Massive Plagiarism Scandal

From Ars Mathematica I learned about an article at Ars Technica describing a scandal involving plagiarism of theoretical physics papers by about 20 different people, some of them students at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Many of the papers were refereed and published in well-known journals, and one made it into what is now perhaps the most well-known particle theory journal, the Journal of High Energy Physics.

According to Dr. Sarioglu, [faculty member at METU] two of the authors of this paper were graduate students with a prodigious track record of publication: over 40 papers in a 22-month span. Dr. Karasu, who sat on the panel that evaluated their oral exams, became suspicious when their knowledge of physics didn’t appear to be consistent with this level of output. Discussions with Dr. Tekin revealed that the students also did not appear to possess the language skills necessary for this level of output in English-language journals (METU conducts its instruction in English).

This caused these faculty members to go back and examine their publications in detail, at which point the plagiarism became clear. “All they had done was literally take big chunks of others’ work using the ‘copy and paste’ technique,” Dr. Sarioglu said, “steal from here and there to cook up an Intro which is basically the same stuff in all their manuscripts, carry out some really trivial calculations such as taking derivatives of some simple functions, and write up the results in the format of a paper.” The department chair was informed and started an internal investigation; the university’s Ethics Committee has since become involved.

In the mean time, the faculty and administration at METU are attempting to do some damage control. The university’s president personally sent a letter to the Journal of High Energy Physics requesting that the paper be withdrawn—a request that, as noted above, has yet to be acted upon. Meanwhile, the faculty members mentioned above are working with the arXiv administrators to ensure that any plagiarized work is removed.

The Ars Technica article emphasizes the role of the arXiv in this, since the plagiarized papers first appeared there and are still available there, although arXiv administrators have replaced the latest versions of the papers with a notation “withdrawn by arXiv administrators due to plagiarism”. I don’t actually think the arXiv is the real scandal here, rather the fact that refereeing standards in theoretical physics are now so low that obviously plagiarized papers don’t seem to have much trouble getting into even the best journals in the field. Some of the other journals that published plagiarized papers from this same group of people include:

  • General Relativity and Gravitation (here and here). The situation of the second of these is really confusing, since according to the arXiv it plagiarizes a paper by a completely different group in India, one that the arXiv lists as having “excessive overlap” with an earlier paper by the Turkish plagiarists.
  • Modern Physics Letters (here and here)
  • International Journal of Modern Physics (here, here, here, here and here)
  • International Journal of Theoretical Physics (here, here and here)
  • Journal of Mathematical Physics (here)
  • Progress in Theoretical Physics (here)
  • Fortschritte der Physik (here)
  • European Physics Journal (here)
  • Foundations of Physics Letters (here and here)
  • Chinese Physics Letters (here and here)
  • Chinese Journal of Physics (here)
  • Czech Journal of Physics (here and here)
  • Fizika (here)
  • Nuovo Cimento (here)
  • Acta Physica Polonica (here and here)
  • Acta Physica Slovaca (here and here)
  • Pramana Journal of Physics (here and here)
  • Astrophysics and Space Science (here, here, here and here)
  • There are also other papers by some of the same authors which the arXiv does not list as plagiarized (published in Nuclear Physics B, here, Classical and Quantum Gravity, here, International Journal of Modern Physics, here and here) .

    Remind me again, why is it that universities are paying large sums to get these journals?

    Update: My guess is that most theorists are just going to ignore this and pretend it didn’t happen. As far as I can tell, the journals involved haven’t even bothered to add a notation to the articles still available on-line to note that they are plagiarisms, much less do anything to stop this from happening again. But at least Lubos agrees with me:

    The journals and arXiv are clearly flooded with papers that no one cares about which is why this thing can happen.

