A fundamental premise is that research is undertaken to pursue new knowledge and understanding, and to seek truth. Careers in research are competitive and come with high expectations to deliver frequent insights and advances. And with the ‘publish or perish’ mentality that often paves a researcher’s career assessment pathway there is a perfect storm, creating conditions that result in some forgetting about the pursuit of truth. In a desire to advance careers, those researchers fall foul of the temptation to steal, manipulate data, or cut corners as they strive to publish their research. Success as a researcher most definitely does not come from faking it — or stealing it — until you make it.
Some might believe that knowledge can’t be stolen, but within research and academic publishing sadly this is not the case. There have been egregious instances when reviewers have delayed a review process while themselves stealing and publishing the research in question [1,2]. In another reported case, a confusing situation was uncovered by a journal that was about to publish a paper. They found that it had already been published elsewhere, but not by the genuine authors. This was apparently the result of information being leaked by collaborators while the genuine authors were resubmitting after the paper was initially rejected . Slightly less blatant but equally as unscrupulous is if a reviewer takes ideas or approach from a manuscript they’re reviewing and actively stalls that manuscript’s peer review process.
There have been cases of people selling authorship positions on research papers or even entire research papers. Sometimes research papers are crafted to follow a template format with genes/proteins and/or members of a signaling pathway interchangeably included (e.g. molecule W upregulates pathway X when drug Y is applied in organism Z) and editors may see many similar manuscripts with different co-authors who may have purchased their authorship. And often a sold authorship might be for an article in a journal perceived to be of high impact, which would provide credibility to the purchaser . Unfortunately, some researchers who want to expand their publication list see this as a viable option.
A more commonly acknowledged temptation and problem is faking data and image manipulation; if the necessary data have been proving tricky to obtain, maybe some tweaks to the figures can provide the support needed for the article . A lot of effort is made by many publishers to assess figures for any signs of inappropriate image manipulation, but not all manipulations can be spotted. If published and identified after the fact, a journal’s and institute’s investigations can be long, tortuous, and incredibly damaging, both personally and to the reputation of those involved. Beyond manipulation of images is full-fledged data faking, which for most readers is almost impossible to discern (until someone can’t reproduce the result or notices implausible results or statistics).
Plagiarism: flattery or faux-pas?
One common and sometimes inadvertent error that turns up in written research is plagiarism. A common saying is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there is good sport in spotting where politicians (or speech writers) may have taken inspiration, from the likes of Batman villain Bane , or Elle, the main character from Legally Blonde . Such similarities could of course be pure coincidence. But within formal writing, plagiarism — the inclusion of sections of text verbatim —from previously published text is an absolute no-no. Small sections can be included as quotes with attribution to the original source text, but longer sections without citation should never be included. Most publishers check for this with text comparison software. If textual overlap is spotted, then at best a rewrite will be required, at worst this could be considered serious misconduct. Additional complexity comes if the original text, even if it is your own research paper, was published under copyright with rights reserved — to include this in another published text is a legal breach, the original publisher could sue.
Working around the issue
Although most published research is in English, a majority of researchers are not native English speakers. This definitely makes writing harder, and the temptation to copy and paste is understandable, but it’s important to take a moment and consider how to write something in your own words. As someone who has worked as an Editor for many years, a common place for text to be copied is in the materials and methods of scientific papers — a section that is ill-suited to an original narrative. There are many ways to try and avoid being accused of plagiarism, see this earlier blog post for more insights . Consider also if you can take advantage of tools like https://www.protocols.io/ or something similar to place your protocol online with its own DOI so that you can cite the protocol in your manuscripts. And there are many professional editorial services that can help researchers polish their writing as a paid-for service; this could easily include help with writing sections in the introduction if needed.
What else can a researcher do to avoid these pitfalls in the lab?
- Compare all original data with figures and tables reported in the paper before you submit to a journal.
- Keep complete records (lab books or equivalents — there are some amazing online lab books available) to track your research.
- Publicly archive your data in repositories.
- Practice open research. Try to be open and transparent with all steps involved in your research and ultimately share your research. A great resource to learn more about open research is http://whyopenresearch.org/.
It’s crucial to keep a trail of how all data were generated, and how the results were derived. And here is where the principles of open research come into play—if everything is openly available to the community it is much harder for someone to conceal either faked data or inappropriately acquired data, whether bought or otherwise acquired.
- J Korean Med Sci. 2019 Feb 04;34(5):e41. English.
Published online Jan 28, 2019. https://doi.org/10.3346/jkms.2019.34.e41
At time of writing this blog post Emma was not associated with protocols.io but she is now working with them. This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.