When Admitted Plagiarism Doesn’t Cause a Retraction

Yesterday, Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch posted a truly amazing story. It’s a tale of inaction, even when everyone is asking for it.

The story begins in December 2020. That was when Iranian research Behrouz Pourghebleh first noticed an article published in IEEE Access that overlapped some 80 percent with an article he’d co-authored in 2019. With evidence in hand, on New Year’s Eve, he wrote a letter to the associate editor of the journal, Zakirul Alam Bhuiyan, highlighting his findings.

At first, things seemed to be fairly normal. The first author of the alleged plagiarized paper, Karim Alinani, quickly wrote back and admitted to the plagiarism.

That letter said in part:

I do not want to deny anything that you have claimed in your email. In fact, while compiling the response, I realized the blunder, and that is why I apologized and requested your mercy for my actions.

Karim Alinani

Alinani went on to say that he was under a great deal or pressure at the time and that, combined with his inexperience, is what caused him to commit the infraction.

Though not satisfied with the excuses, Pourghebleh had a confession in hand and asked Bhuiyan to retract the paper. However, this is when the story begins to go off the rails.

Bhuiyan responded not with a retraction, but with pleas for Pourghebleh to reconsider the request. He claimed that such a retraction could be career-ruining for the authors of the paper and that many of them were “renowned researchers”. He asked to try and find an alternate resolution.

This brought in Vahideh Hayyolalam, Pourghebleh’s co-author and the first author on the original paper. Upset at Bhuiyan’s suggestion for resolution, he proposed a different approach. He reached out to the authors of the plagiarized paper and asked them to withdraw the piece themselves. This would remove it from publication but spare its authors the potential career damage.

On February 2, 2021, the corresponding author of the plagiarized paper did just that, sending in an email to Bhuiyan requesting that the paper be withdrawn. However, that too was rejected and, this time, it wasn’t just Bhuiyan doing so.

This was when IEEE Access managing editor Jenny Mahoney stepped in and said that:

In the present case, we performed an investigation and discussed the case with the EIC, IEEE Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and myself. We believe that the article overlap is small enough that it does not warrant any further investigation. 

Jenny Mahoney

And that, is the final word on the matter, other than Pourghebleh expressing his dissatisfaction at the response. He called it “really ridiculous” and claimed that the new paper had simply took, “a published paper as a reference, play with words, paraphrase and change the text, then submit it to another journal as a new paper.”

To call this an incredible tale is an understatement, but it leaves a great deal to unpack as we try to understand what it may mean.

An Incredible Lack of Action

Journals are typically trusted to take issues of research integrity seriously. In this case, it seems pretty obvious what should have been done: The paper should have been withdrawn.

To be clear, no one involved in this case (at least in the available correspondence) wants this paper to remain published.

  1. The alleged victim has provided proof and called for retraction
  2. The corresponding author on the paper has provided a request for withdrawl
  3. The first author has admitted to the plagiarism

Cases of plagiarism in academic research are rarely this clear and easy to decide. Even if the editors feel that the plagiarism is minor enough to not require a retraction, the request for withdrawal should be enough to get the paper removed.

While the goal of protecting careers seems noble on the surface, this is protecting people from their own admitted actions. But even that goal is lost when you consider the reporting that this case has seen on Retraction Watch, this site and academic circles broadly.

If the goal is to protect careers and minimize harm, the best outcome would have been to withdraw the paper after the corresponding author requested it.

Now, the name of the authors, as well as IEEE, are tied to a story where a paper was accused of plagiarism, the first author admitted to the plagiarism, the corresponding author asked for withdrawal, but the publication did not remove the paper.

No one is helped through this approach. Everyone suffers more because of this approach and, to be frank, it’s not fair to anyone involved. No one wins and no one is helped.

Bottom Line

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a UK non-profit that provides guidance for journals and other academic publications for handling ethical matters. This includes providing flowcharts, guidelines and sample cases to help editors, even those that aren’t members, make informed decisions about how to proceed.

If Bhuiyan had simply turned to their guidance, this story would likely be a non-issue. At the very least, the article would have been withdrawn after the corresponding author requested it. It would not be a major talking point for academia internationally nearly a year later.

In the end, cases like this point to why there must processes in place for handling such incidents and those processes should be both transparent and applied evenly. Everyone would have benefitted from this. There was no reason for a relatively pedestrian plagiarism story to become such a newsworthy one.

Hopefully, the publication will do the right thing before further harm comes to both the authors of the paper, the publication itself and the IEEE.

Either way, this will be one story those in academic integrity will remember for quite some time…