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NSF Expresses Concerns About Plagiarism, Biosketches and Statements of Collaboration and Support
By Alice Young

NSF is publicizing its concerns that some investigators are including plagiarized text, inaccurate biographical information, and misleading letters of collaboration and support in proposals.

At a May workshop at Colorado State University, an investigative scientist at NSF reported that NSF believes that 2 percent to 3 percent of submitted proposals contain plagiarized material. Of particular concern, NSF thinks that 10 percent to 15 percent of proposals from young investigators, particularly those submitted to the CAREER program by PIs “within the first five years of their academic career”, may contain plagiarized materials. Videos and PDFs from the Colorado State University workshop on research plagiarism are available here.

NSF’s March 2013 Semiannual Report to Congress reported more than 10 findings of research misconduct for plagiarism. NSF does not provide identifying information about such findings, but does identify unacceptable practices such as the following.

  • Professor Plagiarizes in Two Proposals
    Our investigation determined that a PI at an Ohio university recklessly committed plagiarism in his NSF proposal. The PI admitted that he plagiarized, but asserted that in his native culture plagiarism is, in certain circumstances, encouraged, and that persons who plagiarize in such circumstances are considered well educated and knowledgeable. We concluded that, regardless of whether his statement accurately reflected the practice in his native culture, when submitting a proposal to NSF he is required to abide by U.S. standards of scholarship and NSF policy. We recommended that NSF require certifications for one year.
  • Professor’s Incomplete Citation Practices Result in Plagiarism
    A professor at a Colorado university recklessly plagiarized in his CAREER proposal that NSF awarded him ARRA funds. The professor cited most of the published papers, but did not distinguish the copied text by quotation marks or indentation. Additionally, he did not cite his colleagues’ unpublished manuscripts from which he also copied text.

    The university investigation found that the professor committed plagiarism, but because the university concluded that the professor was merely careless, it did not make a finding of research misconduct. However, the university implemented corrective action including a training requirement and internal certifications for two years.

    We agreed that the professor committed plagiarism but disagreed with the university’s finding with respect to intent, because such extensive plagiarism from so many sources could not be less than reckless. We recommended that for one year NSF bar the professor from serving NSF as a reviewer, adviser or consultant, and require certifications and assurances for all proposals or reports submitted to NSF.
The same report contains a highlighted section (page 31) about NSF’s expectations of accuracy in biosketches. Because this is important, we’re reprinting the entire section here, with bold text added for emphasis:
  • The Importance of Accurate Information in Biosketches and Letters of Collaboration or Support
    An NSF proposal consists of multiple sections, and PIs have a responsibility to ensure that each section contains accurate information. Our office regularly receives allegations where key information was omitted, or information was fabricated, in the proposal’s biographical sketch (“biosketch”) and letters of collaboration or support. NSF instructions for preparing a biosketch state that the section should contain a “list, in reverse chronological order, of all the individual’s academic/professional appointments beginning with the current appointment.” This includes foreign appointments, non-salaried appointments, or appointments of limited term. In a case reported herein, a professor resigned his position after it was discovered that he failed to acknowledge his appointments at foreign universities on his conflict of interests forms.

    NSF also provides clear instructions about relevant publications that can be included in the biosketch: A list of (i) up to five products most closely related to the proposed project; and (ii) up to five other significant products, whether or not related to the proposed project. Acceptable products must be citable and accessible including but not limited to publications, data sets, software, patents, and copyrights.11

    Unpublished documents, manuscripts described as “to be submitted” or “in preparation” should not be listed, and publications listed as “submitted” or “in press” must actually exist.

    Similarly, NSF states that letters of support “must be unique to the specific proposal submitted and cannot be altered without the author’s explicit prior approval.”12 We have seen several cases where PIs recycled old letters of collaboration or support and either put a new date on the letter or simply removed the original date. In a case discussed herein, a PI went a step further and removed several sentences from letters of collaboration because they related to a program to which a proposal had previously been submitted.

    Padding one’s biosketch and altering letters of collaboration or support are a violation of the standards of scholarship; in an NSF proposal, such actions may constitute civil and criminal false statements and false claims.
    11 NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, Grant Proposal Guide, II.C.2.f(i)(c).
    12 NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, Grant Proposal Guide, II.C.2.j.
TTU has tools to help you and members of your research group identify and eliminate any unintentional misuse of text. One tool is the software program iThenticate, which you can access either through the TTU Libraries, or by e-mailing me. I’ll be happy to meet with you and your groups to talk about any of the issues above, or any other responsible research area.

Alice Young is associate vice president for research/research integrity in the Office of the Vice President for Research