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SPECIAL REPORT Plagiarism in the Age of Digital Reproduction 27 WINTER 2015 N° 36 blatant case of data theft combined with falsification was uncovered, it emerged that the same author had published a number of fraudulent articles in the past, all of which were eventually retracted. Little protection for the victims Cutting and pasting a text without citing its source is only the most obvious form of plagiarism, and the easiest to track down. There are other, much more insidious ways to steal an idea, especially when the source is not public, such as research projects presented to small groups or results discussed at informal conferences but not yet submitted for publication. One of the most outrageous examples of this kind of plagiarism was the publication in 1953 of an article in which James Watson and Francis Crick19 revealed the double-helix structure of DNA. It turned out that the two researchers owed this discovery to images of DNA obtained by Rosalind Franklin using X-ray diffraction. The images were used without her knowledge, and she was not credited. Watson and Crick went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962, after Franklin’s death. Her contribution to the discovery was eventually revealed by the third laureate, Maurice Wilkins. “The impact of such deceptions far exceeds the harm caused to the plagiarized party,” insists Geneviève Koubi, a legal expert and member of the CERSA.20 “The damage done to research as a whole is even more significant, as it encourages inaction and casts suspicion on all researchers.” Passive complicity can also be found in cutting-edge research fields, due to excessive interdependence. The collective nature of scientific research and the very process of peer review make it difficult to denounce fraud, especially if the “borrowing” relates to work in progress, in other words, ideas that are not yet published and protected. In particular, while plagiarists may face disciplinary or even legal action, including the invalidation of a thesis or retraction of an article, the whistleblowers often find themselves in the hot seat as well. The time lost in detecting plagiarism, compounded by the complexity and potential cost of the procedures for reporting it, all tend to prevent victims from taking action. An individual and collective responsibility Another problem is that intellectual property law cannot formalize various and distinct levels of plagiarism. Surprisingly, the French justice system makes plagiarism a commercial matter: to be punishable by law, it must be considered as “counterfeiting.” Would a new law solve the problem? “Things aren’t that simple,” for Koubi and Gilles Guglielmi, who co-authored a book on the subject in 2012.21 In their opinion, it is preferable to appeal to individual and collective responsibility, considering that professional ethics and good practice will be more effective than adding more laws to an already complex legal code. How, then, should the associated psychological damage be addressed in such a specific field as research, and the “intellectual crime” codified in the statute books? “France still lacks a full-proof academic mechanism for detecting and punishing plagiarism, as is the case for example in Luxembourg and Switzerland,” the international expert on academic plagiarism and University of Geneva professor Michelle Bergadaà, points out. For Letellier, “it is the entire structure of research that must be reassessed, as the pressure to publish inevitably exacerbates this phenomenon. Career vulnerability and the extent of interdependence also need to be re-examined. But in the past few years, institutions have become more aware of the problem, which has led to preventive and repressive measures.” Nonetheless, fraud has not been eradicated, affecting public perception of the role of research in society. Proper guidelines can help raise awareness among scientists, but will this be enough to change the status quo? ii L. B. Y. AND Y. P.


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