Plagiarism retracts review

A two-year-old review paper on advances in using genetically engineered biofuel crops to boost ethanol production was retracted from __Nature Reviews Genetics__ (__NRG__) because the author stole the bulk of a paragraph from another paper she had peer reviewed. BiofuelsImage by Steve Jurvetson via WikimediaThe review author, Michigan State University plant scientist Mariam Sticklen, wrote in the current issue of __NRG__ that she was linkurl:retracting;

Apr 1, 2010
Bob Grant
A two-year-old review paper on advances in using genetically engineered biofuel crops to boost ethanol production was retracted from __Nature Reviews Genetics__ (__NRG__) because the author stole the bulk of a paragraph from another paper she had peer reviewed.
Image by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia
The review author, Michigan State University plant scientist Mariam Sticklen, wrote in the current issue of __NRG__ that she was linkurl:retracting; her article "due to a paragraph being paraphrased without attribution." According to an investigative committee at Michigan State University, Sticklen modified a paragraph from a manuscript she was peer reviewing for the journal __Plant Science__ in 2008 and inserted into her own during the final stages of revision at __NRG__. Sticklen told __The Scientist__ that her mistake was inadvertent, precipitated by a medical condition that affected her memory and cognition. "All I know is that I did not do wrong," she said. Ziv Shani, senior author of the __Plant Science__ paper from which Sticklen apparently borrowed -- also about ways to boost ethanol production -- wrote in an email to __The Scientist__ that he and his co-authors became aware of a problem when they read Sticklen's published review in a June 2008 issue of __NRG__, before their paper had been published. "We referred this matter to the editor of __Plant Science__, to which we had submitted an invited review," Shani wrote. That editor was linkurl:Jonathan Gressel,; professor emeritus at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science who commissions and edits review articles at the journal. Gressel told __The Scientist__ that Shani contacted him and asked if Sticklen was a referee on his own paper, which was eventually linkurl:published; in the February 2010 issue of __Plant Science__. Gressel informed Shani that he couldn't divulge that information but promised to look in to the matter. "If I see something, I'll notify the appropriate authorities," he assured Shani. Gressel did see something. "It was almost identical," he said. "It was clear to me that it was plagiary." What really tipped him off, Gressel said, was that two of the references Sticklen used (see references 62 and 63 in box below and in the __NRG__ linkurl:manuscript); had nothing to do with the subject matter in the sentence where they appeared. This prompted Gressel to email editors at __NRG__ and administrators at Michigan State University, alerting them to Sticklen's apparent misconduct, a message on which he copied Shani. This essentially ended Sticklen's status as an anonymous reviewer of Shani's manuscript, but Gressel said that divulging her identity was warranted. "When you have done something that's way beyond the pale, you forfeit your anonymity as a reviewer," Gressel said. "It's not a given." Michigan State's research integrity officer, exercise scientist linkurl:James Pivarnik,; then took over. An investigative "committee found research misconduct," Pivarnik told __The Scientist__, ruling that Sticklen had plagiarized the paragraph of the paper she peer reviewed. He added that Sticklen appealed the finding all the way up to the level of Michigan State's president. In the meantime, Shani's paper was published in __Plant Science__, and when Michigan State University investigators informed Gressel of their finding, the editor added a note to the end of the article, saying that an investigative committee determined that the paper contained a paragraph that had been plagiarized. Sticklen maintained that her mistake was not intentional. She said she has been diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia, in which a high platelet count has clogged blood vessels in her brain and caused her major memory and cognitive problems for more than two years. This, combined with her habit of using index cards to identify interesting topics to research later or ideas to include in pieces she's writing, led to the problem, she said. While she cannot remember exactly what happened with the __Plant Science__ and __NRG__ manuscripts, Sticklen said that she likely mixed up a card containing information she wanted to include in her manuscript with a card she wrote about Shani's paper. Sticklen also said that the school should have considered her medical condition more carefully in determining her guilt in the matter. Though she was undergoing further testing during the Michigan State's investigation, Sticklen, who is currently on medical leave from the university, said that she furnished school officials with a preliminary medical report from her doctors. "I told the committee, but they rushed to a conclusion," she said. "They ignored the report." linkurl:Ian Gray,; Michigan State University's vice president for research and graduate studies, told __The Scientist__ that the committee was aware of Sticklen's medical condition, but declined to make any further comment, stating that "the case is closed from Michigan State University's perspective. As far as the university is concerned, the decision is made and that's what we live with." After receiving official word of the university's findings, editors at __Nature Reviews Genetics__ decided to retract Sticklen's article, the first ever retracted from any of the 15 __Nature Reviews__ journals published by Nature Publishing Group. "It was clear that we needed to make amends for this," __NRG__'s chief editor Louisa Flintoft told __The Scientist__. But the journal used slightly different wording to describe the incident, calling Sticklen's mistake "a paragraph being paraphrased without attribution" rather than describing it as "plagiarism," as did the Michigan State University investigative committee. "Paraphrasing a paragraph without attribution is a form of plagiarism," Flintoft said. "It's a more specific description of what happened in that paper." She added that __NRG__ staff initially wrote the retraction, and agreed on the final wording in concert with Sticklen. "Frankly, I think __Nature Reviews Genetics__ was nice to her in allowing her to say 'paraphrase'," Gressel said. Shani, group R&D director at Israeli agribiotech FuturaGene, said in an email to __The Scientist__ that he was satisfied with the retraction. "The matter was dealt with professionally between the editors of the two journals and between Dr. Sticklen and her institute, Michigan State University," he wrote. "My co-authors and I believe that we have now received the proper credit for our original work and we do not wish to elaborate further on this issue." Gray said that Sticklen has been disciplined for her actions. "The disciplinary actions focus on stricter departmental oversight of the faculty member's research, including publications and grant proposals, additional mentoring including attendance at the MSU Workshop on Responsible Conduct of Research, ineligibility for any internal research funding, including institutional match, for a period of two years, and no salary increase for the next two years," Gray wrote in an email to __The Scientist__. "It's very unfortunate that such a thing happened," he said. Here are the two paragraphs side-by-side so you can decide for yourself: __Editor's Note (04/01/10, 2:20 PM EDT): These are indeed the two paragraphs that initially raised suspicion in the mind of __Plant Science__ editor Jonathan Gressel. He assured __The Scientist__ of that fact. Michigan State University declined to provide the official report generated from their investigation of the matter. As these were review articles, the "plagiarism" involved had less to do with copying specific sections of text and more about borrowing the ideas contained in the original paragraph, one of only a handful in the __Plant Science__ manuscript that contained mention of new ideas or hypotheses.__
Editor's Note (04/01/10, 4:20 PM EDT): when originally posted, the article misspelled Sticklen's first name. The Scientist regrets the error.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:You've been plagiarized;
[5th March 2009]*linkurl:UK psychiatrist suspended for plagiarism;
[23rd June 2008]*linkurl:Plagiarists beware;
[11th April 2008]