Texas Tech University

Excuses Provided by Researchers Facing Allegations of Misconduct

By Marianne Evola

Obtaining an advanced education and building a research career requires a massive investment of time, money and intellectual effort. So, why would anyone put that investment at risk by cheating or engaging in research misconduct? I raise this question in multiple ways whenever I talk to students about Responsible Research Conduct. The question is largely met with silence by the students.

I've read numerous case studies on research misconduct, yet I have never become cynical about the scientific community. I still believe that most people that enter the sciences have been inspired to do so by stories of the historical contributions of others. And once they learned about those contributions, they became inspired to contribute to scientific truth. I even believe that most researchers that have been found guilty of misconduct, pursued academic research careers with a noble intention to contribute. They were good people that made bad choices when they encountered the tremendous pressures that are inherent to a research career. Or, as I put it to students, I do not believe that anyone pursues an academic research career with a plan to lie, cheat or steal their way to success.

Over the years, I have attended many conferences that addressed incidents and education associated with responsible research conduct. I'm happy to report that the responsible research personnel that attend these events largely maintain an optimistic view of academic research. Or perhaps I view my colleagues with rose-tinted glasses. Whether or not I overestimate the optimism of my colleagues, relative to the enormity and breadth of global academic research, incidents of research misconduct are rare. So, although I, and hopefully my colleagues, remain optimistic about the integrity of research we do, occasionally, voice frustration with incidents of detrimental research practices and/or research misconduct.

As such, I found it interesting that recently there were two published reports that addressed on excuses that have been made by researchers when confronted with allegations and/or evidence of misconduct. The first was a blog published on the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Research page. The blog described a presentation that was given by the National Science Foundation's Inspector General, Allison Learner, at the Quest for Research Excellence Conference. During the presentation, Ms. Lerner presented a list of the favorite excuses that have been given to NSF by researchers facing allegations of plagiarism. The second publication was an editorial in the journal Oncogene. It is a list of common excuses given by researchers when the journal was required to confront them regarding problems with their publications.

I thought that it would be revealing to share these excuses over the next couple of months and point out why none of these excuses absolve the researchers from alleged wrongdoing. Nor do these excuses pardon researchers from the extensive responsibilities associated with conducting and publishing research. In fact, as I look at the excuses I don't believe that a student would be forgiven by their professor if one of these excuses were provided as a rationale for academic misconduct. So, it makes me wonder why career researchers would fail to realize and/or accept responsibility for their irresponsible choices?

I will continue to ponder that question as I present the excuses provided in these two publications and present my thoughts on why these excuses are obviously flawed. I also need to disclose that my thoughts are not markedly insightful. In addition, my thoughts are somewhat judgmental. I have presented these excuses to trainees during Responsible Research seminars. The students in attendance were amused by the excuses, easily pointed out their flaws and took offense to the assertion that the excuses should absolve the offender of wrongdoing. Thus, my comments are a combination of my insight and judgement along with the insight and judgment of my RCR trainees.
This month, I will begin by presenting the excuses for plagiarism presented in the UNH blog. Next month I will continue the discussion to address the excuses for misconduct provided by the Oncogene editorial.

Favorite plagiarism excuses provided by NSF Office of Inspector General:

