Scientists Discuss How to Fight Plagiarism
By Gergina Dvoretzka
The closest synonym of plagiarism is theft. It may be an intellectual theft but it is still a theft. While in art and in literature those who have been nailed as plagiarists are despised and even sanctioned, in the scientific circles even venerated figures allow themselves to “borrow” from other persons’ publications without any negative consequences for them.
Scientific fraud and plagiarism was the subject matter of one of the panels of a colloquium called Science and Conscience: Is Scientific Research at the Service of Society which was held at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) headquarters. The event organized by the French Institute in Bulgaria and BAS hosted Bulgarian and foreign scientists.
How can we control scientific research? How shall we react in the case of a fraud? It turned out that there are no easy answers to those questions.
In her contribution on the social aspects of plagiarism Prof. Michelle Bergadaà from Geneva University didn’t hesitate to call “criminals” those who steal other persons’ scientific publications. Her long practice has proved that those criminals are repeat offenders, too. Sometimes they build their scientific career year after year, copying from their colleagues. They happen to turn into professional nomads, changing their place of work from country to country, and that makes them hard to expose. Prof. Bergadaà was adamant that all those who wanted to fight a plagiarist had been threatened, either by the perpetrator or by his/her environment.
Who plagiarizes in science and why? Not only ambitious young scientists looking for quick fame. It’s not by chance that esteemed professors succumb to the temptation to make use of their PhD students’ finds. Financial benefits are another reason for pinching somebody else’s scientific achievement.
How do we react? According to another participant in the colloquium, Prof. Pierre-Jean Benghozi from the Paris Polytechnic University, the usual first reaction would be to talk to the perpetrator. Such a conversation, however, rarely brings the desired result. There are people who decide to defend their copyright in court but such a process usually takes years, and even if there is a positive outcome for the plaintiff in the meantime he/she has spent a lot of time and nerves. Prof. Benghozi reminded how the Internet made intellectual theft much easier in our time.
How do scientific plagiarists manage to go unpunished on a mass scale? Prof. Dimitar Bakalov from the NAS Institute of Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy offered several explanations: copying from sources that are hard to find (foreign-language publications, old forgotten editions etc.), or from unpublished texts to which the plagiarist has gained access. In both cases it is hard to reach the original source.
Prof. Bakalov has observed some paradoxes in the behavior of the intellectual thieves in science. Most often they copy word for word hoping that the reader won’t notice it, or that he/she would keep silence. Why keep silence? Because, as it was pointed our above, the plagiarists are often esteemed scientists with an authority who consider themselves untouchable. The members of a scientific council or a jury wouldn’t always dare to undermine his/her authority, as this would reflect on the authority of the scientific body, too.
The participants of the discussion appealed for zero tolerance towards plagiarism. The inadmissibility of the encroachment upon other persons’ intellectual labour must be brought up from an early age. It is normal to introduce the practice of each scientist stating explicitly under his/her publication that it is the fruit of his/her own research, with a correct indication of the used sources.
In Bulgaria, there are hopes brought by the forthcoming changes in the Academic Personnel Development Act where the establishment of a special body to fight plagiarism is envisaged. The most important factor, however, is the scientist’s conscience.