Gavia Libraria

Peer review and plagiarism

The Loon read this account of boneheaded plagiarism in a lousy Wiley journal with bemusement. The comments are fascinating; don’t miss them.

Particularly fascinating are the wails of “this will discredit peer review forever!” Er, the Loon wasn’t aware it had much credibility left, honestly. That’s not really its fault; the problem is that academia is expecting far too much of peer review and peer reviewers.

Assess notability. Assess readability. Correct the language. Evaluate the argumentation and suggest fixes. Examine the data, charts or images thereof, and any statistics applied thereto, for potential falsification or honest error. (Just that is a significant imposition, to the Loon’s mind. How is this even possible without mostly-rerunning the experiment?) And now, look for plagiarism, apparently.

The Loon does occasional peer review for a small wing of open-access journals. (It’s a way of redressing the balance; the Loon doesn’t write much, so she can review a bit more, to cover for those who write more and have no time to review.) In all honesty, it has never once crossed her mind to check the articles she’s reading for plagiarism. Perhaps she’s naïve, but she just has a higher opinion of her professional peers than that!

Peer review can’t possibly do all that is claimed of it; it’s no magic bullet. The sooner that’s widely accepted, the sooner non-obfuscatory discussions can be had about what to do about fraud, error, and plagiarism in research.

As for the “value added” by toll-access publishers, Wiley in this case… well, if all the open-access movement ever accomplishes is to force toll-access publishers to work harder to live up to their inflated quality claims, that is no bad thing.

6 thoughts on “Peer review and plagiarism

  1. Martin Vermeer

    I also don’t actively look for plagiarism in my reviews, but happened to notice once more or less by accident (a perfect-English half-page in a poor-English manuscript, and Google is your friend). Yes, too much is expected of peer review — but it does keep the worst crap out, mostly. In the end it’s the authors that are responsible for their papers, something they may need reminding of.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon tends to call peer review a heuristic: often effective, but sometimes leaky in both directions—it eliminates material it shouldn’t, and lets pass material it should chuck out.

      This is absolutely to be expected, and impossible to fix entirely! It doesn’t mean peer review should be eliminated! (Though other problems with it, certain consistently-observed biases notably, may well hint in that direction.) It does mean that all of academia should temper its expectations of peer review.

  2. Deep Climate

    This was a very particular case. Personally, I think there is little evidence that there was any peer review at all of the original articles *in this case*. There were many exceptional circumstances, including the fact that the two authors were also editors-in-chief and have been caught in a series of dubious papers.

    Far from an attack on the peer review system, my post decried the lack of oversight at this particular journal. Sure, peer review can not be expected to catch most plagiarism, but these papers were so abysmal that even cursory peer review by those with relevant expertise would have raised red flags on other grounds. And then when the problems were finally pointed out, Wiley failed to apply their own research misconduct policy correctly.

    “Particularly fascinating are the wails of “this will discredit peer review forever!'”

    I’m not sure I got that. But perhaps you read some of the comments more carefully than I. I do think Wiley’s reputation will take a hit if they don’t address the clear problems at this journal.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      You are quite correct; your post said nothing of the kind. Two or three commenters did drag peer review in by the ears, and the Loon fixated on those, as she has a particular interest in the history of and prospects for peer review.

      Thank you for your comments.

  3. John Mashey

    Indeed, I don’t think experienced people expect peer reviewers to hunt for plagiarism, just report it in the rare cases where they happen to recognize something.

    I think people do expect editors (and if need be, publishers) to follow their published rules, take plagiarism complaints seriously, and let complainants know that they are doing so.
    Plagiarism is easy to overlook, but once found and displayed (DC and I ended up with the side by side aligned and highlighted format, best we could think if so far), it is easy to see.
    Copy-paste-edit style is especially clear, since it cannot be “oops I meant to quote that”.

    Falsification/fabrication of unusual results may raise quick doubts, but seems trickier to find, prove or explain.

    There is a large contrast between Elsevier’s handling of complaint (retraction forced), and Wiley’s of complaints about massive plagiarism in articles written by the editors of the journal. Maybe something useful will still happen, but for now Wiley seems happy to keep the editors.