Retractions Often Due to Plagiarism: Study

The number of plagiarism-based retractions has grown since the advent of detection software, according to a BioMed Central analysis.

By Kerry Grens | June 1, 2015

PIXABAY, VICTORFLISCORNOPlagiarism is the most common cause of retractions in BioMed Central journals, accounting for a quarter of cases documented, according to a poster presentation at the World Conference on Research Integrity being held in Rio de Janeiro this week. The authors found that the increase in plagiarism-related retractions rose after 2009, when plagiarism-detection software became more widely used.

“It was a bit unexpected because I don’t think this is the number-one reason that comes up in other studies,” said study coauthor Maria Kowalczuk, the biology editor in the Research Integrity Group at BioMed Central.

For instance, a 2012 PNAS study that analyzed more than 2,000 PubMed-indexed retractions found that fraud was responsible for 43 percent of retractions and plagiarism for 10 percent.

Plagiarism “has become easier to detect,” Kowalczuk told The Scientist. “Before 2009, it was mostly problems with duplicate publications and coauthors not being aware that the article was being published.”

Kowalczuk and Elizabeth Moylan, the senior editor of the Research Integrity Group, surveyed nearly 163,000 articles published between 2000 and 2014 by BioMed Central, which puts out 281 open-access journals. Among them, 77 papers had been retracted. (The authors excluded 43 papers that were pulled this year due to fraudulent peer review because, Kowalczuk said, “they would seriously skew the results.”)

Thirteen of the 77 papers were pulled because of “honest error;” 14 because of research misconduct, including data fabrication or an absence of ethical approval; another 14 because of unknown reasons; and 36 due to publishing misconduct, including plagiarism and image duplication.

Kowalczuk said editors and reviewers will use plagiarism-detection services when they are suspicious that there may be duplicate language, but it would be impractical to apply these to every paper reviewed because of time constraints.

In another presentation at the World Conference on Research Integrity, Chris Graf, the new business director for the professional innovations group of Wiley, offered a snapshot of the 82 retractions in Wiley journals in 2014. Nearly half (40) were due to “serious problems,” such as fabrication or experimental flaws, while 21 were pulled because of plagiarism.

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Avatar of: JonnyG


Posts: 3

June 2, 2015

What the data do not show, is how many papers are rejected upon submittal - as an editor I reject many, and not just from the developing world where non-English speakers find it easier to copy - especially introductions, instead of writing in their own words.  I have rejected papers from the English speaking world s well.

You quote Kowalczuk as saying: "it it would be impractical to apply plagiarism-detection services  to every paper reviewed because of time constraints".  The two journals I work with routinely do this for all submitted manuscripts.

Unfortunately, there is no software that can easily check for copied figures.


Avatar of: WhoCares


Posts: 2

June 18, 2015

The actually retracted for plagiarism papers are just a tiny fraction of published papers with plagiarism, as the editors put a lot of efforts to prevent retractions even in cases of clear, unequivocal and straight forward plagiarism, when it is from well-established academics.   For more on this see Retraction Watch.

Avatar of: Eric J. Murphy

Eric J. Murphy

Posts: 20

June 18, 2015

At my journal, we check each and every submitted manuscript for plagiarism.  Does it take time, yes, has it prevented retractions, absolutely.  In addition, each file must be examined to determine if indeed there are instances of plagiarism and of self-plagiairsm.  When self-plagiarism is detected, this really forces an analysis of the published papers from which items were "borrowed", which upon careful analysis will reveal if data was "borrowed" as well. 

Interestingly, I have decided to use our efforts in an educational or punative manner, based upon the amount of plagiarism and the overall pervasiveness of it. I find it is far better to educate authors and force them to work through correcting the manuscript than merely rejecting it outright.  For major acts of plagiarism I must reject it outright, but I have yet to ever "ban" an author or group of authors from submitting to the journal. 



Avatar of: Weishi Meng

Weishi Meng

Posts: 16

June 19, 2015

These mass retractions suggest a sloppy and amateurish editorial process at BMC journals. I am afraid the following statement by BMC editor Elizabeth Moylan does little to dispel this impression. Quoting Moylan: 

It is unclear whether the authors of the manuscripts involved were aware that the agencies were proposing fabricated reviewers on their behalf or whether authors proposed fabricated names directly themselves.


Let's hope BMC is not listening to the PubPeer-Clare Francis-Retraction Watch song or pretty soon nobody will publish there! Otherwise, authors submitting to BMC journals will be facing the post publication reviews by nobody's peers cowardly hiding in anonymity to take comfortable shots at them under the permissive gaze of BMC editors.


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