Suspected (highly-likely) plagiarism in a published paper

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I am a post-doc in Europe. I am facing the issue of highly probable plagiarism of one of my papers published a few years back during my PhD (with my then supervisor) by a senior professor and their grad students in another country (north America). Their paper C is strikingly similar to ours, paper B and another paper A published 2 years before ours that we discussed and cited in our work. Yet, the authors of this likely plagiarised paper (paper C) have not cited our work in B, nor have they cited previous work done in A.

Furthermore, the authors of Paper C have also incorporated important technical recommendations I gave to our field on reproducibility during a talk whilst I was working at a medical research institute (the abstract of my talk details this and is freely available online). The authors have also used this, together with a summary of one of my thesis chapters to write a letter to the editor of a very reputable Nature journal (to make these same technical recommendations) which was published just over a year ago (I've only noticed this now).

Having received an article update from a journal I follow, and sometimes review for, I noticed this paper (C) that had a title that was almost identical to a conclusion of the paper I mentioned. Having looked at it, I was stunned to see that this work had repeated the same methodology in our paper B, some of the methodology of paper A, and not only came to the same conclusions but also used similar phrases (para-phrased). They had essentially done exactly the same data-mining experiment but had adjusted it slightly - the methodology is quite unique to that in our work some years back.

My initial impression was that our work in paper B should have been cited by C, and that the work of A should also be cited in C. However, on further investigation it appears that the authors of C seem to have deliberately not cited work A, or work B (our paper) so as to hide the origins of the theory, and methodology that we devised and present it as their own work. The similarities are so extensive that it can't possibly be a coincidence or just un-conscious and unintentional, particularly because other work I have done myself and with my supervisor has also been incorporated into this paper C, and as mentioned above, the same authors wrote a letter to the editor of Nature (summarising the work I did in one of my thesis chapters) as a technical recommendation to methodology/best-practice used in our field.

As a starting point, I've looked at COPE: Committee on Publication Ethics information and case studies, but I would like to know how to go about tactfully reporting this to the editor of the journal that has published this work in paper C. I am also looking at the retraction watch online resource.

I would be grateful for advice as this is a very unpleasant thing to have to face.

bugs bunny


Best way is objective and impartial, like an academic.

I'm assuming this is not a straightforward cut-and-paste plagiarism. Sadly these days too many people interpret it as 'lazy' (student) plagiarism where words are copied from elsewhere verbatim, when, as I'm thinking is the case here, it's a theft of concept or idea. If it's cut+paste just show both texts and with any reputable journal they'll deal with it.

If it's the idea, what the journal editor will likely have to consider, is:

- Is it likely they stole your concept, or came up with it independently? If it's something general, this is hard for you to prove ('collective action is key to stopping global warming!'). The more specific it is, and you argue it, the better the case ('the 10-point framework for stopping global warming is...').

- Is the background and related work of the authors such that it would support this independence? (If they have published nothing relevant, then immediately written a paper advancing the SoTA, this is suspicious).

- Would they have had the opportunity to plagiarise? (e.g. based on publication dates).

I'd generally argue around these three points. Do consider the first carefully, and how specific you feel the concept stolen is; I can't pass judgment on this (nor should I) due to the limited information.

Avatar for BugsBunny

Thank you for the good advice abababa. Yes, it isn't a case of simply cut+paste so I will have to outline the ideas, methodologies, conclusions and most importantly the structure of their paper that are remarkably similar.

Avatar for rewt

I agree with abababa and I don't think there is much I can add. Although, I would make sure in your report clearly state all relevant dates, time periods and how you shared your work. You want to make sure that you can prove that your work was published before they started their publishing process. Also, a sneaky way to alert the journal you published your work in is to email the editors to inquire if any of your reviewers of your papers were the suspects in question. You might be lucky and find that they reviewed work before publishing the same work.

On a side note, have you tried using any of those plagiarism checkers such as turnitin? It probably won't give you anything but it could be a useful point if the plagiarism checker thinks it was copied.

Avatar for BugsBunny

Hi rewt,

Thank you for your thoughts on this. I have written to the editor of the journal paper C was published in, who are investigating.

I have access to Turnitin as a TA, but I've never used it yet. I can only submit work for a group of students for a set assignment, or against a particular set assignment, I think. I don't think I would show anything due to the extensive paraphrasing.

