  • Most publishers now routinely check all incoming submissions by comparing them to large databases of previous papers, such as the CrossRef database. The editor will typically be provided with a report that either shows that the paper is free of plagiarism or indicates what parts of the paper are similar to previous publications. – Brian Borchers Oct 24 '14 at 20:04
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Well, we now have two opposing views, so I'll add a third: Neither.

I don't think that either the editor or the reviewer has a responsibility to try to detect plagiarism. When I read a journal, I don't assume that anyone has taken explicit steps to check for plagiarism. I don't see it as incumbent on either of them to take steps like matching against a database of previous papers (indeed I think such things cause more trouble than they are worth; see arXiv's "textual overlap" detector).

If a plagiarized paper should make it into print, I blame the author, but I don't blame the editor or referee for not catching it. They are victims of the plagiarist, along with the rest of the community.

The referee is typically asked to judge the novelty of the paper, so they should be reasonably familiar with the existing literature (if not, they should decline to review the paper). If the paper seems very reminiscent of a paper they've seen before, then they should certainly compare them, but not so much to check for plagiarism as to better understand the innovations of the new paper.

That said, the referee certainly has a responsibility to report plagiarism if they do notice it, and the editor has a responsibility to thoroughly investigate any reports or allegations of plagiarism, and take prompt and decisive action if warranted.

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    Good point. You are right it is not really the editor's responsibility either. That being said, is not good for the journal's reputation if one such paper gets published, so journals should try as much as possible to detect those before going through the review process. This also prevents wasting everyone's (editors and referees) precious time on a plagiarized work. Being sometimes not an easy task to accomplish anyway, it is great that now we count with the help of software tools. – ddiez Sep 11 '14 at 4:58
  • That's a very thoughtful answer. – xLeitix Sep 11 '14 at 9:20
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    Good answer. I would like to add that it depends on how you define responsibility. If the question is simply, who should try to catch plagiarists, it's everybody in the community. If the question is who gets the blame if one slips through the net, it's nobody but the author. – Peter Sep 11 '14 at 20:40
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I think the primary onus should be on the editors/publishing team.

I don't think most editors would agree with you here.

Further, you say:

in contrast to editors, referees do not get paid

Neither do most editors of scientific journals. Both are community service jobs taken up by academics. Many journals do (in addition) have copy editors and lectors, but those are typically not responsible for any content-based decisions. Those copy-editors are responsible for making sure that the layout is correct, that references etc. are in the right format, and (in some cases) improve the language, grammar, and spelling. They do not have the field knowledge to judge whether the document they are currently looking at is plagiarized, except for maybe the most blatant cases.

Finding plagiarism (both, in sentences and ideas) is the job of the refereeing team, which consists of the reviewers, the responsible associated editor (if any), and the editor-in-chief.

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    I agree that being or not paid has nothing to do with this. However, I do not think finding plagiarism is responsibility of the referees, although when the referees find evidence should be reported, as I mentioned in my response. – ddiez Sep 10 '14 at 14:03
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As referee I would say I never actively check for plagiarism- neither I have been asked to do so in the instructions for referees (my fields are life science and bioinformatics). The responsibility falls mostly on the editor's side. Indeed, many journals will pass your paper through plagiarism tools like iThenticate and they warn you during the submission process (indeed, you have to agree with this before being able to submit). I think all journals should do this.

Of course, if we find proof of plagiarism or self plagiarism we should report it to the editors, as you did. During my reviews I have found a couple of cases of limited self plagiarism when looking for information related to the manuscript and noted that to the editors in my review.

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