What does plagiarism mean in China?
August 8, 2009 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Two dudes ripped the first 4 paragraphs out of my published scientific journal article introduction, and submitted it word for word, as their introduction. The 2nd journal (not knowing) asked me to peer review it. They're in China- what are the attitudes/definitions/consequences of plagiarism there?

The article was sent to me as part of a blind peer-review process. Either they're incredibly ignorant, or have no idea what they've done is wrong, or both. The article stole > 10 exact phrases, equations, and general approach from 4 other articles of mine/friends/peers. Those articles were eventually cited, but my work has been categorically omitted.

From study overseas, I realize there are different standards, about what is accepted practice/consequence of plagiarism. I really feel for talented researchers who have to write in non-native languages. At the same time, I obsessed over perfecting that introduction for a whole year... I know the healthiest way is to regard the imitation as flattery... but my new sense of 'why bother?!' makes me sad and I've stopped work on my current articles since.

I'm inclined to blame the whole incident on the general phenomena of the internet speeding up search practices, and institutional failure to instill scientific ethics. Maybe they have no idea what they did was wrong, or that it hurts me. Then again, maybe they just don't care.

Can anyone help me understand the concept of plagiarism in China or communist countries? The journal has an anti-plagiarism policy in which I write a grievance to the journal (they take it from there). I need to state how serious I believe this to be. If the accusation is confirmed they can recommend removal/citation of the offending material and resubmission for eventual publication, or they can go so far as to contact the offending author's place of employment and/or funding institution. Respecting the legalities of defamation, the policy also states I may contact the employing/funding institution myself.

I'm pissed off, and exacting revenge is a satisfying thought. But I have no idea the background of these people- do they live in a tiny studio on <4k$ a year? would the breadwinner in a family lose their job? Just by being born in the US is like winning the global livelihood lottery... I feel so fortunate. I know this is not the worst thing that could happen to me, in the scheme of things.

In the longer run, and perhaps more importantly, I'm hoping to figure out now to turn a tide of demoralization- my growing sense that I work super hard on an article and it doesn't change a thing, no one reads them, they just skim them for references when they're publishing their own work. Your suggestions in feeling good about the effort one puts in, in the longer run, despite and in spite of mis-use, would be also appreciated.
posted by iiniisfree to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Nice of you to think about their well-being. Forget it. If a native journal wants to accept it, fine. But you're in the right to recommend a denial.
posted by fatllama at 1:46 PM on August 8, 2009

Not nation-specific, but this article in Science, and the supporting information, may be of interest.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:46 PM on August 8, 2009

If they are writing for a peer-reviewed scientific journal I would assume they come from a certain level of privilege and education. Plagiarism is a pretty serious offence (IMHO) and since the journal has a plagiarism policy which they agreed to I think you can point out their offence with a clear conscience. Journal articles in peer-reviewed journals are definitely appreciated - I read and enjoy them al the time but do not write my own. Please keep spreading your knowledge around despite this disappointment.

I can only imagine your WTF as you began to read their article.
posted by saucysault at 1:48 PM on August 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ah, vengeance is sweet.

You are being way too much of a cultural relativist. Intellectual theft is intellectual theft, and here you have a chance to inculcate a valuable lesson.

If poor Chinese people stole your car, would you worry about whether to report them or not? No, of course not, because the vast majority of poor Chinese people don't steal cars, and wouldn't if they could. Likewise the vast majority of poor Chinese researchers do their own work, and contribute to the global store of knowledge.

