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Acknowledging the Source of Our Ideas

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Just about every scholarly or scientific paper contains several footnotes or references documenting the source of the facts, ideas, or evidence used in support of arguments, hypotheses, etc. In some cases, as in those papers that review the literature in a specific area of research, the reference section listing the sources cited in the paper can be quite extensive, sometimes taking up more than a third of the published article (see, for example, Logan, Walker, Cole, & Leukefeld, 2002). Most often, the contributions we rely upon come from the published work or personal observations of other scientists or scholars. On occasion, however, we may derive an important insight about a phenomenon or process that we are studying, through a casual interaction with an individual not at all connected with scholarly or scientific work. But, even in such cases, we still have a moral obligation to credit the source of our ideas. A good illustrative example of the latter point was reported by Alan Gilchrist in a 1979 Scientific American article on color perception. In a section of the article which describes the perception of rooms uniformly painted in one color, Gilchrist states: “We now have a promising lead to how the visual system determines the shade of gray in these rooms, although we do not yet have a complete explanation. (John Robinson helped me develop this lead.)” (p. 122; Gilchrist, 1979). The reader might assume that Mr. Robinson is another scientist working in the field of visual perception, or perhaps an academic colleague or an advanced graduate student of Gilchrist’s. Not so. John Robinson was a local plumber and an acquaintance of Gilchrist in the town where the author spent his summers. During a casual discussion between Gilchrist and Robinson over the former’s work, Robinson provided insights into the problem that Gilchrist had been working on that were sufficiently important to the development of his theory of lightness perception that Gilchrist felt ethically obligated to credit Robinson’s contribution.

Unconscious plagiarism of ideas

Even the most ethical authors can fall prey to the inadvertent appropriation of others’ ideas, concepts, or metaphors. Here we are again referring to the phenomenon of unconscious plagiarism (i.e,. cryptomnesia), which, as noted earlier, takes place when an author generates an idea that s/he believes to be original, but which in reality had been encountered at an earlier time. Given the free and frequent exchange of ideas in science and other scholarly disciplines, it is not unreasonable to expect instances in which earlier exposure to an idea that lies dormant in someone’s unconscious emerges into consciousness at a later point, but in a context different from the one in which the idea had originally occurred. Presumably, this is exactly what happened in the case of former Beatle George Harrison, whose song “My Sweet Lord” was found to have musical elements of the song “He’s So Fine,” which had been released years earlier by The Chiffons (see Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 1976). One has to wonder how many other John Robinsons, as well as other accomplished scientists, scholars, and artists, now forgotten, contributed original ideas without acknowledgement.

Some instances of misappropriation of ideas suggest intentionality on the part of the perpetrators. For example, according to Resnik (e.g., Shamoo and Resnik, 2009; Resnik 2012), many instances exist in which professors take ideas from their students but fail to give them credit for their contributions. Ferguson (2014) describes a case of this type in which a mathematics paper published in 2013 was retracted the following year because it been determined that the work had been largely derived from a student’s Master’s thesis without any acknowledged of her contributions.

In other cases the misappropriation of an idea can be a subtle process. Consider the famous case of Albert Schatz who, as a graduate student working under Selman Waksman at Rutgers, discovered the antibiotic streptomycin. Even though the first publications describing his discovery identified Schatz as primary author (Martin, 1997), it was Wakman who, over a period of time, began to take sole credit for the discovery, ultimately earning him the Nobel prize in 1952 (see, for example, Shatz, 1993; Mistiaen, 2002 for a fuller description of this case).

The confidential peer review process is thought to be a common source of plagiarism. Consider the scenario where the offender is a journal or conference referee, or a member of a review panel for a funding agency. He reads a paper or a grant proposal describing a promising new methodology in an area of research directly related to his own work. The grant fails to get funded based perhaps on his negative evaluation of the protocol. He then goes back to his lab and prepares a grant proposal using the methodology stolen from the proposal that he refereed earlier and submits his proposal to a different granting agency. Cases similar to the above scenario have been documented in the research misconduct literature (see Price, 2006)

Most of us would deem the behavior depicted in the above scenario as downright despicable. Unfortunately, similar situations have occurred. In fact, elements of the above scenario are based on actual cases of scientific misconduct investigated by ORI. The notion that the peer review context appears to be sufficiently susceptible to the appropriation of ideas was likely the impetus behind the 1999 Federal Office of Science and Technology Policy’s expansion of their definition of plagiarism, which states:

“Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.”

(Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1999).

And, even small-scale plagiarism of ideas may lead to very negative consequences. (See, for example, Abbott, 2009).

Guideline 1: An ethical writer ALWAYS acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her work.