Plagiarism in Successful NSF Proposals

Using plagiarism detection software, the NSF’s internal watchdog has found almost 100 suspicious cases among the 8,000 projects the agency funded in 2011.

By | March 10, 2013

FLICKR, FEATHEREDTARInvestigators at the National Science Foundation (NSF) turned up nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism in proposals funded by the agency during the fiscal year 2011, all of which are now being investigated, reported ScienceInsider.

The NSF’s Office of Inspector General (IG), an internal but independent watchdog, used plagiarism detection software to analyze some 8,000 successful funding applications, and flagged 1 to 1.5 percent of cases as suspicious—though it’s not clear what percentage of these are self-plagiarism, in which researchers lift sections from the materials and methods or even introductions of their own previous proposals.

Last month (28 February), the NSF’s Inspector General Allison Lerner told a congressional panel that “extrapolating across 45,000 proposals, the NSF receives annually suggests 1,300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 could contain problematic data”—the NSF label for fabrication and falsification, which the agency’s IG did not search for in the current analysis.

James Kroll, head of administrative investigations at NSF’s IG, told ScienceInsider that his six staff investigators would be overwhelmed by so many cases, as it also has to deal with outside tips and investigations by universities into allegations of misconduct involving NSF-funded research.

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Avatar of: LeeH


Posts: 35

March 11, 2013

The 'nearly" 100 out of 8,000 works out to less than half of the IG's estimate of 1,300 out of 45,000.  Now that the sensationalism is done, just how many of these are investigators using their own prior statements is unclear, but I would guess that it would be the majority.  As far as I am aware that would not be plagiarism nor problematic, but perhaps just scientific consistency. So with 1% likely to become a far smaller number, perhaps the IG can get a grip on reality when addressing Congress.  

Avatar of: RobertE


Posts: 12

March 11, 2013

This is an example of the kind of sensationalism that substitutes superficiality and sensationalism for investigation and creates panic among bureaucrats and "zero tolerance" rules to absolve bureaucrats from exercising judgement for which they might be accountable;. Before this was ever released, it should have been made very clear as to which of the "nearly" 100 were investigators re-using text they had found to be clear and understandable. After all, the story is how many actual cases of plagiarism there are, and not how many investigators have actually plagiarized other sources. By releasing this information prematurely, surely an act of laziness and not malice, the NSF investigators have made themselves to appear to be incompetent fools. Worse still, I expect that plagiarism will be shortly redefined as being anything flagged by a plagiarism detector.

March 13, 2013

There's a WORLD of difference between "plagiarism" and "self-plagiarism."   That's especially true if the proposal merely includes verbiage identical to a previous proposal from the same investigator.  In fact, self-plagiarism would be EXPECTED in grant proposals, especially in renewals and resubmissions.

This article -- nay, the report on which it is based -- seems as if someone is trying to create a nonexistent scandal for purposes unknown.

I am appalled by the release of such a specious report by the NSF's IG.




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Avatar of: Alan Price

Alan Price

Posts: 4

March 18, 2013

As I have tracked for the past two decades, the NSF OIG has made findings of scientific / research misconduct, in over 90% of NSF cases, for plagiarism.

The Federal definition of research misconduct covers fabrication and falsification of data, as well as plagiarism.  The HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI) during this same two decades has over 90% of its cases as fabrication, falsification -- much less for plagiarism. 

The ORI has made public (with names of persons and institutions) all such findings since 1992, in the Federal Register, NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts, and ORI's website, newsletter, and annual report.  They can all be accessed online.  NSF's Semi-Annual Reports to Congress do not include any names.

It remains unclear why there was and has consistently remained such an enormous difference between NSF OIG's and ORI's findings-distribution.  NSF OIG agents have publically stated that it might reflect a significance to health-related research (supported by HHS agencies, like NIH).  I have never been able to accept the idea that those investigators and their students funded by NSF (mostly physicists, social scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.) would favor misconduct by plagiarism, whereas those funded by HHS/NIH (mostly biological as well as social scientists, physicians, etc.) somehow favored fabrication and falsification.

I have always wondered, out loud, whether there was under-reporting to NSF OIG of fabrication and falsification cases -- ???.  Certainly these ongoing investigations internally by NSF OIG staff of reuse of text material in NSF grant applications will continue to maintain or raise that 90-percentage plagiarism value.

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