As for the peer review, that is a great suggestion. You make a good point as I saw on retractionwatch that there are large numbers of cases of this happening. We have the history (even the ability to download the transcript) from journal B that we published in and the authors of C don't seem to have been involved in that process (thankfully).

Having said that, I am unlucky enough to be experiencing a similar issue to the peer review with another short educational article I wrote and archived on a preprint server in January, that has been submitted to a journal and whilst it is with the editor, a similar article having substantially similar content (key aspects of mine plus some other areas) but that has the overall scope widened, has appeared only last week. I'll post on that shortly.

I only just found this out the other day, after posting this thread and was in absolute total shock --- why me?! Again I have to detach my feelings of shock and horror and figure out how to deal with that separately as it has potentially developed differently.

Very stressful and has eaten lots of my time detailing it.

bunny out!

Avatar for BugsBunny

The journal in which the highly similar paper C (to our paper B) was published in, and for which I have regularly acted as a peer-reviewer for has just written back saying "the articles are in the same area, so there will be similarities" and " as a result, I do not believe this constitute plagiarism".
However, they have ignored the nearly 8 pages of similarities I've listed. Their conclusion is clearly wrong and I believe anyone who sees the report of the similarities will agree. It just seems the journal has its own agenda.

I requested retraction, but they probably don't care as I'm seen as a lowly, small-fish post-doc.

I don't want to give up on this out of principle. What shall I do?

Avatar for rewt

Can you send it again?

They have given you a pretty half-hearted excuse but a difficult one to argue against. So resending the complaint, while clearly specifying that it is more than just causal similarities might work. Other than that you could make a complaint to the corresponding authors institution.

Avatar for BugsBunny

When I said they probably don't care, I should've been more specific. The editor wrote back with some bull excuse saying they don't believe plagiarism has happened here -- I asked for an investigation. The articles are about the same technique, and hence there will be similarities. They ignored the pages and pages of overlapping statements with our paper B and my thesis as well as the fact the whole very specific method was almost identical as well as the hypothesis, statements and conclusions. The journal purports to follow the COPE guidance which is very specific on some of these issue. Having re-read their guidance and some cases I am sure I am right about this needing further investigation given the extensive similarities.

Maybe I could write to someone at the publisher of the journal, rather than the journal editor. I'll give them a bit more time for now, and maybe do as you say and send the report to the author's institution.

It's a really rotten situation.

Thanks for your support.

Avatar for BugsBunny

I suspect the editors are reluctant to investigate because i) any retraction or correction to the paper (to acknowledge our work) would involve a notice that could be seen to reflect badly on the journal/editor (i.e. how they let it through/did not spot), and ii) it requires a bit of work following the investigation guidelines/process.

I want the journal to investigate rather than going straight to the academic institution of the offending authors as I believe that is the proper process. If the journal editor isn't forthcoming, shall I contact the publisher (forwarding the findings)?

Any suggestions are appreciated.

bunny out!


This is a really dumb question but have you tried running it through some anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin? I know that's not foolproof and it seems almost childish at this point, but it might give you some more evidence that whole phrases have been taken directly from your work or that there is more than just a superficial similarity.

Avatar for rewt

I think it might worthwhile to raise it to the journal's chief editor (or equivalent). The complaint is till within the journal but they will have less attachment than the reviewing editor and might be more receptive to retraction. After that i would go to funding body's/ plagiarist's uni as I don't think the publishing houses get involved in the retraction process.

Avatar for BugsBunny

I initially wrote to the editor in chief. The associate editor responded to say they would investigate. Then a while later the chief wrote back with some bull excuse that the papers are in the same area so there will likely be similarities. I replied quoting the COPE guidelines and mentioned there was no attribution. Now, the publisher has said they were forwarded my complaint and will now investigate. Waiting to see if it will be properly conducted - hopefully it won't be a whitewash, because then I will have to consider further steps.

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An update: The publisher and now editor in chief, have now requested an external to investigate independently. I'm glad of this and can now put this out of my mind. It has been quite stressful.

bunny out!

Avatar for rewt

Congratulations on getting some progress! Fingers crossed that the external reviewer finds in your favour.

Avatar for BugsBunny

Thanks rewt :-)