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    77 Responses to Massive Plagiarism Scandal

    1. Phil says:

      In case anyone is interested to hear more about my original paper that got plagiarsed, I have written something about it in my blog here :-)

    2. Log Lady says:

      As another war story, about 20 years ago I refereed and rejected a geophysical paper. It seemed pretty clear to me that the junior author had written his own computer program based on someone else’s Masters thesis and used the thesis results to check it. So far, so good. He could have then used the program to do something new. But then he wrote his own paper and submitted it as new work without even any reference to the thesis. I pointed out to the editor that the work was not new and roughly fifteen of the figures in the paper were identical to the figures in the thesis. (Really identical. After all, he wanted to check his program, didn’t he?) I expected never to see the paper again, but it was published a couple of years later. The senior author, an accomplished schmoozer in the field, had simply hammered away at the refereeing process, demanded a more “reasonable” reviewer, and outlasted the periodic changes in editor and associate editor.

      I don’t read the journals anymore. The papers are too poorly written and I don’t have time to find and correct the errors. If I have an idea, I troll the internet for useful information. When I write a paper, I feel no obligation to pad it with references to everyone that ever expressed a thought about the subject. I only include references that I personally found useful and that were well-written enough that I would recommend them to others. Unless I am specifically writing a review paper, acknowledging everyone who made any contribution to the area simply buries important references in a cloud of fluff.

    3. Bee says:

      Hi Rien:

      Indeed, that’s exactly what I mean. And yes, it is endlessly annoying. Coincidentally, I yesterday came across this Wikipedia entry about the ‘Least Publishable Unit’ ;-)

      Besides this, some remarks on the arXiv plagiarism check. Last year or so, I noticed they were fiddling around with something because upon submission of a paper I got a message saying my paper was rejected because it seemed to be a copy of an already existing paper. I had a look at this other paper (turned out I knew the author), and there were about no similarities except that I accidentally had picked the same title (well, it was a proceedings article, how creative does one have to be for that?). So I sent a complaint to the arXiv guys, and they resolved the problem (very promptly and within only a couple of hours I have to say.)

      So I was somewhat sceptical about the whole thing, but by now I came to like it. There have been at least two groups of people who have been posting papers (repeatedly) where the whole introduction was made of copies from my papers. It’s not that the actual content was a plagiarism, but I found it really annoying nevertheless. I mean, I spent quite some while writing this stuff, and then there come some guys and just copy it? I have sent them emails once or twice, which didn’t change anything. Coincidentally I had to referee some of their papers where I send a note to the editor about it. The result of that however was that they replaced the copies from my papers with copies from somebody elses paper (I happened to recognize also his writing). I should add in both cases, they cited the original work. (And in both cases it considerably improved the English of the manuscript.)

      One way or the other, the first some pages of their recent papers still have close resemblance to mine, but they have rearranged the sentences noticeably. I guess this is because they ran into problems with the arXiv filter, and so I really welcome it.

      Best,

      B.

    4. Alfred Holden says:

      Plagiarism is form of flattery. Though without honor it has been practiced since time began. Concentric waves of thought emulating successive authors’ works.

      Good work is rare. Plagiarism merely reinforces existing work. One could speak of the stress that belies the academic professions to publish. With Universities and Colleges expanding, the pressure for new works taxes the professions.

      It is an age of mediocrity. A broad band of white noise.

      Occasionally, we hit a chord. Sometimes we have a tune.

      Think of those who have rewritten history countless times to where we accept things on faith alone. Where objects become larger than life, where they aquire a life of their own.

      The philosopher’s stone, the journey towards enlightenment, the means to all ends.

      The brightest of our students search for this. It is what gave rise to alchemy in the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and India. It became the “holy grail” of Western alchemy.

      In the view of spiritual alchemy, making the philosopher’s stone would bring enlightenment upon the maker and conclude the Great Work.

      Disambiguation is the result of the process of resolving conflicts as in plagiarism, where the author strives to conclude the “Great Work”.

    5. a.k. says:

      ..one could remark that, this does mainly concern PhD thesis, that it can be probably more honest to summarize used results clearly, even if it has a copy/paste character, than to seemingly ‘rework’ the material and give the half-informed reader the illusion to have creatively invented a whole area. We should be all quite aware (Einstein was, by the way), that we only make more or less tiny contributions to an area thousands of brilliant thinkers have smoothed and brightened long before we even existed. Given that at least PhD-thesis are expected to be to a certain degree ‘self-contained’, there is inevitably a certain degree of redundancy to existing papers and results, the creativity to arrange these results ‘nicely’ (seeming to be ‘orginial’) could be more effectively adressed to exploring new ideas, this is at least my point of view.

