Flu researchers caught red-handed with plagiarism

Being caught red-handed is never a good thing. Best is of course not to cheat (or strangle your kids)

By Jonas Waldenström

Two weeks ago, Professor Randy Shekman, one of this year’s Nobel laureates, made the headlines when he accused the top journals Nature, Science and Cell to be ‘damaging to science’. A single publication in these journals can boost a scientist’s career, increasing the chances to get grants, positions, and tenure. But with great prospects of fame, the risk for ‘cutting of corners’ increases. Shekman wrote in a column in the Guardian that these journals thereby ‘contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent’.

Although the top journals are over-represented in terms of retracted papers, you still get them in many other journals, too. Sometimes it is just due to a human error, and the authors retract their paper when they found out that the data, or analysis, was wrong. But, there are also plenty of cases where it is the journal that retracts the paper, after having investigated an accusation of fraud. Even though we like to think of scientist as the pillars of wisdom, there is a bit of rot here and there. And it is not only manipulated data – another common form is plagiarism, with text being copied from other articles without proper citation.

Yesterday, Alex Bond in Canada sent me a tweet looking like this:

Retraction Watch  – the highway patrol of science – had reported a retracted paper in Virologica Sinica (Springer), pulled back by the journal due to plagiarism. In fact, plagiarism of a paper that I had co-authored! The retraction notice said that:

“This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief, as it contains large portions of text that have been duplicated from “Phylogenetic analysis of the non-structural (NS) gene of influenza A viruses isolated from mallards in Northern Europe in 2005” published in Virology Journal (2008) 5:147, without sufficient attribution being given to the article. Despite the data / conclusion being original in the paper, this is violating the journal policy.”

I had not read the paper from Virologica Sinica, and wasn’t aware of neither the paper’s existence, nor the plagiarism before yesterday. On Retraction Watch’s blog they show examples from the abstract and other sections that are clear copy-and-paste jobs.

But why? How hard can it be to write your own abstract? Why did the eleven authors on the paper chose to borrow text, instead of writing their own? Perhaps it was a language problem, as all authors belong to institutes in Kazaksthan and Russia? Or was there a single bad egg who cut the corners, and the remaining authors were not involved sufficiently in the writing of the article? I guess we will never know for sure, but one thing I immediately noted when reading the published version of the retracted paper is the frequent occurrences of grammatical errors.

The moral standards in science are set high, and rightly so. You shall be objective, you shall justify your claims, and you shall not cheat. Simple as that. The paper on non-structural gene variation in influenza virus collected in Kazakhstan is no longer a part of the scientific literature. Kudos to Retraction Watch for highlighting the retraction of this and other papers!

If you now want to read the original paper you will find it here:

Siamak Zohari, Péter Gyarmati, Anneli Ejdersund, Ulla Berglöf, Peter Thorén, Maria Ehrenberg, György Czifra, Sándor Belák, Jonas Waldenström, Björn Olsen, Mikael Berg. Phylogenetic analysis of the non-structural (NS) gene of influenza A viruses isolated from mallards in Northern Europe in 2005. VIROLOGY JOURNAL, 2008 5:147.

And the retracted paper (is/was) here:

Andrey Bogoyavlenskiy, Vladimir Berezin, Alexey Prilipov, Ilya Korotetskiy, Irina Zaitseva, Aydyn Kydyrmanov, Kobey Karamedin, Nailya Ishmukhametova, Saule Asanova, Marat Sayatov, Kainar Zhumatov. Retraction Note: Phylogenetic Analysis of the Non-structural (NS) Gene of Influenza A Viruses Isolated in Kazakhstan in 2002–2009[J]. VIROLOGICA SINICA, 2013, 28(6): 373-373.

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