Yesterday, Rachael Exter at The Age reported that the Elsevier journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta has retracted an article published by Dr Padma Murthi following an investigation into allegations of plagiarism.
Murthi, who is a senior research fellow at Monash University in Australia, came under suspicion when a student that worked under her filed a complaint with the school.
The school then investigated the complaint and a spokesperson for the school said, “The investigation found in the student’s favor.” The student was then offered co-authorship in the piece but declined and, instead, asked for it to be retracted.
According to the university, Murthi has “received counseling” over the incident but that no other action has been taken. They say that no further complaints have been filed against her and there is no indication that this has happened previously.
Murthi herself declined to comment on the case, describing it as a “university matter”.
Though both Murthi and her school seem poised to move on from this ordeal, the response still leaves a lot of unanswered questions and, given the severity of the allegations, these questions cannot be taken lightly.
There aren’t many types of plagiarism more worrisome and egregious than a person of authority plagiarizing someone under their purview. Whether it’s an editor plagiarizing a submitter, a teacher plagiarizing their pupil or, in this case, a research fellow plagiarizing a student.
It’s clear that the university investigated the matter and found in favor of the student. That indicates that they looked closely at the facts of the case and determined that Murthi, at the very least, acted improperly when publishing the student’s work.
However, other than the retraction, it seems little action is being taken. There is no demotion, no termination and not even a public apology from Murthi.
To make matters worse, it’s unclear how thoroughly the university investigated Murthi’s prior work. According to ResearchGate, Murthi has some 195 publications to her name. Though the university said that there was no indication this had happened before, it didn’t say how hard it looked.
If they didn’t investigate the previous works simply because no one else has come forward, they risk ignoring a recurring problem. While there’s no evidence of a recurring problem at this time, dismissing the potential of one without an investigation not only harms the school, but Murthi.
After all, if a thorough investigation cleared Murthi of other plagiarism incidents, then we would know for certain this was a one-off problem. It would help her both her and the university move on from this.
Instead, we’re unsure about just how serious the university took these allegations and if their response was justified. Uncertainty is one thing you never way when handling a plagiarism story, especially one that involves a researcher being accused by a student.
As I said earlier this month, when someone in a position of trust plagiarizes those in their care, the consequences need to be swift and severe. However, the actions here certainly don’t feel severe.
One question I often find myself asking is: What would happen if the roles were reversed, and the student was the plagiarist?
The answer, most likely, is a much more severe punishment.
Theoretically, the farther along one is in their academic career, the more severe the penalty for plagiarism should be. Students are often still learning and struggling with the nuances of attribution and citation. Yet, they often face the harshest consequences.
Meanwhile, Ph.Ds. with hundreds of publications face allegations and very little is done, even after those allegations are shown to be true.