Here's What Happens When You Report Plagiarism To A Journal Editor

Ryan Minkoff / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 
In late August, I got a journal alert for a new article on palaeodiet using carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in Imperial-era Italy. Since I've published three articles thus far on this same topic, I immediately clicked through to the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports to skim it.

As I am wont to do, I read the abstract of "A multidisciplinary approach to investigate the osteobiography of the Roman Imperial population from Muracciola Torresina (Palestrina, Rome, Italy)", skimmed down to the results to see the authors' charts of the isotopic data, and then started reading the discussion and conclusions to see if their interpretations of the data aligned with what I saw in looking at them.

And then I came to this paragraph in Baldoni and colleagues' JAS:R article:

The paragraph struck me as familiar, particularly the part about the third century crisis. It's because I wrote that, in 2018, in a paper I published in JAS:R titled "Diet and collapse: A stable isotope study of Imperial-era Gabii (1st–3rd centuries AD)":

It's not my first plagiarism rodeo. Having taught college courses since 2002, I am well acquainted with the methods and styles of plagiarism, students' professed reasons for doing it, and the punishments meted out by professors and academic misconduct boards. I've even found this type of plagiarism before in peer reviewing manuscripts; I will reject the article with a note to the editor, and they decide whether to allow the authors to revise or whether to reject it. But I've never caught this sort of blatant plagiarism in a published, peer-reviewed article before. 

Since JAS:R is published by Elsevier, I followed their FAQ for what to do: I contacted the journal editors, who in this case are Andy Howard and Chris Hunt, on August 20. I told them that "while the language has been partly changed in some places, I wanted to make you aware of this immediately for you to make an editorial decision. I know well that isotope articles all follow a similar outline, but the authors' discussion of Roman diet shows no originality, and one paragraph of their conclusions is nearly verbatim from my 2018 JAS:Reports article. I would like for the authors to revise these passages."

While I was waiting for a response, I also ran the Baldoni paper through iThenticate, which supposedly is the same plagiarism detection software that Elsevier uses. Many more instances popped up, wording copied and barely changed, from my 2018 article, my 2013 Journal of Anthropological Archaeology article, my 2010 dissertation, and even from a 2009 article on auditory exostoses by Fiona Crowe and colleagues in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Howard wrote back almost immediately on August 20, saying he would look into it. He also included a comment directed at someone, presumably at Elsevier, asking: "Vinaya and team - can you please take this paper down if it is in early view or suspend working on it until we can resolve this issue. I am happy to talk to the author about this and get them to review the wording of selected sections as necessary."

That sounded good to me, but I didn't hear from Howard again until September 3, when he let me know that Elsevier would not take the Baldoni paper down. Specifically, his email quoted the JAS:R journal manager Ilaria Meliconi, who wrote to him on August 23 that "The article is already published so the only thing we can do is a correction or retraction, depending on the extent of the overlap. I will look up the two texts and will advise, but in the meantime it would be good to let Kristina know that."

On September 12, Meliconi wrote to me explaining what she had told Howard and adding that "we will need to forward your complaint to the author and wait for their response. Would you be able to send me again the file with the overlapping sections highlighted?" I sent her a marked-up PDF the same day, indicating the text in the Baldoni article that I had problems with, and noting that "I should point out that I only did a cursory review of the article once I realized I was reading my own words; there may be more instances of misuse of my words or of others'. I decided to take the time instead to contact the JASR editors about my ethical concerns, as the JASRep Guide for Authors suggests."

In response to the annoyance that came through in my email because the Baldoni article was still online, Meliconi responded that "We don’t take down articles while we investigate potential plagiarism, as a matter of policy, unless life is at risk (i.e. a medication dosage is wrong etc). We will look at the overlap in the texts and get the authors’ response, then the editors will be in touch with you to discuss it."

