By Johanna Coenen, Jens Newig, Patrick Meyfroidt, Simon Bager and Edward Challies
In the past months, we have tried to solve a case of plagiarism, but without success. The process has brought the sobering revelation that plagiarism is deliberately ignored in a high-ranking journal like the Journal of Cleaner Production, which is published by Elsevier.
In August 2021, we noticed that a large text segment of the article entitled “Mapping socio-ecological resilience along the seven economic corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative”, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production (JCLP), has essentially been taken from our publication entitled “Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative”, published in the journal Environmental Policy and Governance (EPG) with some minor modifications and no reference to our article (see below).
We contacted the Editors of JCLP and asked them to review this issue. After sending several reminders, we received a response in October, saying: “Our similarity check report shows that only 1% of similarity rate for these two articles. Therefore, we do not think there is possible plagiarism for the JCLP paper. However, there is indeed inappropriate citation, we will contact the authors and make a correction accordingly” [E-mail October 21, 2021].
Yet, the journal editors took no actions. We sent a reminder e-mail and received the following response in December: “After our editorial team’s internal discussion, we do not think there is any potential plagiarism regarding the article […]. “Although the JCLP article clearly uses the EPG paragraph (order and references), the JCLP paper is not using “their ideas or results,””.” [E-mail from December 10, 2021]
Indeed, a similarity rate of 1% seems very little. However, our text has only partly been copied literally, and partly been paraphrased, which is more difficult to detect with a plagiarism software than longer passages of literal copying. The problem is that the entire paragraph is organized around exactly the same references, in the same order, to make the same points (and still takes over parts verbatim). In other words, what is plagiarized here is only partly the specific words; it is the intellectual content that is expressed in organizing these thoughts and in identifying, compiling, organizing and synthesizing these references. Any reader will acknowledge that it is entirely impossible that independently, these authors came up with exactly the same list of works compiled in the same order to make the same points. It is thus indisputable that these authors drew inspiration from our paper without citation.
Elsevier’s policies explicitly recognize that even paraphrasing is a form of plagiarism: “Copying may take place without reproducing the exact words used in the original work, i.e. without literal or substantial copying. This type of copying is known as paraphrasing, and it can be the most difficult type of plagiarism to detect (…)”.1
We responded to the Editors of JCLP by seriously questioning their position and inaction. We requested that the authors should add an appropriate citation to our article, such as “This paragraph is drawn from Coenen et al. (2021)” or similar. We never requested a retraction of the article, but merely an Erratum to simply acknowledge our work from which these authors drew. However, we did not receive a response.
As a next step, we contacted the authors, presented them this comparison and asked them to issue an Erratum in order to include an appropriate citation. The authors apologized, announced that they would cite us in their next publication (we note that this announcement has, in our view, no relevance to the matter in question here), but did not take any actions in the present case.
As a last step, we sent a complaint to Elsevier. We presented our case, asked them to review the issue and pointed to what in our view is an irresponsible journal editorship at JCLP. The case was forwarded to the editorial manager of JCLP. Then, we received a response from the JCLP editorial team, saying that “Upon a second check, the editorial team still don’t find real plagia-rism issue even according to the strictest ethical standard.”. They went on and explained: “To illustrate the editors’ point of view, the editorial team have checked your EPG paper. We also could find the same issues in it, which recorded 25% similarity. Being strict, even if you cite the source, you cannot use the same text.” [E-mail from February 28, 2022]. They added a hardly readable compilation of screenshots which shows text segments with a high degree of similarity with our article. This plagiarism assessment revealed similarities between our EPG article and short phrases of sources that we cite, the entry of the very same paper on ResearchGate (which explains the high degree of similarity), and even another sentence that the authors of the aforementioned plagiarized text segment have seemingly taken from our article.
We suddenly found ourselves in the position of needing to defend our own article. Any scientific article is based on previous literature and rephrases existing studies to some extent. Thus, finding some degree of similarity is neither surprising, nor problematic when appropriate citation is used. The mentions of similarity/plagiarism that the JCLP editorial team identified on our article in EPG are single sentences that directly cite the paper to which they refer. As the compilation shows, several works pick the same point from specific papers, and use the formulation of the original authors to remain as true as possible to their originally-intended meaning. With adequate citation that just follows this sentence, this is not plagiarism.
On top of this, the JCLP editorial team accused us of “a substantial amount of self-plagiarism” [E-mail from February 28, 2022], which is clearly unjustified, as the texts they identified do not refer to different works, but simply the upload of the same paper on ResearchGate and our own blog post discussing it.
What started out as a genuine attempt to correct an omission has become an eye-opening and worrying experience about research ethics and publishing practices. The apparent reluctancy to take actions against plagiarism undermines the credibility of the journal and, most importantly, its scientific integrity. We are unfortunately not the only researchers who report about editors’ deliberate ignorance of plagiarism. David A. Sanders highlighted in a related blogpost: “By not taking firm action on articles that contain plagiarized text, editors are encouraging misconduct”.2 We hope that publicizing our case contributes towards raising awareness about violations of good research practices and responsible journal management.