Plagiarism and Ethical Issues
Pitfalls of Publications: On the Sensitive Issue of Plagiarism
(from the IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 85-87, December 2012)
By Ludo Visser, Tamás Haidegger, and Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos
“Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” —New Oxford American Dictionary
“Plagiarism means to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own. To use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” —Merriam–Webster Dictionary
IEEE defines plagiarism as “the use of someone else’s prior ideas, processes, results, or words without explicitly acknowledging the original author and source” .
At first, this may appear to give a concise definition of plagiarism and a clear understanding why it is wrong; however, in practice, plagiarism is one of the most complex ethical issues scientists and engineers face in connection with publishing and publications. Despite some obvious cases, boundaries between referencing, quoting, adopting, and copying are not so clear. Some recent scandals (e.g., the case of the editor-at-large of Time and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, the resignation of the German defense minister, the Hungarian president, or the Indonesian professor with a degree from Flinders University) have made clear that plagiarism is a serious issue. In fact, due to digital technology (i.e., easy access and “copy and paste” ability), plagiarism is becoming an increasingly large problem for publishers that require delicate handling . Recent conference surveys show an average of a dozen cases per robotics conference, and numerous cases have been initiated against authors for academic misconduct.
According to IEEE, “plagiarism in any form is unacceptable and is considered a serious breach of professional conduct, with potentially severe ethical and legal consequences” . Consequently, IEEE started to impose severe punishment upon those who commit deliberate acts of plagiarism, including titles being revoked and authors being banned from publishing. In addition, publishers are struggling to deal with the malpractice of self-plagiarism, which concerns the somewhat vague concept of copying one’s own work. While this is a topic of ongoing debate, self-plagiarism is an issue for publishers because it affects copyrights and the quality of their publications.
The peer-review process is the first line of defense against plagiarism and it is therefore important to raise awareness among students and professionals, in academia and industry. Reviewers might come across cases of plagiarism while reading through manuscripts, reports, or proposals, so it is important that they know how to recognize such cases and how to deal with them.
Within the Student Reviewer Program (SRP) , we exert an effort to train young researchers in the “art of reviewing,” and introduce them to the reviewing process in a controlled and supervised way. Within this context, it is important that the spotlight is also directed onto delicate issues within the reviewing community. Therefore, in this article, we discuss some key issues regarding plagiarism and self-plagiarism and give insights into the approach that is taken within IEEE. Furthermore, we provide some useful tools and techniques to identify cases of plagiarism. Hopefully, this will lead to a better understanding and higher awareness of the practice, particularly among reviewers.
Plagiarism In and Out
In the broadest sense of the definition, plagiarism is copying someone else’s work. However, there are many intricate details involved.
First of all, copying a work can be done in many ways. The most obvious is to literally copy (parts of) a manuscript and submit them as one’s own. However, in most cases, it is by far not that obvious. Instead of literally copying text, words and phrases may be translated from another language, altered to reflect the individual’s writing style, or embedded into the author’s own work. Furthermore, on a more abstract level, ideas and concepts may also be plagiarized. Analogous to patent infringement, this can include taking intellectual material and wrongfully presenting it as one’s own, either an idea as a whole or in parts, or building forth on someone else’s work without proper referencing or licensing.
Definitions get even more fuzzy when we take a look at the concept of self-plagiarism. In short, self-plagiarism means that a person publishes a work or an idea that has already been published in the past but claims it as new. This can also include improper quoting and referencing of previous works. The ethical boundary is undefined, since it is not uncommon to reuse (paraphrase) parts of a previous publication to a new one.
Legally speaking, we have to distinguish two cases:
1) an author signs of the copyright of the entire work to the publisher when a manuscript is accepted for publication
2) the copyright stays with the author.
In the first case, reusing parts of the work for a new publication can be unlawful if the new article is submitted to a different publisher, but exploring in depth (and trying to exploit) the differences between copyright agreements is not within the scope of this article. In the second case, reusing (parts of) the work would be a discussion of ethics and professionalism. The entire field is just determining its standards and best practices along these lines.
Ethically speaking, self-plagiarism is often encountered within the process of “evolutionary publishing.” This is an Accepted (although sometimes contested) practice of publication where the initial results are submitted to a workshop, then extended to a full conference paper that may become a journal article or a book chapter. This approach of building on previous publications is clearly a source of possible unethical cases of self-plagiarism.
Self-plagiarism is the subject of continuous discussion at all levels of the research community, with many arguing that self-plagiarism is a contradiction in terms, since you cannot really steal from yourself. Conferences typically require an author to explicitly state that the material being submitted is new, the author’s own work, and has not been published before. Whether or not one acknowledges that self-plagiarism is unethical or being prohibited by copyright agreements, reuse of large portions of previous works negatively affects the quality and contributing value of publications, and, eventually, entire conferences in particular.
Understanding (Self-) Plagiarism
To entirely understand the issue of (self-)plagiarism, possible motivations should be identified. Researchers and scientists (in most countries) are evaluated on the basis of the number of their publications, which has evolved into an important metric for assessing scientific merit. A consequence of this is publishing more and more for the sake of quantity, where quality takes second place.
Sometimes, this results in cases of blatant copies of the works of others, with the only aim to obtain high impact publications or finishing a dissertation (e.g., Pal Schmidt, the Hungarian ex-president, even copied factual mistakes into his doctoral thesis). This pressure may lead to sloppiness, when relevant works are not always cited properly or altogether overlooked. Further lays the practice of incremental publishing, when results are reported in subsequent events and periodicals. While this is not unethical per se, the tendency to (over-) publish even the smallest results obviously leads to large overlaps between incremental papers, which might fall into the category of self-plagiarism. Also, since these incremental works are typically submitted to lower ranked journals and conferences where the peer review procedure is less rigorous, there is a smaller chance that they are caught and prevented from (re-) publication.
