In a recent interview with Retraction Watch, Harold “Skip” Garner, the Associate Vice Provost for Research Development at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine made a significant claim.
According to a recent study he conducted that looked at potential plagiarism and duplication in conference abstracts, the rate of “highly similar abstracts with no overlapping authors” was approximately 0.5%.
While that amount is still low in terms of raw percentages, he conducted a similar study in 2008 looking at abstracts in published journals. There, the rate was only 0.05%.
That makes the rate of potential plagiarism in abstracts ten times higher for conferences than in journals. To make matters worse, Garner highlights that it’s likely the journal rate has decreased in the 13 years since the study was done, making the disparity even worse.
Duplication was also worse for conferences but not as severely. According to Garner, the rate within the same meeting was 2-3%, while, for journals in 2008, it was 1.35%. Both struggled with similar issues of authors submitting the same or similar abstracts repeatedly.
To be clear, Garner states that detected matching text is not necessarily a sign of unethical duplication or plagiarism. Such decisions must be made by human editors and organizers.
However, the studies provide an interesting apples-to-apples comparison between journals and conferences and the news is not good for conferences.
But why would there be such a large gap? The reason may be very simple.
The Conference Problem
Obviously, this is just one pair of studies using one methodology (namely scraped abstracts compared using the eTBLAST system he and his colleagues developed). More research is needed
That said, there likely is a significant difference in the plagiarism and duplication rates for conferences and meetings for the simple reason that they are different than journals.
For one, though many conferences do check abstracts and submitted works with the same or similar rigor as journals, many don’t. Conferences are often much less transparent about how they choose abstracts and speakers and the process that goes into vetting them.
Conferences also place a greater burden on the person submitting the abstract. If the person is selected, they’ll be tasked with putting in the time and energy to create a presentation, travel to the event and then present the findings in person (or via Zoom).
Because of this, a lot of conferences struggle to fill out their speaker slate and that’s motivation to be more lenient on duplication issues. Though a journal would be unlikely to accept two similar papers a year apart, many conferences and meetings do exactly that because the speaker is reliable, available and likely to be well-received.
According to Garner, much of this could be resolved if conferences simply informed submitters that their submissions had to obey ethical norms and then run submitted papers through some form of plagiarism detection system.
The main thing is that event organizers need to be aware of this problem and know that, while great strides have been made on the journal side of things, there’s plenty of room for improvement on the conference side.
Conferences and meetings are an essential part of the scientific process and it’s important to ensure their integrity. However, if this study is any indication, they’re lagging their counterparts.
However, Garner’s words also provide a reason for hope. He said:
Yes, conference organizers have ignored this, much like journals did until about 13 years ago, when editors realized they had a fiduciary responsibility to those that read their journals to ensure that they contained high quality, ethically sound publications.Harold “Skip” Garner
If journal editors can have their wakeup moment, so can conference organizers. They also have a playbook that they can use to tackle the problem in the form of the steps journals have taken.
The alarm has been raised, the path has been laid, all that remains is to follow it.