Published October 23, 2012
By Margaret Munro
A leading University of Toronto researcher has been censured for self-plagiarism – and “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system” – after a software program revealed his group had been recycling text from previous studies.
Stephen Matthews and two colleagues in the university’s faculty of medicine “self-plagiarized” text from five other reports in a 2005 paper in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, says a retraction notice published by the journal this month.
“This article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” says the notice.
Matthews was not responding to interview requests Tuesday.
“He’s busy,” said Lloyd Rang, executive director of communications at University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, who depicted the case as a copyright squabble over a paper that was always intended as a “review.”
“Under the strictest definition of copyright it had to be original, but there are only so many ways to describe the research landscape,” Rang said of Matthews’ report that now has “retracted” stamped across it in bold red letters.
Rang said the problem was revealed by software the journal editors are now using. He could not say whether the software was Turnitin, a program used by the University of Toronto and many other universities to detect and deter plagiarism by students.
The retraction notice says Matthews’ report, which was pulled by the editor-and-chief, “self-plagiarized parts” of five previous studies published in other journals.
“One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Re-use of any material should be appropriately cited and quoted,” the notice says. “As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system.“
The retracted paper, by Matthews and then graduate student Dawn Owen and research associate Marcus Andrews, explored the effects of glucocorticoids, a drug commonly given to pregnant women at risk of early delivery.
Matthews has been involved in some of Canada’s largest studies of maternal and fetal health, exploring everything from fetal alcohol syndrome to how drugs can impact fetal development.
The projects, listed on Matthews U of T website, have received more than $10 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
Rang would not say whether the university is treating the case as research misconduct.
Federal research agencies were also mum on the case, which was flagged Tuesday by Retraction Watch, a U.S. group that shines light on one of the darker corners of academia by tracking corrections and retractions in research literature.
CIHR and NSERC referred queries to the federal Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, which also had no comment.
“We cannot comment on whether a matter is under review or what recourse, if any, an Agency has taken with respect to a matter,“ Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the secretariat, said in an email.
The federal framework for the responsible conduct of research lists self-plagiarism – or “redundant publications” – as a breach of the rules governing federally funded research.
It defines it as “re-publication of one’s own previously published work or part thereof, or data, in the same or another language, without adequate acknowledgment of the source, or justification.”
While not as serious as fabricating results or fudging data, self-plagiarism clutters up the scientific literature and can been used to inflate a researcher’s publication record when asking for more research grants.