After a couple emails back and forth with Howard in late September, I got a longer response on October 7. He wrote that he and Meliconi "agree that elements of them are similar though not verbatim. Since I need to take this to the authors, I would be grateful if you would prepare a short Word document that in a series of paragraphs cites your text (with full references), followed by the text of the authors which you feel is too similar. Once I have this, I will contact the authors for a response/explanation and we can then make a decision as to how to move forward."

It took me a day to debate whether or not I should do that work for them -- here is Elsevier, with access to even more plagiarism detection tools than I have, asking me to go through the Baldoni article with a fine-toothed comb. But armed with access to iThenticate, I decided to do it -- and I found more instances of barely-changed wording than on my initial read. 

Far more. 

Here's another clear example, with my already-published work shown first this time:

Killgrove & Tykot 2018 -- 

Baldoni et al. -- 

Or take this example from Crowe and colleagues in AJPA --

And what Baldoni and colleagues wrote --

Whether you think that these are clear examples of plagiarism or not, I would hope that we can all agree that they should be rewritten and/or properly quoted and cited. Had I come across these in a student's paper, I would have made them to fix it or suffer a grade reduction consequence. Had I come across these as a peer-reviewer, I would have rejected the paper.

But back to the journal's response. 

On October 29, Howard responded to my email for an update, writing that "I have now received an explanation from the lead author, which I'd be grateful if you would consider and provide comment on (see below). [...] My interpretation of the explanation provided is that their use of your work in such a way was not intentional and the authors are apologetic for the distress that they have caused. I am not convinced that it is a case of intentional plagiarism." He then restated the publisher's position that the paper has already been published (even though it's currently online only) and that the "only option here is for the paper to be retracted by Elsevier, though this has to be agreed to by the authors."

I was... not happy with this response, from either the authors or the journal editor. It was the end of October, and I got snippy:

"This is not a case of accidental or unintentional plagiarism. The authors used my wording and kept the exact same parenthetical references that I used. The corresponding author's insistence that "We read many papers on the topic, and a lot of them stress this concept" is disingenuous. There is an enormous body of literature on the ancient Roman diet, and there is a vanishingly small chance that two papers would have the exact same list of references in the same order.

I teach my own graduate students throughout their education how to avoid research misconduct such as this, and I always run my own and my students' manuscripts through plagiarism software in order to catch as many accidental errors as possible. So I'm disappointed in both the authors of this article and in Elsevier's plagiarism software that did not catch this issue prior to online publication of the article.

While I recognize that students and ECRs make mistakes, if I were in the same situation as the senior/corresponding author, I would request a retraction of my own co-authored article."

Howard responded on November 3 that he understood my frustration, but intimated that his hands were tied. He wrote that, "Given our inability to revise (reword) a published paper, the only option we have here is to ask for the paper to be retracted, but this has to be agreed by the authors, the editors and then examined by an internal committee within Elsevier to ensure the practice is not overused."

I was... let's say... surprised that plagiarism identified in a published paper required the plagiarizing authors to agree to a retraction.

At any rate, I followed up one last time earlier this month. And on December 9, Andy Howard noted that he had met with Meliconi and other members of the boards of JAS and JAS:R. He told me that "our discussions suggest that the most appropriate course of action would be to ask the author to produce a 'corrections list' , documenting by paragraph all the references that were omitted. The corrections list would follow the COPE guidelines. We hope that this will mitigate your concerns with regard to this paper."

Well, it doesn't. It's been four months since I pointed out this issue, and as of today absolutely nothing has changed about the Baldoni et al article. I even recently got an email from a colleague who found the article and innocently asked what I thought of it, not knowing about this saga. Finally, in an annoyingly ironic twist of fate, it even appears that the Baldoni article will be in issue number 27 -- an issue in which I also have a coauthored article about carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in Rome

So, no, having one of my publications in the same issue as another one that plagiarizes my work because Elsevier insists that retraction is an utter impossibility definitely does NOT mitigate my concerns. 

But after four months of attempting to get Elsevier to do the right thing, I'm done. If someone with my evidence and my relative professional security in the field can't convince a journal publisher to allow authors to fix their glaring mistakes, I can only imagine how badly this sort of situation will turn out for early career researchers whose work is similarly appropriated.

