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I'm very new to being a peer reviewer. I agreed to anonymously review a paper for publication, and while reading it for the first time, I was a little annoyed by the writing style. It sort of reminded me of the feeling I get when reading a paper from a student in an undergraduate Liberal Arts Math course. When I began to read it again, I was very uneasy about the writing, especially in the introduction. There were inconsistencies in style. Some short, dry sentences followed by longer passages using flowery language. I looked at the references and noticed a few secondary sources. One was a NY Times article. I looked up the article online and in the first paragraph found a passage that was almost identical to one in the introduction section of the paper I'm supposed to review. I was shocked. And then I found more.

So far, all of the plagiarism that I've found is in the introduction. I haven't read the rest of the paper carefully yet because I'm fairly disgusted.

My question is this: should I even bother writing a review? If this were an undergraduate paper, the student would get an F on the assignment and get reported to the Dean. I want to write to the journal editor and just tell him that the paper doesn't deserve to be reviewed.

Has anyone seen this before, and what did you do? If you decided to review a paper like this, how would you phrase your feedback?

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    The paper fails a sniff check. Reject. – Tony Ennis Jun 21 '15 at 15:04
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    What is wrong with "Liberal Arts Math" ?? – Mindwin Jun 22 '15 at 14:52
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    @Mindwin, there's nothing wrong with Liberal Arts Math. Since I teach mathematics at the college level, I don't often grade papers. When I teach courses like Liberal Arts Math or History of Math, I grade lots of them. I've graded enough to to know that inconsistent writing style is often the result of plagiarism. – Concha Gomez Jun 23 '15 at 3:44
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    @Freiheit That would be highly unlikely, seeing as the paper cited the NYT article, which would imply the NYT article was written first. – Compass Jun 23 '15 at 16:38
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    @Freiheit: In addition to what Compass said, this paper is being sent for review which means that it hasn't been published yet. So NYT cannot plagiarize from it. – Alastor Moody Jun 23 '15 at 21:22
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See the Council of Science Editors white paper on publication ethics at:

http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policies/white-paper-on-publication-ethics/

and the Committee on Publication Ethics flow charts at

http://publicationethics.org/resources/flowcharts

Many journals follow these recommendations or similar ones in handling ethical issues.

As a reviewer, your job is to report this to the editor. The editor should take it from there.

I'm actually somewhat surprised that this paper even made it to the review stage- most publishers now routinely check all submitted papers for obvious plagiarism using tools that check against large databases of published papers and other material. Normally, this would have caught the kind of plagiarism you've described.

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    Until the plagiarism is dealt with, there's really no reason for the reviewer to waste more time on the review. – Brian Borchers Jun 21 '15 at 17:37
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    Sad observation: if your editor follows these flowcharts, all plagiarizer have to do is keep silent. The "no response" paths do not always lead to retraction. – Raphael Jun 23 '15 at 14:26
  • If there's no response from the author then the editor won't publish the paper. The point is to give the author a chance to respond to the allegation. before a final rejection of the paper. – Brian Borchers Jun 23 '15 at 21:26
  • The PDF contains pages for already published articles. I was referring to page four, "What to do if you suspect plagiarism (b) Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript". The "no response" path does not lead to ... anything. – Raphael Jun 24 '15 at 6:04
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I think you've pretty much done your review. You found a whole bunch of plagiarism up front, and that's enough to recommend rejection of the article. Document your findings and report to the editor. Even if the rest of the article turned out to be brilliant and original, there is no way it can be anything other than rejected and possibly even formal proceedings against the authors.

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    @chris: YES. A paper containing plagiarized passages should always be rejected. – aeismail Jun 21 '15 at 8:16
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    Why? Clearly if it is brilliant otherwise it should be revised not rejected. Refereeing is not primarily about morality or is it? – chris Jun 21 '15 at 8:19
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    @chris: Two reasons: 1) Plagiarism is such a severe misconduct that the strongest punishment is necessary to deterr it. If a student plagiarised only the introduction of an otherwise brilliant thesis, they should fail too. And rejection is the strongest punishment the reviewer can recommend (the journal might also initiate charges for copyright infringement or similar). 2) I would not trust any results by plagiarising authors, unless I have checked them myself, which is only possible in a proof-based field, in which case there is a considerable chance that the proofs are plagiarised as well. – Wrzlprmft Jun 21 '15 at 8:48
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    @chris the main issue is that the plagiarism puts the entire article under question. If the authors start out with blatant plagiarism, this is a strong indication that the results might also be fabricated. It is often not feasible for the reviewer to repeat the work and test the results. For example, in a field like biology, that might be the work of a year and several million euros. Therefore, the only thing the reviewer can do is report the plagiarism and recommend rejection. – terdon Jun 21 '15 at 9:32
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    The odds of the rest of the paper being brilliant and original are nearly nil. How could a researcher capable of brilliant and original work have sufficiently weak knowledge of the field such that even contemplation of gross plagiarism would be sensible? I suppose laziness is a potential explanation, but hardly casts the researcher in any better a light. No: document carefully, and reject unconditionally. Losing the chance to publish the work in the journal submitted to is an appropriate consequence. – hBy2Py Jun 21 '15 at 11:44
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I can't believe that some of the answers and comments here are even discussing the possibility that a paper with plagiarized introduction may still be publishable if only it was otherwise brilliant and original. It's not like we assign 50% of the grade during review for brilliance, 30% for writing style, and 20% for not plagiarizing. It doesn't work that way: if you dope in the long-jump event, you're not getting a 30cm penalty for every jump -- you're kicked out of the event (and, in fact, banned for the next couple of years).