    6. Kris Krogh says:

      Einstein quote: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Can’t say I agree with that one.

    7. Amos Dettonville says:

      Kris,
      Can you cite a reference for that Einstein “quote”? I know it’s in circulation, and was used as the motto for a book accusing Einstein of being an “incorragible plagiarist”, but when John Stachel (Einstein scholar) reviewed that book, he mentioned that he knew of no actual reference for that quote. To my ear, it sounds like another of those “sayings” (like the recent one about mankind only surviving for 3 years if the bees all disappeared) that someone decides to attribute to “Einstein” to make it sound more authoritative (or something). Anyway, I’d be interested if you know the source.

    8. (withheld) says:

      I once had a paper that an ESL coauthor wrote, and noticed that the English suspiciously improved in places. I simply copied the sentences into Google and they popped up on pubmed and other indices as imbedded in other papers. I was furious, and let this guy know that this was unacceptable and his career (or at least our collaboration) was over if it wasn’t fixed immediately and never happened again. What was most stunning was that he kept referring to it as a copyright issue, rather than grasping that there was fundamental dishonesty involved.

      And that was just a few sentences mostly in the intro, actually kind of irrelevant to any deep original thoughts in the paper. I can’t conceive of what kind of mentality it takes to copy a whole paper with results. Far beyond that is the mentality of an editor who won’t pull such a paper immediately and permanently ban the offending author from its pages.

    9. a.k. says:

      ..one could add that from my point of view, the actual problem in mathematics, physics and related sciences is that, in contrary to the ‘classical’ sciences as philosophy, there is no ‘citation culture’ in the exact sciences, it was inherent over thousands of years (refering to Euclid et al.) that mathematical findings are ‘unpersonal’, they tended to be results founded by large groups, collectives of mathematicians. From this point of view, a ‘citation culture’ wasn’t needed, up to the present, the actual training of mathematicians involves to a large degree to ‘transform’ collective knowledge into subjective knowledge, where this borders to simple ‘plagiarism’ is often impossible to decide. What I want to express is that excessive plagiarism is to a certain degree a (deformed) continuation of ‘well-accepted’ methods in the exact sciences, assuming this, the discussion is not that ‘black and white’ anymore as it may seem.

    10. Kris Krogh says:

      Amos,

      I think you’re right. In most compilations of Einstein quotes, that one is included. But, searching the web just now for the source, I couldn’t find one. Thanks for setting me straight!

    11. Intellectually Curious says:

      Dear (withheld),

      I agree that what your co-author did certainly was wrong, but I can’t help but think that if he (assuming it’s a male) were a native English user, he could’ve easily paraphrased those copied sentences and not be accused of being a plagiarist. But would this make him any more honest if the original source was not cited? So I can see why your colleague might insist on this being a copyright issue rather than one of dishonesty, especially when those sentences do not involve “any deep original thoughts.” I’m not defending him, of course, but I can sort of see his point.

      I think whether a person is a true plagiarist should be judged over a period of time rather than being judged based on one “gray-area” incident. This person must be warned/educated, of course, as you rightly did so, but perhaps be also given the benefit of the doubt.

      It’s just my opinion based on what little I know about your specific case. Maybe the incident crossed a darker shade of gray than I thought…

    12. (withheld) says:

      I.C.: It is a point to ponder, I agree. I hadn’t realized until it happened how I’d internalized the “thou shalt not plagiarize” commandment from my own education. Apparently it is not all that universal.

      I came to the conclusion for myself that it is somewhat arbitrary. It certainly looks very very bad if you are caught copying verbatim, whereas paraphrasing without citing is more in the realm of poor etiquette (by consensus). Since this guy was a student who was quibbling already, it didn’t make sense to me to be nuanced in my criticism. I thought well of him otherwise and wanted him to know that people would frown on doing such things.

