Errami Garner Nature 2008 - Vol 451|24 January 2008...

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W ith apologies to Charles Dickens, in the world of biomedical publi- cations, “It is the best of times, it is the worst of times”. Scientific productivity, as measured by scholarly publication rates, is at an all-time high 1 . However, high-profile cases of scientific misconduct remind us that not all those publications are to be trusted — but how many and which papers? Given the pressure to publish, it is important to be aware of the ways in which community standards can be subverted. Our concern here is with the three major sins of modern publishing: duplication, co-submission and plagiarism. It is our belief that without knowing whether these sins are becoming more widespread, the scientific community cannot hope to effectively deter or catch future unethical behaviour. There are legitimate and ille- gitimate reasons for two scientific articles to share unusual levels of simi- larity. Some forms of repeated publication are not only ethical, but valuable to the scien- tific community, such as clinical-trial updates, conference proceedings and errata. The most unethical practices involve substantial repro- duction of another study (bringing no novelty to the scientific community) without proper acknowledgement. If such duplicates have different authors, then they may be guilty of plagiarism, whereas papers with overlap- ping authors may represent self-plagiarism. Simultaneous submission of duplicate articles by the same authors to different journals also violates journal policies. Previous studies that have tried to gauge the level of unethical publishing have mostly relied on small sur- veys of specific communities. One of the largest to date used text-matching software to trawl more than 280,000 entries in arXiv, an open-access archive of mathematics, physics, computer science, biology and statistics papers. The study suggested a low number of suspected acts of plagiarism (0.2% of arXiv papers), but a much higher number of suspected dupli- cates with the same authors 2 (10.5%). In 2002, an anonymous survey of 3,247 US biomedical researchers 3 asking them to admit to questionable behaviour revealed that 4.7% admit- ted to repeated publication of the same results and 1.4% to plagiarism. In general, the duplication of scientific arti- cles has largely been ignored by the gatekeep- ers of scientific information — the publishers and database curators. Very few journal edi- tors attempt to systematically detect duplicates at the time of submission. The US National Library of Medicine, based in Bethseda, Maryland, curates the primary biomedical citation index, Medline, and currently reports fewer than a thousand cases of duplication since the 1950s, discovered mainly by serendipity. Yet if the results of the anonymous survey 3 are extrapolated to the Medline database (more than 17 million citations and growing steadily), then you would expect to find closer to 800,000 cases. Where between these two vastly different figures does the true number lie?
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