The Challenge of Zombie Plagiarism

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In July 2010, philosophers Michael V. Dougherty, Pernille Harsting, and Russell L. Friedman published in the Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale a scathing rebuke of the work of fellow philosopher Martin W.F. Stone.

Simply entitled 40 Cases of Plagiarism, the 46-page document goes on to highlight some 40 different publications by Stone that, according to them, contain extensive plagiarism from some 170 preexisting sources.

The authors made it clear that this was not an exhaustive list of all the plagiarism committed by Stone, and that both other works and other plagiarism within those 40 works may still exist. Regardless, it was a very damming account of Stone’s work, and it led to Stone being dismissed from his post at King’s College London.

Some thirteen years later, Dougherty is revisiting that paper. In a new article entitled After “40 Cases” and published in Vivarium, Dougherty looks at the aftermath of that publication, in particular what happened to the 40 cases he and his coauthors highlighted.

What he found was that, despite his efforts and many retractions, the 40 articles at issue continue to live on, being regularly cited in new research.

Dougherty’s article was neatly summarized by Justin Weinberg at Daily Nous, who also used the term “Zombie Plagiarism” to describe the problem. It’s an apt description as well.

Despite a very public rebuke and multiple retractions, Dougherty claims that, between 2013 and 2022, there were at least 208 positive citations of the 40 plagiarized pieces. Because of this, Dougherty calls for researchers and editors working in philosophy to adopt more stringent steps during writing and peer review to weed out retracted material and for editors to report plagiarized material to major research databases.

However, the problem isn’t unique to the field of philosophy. In fact, it’s not even a problem exclusive to academia, even if academia is especially vulnerable to it.

The Problem of Zombie Plagiarism

The problem of zombie plagiarism is a fairly simple one to understand: Just because a work is known to be plagiarized does not mean that it simply disappears or is always marked as such.

Even in cases like Stone’s where his academic career was effectively ended by the plagiarism scandal, the plagiarized papers still remain. As Dougherty showed, any paper that remains can and likely will be cited by future works.

This is an especially large problem in academia, where such building on previous work isn’t just expected, but is fundamental. This is in spite of the fact that academic publishing, at least supposedly, has a rigorous process for retracing and repealing problematic literature.

However, that process requires three things to happen:

  1. The Paper Must Be Retracted/Corrected
  2. The Retraction Must Be Clear and Obvious Where/When the Paper is Later Accessed
  3. The Author of the New Paper Must Respect That Retraction

According to Dougherty, many of the cases he looked at fell at the first hurdle, as many of the papers were never retracted. This is a problem to be expected as there are many predatory journals that have little interest in performing peer review and other due diligence and, instead, simply want to collect publication fees.

But, even outside predatory journals, there are journals that are now defunct, publishers that no longer operate and so forth. If plagiarism is detected some time after publication, there may not be anyone there to retract the paper.

But, even if there is a retraction, that news may not get to where it’s needed. This is especially true today due to the rise of shadow libraries. These libraries violate copyright to remove financial and other barriers to accessing academic content. They do this by freely distributing articles and other content that, under normal circumstances, would be hidden behind a paywall of one kind or another.

These libraries are heavily relied on by researchers, especially those who either have limited means or are from schools that lack access to legitimate libraries. Unfortunately, they don’t always note when a work has been retracted.

Finally, even if the retraction is handed down and is visible to the researcher, the researcher has to honor it. There’s literally nothing stopping a researcher from ignoring a retraction and citing an article anyway, especially if they know peer review will not look for catch the issue.

So while the process for retracting plagiarized material is robust on paper, successful execution of it requires several things to come together. Unfortunately, many of those steps are outside the hands of the journals themselves, making this an incredibly difficult problem to crack.

Addressing the Problem

According to Weinberg’s summary of the article, Dougherty made several suggestions on how to address the issue. Those steps included looking for retracted citations during peer review, reporting retractions to a central database and, of course, retracting the unretracted plagiarized papers.

While these are definitely great steps, there are also severe limitations in terms of what legitimate journals can do. As long as there are predatory journals that won’t retract anything, no matter how problematic, or shadow libraries that don’t mark works as retracted, cases are still going to slip through.

We absolutely should be holding researchers to higher standards when it comes to their choice of citations, and the peer review process should be strengthened against retracted works and works from questionable journals, it’s unclear how much of an impact that would have.

The issue of zombie plagiarism is not an isolated one of philosophy, nor is it limited to academia per se, but the structure of academic publishing makes this kind of issue almost impossible to avoid.

That’s because the issues that exasperate it all from a pressure to publish. Academics need publications in order to secure their positions. That puts the focus on quantity over quality of publications, which leads to the rise of predatory journals and a variety of other authorship-related misdeeds.

While the steps Dougherty lists are all reasonable, until we improve the foundational problems of how and why research is published, the issue of zombie plagiarism will remain as, fundamentally, it’s yet another symptom of the much larger issue.

Bottom Line

In the end, as robust as the retraction system appears on paper, Dougherty’s paper highlights that it really does rely on a chain of events that may or may not happen and isn’t entirely within the hands of journals.

While zombie plagiarism isn’t necessarily unique to academic publishing, it is an especially large problem for it. Not only does academia build on rely upon previous works, but it has structural challenges that make the citing of questionable sources an inevitability.

Authors and journals need to do their part. Authors need to ensure they aren’t using retracted sources, and journals should check for such issues as part of peer review and perform clear and public retractions when needed.

There is more that everyone in academic publishing can and should do.

However, even if serious progress is made on those fronts, it won’t solve the problem. A flawed system still leaves many opportunities for mistakes and bad actors alike to slip through the cracks.

My hope is that Dougherty’s work highlights the flaws in the system and does encourage some journals/publishers to tighten some of the larger holes in the net. While that may not resolve the larger issues, it can definitely improve things moving forward.

Ultimately, progress is still progress. Sadly, in this space, progress has been a very rare sight, so I would welcome any positive change with open arms.

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