Saturday, February 16, 2013

Was Justice Served?

Source: PrariePastor, Wordpress
What should happen to serial plagiarists?*

Regular readers may recall that I posted back-to-back on suspicious swaths of text in two peer-reviewed papers by Xi Yan, a chemistry professor at Beijing Normal University. Along with others (including the authors of both original papers), I concluded that the huge blocks of essentially unchanged text in Yan's papers merited action by the respective Editors of Chemistry and Dalton Transactions.

So, what happened?

Check out the Dalton paper - there's now an "Addition" listed, off to the bottom right of your screen. It reads (emphasis mine):
"After the publication of our article, it was brought to our attention that an earlier publication containing related work to that described in the article should have been referenced:  'Dynamic copper(I) imaging in mammalian cells with a genetically encoded fluorescent copper(I) sensor', Seraphine V Wegner, Hasan Arslan, Murat Sunbul, Jun Yin and Chuan He, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2010, 132, 2567-2569. 
The authors apologise for this oversight."
Oversight? "Related work?!" A cowardly, measly, long-overdue REFERENCE?!?!?

Fact: Xi Yan has been caught twice with duplicated text and re-hashed science.
Fact: He has now been given a "pass" for bad behavior by RSC Editors.

I cannot accept this decision. Simply put, it flies in the face of everything I know as an honest scientist. Papers are hard to write! Original science doesn't come easy! I sympathize, but that doesn't condone taking another person's work as your own. This failure to discipline permits not just Xi Yan's folly, but opens the door for future plagiarism.

Hypothetical: Playing under these rules, what's to stop me from re-publishing all of E.J. Corey's papers under my name? I'll just subtly alter the substrates, and make sure to bury his name is my References section! Does anyone else realize how ridiculous that sounds???

Another wrinkle: a friend of the blog mentions that the RSC, along with several other publishers, belong to COPE, a publication ethics group. From COPE's own Code of Conduct (emphasis mine):
"Best practice for editors would include: 
• adopting systems for detecting plagiarism (e.g. software, searching for similar titles) in submitted items (either routinely or when suspicions are raised) 
• supporting authors whose copyright has been breached or who have been the victims of plagiarism 
• being prepared to work with their publisher to defend authors’ rights and pursue offenders (e.g. by requesting retractions or removal of material from websites) irrespective of whether their journal holds the copyright"
Following ChemBark's example, I'll lay out my recommendations:

1. The half-hearted "Addition" should be taken down, and Yan's paper retracted.
2. Xi Yan should issue a massive mea culpa to his university, Dalton, and its Editors.
3. Dalton should take steps to ensure that future plagiarised papers are screened out prior to publication.

Failure to take these steps will result in a severe lack of confidence for all future journal publications. I have reached out to the Editorial staff at Dalton for comment, and will update this post if/when I receive a response.

Update (2/17/13) - Try this at home: Friend of the blog S.C. passes along DOC Cop, an online manuscript comparison tool. I uploaded the two texts, and received a match report of 19%. Although, a quick look-down indicates it's likely much higher than that (the software misses one-off substitutions and different reference numbering). I would estimate ~35% duped text.

*To everyone who comes here for fun chemical adventures and light-hearted content: I'm sorry. I don't mean to be the chemistry Internet Police, but I strongly, strongly believe that science needs a level playing field. More fun to come, I promise.


  1. What is Dalton's retraction policy?

  2. Tah-dah!

  3. I don't understand what would compel Dalton Transactions NOT to bring the hammer down on this guy. Do they think the work will be high impact? Clearly the answer is no, as the JACS article will be cited ahead of Yan's piece of toilet paper in DT. The DT paper thus has no intrinsic value.

    Are they afraid he's going to tell his friends in Beijing not to publish in DT? Boo freakin' hoo; make way for the ethical scientists. Pandering to this guy suggests too much focus on the bottom line in the DT office (welcome to the 21st century).

    This publicity will damage Dalton Transactions in the long run; there's no question about that. It's just sad that they seem to be so focused on the short term that they'd kiss a Chinese researcher's ass just to squeeze in one more paper.

  4. I'm guessing it takes a lot of effort to get a retraction as well as the embarrassment associated with it. It's a situation where, on the surface, there's not much in it for Dalton to deal with it harshly. Better to do the bare minimum and hope it goes away. Clearly Yan resisted/protested, and based on what I know, Chuan He was not that worried about it (i.e. isn't going to make a big stink). There's not much in it for He either, as he's going to be more than fine moving forward based on the quality of his science.