Plagiarism is not an offense that has to be balanced with the rest of the evidence. It leads to immediate rejection of the paper. In fact, I would suggest that the proper path is not even to just suggest to the editor to reject the paper (which is the same penalty as for the regular poor paper) but indeed to use an "exceptional exit path" (too much programming with throw-catch languages :-) in which the paper is rejected simply for plagiarism or unprofessional conduct.

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    I personally would assign 90 % for brilliance, 10 % for writing style and if the work is original, would not care too much about the introduction. I would not compare the purpose of scientific publication to that of high jumping. As far as I know e.g. Gauss could have been morally unsound but he still wrote papers worth reading. I believe the editor rejects paper. We don't have to agree but I fail to see why this point of view is unbelievable. And I am worried I am going to regret writing this :-) – chris Jun 21 '15 at 19:03
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    @chris Yes, the editor rejects the paper. The referees make recommedations. Are you saying that the referees shouldn't recommend rejection because it's the editor's job to reject papers? That makes no sense to me. Do you also think that lawyers shouldn't argue that people before the court are innocent or guilty because it's the jury's job to decide that? – David Richerby Jun 22 '15 at 7:17
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    @DavidRicherby in contrast to what Pr Bangerth wrote, I would fully leave the issue of plagiarism to the editor to whom I would pass on the information. I personally would not be able to detect it unless maybe if the author copied my own wording. I would focus on making sure the paper is indeed brilliant, because that's what is important and difficult to do, hence worth my time. To be a bit provocative, I feel all introductions are bound to be similar in substance, and focussing on how they differ in form is not essential. May be that does not translate well across fields of research? – chris Jun 22 '15 at 8:20
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    @chris "all introductions are bound to be similar in substance" In any field, that can only be true if all papers are also bound to be similar in content. If there are many papers on the same narrow area of research, then that area is sufficiently well-known as not to need introducing beyond something like, "We study aspect X of metasyntactic widget theory, as discussed by [cite survey paper]." The rest of the introduction can then describe the work that is novel to the particular paper. – David Richerby Jun 22 '15 at 8:27
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    @DavidRicherby what you suggest sounds good to me; this is not how papers are written in my field. – chris Jun 22 '15 at 8:33
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I understand there is a moral and potentially punishable issue. However, as the reviewer appears to have understood, the writer is inexperienced.

What an author knows about plagiarizing practices depends largely on the country/university where s/he grew up in academic terms. In the Anglo-Saxon world I know this practice is severely punished already at undergraduate level, since from early stages of the studentship, students are required to participate more actively to the learning process and write papers for their classes, which allow them to learn about plagiarizing rules. In other countries this is not the case. The approach to the educational process is more passive in this sense, you are never required to write papers: if you do not write, you do not learn about it.

Another reason that might lead inexperienced authors to plagiarize (and write bad papers) is their bad level of English: you do not know how to formulate and write down your thinking in English language, you are more prone to copying text passages instead of rephrasing. I sense that this is the most probable reason for plagiarizing in this case. In fact, you have also noted (to my understanding) that although some sentences are copied, they are referenced to the original source; ergo, the author must have problems rephrasing the original sentences (quoting exists, but it is used for very specific passages, not for banal sentences).

Bear in mind, I am not justifying this practice, I am trying to explain that these behaviors may well exist even in absence of any true malicious intention. Therefore, each case should be very well pondered, before to decide how to act.

I would do the following:

  • warn the editor about plagiarizing passages in the paper
  • suggest a rejection of the paper
  • not recommend formal proceedings
  • explain that this behavior does not seem (at least at first sight) to be led by malicious intentions but rather by inexperience/bad English

I guess though that recommendations on formal proceedings are rather a subjective matter. I am sure many people won't agree with my do-gooding approach.

