1Managing Editor; 2Editor-in-Chief, NEUROSURGERY®, Atlanta, Georgia
Formalizing Neurosurgery's Anti-Plagiarism Policy
One unsettling effect of the availability of research online has been the realization among publishers that plagiarism is an issue that cannot be left unaddressed. Plagiarism has always existed; however, retractions in scientific literature as a result of plagiarism and duplication are increasing,1 likely a result of the ease with which content can now be found and copied. Consequently, publishers and editors are harnessing digital technology to identify copied material. The challenge for editors is to adopt an effective method of review, formalize a policy for dealing with incidences that arise, and communicate the transgressions to the readership in a clear manner.
Working with our publisher, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, Neurosurgery has joined hundreds of academic titles in using iThenticate, a Web-based software application introduced in 2003.2 iThenticate compares a submitted document to the CrossCheck database that includes over 25.5 million articles from almost 50 000 journals and books.3 The resulting report provides a comparison between the submitted article and those in the literature.
The Editorial Office interprets the results of the report and determines when further action is necessary. Careful examination is essential to providing a fair assessment of the submitted work, and while the report provides objective data, there is significant room for interpretation. For example, the similarity can be due to reference lists, definitions or by quotes that have been appropriately indentified in the text. Furthermore, self-plagiarism in previously described materials and methods is sometimes valid considering the limited vocabulary available when describing specific techniques.
In our workflow, each peer-reviewed submission identified as accepted for publication will be submitted to a routine check for plagiarism prior to author notification. This allows an author an opportunity to respond to the assessment, and it allows the journal to communicate the results without making any allegations of impropriety or malfeasance on the part of the author. This is, after all, not intended to be a prosecutorial tool, but a service to both authors and readers alike.
Using iThenticate will hopefully expose potential incidences of plagiarism prior to publication; however, a journal must also act upon incidences that may avoid initial exposure during the review process, or have occurred in the past and are only now coming to light. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which the journal is a member, has provided a detailed set of guidelines for how suspected plagiarism should be dealt with, and Neurosurgery will use these guidelines to help determine the steps taken to address and resolve future incidences of plagiarism (Figures 1 and 2).4
The Editorial Office will respond to allegations of plagiarism by working with the authors and institutions involved to produce a consensus on whether or not a finding of plagiarism can be affirmed. In the case that an article must be retracted as a result of plagiarism, it is the journal's responsibility to communicate the reason to its readership.
This system is not perfect, and the use of automated system such as iThenticate has obvious shortcomings. For example, it can only compare text, not figures or tables. The more abstract forms of plagiarism, such as a theft of ideas, still lie beyond its capacity. However, it is essential for the credibility of the journal that a guarantee be made to readers that the manuscripts published here are held to an established standard of publishing ethics.
Mr Duncan A. MacRae
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Nelson M. Oyesiku, MD, PhD, FACS
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Editor-in-Chief, NEUROSURGERY® Atlanta, Georgia April, 2011
1. Steen RG. Retractions in scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing? J Med Ethics. 2010. [EPub ahead of print].
3. Butler D. Journals step up plagiarism policing. Nature. 2010;466(7303):167.