If they knew enough to steal from you, they knew it was stealing too. Nail them.
posted by musofire at 1:48 PM on August 8, 2009 [18 favorites]

I have no idea about the consequences of plagiarism in communist countries but you have to do what you think is right. Right for science, not for you, not for them. If you let this go this one time, the person is going to repeat that for the rest of his/her life- which is ridiculous. And whats next? Methods? Results? There is a limit on the moral courage I have (if I had to be a whistleblower or such), you have to gauge the limit on yours and do what you feel is right.
posted by xm at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2009

From study overseas, I realize there are different standards

Don't patronize the Chinese. They're smart enough to do their own research, and morally sophisiticated enough to understand that plagiarism is wrong. They've not just stolen from you, but from peers of yours. This isn't about you - it's about the integrity of whatever field you're in. You have a duty to report them. How can you look at yourself in the mirror as a peer reviewer if you won't even call people out on the grossest violations of academic integrity?
posted by Dasein at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2009 [21 favorites]

Having grew up (and was educated) in that part of the world, I can say that plagiarism is much more acceptable there than it is in the US. (Long story -- cultural differences, etc. For example among students, it's very acceptable to rip entire essays off the Internet and pass it off as their own work. Most people know that plagiarism is wrong per se, but the common attitude to plagiarism is that's it's no big deal. Kinda like stealing pens from the office supplies, it's wrong, but it's only a tiny wrong, and everyone does it.).

But plagiarism being more acceptable in China does not make this right. You should report this, by all means.
posted by moiraine at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

dude, what? it's a peer reviewed international scientific journal. they plagarized. a lot, apparently. you need to call them on it. point it out to the journal and let them handle it, per their plagarism policies.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2009 [8 favorites]

What difference does it make that they're in China? They plagiarized and you're being asking to review it for, I presume, a US journal? Can you trust a single thing they say, after the introduction knowing they've already started on a grossly dishonest footing?

Report them to the journal, report them to their department.

If it's not such a big deal to rip people off in China, then there will be no consequences. But do not allow anything like this to go unpunished, unless you want more ripoff articles in the future.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2009

While plagiarism may be more socially acceptable (undergrads turning in papers, etc.), it is not cool in an international journal. I'd make a fuss about it.
posted by k8t at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2009

Wow, what a coincidence! Just imagine that you weren't a reviewer. Imagine that the paper was accepted for publication and that you learned of the plagiarism only after seeing it in print. You'd say "godDAMN I wish I had been one of the reviewers."

Write your review. Reveal your recognition of the plagiarism in both your commentary to the authors, and in your back channel to the editor. To preserve the blindness, you may want to reveal your identity as original author only to the editor.
posted by rlk at 2:00 PM on August 8, 2009

From my experience, everyone, no matter where they are from, would know that this is out and out plagiarism. If it's a word for word copy and paste job, even if they cited you, then they know what they did is wrong.

They are cutting corners somewhere, either they are too lazy to put your words into their own or they are too lazy to write a properly worded English introduction.

I have read the the same sentence in more than one paper by different authors but usually it's justifiable because it might be such a specific topic that there is only one way of describing the subject without it becoming too obfuscated. But never paragraphs, let alone four.

Depending on the authors, this could have been the work of a low level graduate student who then submitted it to their professor for review who signed off on it on the assumption that it was the students original work.

Contact the principal investigator of the work and set the record straight. It's unfortunate that you might get someone in trouble, but it's your work and you should protect it from plagiarism.
posted by toftflin at 2:00 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: Just to be clear, there is no way I was considering not reporting it, much less letting my text go to print under their name. The question for me is, how strongly to I advocate the editor in chief pursue them with anything more than a rejection letter?
posted by iiniisfree at 2:09 PM on August 8, 2009

Don't be patronizing, just because they are Chinese does NOT exempt them from international standards of scientific integrity. Quite frankly, using the cultural relativism angle basically implies that they can't run with the adults and are poor little, intellectually weak babies. If you do not bust them, someone else will and wonder why YOU were so weak not to notice. Until crap like this gets stopped and quickly, it will get worst because they just successfully SCAMMED a peer review process for a respected journal.

Man up.

To be honest, if a grad student of mine did this I would drum them out of the program and expel them from the country. Because I can't trust them not to ruin my reputation when we do a partnered article or research. I don't care how damn desperate grad schools are for students, I don't need this crap and my relationship with the guilty party would be damaged beyond repair.