I will not be publishing in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports again.


Anonymous said…
Surely the authors' departments and institutions ought to be advised ...
Betsy A said…
I have closely read the paragraphs cited by Dr. Killgrove in her initial example, and believe there is no possible explanation for their extremely similar (and in parts, identical) wording, other than that the Baldoni et al. article directly used Dr. Killgrove's scholarship to pass off as their own. In some cases, where the original researcher's writings are better than any subsequent analysis can provide, it's fitting to include it directly if it cites that scholar and indicates that it is a direct quote of this earlier work. The other examples of similar text are substantial enough to become egregious when taken together.

What's more, the response of Elsevier is shameful (a dramatic word, but one that's warranted). Elsevier will charge me $31.50 if I wish to read this article (by PDF download), and will charge others who wish to read or reuse this content. By earning income from the article, they are financially benefiting from unethical practices. Moreover, the long time required to respond to Dr. Killgrove--as well as the repeated expectation that she will bear the burden of 1) spotting the problem in the first place, 2) substantiating her complaint this with further, more extensive detail---is completely unacceptable, as is Elsivier's refusal to budge at all in this situation. I urge all academics to consider the way that this publications' staff and review board have treated an established professional who has published in their journal before, and to call for a transparent cleaning house of JAS:R's management and review process, and a hold on supporting the journal before this is rectified to Dr. Killgrove's satisfaction. Dr. Killgrove's mention of this incident on social media reveals that numerous other scholars have had issues with JAS:R and Elsevier, so it's time for them both to be held accountable for their repeated lack of responsiveness to plagiarism.

Secondly, there are 11 authors on the article which lifts text from Dr. Killgrove's earlier publication. I cannot fathom why none of them have the decency to apologize more appropriately--by asking Elsevier to remove their article, by directly communicating their apology and embarrassment to Dr. Killgrove, explaining how it happened (given that there are 11 authors here who should have read it and noticed the problem) and asking for her forgiveness. I urge others in the scholarly community to confront these individuals and ask them why they have not rectified this situation with Dr. Killgrove herself. If the explanation is one relating to not being native English writers, the authors still need to accept that their idea how to write English-language publications has come up short, and they must make some conscious effort to change the way they develop scholars within their community.

Last month, my son (10 yr old) complained that his teacher unfairly downgraded his essay because he basically cut-and-pasted from online articles. I explained that I'd had a similar learning experience, in 4th grade, where my teacher noted that my report on the ear canal sounded like it was 'word for word' from an encyclopedia. I wasn't penalized, but clued into the fact that this wasn't right, and since then have known that it's not right to simply borrow existing language--unless it's used as a cited quotation; it's not original writing, and it's not ethical research either. This concept should be universally understood in academia as well, I would think.

Note: I am neither a friend/acquaintance of Dr. Killgrove, nor a professional partner; I'm simply a person with a MA degree in archaeology who has become interested in Dr. Killgrove's scholarly work, and someone who happens to also have an interest in business ethics.
Miguel said…
In addition to the alleged plagiarism of others' work, there is an additional, potentially unethical dimension to these types of 'text offenses' and that is the question of whether Baldoni et al, actually ever read any of the works that were cited in the ostensibly plagiarized segments (e.g., Schneidel, 2001; Burton, 1923; Turner, 1879). If Baldoni et al never read the cited works then they are not only misleading the reader about the originality of their writing, but also about their efforts at uncovering -and perhaps even their familiarity with- the relevant literature.

Anonymous said…
Obligatory link -
Anonymous said…
Clearly, Elsevier only cares about their revenue and not science.

COPE guidelines are a fig leaf for not acting.

Both COPE and Elsevier must be boycotted.
Anonymous said…
Scientific journals, universities, and federal agencies almost never punish textual plagiarism in articles. This conclusion is based upon my having personally contacted them about scores of articles. Duplicative publication is at least as pervasive, and there is also practically never any consequences.

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