Gas station without pumps

2015 March 14

Plagiarism detected

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:33
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It has recently come to my attention that an article in Nature Biotechnology: doi:10.1038/nbt.2950 “Decoding long nanopore sequencing reads of natural DNA” plagiarizes from my blog, specifically Supplementary Material page 6 from Segmenting noisy signals from nanopores.  Now, I don’t mind their using my work—I would not have published it in such a public form as posting to my blog if I were trying to keep it secret—but standard scholarly practice requires that sources be cited.  Claiming someone else’s work as one’s own is the academic sin.

I don’t know which of the 13 authors of the Nature Biotechnology authors is the plagiarist, but I hold the head of the lab (Jens Gundlach) responsible for the plagiarism, since it seems clear that he did not bother to check that his students and co-workers were citing others’ work appropriately.  It is the job of the head of a lab to create a culture of proper citation—failure to do so is indication of not doing one’s job as a scholar or as a professor.

I’m undecided about what to do about this plagiarism.  The obvious thing to do would be to complain to the editors, but I have no idea whether that will do any good.  The last time I had a serious plagiarism case like this was when I was in logic minimization, and parts of a paper of mine that had been rejected from the main (almost sole) journal in the field later appeared in a conference article with the editor who had rejected the paper as one of the co-authors.  In that case, complaints to the journal were useless (they just sent the complaints to the editor who had plagiarized from me—thereby ensuring that I would never get any papers published in the field).  I ended up leaving the field in disgust (as several other researchers had done—the field has been pretty stagnant since all new ideas were blocked by the powerful editor) and moving into bioinformatics instead, where rivalries were decided more on the quality of one’s solutions than on publication blocking and theft.

This case is different, though, because the plagiarist is not the editor of the journal, and so the editors may have some leverage to apply to the authors, in order to maintain the credibility of the journal.

The fix I’m looking for is pretty simple one: an apology from Jens Gundlach for not catching and correcting the plagiarism, and adding a citation to my blog to the published article. If they can’t bring themselves to cite me, they could at least cite another source (like Detection of Abrupt Changes: Theory and Application by Michèle Basseville and Igor V. Nikiforov, whom I cited as my inspiration, though Basseville and Nikiforov don’t describe the recursive algorithm I developed).

To complicate matters slightly, I’ve recently submitted a paper to PeerJ based on the same body of work (though including the improved parameterization developed in some of my later blog posts, and including some empirical evidence that the new algorithm works substantially better than filtered-derivative algorithms).  I would not want someone finding Gundlach’s group’s paper and think I had plagiarized from them, rather than them from me.

I ask my readers—how diligently should I pursue this plagiarism case?  Has anyone had any experience with Nature Biotechnology on such matters? Do they care about plagiarism? Or do they make life hell for anyone who brings up the subject?

Update 27 March 2105: I’ve heard from the lead author—see Followup on plagiarism.


  1. It seems like the situation is important enough and your desired remedies reasonable enough that I would definitely pursue this. (The remedy being (1) a letter of apology, (2) citing your blog).

    I wonder about first reaching out to the authors themselves? Maybe BCC’ing all of them (so that it’s less of a public discussion), listing what you found above (using neutral language as much as possible),and asking them for the remedy you want (letter of apology from the plagiarist, citing the blog) would get them to ‘make things right’. With such a reasonable request it should be easy for them to say yes.

    I’d send the email to the authors and then give them, say, 2 weeks to make reasonable progress on addressing this. If there’s not enough progress then tell them they’ve got another, say, week before you go to the editor and tell him/her what you’ve found. If they can’t resolve it then go to the editor.

    I think that the only way this might go wrong is if you reach out to them & they immediately tell the editor that someone is falsely accusing them. I’m guessing that you could safeguard against this by contacting the editor first and saying “Here’s what I’ve got, but I’d like to work it out with the authors directly” .

    It seems like this approach should have the added advantage that if the plagiarist doesn’t do the right thing you’ll have the moral high ground. I’d like to think that plagiarizing, being given a very generous chance to make things right, and then not doing the right thing will be as damaging to the person’s career as we’d all like.

    Comment by Mike — 2015 March 15 @ 14:21 | Reply

  2. Theres a ton of other prior stuff they didn’t reference either, making a bunch of wildly over inflated claims of ‘firsts’.

    Comment by slarty — 2015 March 16 @ 10:19 | Reply

  3. I would do the same but addressing the mail to the authors AND the editor.

    Comment by mathieu — 2015 March 16 @ 10:31 | Reply

  4. Kevin, This is a rapidly moving field, as is the technology aspect of publication and what I’d term thought sharing. (e.g. blogs, tweets, etc) I think it makes sense to contact a senior editor and CC the corresponding author and explain the situation. You deserve a citation at the very least. I hope all is well in Santa Cruz! Jason

    Comment by Jason Underwood — 2015 March 16 @ 10:38 | Reply

  5. You should absolutely pursue this blatant disregard of your rights.

    Comment by Ginny — 2015 March 16 @ 11:03 | Reply

  6. I’d suggest assuming it was an honest oversight and just privately inform the authors. It happens.

    If there are other unoriginal things being presented as original (as slarty mentioned), then you might want to mention that and suggest they revise to make their citations more complete overall. I could imagine a situation where someone didn’t realize that blogs and such need to be cited just like any other sources… sadly, that isn’t very rare, though it is very very wrong (material from open forums like blogs most certainly does need to be cited!)

    If they promptly correct it, then no problem. Maybe even give them a little blog/tweet shout-out for fixing their mistakes like everyone should be doing.
    However, If they stonewall or otherwise refuse to do the right thing, then contact the editor and make it publicly known that they are being dishonest.

    Comment by Travis Collier — 2015 March 16 @ 21:23 | Reply

  7. I don’t understand at all why you would rely exclusively on a journal editor to correct an instance of academic fraud, particularly in the first instance where the the editor was apparently the guilty party. (I don’t recall the statute of limitations, but you might still report that first instance through federal channels.)

    There are well-defined reporting channels that include both the employer of the person in question and the federal government’s oversight agency for your region of the country. Start with the authors, CC’d to the editor, using a reliably archived method (return receipt e-mail will do) and followup with the journal and their university and funding agency if they don’t respond. Your university VP for Research will know all you need to know about the process.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2015 March 21 @ 20:43 | Reply

  8. […] Plagiarism detected, I mentioned that an article in Nature Biotechnology plagiarizes from my blog, specifically […]

    Pingback by Followup on plagiarism | Gas station without pumps — 2015 March 27 @ 08:26 | Reply

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