Because they are Chinese, I would also would be sure that the gossip network, knew that the wrath of jadepearl is not to be fucked with and that any candidate from their university is out of my pile of applicants and any other committee I was a participant if there was a serious ethical lapse.
posted by jadepearl at 2:13 PM on August 8, 2009

You should go after the journal, not the plagiarizers.

The journal accepted it, reviewed, etc. Presumably your own work was readily available to them.

Go after the journal, they will want to know about their own mistake.

As an aside, as someone who used to dump my own notes into my documents during editing, I was accused of plagiarism when I accidentally submitted the wrong copy of a paper to my department. Fortunately for me it was obvious this was an accident as the block of text I was using for notes was completely out of context with the surrounding text, plus I had the finished version with proper citations, etc. Not saying this is the case, but accidents do happen.
posted by wfrgms at 2:23 PM on August 8, 2009

I recommend a letter stating that the authors plagarized you and provide a copy of your article as an enclosure to your letter. State that you are certain that the journal in question is one of the highest ethical standards and will not publish the article.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:26 PM on August 8, 2009

The journal accepted it, reviewed, etc. Presumably your own work was readily available to them.

Er, this hasn't happened yet, and the OP _is_ one of the reviewers.
posted by advil at 2:49 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

When I'm editing a manuscript from authors for whom English is not their primary language and catch them using word-for-word a passage from another paper (which they have cited), I call their attention to it and tell them to change it. I make the assumption (which I think is mostly accurate) that they don't know how to paraphrase.
posted by acrasis at 2:50 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: Regarding the 'different standards', I did a residency in a non-US research lab where author names were regularly shuffled to reflect the political whims of the lab, even inserting names unknown to the original author. I've also seen a supervising professor repeatedly, systemically, encourage staff and students to speed up literature reviews and article production by stealing article format and sentences outright, making them unrecognizable before submission. In asking other researchers in that country they stated that both were common practice there. I protested, left the lab, and no longer acknowledge affiliation with either.

On the subject of laziness/patronization- you folks make valid points but my perspective is not of the belief that they are either weak, unintelligent, or lazy. I'm trying to imagine myself in someone else's shoes as a way to diffuse my own anger... or imagine @wfrgms scenario of accident. I know what its like to have to publish in a foreign language when you write like a two year old, if I had to do it to feed my family- I can't imagine. If I had to go home everyday to my one room unheated cinderblock house, carry water from down the block for dinner, and try to feed my kids on 5$ a day, I would have a lot less time to wax philosophical on my office swingset about word choice (or metafilter, for that matter).

I'm not excusing them, but @musofire, if my car was stolen, and I caught them, and had the option of dealing with them directly or through their employer or through authorities, I would want to know whether the penalty in that country was death or a hand-slap. I would want to know if they'd been taught what stealing was (see above). I would want to know if they just wanted a flashy vehicle, or if they needed to buy medicine for a baby who was dying. (typing this, I realize these examples are far removed from the question at hand... it sounds like you all are saying I'm taking myself too seriously and I should just report 'em and wash my hands of it.)
posted by iiniisfree at 2:56 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

China? Intellectual property? Besides being the biggest source of all bootleg media in the world, the Chinese government pretty much sanctions spy-theft of intellectual properties from other countries, including the U.S. It's like something out of a movie. It's absolutely no big deal over there, but it's amusing to compare ethical standards of this vein when Communist China has such a poor record on human rights, period...

Anyway, I'm with the others on nailing them.
posted by Ky at 3:34 PM on August 8, 2009

I used to be an editorial assistant for a major journal. The review process in my office was that when papers came in, the editor, who was an expert in the field, scanned the papers to make sure they were roughly on-topic, but did not read them closely. I had only a college-level background in the field, and selected potential reviewers based on the topics in the abstract and the references. Neither of us would have read closely enough or known the literature of each topic well enough to have caught plagiarism before it was sent to the reviewers.

