We reject the curious ethical stance suggested by Praveen Chaddah in recent issue of Nature

Posted on Tue, 07/29/2014 - 8:29pm by Nagy, John D
Lab policies

We reject the curious ethical stance suggested by Praveen Chaddah in recent issue of Nature

The July 10 issue of Nature contains an opinion piece by Praveen Chaddah I would like everyone in the lab to read [1]. (He is a physicist who directed the University Grants Commission of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy Consortium for Scientific Research). In this article, Chaddah espouses some views in diametric opposition to the ethical standards of this lab. To avoid confusion, I address some of the more dismaying claims in the paper and formally lay out our standards of publication.

1. We categorically reject Chaddah's statement that, "...scientists are not writers. We value the originality of ideas more than of language." In no context is this statement correct. Scientists are writers. We are also public speakers. Our work lives and dies not just by the quality and originality of our ideas, but on how well we express them. The scientific arena is now more competitive than ever in history. A brilliant idea expressed poorly in this environment has very little chance of influencing anyone but  the originator's mind. Writing is the basic skill of composition, which is the act of expressing ideas in a permanent medium. The value of effective writing in science is therefore at its highest premium.

All members of this lab will endeavor to master the craft of technical writing. We will continually hone our skills in composition throughout our careers and present only our best efforts in all submissions: manuscripts for publication, grant proposals, blog entries, official letters and all other forms of professional communication.

2. In this article, Chaddah identifies "three forms of plagiarism"--so-called "text plagiarism," which is essentially cutting and pasting passages from another author's work without proper attribution, along with "idea" and "data" plagiarism. Of these three, he argues that text plagiarism is the least offensive and easiest to recognize. In contrast, he claims that, "[a]uthors who have plagiarized ideas or results have crossed a serious ethical line and should be sanctioned by their institutes..." [italics added].

We reject the notion that "text plagiarism" is less offensive than any other form of intellectual theft, including theft of ideas and results. High-quality scientists have always worked diligently to craft their technical compositions, even when Latin was the lingua franca of science and yet no one's mother tongue. That many scientists today and in the past have failed to master technical discourse highlights the skill of those who have. These professionals are rightfully proud of their command of the language. That others devalue the fruits of such skill does not diminish the offensiveness of its theft.

In this lab, we deeply appreciate all creative contributions of our colleagues--their ideas, their results, their syntheses, their writing and even the occasional interpretive dance. We therefore treat all such contributions with the utmost respect. In our communications, we always endeavor to provide proper attribution to ideas, results and writing. Although we highly value expressing all ideas--ours or others'--in our own crafted language, we recognize that direct quotes can sometimes have rhetorical value. However, if we use another author's words, we set them out in quotes, note our own editorial alterations by setting them with square brackets, identify removed passages with ellipses (three periods in a row), and identify the source of the quote, including page number(s) (if not obvious), immediately following the quoted text. We also recognize that mistakes happen, possibly because, as Chaddah notes, one "had read previous works that left an indelible mark on their subconscious." In that unlikely event, we would immediately, voluntarily and publicly take responsibility for, and correct to the best of our ability, the error.

3. Chaddah further argues that plagiarism should not result in retraction of a published article, which is the current standard of practice. Instead, he suggests that plagiarism should be corrected in the published piece with some sort of flag indicating that the passage, idea or result was plagiarized. This policy is presumably proposed to protect novel results in the plagiarizing paper from being blocked because of "mere" text plagiarism. He also argues that "[t]he wording of the correction must make clear that the offense was plagiarism, not fraud."

We agree that plagiarism is not fraud. It is theft. We reject that theft is a lesser crime than fraud. We also reject the claim that retraction is too stiff a penalty for intellectual theft. If the plagiarizing paper otherwise has merit, then a revised manuscript with all plagiarism removed will have access to the body of literature through normal peer-review publication channels. The original offensive submission need not remain.

Therefore, I recommend the following policy to individuals in this lab who have begun reviewing peer manuscripts. If during the review process one finds a plagiarized passage, idea or result, one should immediately recommend rejection of the paper to the handling editor and provide a clear explanation and documentation of the plagiarized passage(s). One need not seek out all plagiarized passages nor evaluate other merits of the plagiarizing paper. However, if there appears to be merit or perhaps you are not sure, then indicate to the editor that you would be willing to review an alternate submission of the same result in which all plagiarism has been eliminated. If the authors resubmit, then review the contribution on its merits. If plagiarism is still evident, I recommend immediate rejection with a letter indicating that you will entertain no further submissions from the authors involved.

4. Finally, many individuals commenting on Chaddah's piece on Nature's website seem to have conflated his main points with another common problem--self-plagiarism, in which one publishes substantial portions of their own writing in more than one article. While not theft, strictly speaking (unless the copyright is held by a 3rd party), such redundancy muddies the literature and wastes researchers' time. Therefore, it should be avoided, except in the following case. It is acceptable for an author to include one of his or her previously published papers essentially wholesale as a chapter in a book they have also authored. This practice does not include collections of papers one is editing, but traditional books on which one is a traditional author. Even in this case, however, the previously published material should contribute a minimum (a chapter or two at most) of text to the book. Publishing an anthology of one's work is rarely appropriate, especially when one's scientific corpus is still developing. If we do include previously published work in a book, then we will do so only under the following conditions: (i) we own the copyright or the text is in the public domain; (ii) we clearly mark, on the first page of the chapter, that the chapter is substantially the same as our previously published work, with a complete citation so others can find the original paper; and (iii) we edit it to fit the flow of the book.

We voluntarily adopt all of the policies expressed above out of respect for our colleagues, our profession and science. Any relaxation of standards proposed or adopted by our community of scholars or forced upon us from outside influences are irrelevant.

[1] Chaddah, P. 2014. Not all plagiarism requires a retraction. Nature 511:127.