      That’s all tiny potatoes compared to what Peter’s post was about, though. I’m still stunned thinking about it. The gall…

    13. Intellectually Curious says:

      Those of us who’ve been educated in the West know that plagiarism typically means copying verbatim. But I’ve encountered researchers from various cultures who would never consider stealing (original) ideas but would be more careless with borrowing words from others to describe, say, common concepts and definitions. To them, the intent is not to improperly claim credit but to find a way to express themselves more effectively and correctly in a language foreign to them. These otherwise reputable individuals should be told that in such matters the letter of the law is just as important as the spirit of the law.

    14. Paper Laundrer from Pakistan says:

      A huge help can be made available by ACM, IEEE and other big publishing organization to conference and journal editors by providing free or low-cost “plagiarism’ check and mechanism to scan through short-listed papers before publications.

      This sort of events can cause serious embarrassment to the Conference Organizers, Universities and even the countries involved.

    15. Jim says:

      Actually I had one problem in my career with distinguishing what is plagiarism an what is not. In an invited topical review I reviewed work of other authors and I wrote “the following theorem was proven in [Reference]” and then I copied the two-lines theorem verbatim. I did not consider this to be plagiarism, since I properly referred to the author’s work, but then I was attacked by the author that this is plagiarism and that I should have used quotation marks when writing down the theorem or I should have rephrase the theorem. I do not think that it is a good idea to rephrase theorems every-time they are mentioned and I did not see in the literature theorems in quotations marks either. What is your opinion? Fortunately, I did not have to write another review since that time.

    16. Intellectually Curious says:

      Jim, your case clearly was not plagiarism because 1) you were reviewing the original author’s work; and 2) the correct reference was given with no ambiguity of whose theorem you were describing. Maybe he/she was simply unhappy with your review and tried to find an excuse to attack the reviewer.

      How many ways can you use a precise language like mathematics to write a theorem or definition without repeating parts of someone’s text or without altering the intended meaning with unnatural wording and phrases?

    17. CJ says:

      I do not know if this helps, but Professor Irving Hexham at the University of Calgary wrote a useful guide on academic plagiarism:

      http://www.ucalgary.ca/~hexham/study/plag.html

    18. RPenner says:

      Outrageous as academic plagiarism is, here’s a case of pityful commercial plagiarism:

      Some author named “Sapphire” wants people to buy its new book about time travel (via meditation). For some reason, Amazon.com has many wholly plagiarized “reviews” of this book, which have been lifted from blogs and web dialogues (including a dialog I had on quantum theory). No truly important work was stolen (the writing aspires to be pop physics at best) but neither were any salient points about the book in question. Amazon, has been less than helpful over the months with the “reviews” re-appearing and the public criticism being quashed. Further, the pro-Sapphire advocates describe this as an attempt to persecute Sapphire by a James Lorel. All power to James Lorel in his quest for reviews which make sense and his anti-plagiarism stance! I only regret that I no longer have a personal stake in this.

      http://amazon.com/gp/product/1424315956
      (See the review by Columbia University’s “Doctor of Physic” which was lifted from Wikipedia’s article on “Time Travel”)
      http://forum.physorg.com/index.php?showtopic=12352&view=findpost&p=191221
      (James Lorel drops by Crackpot Central to inform us willful infringement, now removed by Amazon.)

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    20. Kerim says:

      For those who have a hard time understanding the logic behiind such plagiarism: For countries that work hard to close the scientific gap there are often attractive incentives and prizes for publishing more such as cash bonuses per publication, or harsh requirements such as publising certain number of papers for graduating, getting a tenure or proffesorship. Obviously these people, especially the two grad students were simply making “good money”. I dont think they cared about their scientific career, they were simply frauding the university. I heard that they are being sued by the university to get back some 30K $ they were paid as bonus during these two years.

    21. ahmet says:

      As a graduate student physics in Turkey, I feel that the plagiarism scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. For those who are following a career in physics like me have no idea how they published 59 papers in 22 months span. It would be considered as an act of greedy graduate student who has no ethics of science. But they are the member of the university in which are seeking Ph.D. degree under the supervisors of its faculty. Most of the papers had gone though review of their supervisors and their supervisors’ names were appended to the papers. Somehow their advisors were encouring these naive graduate students to publish.