  1. "I was distracted by bird vocalizations outside my thatched roof hut, grabbed my digital camera to get pictures of the pair of woodpeckers, and when I returned to my computer where I thought I had saved my changes to the material, it had crashed with the wrong draft saved." (also known as the Woodpecker Defense)
    My thoughts: I have taught courses in which students have failed to meet deadlines because their work has been "lost" for a plethora of reasons. The historical and often mocked excuse for lost work has been "My dog ate my homework." As an instructor, I would not accept an excuse of canine ingestion for incomplete or late work, nor would any other instructor. A crashed computer, albeit frustrating, is largely a modernized hungry pup excuse. Also, as someone that has worked with teams to meet external and self-imposed deadlines for publication/submission, I've never known an individual nor a team that was not reading and editing right down to the moment of submission. Do computers crash? Yes, we have all suffered computer crashes and know to check the state of our work when it occurs. Have dogs ever eaten homework? I suppose, but my dogs are more likely to chew on shoes. Does ether excuse absolve the offender for plagiarism? No, and when I presented this excuse to Responsible Research trainees, they proposed the above comparisons to professors not accepting excuses for incomplete/late work.
  2. "I guess my thinking was this person is just trying to understand what my research is about and what I'm proposing to do. And so how is letting him or her know that I got this text from this other paper, how is that going to help him understand better my project or what I'm trying to say?"
    My thoughts: Again, this excuse was met with laughter by Responsible Research trainees. We all struggle with expressing our work/experiments to our audience. Most researchers are not natural writers, we are natural experimenters. I'm struggling right now trying to balance expression of the seriousness nature of a plagiarism offense with my amusement over the excuses provided by NSF. Just because we are struggling, it does not justify intellectual theft from our colleagues. If one of your colleagues can describe your work better than you, then quote their work don't steal their words. But in the sciences, if you choose to quote a colleague in an original research article, then be prepared to face the wrath of your reviewers. Your reviewers may argue that if you are not able to explain your work, you probably don't fully understand your work.
  3. "I did not copy from the suggested source. We just both paraphrased from the cited author in exactly the same way."
    My thoughts: This is not an uncommon excuse. However, regarding the probability of two writers paraphrasing in exactly the same way, it is highly unlikely. My skepticism is especially true when I consider a conversation that I had a few years ago with a former director of NSF OIG. During the conversation, I asked my colleague if NSF used a threshold to define a plagiarism offense as sufficiently bad that it would capture the attention of NSF OIG. In other words, did the offense have to be of a certain magnitude before NSF was concerned. The reason that I asked the question was that earlier that day, I had attended her presentation on incidents of plagiarism that had been addressed by OIG. Her presentation contained examples of plagiarism with massive chunks of text that had been copied verbatim from other sources with no quotation marks nor citation. These were not short phrases but page long chunks of text. In response to my question, she stated that although they do not have a defined threshold, they seldom will address short snippets of alleged plagiarism. It would have to be a significant offense before OIG would involve themselves. Smaller incidents fell under the jurisdiction of journals and/or the home institutions of investigators. Ever since that conversation, I'm certain that if NSF is investigating plagiarism, the likelihood that the offense is coincidental and not purposeful is highly improbable.
  4. "As engineers, we do not use quotation marks around copied text."
    I've heard this before, not just for engineers but for the sciences in general. Let me clarify the practice. In the sciences, we do not quote. If we quote, which is rare, we are required to use quotation marks. Like stated above (excuse #2), if someone can better describe your work than you can, I may as well read their work instead of yours. Tell me who they are, and I will read (and cite) their work. If you cannot clearly write about your work so that I can understand, it is largely accepted that you do not fully understand your own work.
  5. "Quotation marks are only needed for the copied words of 'famous people'."
    My thoughts: Apparently, according to this individual, one is permitted to steal the intellectual property of anyone whom is not famous. I'd like to say that this is obviously not true. But apparently, someone funded by NSF thought that it was appropriate to steal the intellectual property of colleagues that lacked sufficient fame. As such, I will clarify that no one is permitted to steal the words nor the ideas of any of their colleagues, no matter how inconsequential you choose to categorize them or their work. It is also worth noting that the graduate student RCR trainees were particularly concerned and offended by this excuse.
  6. "It's only a proposal. It's not like it's a publication. The reviewers are smart enough to know what is my work and what is someone else's."
    My thoughts: When I teach about the offense of plagiarism, I strongly assert to trainees, especially graduate students, that from this point on, they are part of the academic world. Therefore, it does not matter whether they are working on a publication, classroom assignment nor even an email or a social media post, they are responsible for citing and quoting the work of others. If they choose not to, they are fully accountable for any repercussions that result from their failure to give credit to the original source. Academic professionals are required to give credit when they borrow intellectual property of others. Citing colleagues costs you nothing as a researcher. Failing to cite can cost you a lot, potentially your career.
    In addition, whether the work is a publication or a grant, it is not the reviewers job to figure out whether the work belongs to the author or someone else. It is the authors job to provide the reviewers with the original source of all work incorporated in a research proposal.
  7. "My English teacher told me it's not plagiarism if I change every seventh word."
    My thoughts: The counting words excuse, or rather question, is one that I answer every time that I do a presentation on avoiding plagiarism. How many consecutive words can you use from an existing source before you must use quotation marks? When I receive this question, I often answer it by clarifying the question for the asker and the audience. "So, what you are asking is, how much can I plagiarize before I will be held accountable?" The counting words question can be answered easily, if a writer is counting words, they need to be citing and/or using quotation marks.
  8. "A rogue British secretary did it."
    This was the favorite excuse provided by NSF OIG. And I must admit, this excuse has also gotten the biggest laugh from the graduate student RCR trainees. This plagiarism excuse comes in other familiar forms: "my collaborator/s did it" and more commonly "my student/s did it". The blame of collaborators and students is especially common when those collaborators or students have been trained in foreign nations and there are cultural differences regarding the perceived severity of a plagiarism offense. The problem with this excuse is that the individual making the excuse is attempting to negate the responsibilities that come with being an author. I like to point out to students that although it is an honor to be listed as an author on a publication, there are also responsibilities that come with authorship. Every author on a published manuscript should understand the work contained in a manuscript because as an author, they are signing off on the integrity of the work. Thus, if one of their collaborators plagiarize, each listed author is accountable for plagiarism. As for rogue secretaries, if you have any concerns about nefarious agendas, I recommend that researchers submit their own work.

The common trend of plagiarism excuses is that it was a mistake or someone else committed the offense. Regardless of whether the offense is unintended or whom was initially responsible, all persons listed as authors are responsible for plagiarism. That sounds scary, but I have some good news. It is very easy to protect yourself from accidental plagiarism and/or the nefarious intent of your colleagues and collaborators. There is plagiarism detection software available so that you can scan work before you choose to submit for publication or submit to a funding agency such as NSF. Plagiarism detection software will compare your work to the professional literature and provide you with a similarity report by identifying text that is identical to published literature. Thus, you can identify problems and correct them before you submit for publication. However, keep in mind that this will not protect you from an English teacher that taught you to count words (i.e., excuse #6 above.) So, I encourage students to struggle with their writing because as I asserted above, you do not truly understand your work until you can clearly write about it and/or explain it to others.



Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of Research & Innovation. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.

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