When You’re a Victim of Academic Plagiarism

News

Prequel (October 15, 2021)

“However, in charting my own course, I have also taken some research Goliaths by surprise. Some prominent academic and research leaders may have paid less heed to me. More likely than not, this led to their failure to recognize some of my published and accessible words, ideas, and models as mine. I have tried to maintain my distance from this intended or unintentional mistake (or misconduct), but I now step forward to assert my tactical advantage, for ‘I will not lose this doubleheader to the ivory tower establishment.'”

Sequel (Today: April 21, 2022)

Over 5 months from this subject’s introduction, research integrity remains in the spotlight. The integrity of research is based on adherence to core values — objectivity, honesty, openness, fairness, accountability, and stewardship. Although researchers are required to take training on the matter, plagiarism in academic research has not disappeared. As a result, the public could actually be harmed by researchers who are dishonest.

In academia, original ideas and analysis should represent the foundation for achievement. When and where appropriate, others should be acknowledged for their hard work. Unattributed use, or culpable textual reuse of others’ language, thoughts, ideas, and expressions, including titles, is a violation of academic integrity and a breach of journalistic ethics. I include manuscript titles here in that, although they cannot be copyrighted, it is the title that represents the first blush, the first introduction that focuses attention, and motivates further reading.

Although there are differing definitions of plagiarism depending on the institution — and it can be graded from mild to severe, copying, lifting, and stealing of another author’s work — any act of plagiarism is not a neutral act. In fact, plagiarism (Latin plagiarius or “kidnapper”) extends back to ancient Rome.

Do you want to know what academic plagiarism or “imitatio” by a professor investigator really feels like to me?

The most terrible punishment in English law for betrayal was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. In the famous case of William Wallace, a Scottish knight popularized by Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” he was strangled by hanging but released while still breathing. The remainder of the extreme suffering continued while alive, for example, burning of entrails.

To move beyond this visceral accounting, unattributed citations raise significant questions about investigator and co-author involvement, integrity, and factual accuracy. In particular, citing references confers research value, supports novelty, rightfully builds on the work of others, legitimizes ideas, and respects competitors. An extensive bibliography, especially when a relevant citation is recommended, demonstrates attention to detail and a credible, well-informed researcher.

Non-attribution, whether motivated by a “publish or perish” provocation or failure to generate innovative tasks, is a form of plagiarism and is wrong. It hurts the original creator of the work product. This piracy undermines higher learning integrity. It additionally raises questions of unfair competition and moral rights within the current grant system of one of the largest research support agencies, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Here is the rest of the story.

Two years ago, a leading suicidologist appeared on a national television broadcast extolling the virtues of his team’s research. I provided an email letter and my published article attachment. He thanked me for the article, and stated in his email, “I plan to read it tonight!

I continued to read up on research in my specific field, including NIMH grant applications, when I discovered a title that read quite familiar. Re-reading a funding submission from his research syndicate, I realized the title words were essentially my own, i.e., fundamentally identical matched title content. In fact, an earlier 2009 article, and the 2016 grant application by the lead author in the group, demonstrated that several other sections used my 2006 published reasoning (overarching similarities in a unique denial of ideation construct) without credit. No footnote or reference acknowledged my earlier supplied work.

I was angry and sickened. As a first step, I initiated appropriate procedures detailed by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). I informed their respective institutions, and the journal in question, with a specific and thorough fact pattern. I had naively hoped early on that this type of dispute between scholars could be best handled in the open literature or through letters to the editor or other professional forums. I pursued the two principal authors with defined content, identifiers, and time stamps. I copied all co-authors. There was no reply from the editor-in-chief of the prestigious journal. However, there was an unsatisfactory response from the two principal authors.

They stated that my paper, the article I directly provided to them 18 months before their grant supported publication, had been cited “on average around once a year.” So, this was their defense. Not honest error or a junior researcher’s unintentional mistake. This contention likely supported their narrow-minded belief that I was responsible for access, and that the quantity in publishing research and popularity citation indices are more important than novel, scientific, and peer-reviewed quality. By contrast, a highly productive cabal of clannish researchers may produce a sea of irrelevant or duplicative papers of diminishing quality, or purloin one of improving significance.

And, of course, there was a statement of plausible deniability, reckless and intentional, put forward by the author who received my article. It was a note confirming a remarkably biased interpretation of factual information, laced with biased memory recall, and a single-minded belief after clear evidence had shown to clearly contradict their argument. “I don’t remember if I read your article or not, and did not think about it when we were working on the paper in question. I never discussed it with my colleagues…”

I was fortunate. I found the infraction. How, then does this story end? Only a heroic outcome will do — even in the twilight of my research career I am entitled to a fair fight.

In that no meaningful discussion and/or resolution consistent with the cascading COPE protocol had been forthcoming by either university or journal, I proceeded further along the official plagiarism outline. I informed the NIMH Research Integrity Officer/External Research of the matter in that they serve as guardian of Public Health Services (PHS) dollars and receive fitting research misconduct complaints. I presented an accurate, specific, thorough, and fair fact pattern in good faith.

The NIMH processing, review, inquiry, and investigation procedures are governed by the Code of Federal Regulations. I am required by statute to limit my participation in this confidential process. In fact, I remain absolutely barred from receiving updates, either contextual or procedural. After more than 5 months of absolute silence, significant federal agency questions remain and would perhaps be best addressed by my legislator to determine proper handling, not legal intervention:

  1. What is the current status of the review, recommendation, inquiry, and possible investigation?
  2. What is the incentive of the involved individuals and institutions to participate in a timely, credible, and fair resolution of this dispute in the public interest?
  3. How can the advertised objective scale of NIMH research integrity review be balanced, thorough, and honest when the Director of NIMH himself served as chairperson of an advisory mental health council on which the first and second author awardees were also participants?
  4. To a reasonable person standard, is there a real or apparent peer conflict of interest that developed during the awardees overlapping participation council tenure with the director, the grantees receiving substantial, multi-year PHS awards out of public view? (As set forth in Section 552b(c)(4) and 552b(c)6. Title 5, U.S. Code and Section 10(d) of the Federal Advisory Committee Act).
  5. Has the aforementioned fact pattern adversely biased or abruptly stopped this outlined research misconduct review process?

The answers to these questions cannot suggest neutral acts.

The points here are straightforward. There was no attribution by the authors. In addition, there has likely been fear of speaking up for what was right from research integrity, editorial, and agency officers.

Russell Copelan, MD (Ret.), lives in Pensacola, Florida. He graduated from Stanford University and UCLA Medical School. He trained in neurosurgery and completed residency and fellowship in emergency department psychiatry. He is a reviewer for Academic Psychiatry and founder of eMed Logic, Inc., a non-profit originator and distributor of violence assessments.

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