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Plagiarism and Bioethics

I hope that I am unique, or at least unusual, in having detected plagiarism of my work five times during my career as a bioethics scholar. Despite extensive discussion of plagiarism in biomedical research published in scientific journals, to my knowledge, the bioethics literature has devoted no attention to plagiarism within the field. I describe my recent experience with two instances of plagiarism here in order to alert fellow bioethicists to this problem and to stimulate discussion about what can be done to prevent it.

While doing a Google search relating to some current research, I noticed a link entitled, “Therapeutic Orientation to Clinical Trials” – a label that I had coined and used for the title of a published paper and several invited presentations. It turned out to be a PowerPoint presentation by another bioethics scholar that contained at least 20 slides copied from one of my presentations. There was no reference to me.

This author had previously invited me to give a talk on this topic at his institution. Because I knew and liked him, I decided not to initiate a formal inquiry. Instead, I sent him an e-mail describing my discovery, with attachments that included his presentation and a copy of one of my presentations from which the text was copied. I stated that I didn’t recall having given him permission to use my slides and that I wanted him to remove the document from the Internet. I received what appeared to be a sincere e-mail apology, though it was marred by the lame statement that the appropriation of my work was unintentional – an obvious falsehood.

Only a few days later, I discovered another instance of plagiarism of my published work. Reading a recent article on end-of-life decisions, I was initially pleased to see that the authors had both cited a recent paper I’d written with two colleagues and appealed to its central concept of moral fictions. But two-thirds of the way into the article some of the language seemed all too familiar.

I was astonished to discover multiple sentences extracted from my paper, some verbatim, others with a few words changed. The total text appropriated amounted to several paragraphs. In addition to the extensive plagiarism, this article relied heavily on the analytical strategy of our article, with no acknowledgment of this reliance and only a single citation.

I filed a complaint of plagiarism with the journal that published the article and notified the journal that had published my article. A series of e-mail exchanges ensued, leading to investigations by both journals. The upshot was that the journal publishing the plagiarizing article issued a retraction notice and removed the article from its Web site. Once again, however, full accountability for plagiarism was diminished, as the retraction notice stated that “there was no intention to use preexisting work without appropriate attribution – a claim belied by the facts.

If my experience is not unusual, then the field of bioethics scholarship may be in serious trouble. The fact that plagiarism occurs within ethics scholarship is ironic, though particularly deplorable. Ethically speaking, plagiarism of the sort I described is not a complicated issue; nevertheless, even these straightforward examples are not without ramifications that have some moral complexity.

The plagiarism of my collaborative work on moral fictions was written by two coauthors. Both authors may have been “partners in crime.” However, it is conceivable that the second author had no knowledge of the misappropriated ideas and text. Coauthors do not necessarily read all the articles reviewed by the first author and may even appropriately leave the literature review to the first author.

Conscientious bioethics scholars are unlikely to be suspicious of misappropriation by their coauthors and thus not well positioned to detect it. That said, it is difficult to see how a second author in the case in question could entirely absolve himself of responsibility. The concept of moral fictions was a central theme of the plagiarizing paper and the plagiarized article on this topic was cited. If the second author didn’t read it, arguably he should have.

Appreciation of the reality of plagiarism in bioethics, coupled with the prevalence of collaborative research, should put coauthors on guard. What is to be done? It would be of interest to engage in empirical research on the extent of plagiarism in bioethics, as well as on awareness of instances of plagiarism and attitudes about this.

In addition to focusing on the ethics of plagiarism, the training of bioethics scholars should include attention to the stupidity of the act. It should be made vivid to scholars in training that whatever possible gain there is in resorting to plagiarism to enhance the chances or impact of publication or to produce an effective presentation can’t be worth the costs of being detected – damaged reputations.

If recognizing the moral turpitude is not a deterrent, the scholar thinking that it might be expedient to plagiarize the work of another might profitably contemplate the remark of Richard Posner in The Little Book of Plagiarism: “The stigma of plagiarism seems never to fade completely, not because it is an especially heinous offense but because it is embarrassingly second rate; its practitioner are pathetic, almost ridiculous.”

Though treating plagiarism with a light touch, Posner does not suggest that it is innocuous. Violators should be held publicly accountable, both because they deserve to be sanctioned and to deter others. It is a sad state of affairs if bioethicists of all people can’t adhere scrupulously to the norms of scholarship, especially the most elementary ethical rule of refraining from misappropriating the work of fellow scholars.

Franklin G. Miller is a member of the senior faculty in the Department of Bioethics of the National Institutes of Health. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the position or policy of the National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Service, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Published on: February 22, 2011
Published in: Bioethics

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