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A Question of Ethics

Build your professional reputation on your own merit

By Tara Hoke

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SITUATION An assistant professor submits a research paper for consideration by an ASCE journal. After the peer review is completed, he receives notice that his paper has been declined but with encouragement to rework the paper and resubmit it. Disappointed but not discouraged by this result, the author continues to work on revisions to his paper in hopes of greater success on his second attempt.

A few months later, however, the assistant professor is reading the latest issue of a small open-access journal when he encounters a paper with what he deems to be a shocking amount of similarity to his own rejected work. While by no means an exact copy, similarities run through all aspects of the published work—from its basic premise and methodology to its organization, style, and conclusion. A few sentences scattered throughout the published paper appear to be directly lifted from the reader’s own work, while others contain only minor differences in language or terminology.

The assistant professor has no professional or personal connection to the author of the published paper, and his work has not been published or distributed in any manner. As such, the assistant professor concludes that the other author could only have seen (and subsequently copied) that work if he was one of the anonymous peer reviewers who reviewed his submission to the ASCE journal. He contacts ASCE’s publications staff in hopes of finding someone who can either confirm or refute his suspicions.

While the peer reviewer’s membership status in this case precluded action by the cpc, the journal’s volunteers and staff were fortunately under no such constraint.

While ASCE policy prohibits disclosure of peer reviewers’ names to the author, the staff contact for the journal assures the associate professor she will look into the matter herself. The staff member reviews the journal’s records and finds that the author of the paper in the open-access journal had indeed served as a peer reviewer on the rejected paper. The staff member compares the assistant professor’s submission with the reviewer’s published paper, and she too is disturbed by the degree of similarity between the two works.

The staff member contacts the peer reviewer to share her concerns, but the peer reviewer flatly denies having copied the work. The peer reviewer attributes the similarities to mere coincidence, opining that overlaps are inevitable when multiple researchers focus their attention on the same narrow topic of interest. He claims that his paper was completed well before he reviewed the assistant professor’s submission and points to his paper’s date of publication as proof that his paper was already in the review process at the time he reviewed the complainant’s paper.

The staff member’s doubts are not allayed by the reviewer’s explanation. She believes the degree of overlap cannot be dismissed simply as chance, and though the timeline makes for a tight window, she feels there was ample time for the reviewer to copy the complainant’s paper and have it submitted, reviewed, and published by the other journal. 

While complaints of potential research misconduct by ASCE members are commonly referred to the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) for investigation, the reviewer in this case is not a member.

QUESTION If the case had involved an ASCE member, would his actions in copying another author’s research paper violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?

DISCUSSION Fundamental Canon 5 of the ASCE Code of Ethics reads: “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” 

While this canon is most commonly applied to cases in which engineering practitioners use fraudulent or deceitful methods to obtain work or harm market competitors, it is equally applicable to unfair methods practiced in academia. As research and publication credits are the measures by which academicians compete for employment, tenure, grants, and other recognition, authors who build their curricula vitae based on work that is not their own can be said to have gained undeserved advantages in the “market” for academic advancement.

Offering even more clarity on this point, supplemental guideline e under Canon 5 adds, “Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.” Based on this language, it is likely that the CPC would deem any member who misrepresented another person’s research as his or her own to have violated Fundamental Canon 5.

While the peer reviewer’s membership status in this case precluded action by the CPC, the journal’s volunteers and staff were fortunately under no such constraint. As the reputation of a scholarly publisher is closely linked to the integrity of its authors, editors, and reviewers, ASCE’s publications staff has the authority and mandate to investigate all credible ethical concerns related to its published content, regardless of the membership status of the people named.

The journal promptly opened an investigation of the peer reviewer’s actions and reached out to all parties involved in the case with a request for additional evidence. From the open-access journal that published the reviewer’s paper, ASCE’s staff was able to confirm that the date of submission for this paper occurred after its author had peer-reviewed the complainant’s paper. This confirmed that the reviewer had the opportunity to copy the assistant professor’s work, but it did not directly prove he had in fact done so—and despite numerous conversations with the journal editor about the extent of the apparent copying, the reviewer remained adamant in his claim that he had taken no improper action.

With the investigation at an impasse, the journal’s staff turned to guidance published by the Committee on Publication Ethics.

With the investigation at an impasse, the journal’s staff turned to guidance published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an international membership organization whose mission is to promote best practices for ethical compliance by publishers of scholarly research. In cases involving inconclusive evidence of misconduct by an academic professional or student, COPE recommends referring the investigation to the accused’s university or institution, arguing that this body has greater authority to demand information from the accused and presumably greater incentive to ensure that its staff, faculty, and students do not engage in academic misconduct.

The journal reported its concerns to the office of research integrity at the reviewer’s university, and following an internal investigation, the university ultimately upheld the complainant’s claim that his work had been copied by the reviewer. Upon notice of this finding, the open-access journal promptly retracted the infringing paper, ASCE notified the reviewer he had been removed from its list of approved peer reviewers, and he was flagged in the Society’s author database. While ASCE does not typically ban submissions from authors with past acts of misconduct, this flag would ensure that any paper submitted by the former reviewer would receive heightened scrutiny before acceptance.

This column first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.


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