Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Only be sure always to call it, please, research

The old Tom Lehrer song about Lobachevsky describes a technique for advancing an academic career which, although frowned upon, probably happens more often than we care to admit:

I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.
In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
Only be sure always to call it please, "research".

It looks like the people who run the preprint server the arXiv are doing something about the problem. The current issue of Physics Today includes an item about a plan to check new submissions to the arXiv for plagiarism.

They have figured out a way to deal with a large fraction of false positives:

In the study, about 10% of arXiv manuscripts had text blocks that overlapped with other documents. After removing instances of authors reusing parts of their own text, different collaborators on a single project using the same text in separate conference abstracts, and other apparent false positives, less than 1% of manuscripts were still suspect, says [Cornell computer science graduate student Daria] Sorokina.

The item also quotes Paul Ginsparg, creator and overseer of the arXiv and a professor of physics at Cornell:

The surprising thing is that people submit to the same database where they found [what they copied]. It's mind boggling, given the existence of Google, given the existence of searching on full text, that people wouldn't have an intuition that they would be caught.

Ginsparg shouldn't be so surprised. I've caught one set of authors plagiarizing from my work: A paper I reviewed in 2005 for the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar Terrestrial Physics copied multiple paragraphs verbatim from an article I published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar Terrestrial Physics. Nor did getting caught deter these authors; two weeks after the JASTP editor rejected their paper, the authors submitted essentially the same manuscript to Annales Geophysicae, which published it.

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