Nature 427, 1 (1 January 2004) | doi:10.1038/427001a

Complacency about misconduct


Plagiarism is a serious sin, but universities and journals do not always respond appropriately. A case reported this week suggests that some in the physical sciences have yet to appreciate the threat to confidence in science.

Researchers who choose to deceive their colleagues can adopt a variety of strategies. Details of a physicist who employed a low-risk, low-reward approach — the plagiarizing of papers from foreign-language journals — came to light this week. And although the fraud produced papers that have amassed few citations, the response of the researcher's peers is cause for concern.

Yung Park was certainly no Jan Hendrik Schön. The latter was a high-profile young physicist at the prestigious Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. When suspicions about Schön surfaced in May 2002, his employers went public, launched an inquiry, and helped to ensure that journals were alerted promptly so that their readers were soon aware of the problem. Schön was found to have fabricated and falsified data in 25 papers — and physicists agreed that they needed to take a hard look at how they handled cases of misconduct.

Responses to Park's misconduct have been less commendable. Between 1995 and 2002, while at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, and then as a visiting scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, Park published about 80 papers in materials science. At least eight of these are plagiarisms, most of them almost identical copies of papers originally published in Russian. When confronted by the evidence in April 2002, Park left Cambridge and his whereabouts are now unknown (see page 3).

Unfortunately for researchers who work in Park's field — the study of electronic properties of materials — Park's former colleagues at Cambridge failed to notify journal editors of some of the plagiarisms that they uncovered. Some editors who were informed by KAIST took no action. As a result, at least four known plagiarisms remain available in journals.

Four papers, all of low impact, may not seem much cause for concern. This indeed seems to have been the attitude of many of those involved. But although journal editors and researchers contacted by Nature insist on the need to combat plagiarism, their lack of action indicates that parts of the physics community feel that it is not their responsibility to deal with misconduct.

This is odd, as simple steps can help put right plagiarism of the type practised by Park. The journal Solid State Communications published a paper by Park that is now known to have been plagiarized. The editors have attached a note to the online version of the paper, marking it as a plagiarism and directing readers to the original work. The journal has also published a note in print. Together, these measures should minimize any loss of citations that the author of the original paper might suffer, and make it clear that Park is guilty of misconduct.

Research institutions have responsibilities too. As a visiting scientist, Park was not paid by Cambridge. But he worked in the university's labs and published under its affiliation. The university therefore has a duty to investigate all of the 40 or so papers published by Park while he was there, and to make the results of that assessment available to journal editors and the research community.

The effect of not taking such steps is clear. Authors of the original papers lose out on citations, and the chance that Park may dupe another employer increases. And when the misconduct and a lack of response are made public, public confidence in science takes another small knock. Park's plagiarism will not rock the physics community in the way that Schön's fraud did, but that is no excuse for acting as if it didn't happen at all.

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