The journal is asking you for your opinion on the methods and conclusions of the paper, and the quality of the research as a contribution to your field; your responsibility to them and to your colleagues is to point out both ethical and technical problems. By submitting their paper to this journal, the authors accepted its conditions and rules, which include the journal's existing plagiarism policy.
posted by nonane at 3:47 PM on August 8, 2009

iiniisfree, your desire to avoid being part of a chain of events that might propogate cold evil is understandable. But the very mechanism of worldwide scientific publication is designed as a ruthless meritocracy, to force forward, as fast as possible, the best ideas, in hopes that the explosive growth of knowledge that has resulted, is, or will be, in the greater interests of humanity.

You can't be intellectually committed to the sanctity of modern scientific method, and allow yourself the comfort of situational kindness when confronted by plagiarism. It doesn't matter one whit that your work was the source of the plagiarist's material, and personal revenge should play no part in your actions.

You were given the opportunity and the responsibility to the larger research commmunity, to peer review. You owe the rest of the research community the diligence they need in assuring the originality of the content you review. Either do your duty as a reviewer (leaving both revenge and/or kindness at the curb), or resign your review assignment. Guide your pursuit of remedial actions by the standard you would have employed had you merely recognized the work of an unrelated third party as the source of the plagiarized material (i.e. inform the journal, probably do not directly contact the foreign researcher, etc.).
posted by paulsc at 3:52 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

along the vein of musofire's thoughts, by coddling these authors, you are being grossly unfair to everyone in a similar position who also goes home "to a one room unheated cinderblock house, carr[ies] water from down the block for dinner, and tr[ies] to feed [his/her] kids on 5$ a day" and *doesn't* rip off your paper. don't dishonor the honest that way. no one is feeding their baby or answering any other desperation by submitting this paper. who knows? perhaps one or more of the coauthors knows the deals and is just dying for the jig to be up...(i.e. their superior is responsible for the plagiarism and they are in a dilemma over feeding their children or blowing the whistle). Don't assume you'll be only causing pain to those you "catch." ignore the situational circumstances and report them as though they had your "situation". there are certain rules to getting published in this journal and if the authors have failed, then they don't get published.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 5:21 PM on August 8, 2009

Wow, paulsc, I'm glad you included that link to a description of cold evil. It fits so many aspects of American life that I couldn't put my finger on before... so glad to have a term for it now. Thanks!


posted by Rykey at 6:36 PM on August 8, 2009

To your larger point - you are right. No one will ever love your papers the way you do and far far more people will read and respond to this question than will ever engage and respond to one of your research articles. (OK I don't know you. Perhaps you are the next Gibbs or Feynman. Certainly any of MY papers !).


You have the opportunity denied to almost everyone who has ever lived to find out something about the universe that no human has ever known. I sometimes think of the craftsmen carving gargoyles at the top of a cathedral. Even though no one (except perhaps God) will ever see it they know they have had the chance to make something permenant and beautiful.
posted by Fiery Jack at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2009

you're a kitty!'s link doesn't work, but I suspect he's referring to the work by Skip Garner's group in Texas. Check out their eTBlast page and the plagiarism work it lead to with their Deja Vu project. You should check to see if anyone else has "borrowed" from you. Dr. Garner recently gave a talk at our institution and it seems that attitudes about plagiarism do very around the world though he believes, and I think most people (should) believe, they should not.

If you have access to them, the relevant articles and a news focus that may actually be more interesting than the research articles are in the March 6th and May 22nd. 2009 issues of Science.
posted by sevenless at 11:56 PM on August 8, 2009

The question for me is, how strongly to I advocate the editor in chief pursue them with anything more than a rejection letter?

Very strongly. They're undermining scientific work in general, and this may not be the first/last time.
posted by spaltavian at 10:22 AM on August 9, 2009

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