Floored by flaws?

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A recent iThenticate press release carried the headline, “Survey Shows Plagiarism a Regular Problem in Scholarly Research” (iThenticate Press Release, 2012 December 5).

I’m not sure what to make of it. The logic, the argument, the statistics, the interpretation. There’s something not quite right. Several things. I have already noted some of my disquiet in Flattering Flaws, wondered if there might be vested interest in sensationalising the survey results?  But those are not my only concerns.

To be more sure, I went to the actual survey report, available as “2012 Survey Highlights: Scholarly Plagiarism” (iThenticate, 2012).  I wanted to check the statements, and to think again about the logic of statements made in the press release.  It is worth noting here that iThenticate is the company behind Plagiarism.org and Turnitin.com, and Turnitin’s name appears at the foot of every page of the iThenticate survey report.

It’s interesting.  Some of the statements in the Press Release seem not to be borne out by the survey results as published.  As noted, I have already written about the unsupported statement (in the Press Release) that the number of instances of plagiarism reported by Retraction Watch doubled between 2010 and 2011.

Now, again in the Press Release, we are told “Nearly one in three editors encounters plagiarism ‘regularly.”  And there is nothing in the Survey Report which supports this.  Of course, the Press Release itself is not the Survey Report, and the Survey Highlights are not necessarily the Report either. The press release writer might have had access to data which are not included in the published report. But then, how do we know? What is the evidence? Where is the evidence?

These are not the only statements which are a trifle disingenuous, needing further explication. In the Survey Highlights itself, we are told “In October 2012, iThenticate fielded an online survey of 419 researchers, authors and editors of scholarly publications to assess their attitudes and experiences surrounding the issue of plagiarism.”  It’s an odd number, 419. One cannot help wondering how those 419 were chosen. Was this a random sample? Perhaps a collection of already concerned and thus self-selected respondents to a published survey?  How many researchers, authors and editors were approached but chose not to take part? Was this a world-wide sample, or confined to the United States? Just one state?

We are not told.

However, we are told (in the press release) that

95 percent of editors and 84 percent of researchers reported that they “occasionally” or “regularly” encounter instances of plagiarism.

Turning to the Survey Report, however, it looks as if respondents were given just three alternatives from which to choose: Regularly, Occasionally, or Never.  Is this a case of, if “Never” does not apply, then “Occasionally” does, even if this was just once, several years ago?  Add up all those “Occasionally”s (63% of respondents), and it becomes a shock-horror statistic?

The Press Release tells us:

Researchers reported the highest level of concern, with more than more than one in four reporting that plagiarism is a ‘very serious’ problem in their field. However, they were among the least likely of those surveyed to be utilizing plagiarism detection tools(iThenticate Press release, 2012).

One wonders why academic researchers would use Turnitin (or WriteCheck, or iThenticate) if they are confident of their referencing techniques, as at this level of academia they surely should be? If you know – or think you know – when and how to reference your sources, surely you are unlikely to check whether you have got it right?

That thought is in fact echoed in the Survey Report:

When asked what would prevent someone from utilizing plagiarism detection software (sic), three factors rose to the top as leading barriers: cost, time, and the belief that plagiarism is not an issue with their own work. Author confidence in the originality of their own work was also perceived as a deterrent to performing a formal plagiarism check (iThenticate 2012 Survey Highlights, p. 3).

We looked at one particular statement in the Press Release earlier, in Flattering Flaws : contrasting researchers’ reluctance to use “plagiarism detection software” with editors’ usage, the press release notes:

“Editors at scholarly publications were the exact opposite, with a majority reporting routinely checking submitting authors’ work for plagiarism. The web site Retraction Watch estimates that the number of retractions in scholarly publications doubled between 2010 and 2011″ (iThenticate Press release, 2012).

We noted that duplication of work (as recorded by Retraction Watch) is even more common than plagiarism.  It is right for editors to be concerned; if their journals aim to publish reports of original research, then they don’t want second-hand reports, papers which have been published elsewhere.

Duplicitous researchers, on the other hand, surely know when they are submitting their papers to several journals at the same time, or if they are submitting a paper to a second journal before they have heard back from the first journal approached.  Researchers who double-dip either do not know or do not care about editorial requirements of sole submission. But they surely know what they are doing. iThenticate is of no interest to them either.

What are we left with? A survey report which itself begs questions, heralded by a press release which seems, at times, to include unsupported and questionable statements.



iThenticate (2012). “2012 Survey Highlights: Scholarly Plagiarism.” iThenticate. http://www.ithenticate.com/Portals/92785/docs/plagiarism-survey-results-120412.pdf

iThenticate Press release (2012 December 5). “Survey Shows Plagiarism a Regular Problem in Scholarly Research, Publishing, But Action to Prevent Falls Short.” iThenticate. http://www.ithenticate.com/press-releases/plagiarism-survey-2012/


One thought on “Floored by flaws?

  1. Pingback: Carried away | Honesty, honestly…

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