      Let me say what will happen next. The universities(up to now four) involved in the massive ring of paligiarism will open investigation about the case. They will impute the paligiarism to graduate students. Their advisors will say their names were added on papers without their consent. The graduate students will be discharged from the universities. So the case will be closed.

    22. surferrr says:

      This year 1st time METU is not in the list of the top 500 universities in the world. It seems that METU is going down in many ways. In this or that department , you see a russian or an azerbaijani writing a paper and putting his name and the names of a few more on it then having it printed. Next you see these people promoted to associate professorship or full professorship. To have a little fun ,I plagiarized the following from a page in the math department in METU :

      1. Terzioglu, T.; Yurdakul, M.; and Zahariuta, V. On some normability conditions. to appear in Math. Nachr.

      2. Abdeljawad, ;T and Yurdakul, M On some dual conditions in quasibarrelled locally convex spaces. FJMS, 16/3, (2005), 291-300.

      3. Abdeljawad, Thabet; Yurdakul, Murat The property of smallness up to a complemented Banach subspace. Publ. Math. Debrecen 64 (2004), no. 3-4, 415-425.

      4. Terzioglu, T.; Yurdakul, M.; Zahariuta, V. Factorization of unbounded operators on Köthe spaces. Studia Math. 161 (2004), no. 1, 61-70.

      5. Djakov, P.; Terzioglu, T.; Yurdakul, M.; Zahariuta, V. Bounded operators and isomorphisms of Cartesian products of Fréchet spaces. Michigan Math. J. 45 (1998), no. 3, 599-610.

      6. Djakov, P. B.; Önal, S.; Terzioglu, T.; Yurdakul, M. Strictly singular operators and isomorphisms of Cartesian products of power series spaces. Arch. Math. (Basel) 70 (1998), no. 1, 57-65.

      7. Djakov, P. B.; Yurdakul, M.; Zahariuta, V. P. Isomorphic classification of Cartesian products of power series spaces. Michigan Math. J. 43 (1996), no. 2, 221-229.

      8. Djakov, Plamen B.; Yurdakul, Murat; Zahariuta, Vyaceslav P. On Cartesian products of Köthe spaces. Bull. Polish Acad. Sci. Math. 43 (1995), no. 2, 113-117.

      9.Yurdakul, M. A remark on a paper of J. Prada, Arch. Math. (Basel) 61 (1993), no. 4, 385-390.

      10. Terzioglu, T.; Yurdakul, M. Restrictions of unbounded continuous linear operators on Fréchet spaces. Arch. Math. (Basel) 46 (1986), no. 6, 547-550.

    23. Özlem says:

      I am impressed, shocked !
      As a graduate who studies math. physics in Turkey, I can’t believe in my eyes! METU is an exclusive University here and I cannot understand that how these students could be successful in their sufficiency exams during PhD before thesis? Science is not a score, science is not only a paper and not money…
      What a shame!

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    27. just borrowing says:

      Nature 449, 658 (11 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/449658a; Published online 10 October 2007

      Plagiarism? No, we’re just borrowing better English

      Ihsan Yilmaz1

      1. Physics Department, Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Çanakkale, Turkey

      Sir

      The accusations made by arXiv that my colleagues and I have plagiarized the works of others, reported in your News story ‘Turkish physicists face accusations of plagiarism’ (Nature 449, 8; doi:10.1038/449008b 2007) are upsetting and unfair.

      It’s inappropriate to single out my colleagues and myself on this issue. For those of us whose mother tongue is not English, using beautiful sentences from other studies on the same subject in our introductions is not unusual. I imagine that if all articles from specialist fields of research were checked, similarities with other texts and papers would easily be found. In my case, I aimed to cite all the references from which I had sourced information, although I may have missed some of them.

      Borrowing sentences in the part of a paper that simply helps to better introduce the problem should not be seen as plagiarism. Even if our introductions are not entirely original, our results are — and these are the most important part of any scientific paper.

      In the current climate of ‘publish or perish’, we are under pressure to publish our findings along with an introduction that reads well enough for the paper to be published and read, so that our research will be noticed and inspire further work.