Opinion: Unethical Ethics Monitoring

Anti-plagiarism service iThenticate breached ethical boundaries in its design and interpretation of a survey of the top ethical concerns among scientific journal editors.

By | June 25, 2013

FLICKR, BRADY WITHERSThis winter, I received a request to participate in a survey to identify the “top ethical and industry concerns of those at the helm of scholarly journals.” The survey was sponsored by iParadigms LLC, the company that sells iThenticate, a service to identify plagiarism in scientific publications. Since I am editor-in-chief of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, a journal that uses iThenticate software to check for plagiarism, I considered taking the survey. Reading through the questions, however, I felt that the survey was “rigged”—designed in such a way that plagiarism would undoubtedly come out as the top concern—so I declined to submit my responses.

In April, I listened to an iThenticate-sponsored webinar, moderated by Jason Chu of iParadigms’ website plagiarism.org, in which invited speakers Virginia Barbour, council chair at the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and David Moher, editor-in-chief at the journal Systematic Reviews, discussed the results of the survey. Not surprisingly, the top concern—cited by 82 percent of the editors and editorial staff who responded to the survey—was “plagiarism and misconduct.” However, throughout the webinar and in the summary published online at the iThenticate website, this choice was referred to only as “plagiarism.” Data falsification or manipulation, which I consider to be much more serious transgressions than plagiarism, were not highlighted by iThenticate as major concerns, despite clearly falling under the umbrella of research misconduct. This confirmed my suspicion that iThenticate was only conducting and discussing the survey to make plagiarism appear to be the most important ethical problem in scientific publishing and thus promote the sale of their software. I logged off the webinar disappointed that I wasted the hour.

In my opinion, the design of the survey and the discussion of its results constitute an ethical breach by iThenticate. If I reviewed a manuscript that contained a survey that was so clearly designed to produce a specific result, I would reject it out of hand. Worse yet, by ignoring the importance of “misconduct,” iThenticate presented the results of the survey in a way designed to make plagiarism appear to be a bigger problem than it is. In their online summary of the webinar, iThenticate states that plagiarism was “the survey’s lead ethical issue,” although, again, it was actually “plagiarism and misconduct.” In doing so, they took advantage of the reputations of Barbour and Moher, making them unwilling collaborators in their sales pitch.

Plagiarism is a significant ethical concern, but does not usually contribute to scientific error. iThenticate’s software works well, in my experience. However, by its actions, iThenticate practiced rampant self-promotion, which is an important contributing factor to scientific misconduct. This was not a good example to be set by a company promoting software to assure ethics in scientific publishing.

David C. Beebe is a Janet and Bernard Becker Professor at Washington University School of Medicine and the editor-in-chief of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science.

See this month’s Critic at Large column, “Defending Against Plagiarism,” for a further discussion of plagiarism in the scientific literature.

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Comments

Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 24

June 26, 2013

Brief, to the point, and terrific article, a reminder to check not only our own assumptions, but the assumptions that others are making for us.

And why they are making those assumptions....

 

Avatar of: lesleylorin

lesleylorin

Posts: 1

June 27, 2013

wow...Mr. Beebe did not hesitate using the harshest of words, "rigged" and "breach of unethics" and "took advantage of the guests' reputations'...I find this quite unethical. These are accusations that can severely damage the reputation of a company. I am shocked and anry at The Scientist for so carelessly publishing such a one-sided, heavy-handed criticism. This could have been presented as a discussion among readers rather than a slanderous, company bashing. Mr. Beebe is an Editor-in-Chief for a Scientific Journal and seems out of touch with the realities of the commercial marketplace where rampant self promotion as he puts it is normal promotional behavior for all companies, including pharmaceutical firms and Hospitals, I might add. I am a Scientific Editor and work for non-profit and for profit enterprises, all of which highlight most survey results in their favor. You can hardly equate ommission of Misconduct in the discussion of the "Plagiarism and Misconduct" area of the survey with falsifying data or unethical behaviour. Sales Pitches seem to offend Mr. Beebe, but I can guarantee him that Virgina Barbour and David Moher were well aware of the presentation, of which they were to take part and therefore, were not held hostage, but willing participants in a sales pitch for a company whose practices they obviously support.

Avatar of: David Beebe

David Beebe

Posts: 4

July 1, 2013

Lesleylorin is upset that I 'called out' iThenticate for ethical improprieties. Several of these concerns are worthy of comment.

1. S(he) demeans the ethics of Drs. Moher and Barbour by "guaranteeing" that they were "willing participants" with iThenticate to promote the company's software. I contacted both with drafts of my article so that they could comment. From their responses, it is clear that iThenticate designed and interpreted the webinar and that they did not know that it would be used for promotional purposes. One replied "lesson learned."

2. S(he) demeans The Scientist by stating that they were careless in publishing my critique. I worked closely with an editor through at least four revisions before we both agreed that the article was ready for publication. This was not careless publishing, it was thoughtful and careful.

3. S(he) feels that it is to be expected that commercial entities will practice "rampant self-promotion." This is what editors of scholarly publications are for; to catch such acts and reject them. iThenticate sells software to catch unethical behavior. Acting unethically is not acceptable.

4. S(he) feels that I acted in an unethical and slanderious manner. If anything I wrote is incorrect, iThenticate may want to correct it. If not, they may want to apologize to improve their reputation among potential customers.

iParadigm, the company that sells iThenticate, was founded by four Berkeley students to develop and sell software to reduce plagiarism. Whomever is promoting iThenticate is apparently not representing such worthy goals and is damaging the reputation of the company. 

I will let lesleylorin's ethics speak for themselves. 

Avatar of: roigm

roigm

Posts: 1

July 22, 2013

Ithenticate’s survey may have been biased to show that plagiarism is a top concern in publication ethics, but the results of an earlier survey of international biomedical journal editors conducted by Elizabeth Wager and her colleagues showed just that: Editors rated plagiarism as the second most severe form of unethical publication practices after redundant publication, itself a practice that often contains self-plagiarized data and/or text..

Reference: E. Wager, S. Fiack, C. Graf, A. Robinson, I. Rowlands,

J. Med. Ethics 35, 348 (2009).

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