    1. How about just "the right thing to do?"

    2. Absolutely agree, but typically it's human nature to avoid conflict. I wonder which editor that handled this was. RSC is unique in that they have full time staff acting as editors rather than the academics doing all the work on a part-time basis. I often get correspondence exclusively from people not on the masthead when I do article reviewing. I have a hard time believing one of the esteemed members of the editorial staff would have signed off on this as an appropriate action, unless they neglected to investigate the claims.

    3. This is a luscious combination of infuriating and discouraging.

  5. An absolutely disgusting lack of guts on the part of the journal.

  6. Appalling! I just emailed the editors to complain...I figure more people getting in touch might help get them to take appropriate action.

  7. See Arr Oh, I really appreciate you keeping us informed about this--I've been dying to know how this turns out ever since your first posts about these publications.

    This is completely ridiculous, and I don't understand how the editors at Dalton don't realize that even if this is the easier path, it's certainly not worth it in the long run. Unless, that is, this situation is far more common than we know. I certainly hope not. Either way, it's out in the open now, and the editors need to drop the hammer on this. They could even still save some (but maybe not much) face by claiming that the Addition was a placeholder while the retraction was in process. I don't think that's true, though, because they've had plenty of time to deal with it.

    I still want to know how this got through the refereeing process.

  8. Good morning See Ar Oh - and others!

    I've found that getting applying discipline to an author is as easy or as hard as one wants to make it - and spend the time and effort of doing it.

    I have had to issue the editorial "Death Penalty" once in my tenure at JCHAS. The situation was that a (research) paper was published in the JCHAS and a former graduate student accused the research group of cooking the books. Questions to the PI went generally were not well answered in spite of repeated attempts at getting to the bottom line. The investigation could not reveal abject misconduct, but the fact that I got nothing but a lot of pushback from the PI and research group honked me off so the hammer came down. The entire incident was made publicly available in the Journal - J. Chem. Health Saf., 2006, 13(1), 4. While we weren't able to actually retract the paper, we did apply some pretty harsh penalties, not only to PI but all authors on the paper. The whole process took about 4 months to complete.

    To answer a few questions from my perspective as the JCHAS editor ONLY. Keep in mind that JCHAS is a chemical safety applications journal, so your mileage may vary:

    RE: COPE - COPE is a volunteer organization - meaning a publication can belong to it or not. They are not the Journal Police and they can only make suggestions or recommendations. It is up to the editor to take them or leave them. Their guidelines are just that - guidelines, not mandates. If I have a question and seek their guidance, I am free to take it or leave it.

    @Anonymous 2/17/13 0816: It got through the refereeing process because authors are (generally) assumed innocent of misconduct unless an issue is raised. Reviewers are volunteers and I am a staff of one. Reviewers generally do not dig deep into the references. If they pass the sniff test, so to speak, they will usually get a pass until someone complains. If I suspect something, I will send it through iThenticate so check for plagiarism. If it comes up too hot in that program I will send the paper back to the author and suggest they make some additional references. (Of course, now, every paper submitted by Yan and his group should get extra scrutiny).

    I take accusations of misconduct seriously as it may have an affect on the integrity of my publication. However, at times, Author #1 will complain that their feelings were hurt because Author #2 said something #1 didn't agree with, and then scream "misconduct." Those instances are usually met with a "send a letter to the editor and the author will get a chance to respond."

    Editor, Journal of Chemical Health & Safety

  9. In molecular biology, a 19% similarity between protein sequences is considered homology.

    1. A teacher I know who uses "Turn It In" software says that anything above 10% is considered highly suspicious.

    2. Would the use of such software lead to some people running their manuscripts through the software and making small changes to the work to get below 10 %?

  10. Let's hope this is a sufficient embarrassment to DT. Hopefully other journals, if not DT, will want to avoid this scenario by proactively policing this better, and not wait for their readers to expose plagiarism after the fact. The availability of tools like DOC Cop and forums like JLC, ChemBark and other blogs which can make such findings public should be enough of a deterrent for journals and prospective authors. Should be, anyway. Sigh.

  11. would like to bring to your attention a recent report ( that identifies instances of plagiarism in the work of Dr. Ziwei Huang, Director of Upstate Cancer Institute and Chairman of Pharmacology Department at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York. As is reported (, one of Dr. Ziwei Huang's publication in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology "appears to have plagiarized from at least 8 different publications and a course material." It remains unclear whether upstate Medical University has taken any action and/or the editors of the journal know about the plagiarism.