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Idea-plagiarism and precedence: ethics in competitive research

Praveen Chaddah

Praveen Chaddah is a condensed matter physicist who worked on solid helium, superconductors, and ‘broad and interrupted first order phase transitions’ of magnetic materials. He was the Director of the UGC-DAE Consortium for Scientific Research during 2005-2013. He has been vocal about increasing the visibility of Indian research and reforming methods of research dissemination, and has written extensively about plagiarism, including in his book “Ethics in competitive research: do not get scooped; do not get plagiarized”

Praveen Chaddah
Praveen Chaddah  

Ethical behaviour is desired in all human endeavours. Unethical behaviour may or may not be illegal, but should definitely be condemned, even if it is not yet on the statute books and is not yet legally punishable. Unethical behaviour in research can result in the public being misguided on issues of health or in tax-payer money being spent on research and development efforts that do not have a sound scientific basis.

Fabrication, falsification and plagiarism are three forms of unethical behaviour that must be avoided by all researchers. The first two occur during the conduct of research, while plagiarism occurs during the communication of research output. Plagiarism has become a commonly discussed misdemeanour, and the University Grants Commission (UGC) has set in place procedures to be followed to punish researchers from our higher educational institutions whose thesis or research papers are detected to have portions that are plagiarized from other authors.

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. There are perpetrators of plagiarism who steal credit, and there are also victims of plagiarism whose credit is stolen. In this article, I look at the plight of the victims, suggest methods to avoid becoming victims, and talk about what recourse do victims have.

Software is widely available to check for plagiarism of words, and both the perpetrators (who wrote the errant paper) and the victims (authors from whose paper text is copied) are identified by such software. It is believed that if results are copied, then enough text would also be copied, and the software would identify the perpetrators and the victims. Software obviates the need for painstaking comparisons, and gives us proof on a platter. Various institutional mechanisms are being put in place in India to ‘punish’ any perpetrator of plagiarism of words.

However, plagiarism of words is not the only form that plagiarism can take in research. Scientists invest thought and ideas while pursuing research, whether that research be confirmatory, incremental, or path-breaking. Many researchers believe that new ideas lie at the heart of research that is subsequently classified as novel. Some new idea would be necessary for incremental research, and maybe an out-of-the-box idea for research that can be described as path-breaking. As active researchers are pushed to move from confirmatory research to incremental or path-breaking research, the role of ideas becomes more important than the role of words in our research papers.

Can a researcher who (or whose byline) is not well-established, lose credit for an original idea? (Such emerging researchers will hopefully soon dominate India’s research landscape.) This can happen after the paper containing the new idea has been communicated to a journal but not released by the authors on a preprint archive. It can happen even after the paper is released on a preprint archive or has been accepted and put on-line, or published, by a journal.

The former can happen if there is a leak from the journal (which is highly unlikely) or from the authors. If we have a new idea, then what precautions can we take? We must remember that if we leaked our idea without a date-stamped proof of having enunciated this idea, then there is no recourse left to us. Some care needs to be exercised in informal dissemination.

The recent Policy Statement released by INSA notes that establishing priority is essential for countering idea-plagiarism. It notes that preprint archives are very popular in physics, mathematics, computer science etc., and have also been initiated in many other disciplines, including bioRxiv for biological sciences. These provide date-stamped priority, with minimal delay, before dissemination amongst the specialist community.

This role has been even noted by National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a Notice which states “Scientists issue preprints to speed dissemination, establish priority, obtain feedback, and offset publication bias.” The present author has, as stated in the INSA document with references to his published papers, been stating these advantages over some years. I have argued that a researcher who (or whose byline) is not well-established will face scepticism for out-of-the-box ideas during review process and suffer delay in publication. An established researcher who usurps the idea, on the other hand, will easily get his paper accepted and it will be frequently cited. We have to start worrying about how to retain credit for our original out-of-the-box ideas if we wish to pursue path-breaking research.

I have described various suggestions in my recent book “Ethics in competitive research: do not get scooped; do not get plagiarized”. As a starting postulate, research creates new knowledge and new knowledge can be created only once! Credit in competitive research goes to the first-past-the-post, and not to the also-ran. As we encourage young researchers to do incremental or path-breaking research, the book reminds them that many of our icons, going back to Marie Curie in the nineteenth century, were acutely aware of the need for rapid dissemination to establish priority. This book describes an instance where unusual dissemination methods helped future Nobel laureates, and also a case where pursuing ‘traditional path’ changed a paper from being a discovery announcement to a me-too paper. It emphasizes that novel methods of dissemination are essential while disseminating path-breaking research.

We also noted that an idea can be plagiarized even after it is released on a preprint archive or has been accepted and published by a journal. Needless to say, the errant paper would have paraphrased the idea so that current software cannot detect any text-similarity. Experts would be able to establish that the same idea has been used without apportioning credit, but it can be an uphill task to convince experts to read your earlier paper. It is a lament that while mechanisms are being put in place to punish Indian researchers who perpetrate an ethical misdemeanour, there is no attempt to set up cells that could help researchers who believe they are victims of plagiarism. Contrast this with the proliferation of patent cells in India that help researchers who feel they have completed research with financial possibilities.

Idea plagiarism, with a clever manipulation of words, can result in an undeserving person being honoured and thereby getting unjustified societal credibility, a credibility that results in society accepting advice and suggestions from sources who may disseminate false information.

I wish to conclude by stressing that reporting results that can be termed as ‘unexpected’ is not very straightforward. Dissemination without delay but with a high level of visibility ensures both (i) ownership of the researchers and (ii) proper post-dissemination validation and evaluation of the research output. We must realize that validation of major path-breaking research output has always been linked to the post-publication acceptance by the community of researchers in the field, and not just to its being published in any journal, however ‘reputed’ it may be. As we have been reminded by the INSA Policy Statement , what we publish is more important than where it is published.

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Written By

Praveen Chaddah is a condensed matter physicist who worked on solid helium, superconductors, and ‘broad and interrupted first order phase transitions’ of magnetic materials. He was the Director of the UGC-DAEConsortium for Scientific Research during 2005-2013.