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Plagiarism and Authorship Disputes

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Consider the following scenario. Two researchers who have collaborated on various projects in the past have jointly published a number of papers. Three quarters into the writing of the manuscript from their most recent joint project, the researchers experience a profound difference of opinion regarding the direction of the current project and the incident leads to the eventual break-up of their research collaboration. Soon after, one of the researchers moves to another institution in another country and begins to pursue a different line of research. A year later, the remaining researcher decides to finish writing the remaining quarter of the manuscript and submits it for publication with his name as sole author.  By appropriating the joint manuscript and submitting it under his name, has this other researcher committed plagiarism?

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s consider another scenario. A graduate student working under her mentor’s supervision makes an interesting discovery as part of her doctoral thesis work. Before she is ready to publish her thesis, however, her mentor feels that the discovery merits immediate publication and decides to report her data, along with other data he had collected from other graduate fellows working in his lab, in a journal article. The mentor does not list the graduate student’s name as a co-author nor is there a byline in the article indicating the extent of her contribution under the pretext that the student’s contribution in and of itself was not sufficient to merit authorship.

In the above scenarios, it should be clear that the intellectual property of one individual has been misappropriated. Denial of earned authorship represents an ethical breach that many individuals and institutional policies, including that of the National Science Foundation, would consider an instance of plagiarism. However, not everyone agrees that these types of cases are plagiarism and, therefore, research misconduct. For example, ORI classifies these problems as authorship disputes and not within their definition of research misconduct. The involved parties can avoid these and other troublesome situations, such as disputes regarding the order of authorship of a paper, by discussing and agreeing on a plan before work on a project commences (see section on authorship).

An interesting fact of our work as scientists is that our research and writing may be simultaneously governed by more than one set of policies. For example, and especially in North America, the institution at which we work will likely have a research misconduct policy, the organization that funds our work may have its own misconduct policy, and so might the professional organizations to which we belong. In most instances, those policies will be similar across the various domains of coverage (e.g., plagiarism, authorship, data sharing). However, there may also be subtle differences in how specific situations might be interpreted. For example, authorship resulting from students’ doctoral work can differ across disciplines (e.g., psychology vs. biomedicine) and also across countries within a single discipline (see Australian Psychological Association). Similarly, authorship disputes may be classified as instances of plagiarism by one misconduct policy, but not by another policy. As result of these differences a problematic research behavior, such as certain instances of plagiarism, may be viewed as misconduct by an institution, but not by the funding agency.

As this document illustrates, plagiarism can manifest itself in a variety of situations and these can range in degree of seriousness. Although coverage has been provided for the most common forms, there are surely many other scenarios that represent instances of this type of misconduct. In the next section our attention is turned to the problem of self-plagiarism.