It is clear that the competitiveness in present day research is a leading cause of plagiarism. Although it does not justify it, it can make it understandable why it happens. Since the scientific world is likely not to change anytime soon in terms of funding principles and competition, it is important to realize that plagiarism is indeed an issue which will become a bigger issue as scientific competition grows, and that we need to learn how to deal with it.
In this process, the role of the scientific advisor/mentor is critical. Showing students what is acceptable is important, and examples of plagiarism could help in explaining the limits. However, many times advisors are surprised to find out the extent of plagiarism in their advisees’ work, thus it is too late to address the problem at that stage.
Dealing with Cases of Plagiarism
The next step is to identify plagiarism, and the peer-review process is the most important tool for that. Unfortunately, there is no fail-safe way to identify plagiarism, but looking at the definitions already suggests where to start.
Sometimes it is quite obvious. If parts of a text are directly copied into a manuscript, the writing style (or even the font) may not match the style of the rest of the paper. This is probably the best indicator that something might be fishy. There is a substantial set of specialized software tools that can help in finding the original documents that contain the suspicious text. The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS) started to screen papers in 2011. The software tools were first used in conferences and eventually deployed to the transactions. For example, at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the iThenticate software  is used to filter out possible cases of plagiarism. The software generates a report that highlights the overlaps between a given paper and other sources (including both the public domain of the Internet and reference databases) from which the text has been taken. Further, it provides an overlap score, which may be compared to a threshold. Although the software often gets confused by prior technical reports or common references, it is effective in general, and its cost for a conference like IEEE ICRA is only in the order of a couple of hundred dollars.
However, as outlined above, many abusers edit the text to more closely match their own writing style, and text recognition software will likely fail in such cases. It may still happen that a reviewer recognizes his or her own work being paraphrased. However, more often it comes down to their expertise in the research field to recognize plagiarism.
The situation is very similar for figures. Authors tend to believe that any figure or illustration found on the Internet may be freely used in publications. In reality, most of those images and charts are copyrighted, despite that fact that they are widely used and reprinted without proper referencing. Journals often require an individual confirmation of copyright for every figure in an article. Depending on the publisher’s contract, authors may be able to acquire an official permission for reprinting their own materials; however, the charges for copyrighted figures can rise very high (depending on the target audience of the reprint, the number of copies, and the affiliation of the author). The best advice for authors is to invest effort in identifying the copyright owner of a figure, and, even in the case where images are downloaded from the Internet, ask for a written permission from the source and insert appropriate credits in the caption. If a reviewer is having concerns about the originality of a figure in a manuscript, Google’s image finder provides an easy way to search the Internet for similar figures (just drag and drop the image into the query text box).
Spotting the Copycats
There is no definite checklist that can be used for recognizing plagiarism, but good indicators are as follows:
- lack of references and citations, or the over-representation of the author’s own publications in the reference list
- outdated references, suggesting that no recent research/literature review was done
- figures that do not match with other figures in style, or are of very low quality
- unusual, bold statements about the generic status of the field and its future
- sudden changes in the writing style between consecutive paragraphs.
Once a reviewer suspects a case of plagiarism, the most important thing is to report their concerns to the liaison editors, providing references to the original works as proof. Then, the liaison editors will take a proper action. IEEE guidelines provide a protocol for how to deal with plagiarism ; in particular, the following should be considered:
- amount of text being plagiarized (ranging from a single sentence to a full paper)
- proper use of quotation marks
- appropriateness credit notices
- properness of paraphrased text.
The guidelines identify five levels of plagiarism, according to severity.
- Level 1 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of a full paper, or the verbatim copying of a major portion (>50%), or verbatim copying within more than one paper by the same author(s).
- Level 2 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of a large portion (between 20% and 50%) or verbatim copying within more than one paper by the same author(s).
- Level 3 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of individual elements (paragraph(s), sentence(s), illustration(s), etc.) resulting in a signi?cant portion (<20%) within a paper.
- Level 4 pertains to uncredited or improper paraphrasing of pages or paragraphs.
- Level 5 pertains to the credited verbatim copying of a major portion of a paper without clear delineation (e.g., quotes or indents). 
The measures taken by IEEE against the author(s) depend on the severity level, and therefore it is very important that proof is provided enabling fair judgment of the case.
Within publications of IEEE RAS, several cases have been discovered, and at every event a handful of very serious cases have been encountered. An ethics committee has been set up within RAS to facilitate the evaluation of these cases. The committee makes a recommendation to the vice-president for conference activities (a position currently held by Prof. Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos), who then presents the cases to the IEEE headquarters. Numerous authors have been banned from publishing in IEEE because of plagiarism issues, and the pressure is mounting to increase the sanctions. This clearly illustrates the severity and actuality of the issue. Furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to raise awareness and educate (prospective) authors on this issue.
A second part of the discussion pertains to penalizing authors who have plagiarized work. A common problem is how to assess the responsibility of the various authors. In some cases, the advisor blames the student authors, and finding the key individual responsible for the plagiarism is almost impossible. Assuming that the responsible authors can be identified, an open question still remains in how they should be penalized.
The SRP is committed to educating young researchers on these topics and battling the problem. We believe that this article contributes to raise awareness on the issue of plagiarism, and that is can start new discussions among researchers and scientists.
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