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    I totally agree with you on your very last sentence " I am sure many people won't agree with my do-gooding approach." As I am sure that there will be more than one author to it and one of them would usually be a Professor (Last author), hence the first author might be inexperience but i find it had to believe that all the author were inexperienced. I assume that they didnt do their internal reviewing properly. – Saurabh Jun 21 '15 at 10:06
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    +1 for recalling that there are severe and mild forms of plagiarism, each morally wrong but probably calling for different responses. one extreme is the intentional copying of someone else's findings and arguments, claiming them as one's own. note that this extreme kind of plagiarism does not at all entail the verbatim copying of a text passage -- it is even more effectively deceiving without. by contrast, very mild plagiarism would be a negligent rather than intentional copying of a short text passage with sloppy attribution … – henning Jun 21 '15 at 11:59
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    … the intellectual value of the impropriated content in each example differs by orders of magnitude. – henning Jun 21 '15 at 12:00
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    I asked this follow-up question as to whether plagiarism from inexperience is a real thing. – Wrzlprmft Jun 21 '15 at 21:01
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    +1. The difference between "looking on Internet to find the translation of a single word" and "looking on Internet how one could translate a whole expression/idea from its own language into English" is not as neat as Native English speaker could believe. – Taladris Jun 23 '15 at 8:04
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No, it should be rejected on spot as plagiarism should not be supported in any form and any level. If you found the a plagiarised passage is used in the beginning only then it is highly possible that the whole body of manuscript would be full of it and if you would go through and check the whole text then it will be a massive waste of time for you. Moreover if the author did not even know that plagiarism is a sin in science then he should not be in academia on the first place.

Hence my recommendation is rejection on spot as well as to communicate this to the editor as well so that appropriate action could be taken against the authors.

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    Hence my recommendation is rejection on spot as well as to communicate this to the editor as well so that appropriate action could be taken against the authors. — Besides rejecting the paper, what other "action" do you think might need to be taken against the authors? – Mad Jack Jun 21 '15 at 17:44
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    @MadJack: Well, the journal could take legal actions, as the authors claimed content to be their own which wasn’t. Then the journal will probably ban the authors. Finally the editors could inform the authors’ university and funders about the incident. – Wrzlprmft Jun 21 '15 at 20:45
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Journals have their policies against plagiarism, but it's the editor's duty (or the editorial board's) to enforce them. The reviewer has the duty to read the whole paper and assess its quality.

You should surely report the plagiarism to both the editor and the authors, but first you should complete your duty as reviewer. The editor will then make a decision on the basis of yours and others reviews, and on the journal policy.

If you think that you would not be able to complete the review in an unbiased way because of the introduction, ask the editor to find another reviewer.

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    "The reviewer has the duty to read the whole paper and assess its quality." [citation needed] I believe the reviewer's duty is to assess the quality of the paper. If one is going to state that the paper is good, one had better have read all of it. If one is going to state that the paper is bad, it is only necessary to read enough to determine that. In mathematics, for example, it's common to "stop at the first serious mistake" since, if that mistake cannot be fixed, it's likely to invalidate everything that follows. – David Richerby Jun 21 '15 at 11:01
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    @DavidRicherby: your example is not pertinent for the situation is completely different: a wrong theorem can surely invalidate all the consequences which are subsequently drawn from it, but a plagiarised introduction --though ethically unacceptable-- does not necessarily invalidate the scientific content of a paper. Moreover: firstly, that mistake can be fixed; secondly, if something is likely to invalidate what follows, you can't be sure unless you read it first. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 21 '15 at 11:29
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    a plagiarised introduction --though ethically unacceptable-- does not necessarily invalidate the scientific content of a paper — True, but irrelevant. The referee's job is to make a well-reasoned recommendation to the editor to accept or reject the paper. A paper with significant plagiarized content should not be published, regardless of its scientific validity. – JeffE Jun 21 '15 at 11:41
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    I disagree with this answer. Recall that the referee is donating her time as a service to the academic community. I don't see how the community benefits from a full evaluation of an unpublishable paper, certainly not in proportion to the value of the referee's time. I would regard this as a waste of time and I don't think the referee has a duty to waste her volunteered time. – Nate Eldredge Jun 21 '15 at 12:22
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    @NateEldredge and the others: I agree that the reviewer's time is precious and that plagiarism should be condemned etc., but I also think that one should avoid to be overly judgemental and feeling outraged without knowing the full story (see also Luca's answer). Therefore, I think that one should try nonetheless to be as a fair reviewer as possible, leaving to the editor the duty of sorting out whether the plagiarism was the consequence of fraudulent behaviour or inexperience, and to take proper action. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 21 '15 at 13:38
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I think it is important here to differentiate between plagiarism and self-plagiarism. It is not an automatic rejection for self-plagiarism in the introduction. If an author has several papers coming out of one study, the introduction usually contains a description of that study that might contain a certain amount of self-plagiarism simply because the author has found a clear way to describe the context. This is generally okay even though it is technically a breach.

In the case you found, the plagiarism cannot possibly be self-plagiarism since the original is a news item etc. Such plagiarism is always a breach and, as others have said, should be reported to the editor and then let the editor decide whether you should complete the review.

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