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The evidence is clear. Large sections of a 2014

paper have been lifted word-by-word from several

other publications. For months, “plagiarism detec-

tors” Lukas Rüber and Ralf Britz have been trying

to get the paper retracted. Up until now, all their

efforts have been in vain.

Undue Delay

Plagiarism at

Elsevier

Photo: Fotolia/Sielan

P

ublishing in scientific journals is the ultimate recognition of

a scientist’s work. For our understanding of the world around

us to evolve, it is, however, imperative that any published re-

search is accurate, unbiased and trustworthy. As such, any form of

fraud and dishonesty – such as plagiarism and failing to cite pre-

vious work – is unequivocally bad and should not be tolerated. It’s

bad not only because it adds nothing to our common knowledge

but, above all, because it fails to acknowledge previous research-

ers and their achievements.

Nevertheless, for those only interested in growing their pub-

lication list, plagiarism may seem an appealing and easy route

to take. Cases are, in fact, becoming more and more common, to

which publishers must respond with stricter methods of detection.

In addition, if some escape through the “nets” of the review pro-

cess, it is essential to have in place rigorous procedures to detect

such cases and quickly retract or correct the papers, if appropriate.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case as sometimes occur-

rences of plagiarism are simply ignored and overlooked. At least,

this was the situation experienced by two researchers, Ralf Britz

and Lukas Rüber, who spotted an example of blatant plagiarism

over a year ago in a journal published by

Elsevier

, but then faced

a surprising unwillingness from the publisher’s side to handle it

quickly and competently.

How it all started

In December 2014, a paper authored by Anindya Barman and

colleagues appeared in

Biochemical Systematics and Ecology

, pub-

lished by

Elsevier

. The paper, titled “Molecular identification and

phylogeny of

Channa

species from Indo-Myanmar biodiversity

hotspots using mitochondrial COI gene sequences”, looked at the

genetic classification of 12 species of snakehead fish.

Fast forward a few weeks and, in February 2015, the paper

landed on Britz’s desk at the National Museum in London. Know-

ing that one of his colleagues, Eleanor Adamson, had previous-

ly worked on the subject for many years, he decided to send her

the paper. As soon as she started reading it, Adamson recognised

some of her own words. “I opened the link, read the abstract, and

picked up straight away that it included some phrases and con-

clusions from the abstract of an article I had published in 2010

along with colleagues David Hurwood and Peter Mather,” says

Adamson. “Skimming very quickly through it, I recognised my

own words and my own conclusions, both in the abstract and in

the conclusion of the Barman paper.”

This initial reaction raised enough suspicion to prompt a thor-

ough check. The search revealed that the authors had not copied

from just one paper but, in fact, from five manuscripts in total,

some of them even published in the same journal (Vishwanath &

Geetakumari,

Journal of Threatened Taxa (

2009) 1:97-105; Lakra

et al

.,

Biochemical Systematics and Ecology (

2010), 38:1212–19;

Adamson

et al

.,

Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (

2010),

56:707–17; Zhu

et al.

,

Biochemical Systematics and Ecology

(2003)

51:117–22 and Haniffa

et al.

,

Biochemical Systematics and Ecology

(

2014) 55:131–6).

“I just discovered more and more patches, more and more

parts, which had been taken verbatim. It was actually quite

shocking,” says Britz. “What was also shocking to realise”, adds

Rüber, now based at the Natural History Museum of Bern, Swit-

zerland, “is that some of those articles, where they copied/pasted

from, weren't even mentioned in the references.”

The most striking missing reference is certainly Adamson’s

paper. In 2010, the researcher was the first to show that the

southern India snakehead, commonly known as

C. micropeltes,

is actually a different species called

C. diplogramma

; work which

was later corroborated by Benziger and colleagues in 2011. How-

ever, this is not the impression a reader would get from reading

Barman’s paper, as the authors omitted both manuscripts from

their references, possibly attempting to hide previous work and

pass off this discovery as their own. “The papers have been omit-

ted from the references on purpose, to make it sound like their re-

sults are new and interesting, when actually they have been pub-

lished years ago by other people,” says Britz.

Spotting the plagiarised sections

Cases of plagiarism started popping up almost immediately in

the abstract where Barman stated:

“that Indian species

Channa diplogramma

warrants taxonom-

ic recognition as being distinct from Southeast Asian species

Chan-

na micropeltes

A passage copied virtually identical from Adamson and col-

leagues’ paper, who concluded in their own abstract:

that Indian

C. diplogramma

warrants taxonomic recognition

as being distinct from Southeast Asian

C. micropeltes”

Many more occurrences were eventually found throughout

the introduction, methods and results with several examples of

entire sentences copied verbatim. At this stage, however, it could

be argued that it was just an unfortunate lapse or an attempt by