The Euphemism Parade

What’s behind paper retractions? (19)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 07/2013

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

Why can’t journals just come out and say “plagiarism”?

Science is supposed to be about cold hard truths, about tested hypotheses and convincingly small p values. So why are journal editors so afraid of the p word?

Take these examples of the lengths editors have gone to in order to avoid using the word “plagiarism” in retraction notices:

  • From Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, “contains language from already published sources without using proper citation methods”.
  • From the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research Part B: Applied Biomaterials, “unattributed overlap”.
  • From International Cardiology, “a duplicate of a paper that has already been published” – by other authors.
  • From Landslides, a “significant originality issue”. Can that be remedied by psychoanalysis?
  • From Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, “Some sentences…are directly taken from other papers, which could be viewed as a form of plagiarism.” We await word on what else it could be viewed as.
  • From the International Journal of Medicine and Biomedical Research, “contains passages from a published article without proper attribution and acknowledgement as if they were original”.
  • From Educational Research, an “administrative error”.
  • From Chemistry – A European Journal, “the paper was constructed by copying a number of passages from the paper entitled…The authors apologize for this approach.” As we wrote on Retraction Watch, plagiarism is an “approach” to writing the way bank robbery is an approach to banking.
  • From Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, “certain parts/portions of the article have been published elsewhere and were not appropriately referenced. The situation is due to honest error…” Aha – so if it is honest, it’s not plagiarism?
  • From Rejuvenation Research, “unintended excessive reuse of the text”.
  • Why use all those words when “plagiarism” will do? Unfortunately, this sort of dancing around the truth is what we see in retraction notices for other kinds of misconduct, too. Consider the retraction notice, which appeared in 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition:

    “This article was withdrawn by the Editorial Committee on July 5, 2012, because it constituted a breach of journal’s ethical policy.” That sounds bad, but what does it really mean?

    Even that, however, is better than the retraction notice that popped up – well, by popped up we mean, which cost $63.10 plus tax to read – in Protein & Peptide Letters with this slap in the face to reason:

    “As per Bentham Science’s policy, the following article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and its Authors published in ‘Protein & Peptide Letters’ due to their use of text obtained from another paper published in the Biochemical Journal.”

    “The public doesn’t need to know everything”

    If you think we’re being unfair, here’s what the journal’s editor said to us when we asked for more information:

    “What is the advantage to your readers [of knowing all that]? … The fact that we printed the retraction and that we identified the individuals and that the corresponding author agreed to a statement that he apologized – in my mind the fact that he did all that and we did what we were obligated to do by our standards, I think that’s enough. The public needs to know that there are cases of scientific misconduct – this clearly was a case of that – and they need to know that some journals are paying attention to this. But how much is added to the public by dragging all this up?”

    When we add incidents like these to the number of cases in which editors refuse to act at all, it makes us wonder just how interested in the truth some of them are.

    The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

    Last Changed: 26.11.2013