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Duplication and plagiarism increasing among students


Mounir Errami and Harold Garner make the point in their Commentary (Nature 451, 397–399; 2008) that plagiarism in scientific writing is on the increase. Ready access to electronic copy makes it easy to snip out that handy phrase that encapsulates a thought, or that neat introductory paragraph, and then why not the whole section, and so on. We have all been tempted.

Undergraduates regularly expropriate whole articles from Wikipedia. They are not scared by anti-plagiarism software, as they know it is not routinely applied. As today's undergraduates will become tomorrow's researchers, the problem can only get worse.

As a referee who is used to reviewing papers in particular niche areas, I have occasionally identified duplicate or seriously overlapping content in manuscripts, often intended for high-profile journals. In one instance, I received almost identical papers for review and in another I received a duplicate of an online pre-publication paper. The authors cannot be named, as that would violate referee confidentiality, but they were from well-known institutions in the developed world.

What these duplications had in common (apart from the text!) was that the authors were relatively junior and newly appointed. Younger academics seem to feel under a great deal of pressure to publish. In my own institution, I believe that my younger colleagues place an unhealthy emphasis on impact factor when considering where to publish their work.

How to prevent plagiarism? Journal editors must refuse plagiaristic pieces and explain why. Identification of duplication post-publication should lead to high-profile withdrawal of the papers by the journal that was misused. Plagiarism should be identified as a disciplinary offence in the employment contract of academic and research staff.

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Derby, B. Duplication and plagiarism increasing among students. Nature 452, 29 (2008).

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