Watch out, watch out, there are burglars about

f the major journals are anything to go by, the gravest crime that scientists can commit is to make up data and publish the results after peer review. The only thing worse in the eyes of us ‘academics’ is to publish the same makey-up data several times without being rumbled by referees. Once discovered, all the hammers of hell fall on the miscreant: they lose their jobs; their faces are splashed on the news pages of Nature and Science; they are blackballed internationally and can never work in academic circles again. Pretty harsh treatment for what, after all, is a good old-fashioned con (and often one of some ingenuity). In general, most of us love a rascally grifter, so long as they haven’t trousered our life savings. So why is the academic equivalent of the death penalty reserved for what is little different from getting a gullible public to believe that politicians act in the best interests of humanity? If any geologist looked deeply into his or her conscience most would find several cases where they had fudged a bit of data – marked a geological boundary on a map where there was barely a shred of evidence, for instance. We have all speculated well beyond the realms of reality, and often that has passed peer review easily. It is in the very nature of a dominantly observational science to do the odd bit of grifting and have it accepted.

What we detest in real life is the burglar, who desecrates our homes and work. Having anything stolen leaves a life-long trauma and a feeling of being somehow dirtied. In our academic world, theft is called plagiarism. It is most generally applied these days to the actions of students who snip bits and pieces from published sources to get a good mark from a term-paper or dissertation. Like the fabricator of data, they are generally hammered if caught at it. Yet there is a real theft that damages its victims rather than merely soiling the ‘clean image’ of education, and these victims are usually ‘junior partners’ in research. It is rife, and in one form is actually condoned and even encouraged. These days many research students are forced to more or less sign away their intellectual property to their supervisors, often a sizeable posse most of whom do very little, if anything at all. If a research student wants to publish the posse must be in the list of authors. Many commentators have noted that this riding on the backs of the inexperienced is how CVs are built up and fast-track promotion is achieved. It could be called the ‘pillion passenger’ route to greatness. But this kind of institutionalised pillaging is by no means the worst form that plagiarism can take. Far worse is to find out accidentally that one’s original ideas, data, or graphics are being published or uttered by someone else without any acknowledgement, especially if they have yet to be published.

The police rarely catch a burglar, and even less-often recover stolen goods. Similarly, victims of this worst form of academic plagiarism also know that having the record properly set straight is unlikely. The academic burglar excuses him/herself with the defence that, “there is no copyright over ideas”. To accuse such charlatans invites being actioned for libel, because of legal vagueness over intellectual property. Last month I witnessed an attempted burglary at a conference in London. In that case the burglar not only published purloined ideas previously but clearly fed his student those ideas. Unwittingly, she presented them, suitably tarted up, but with him as second author – i.e. trying to have his cake and eat it. All would have gone smoothly for the snaffler, but for one thing. The victim was there and gave the genuine presentation only 30 minutes before the blagged one hit the floor. Quite clearly, she knew what she was talking about whereas the coached presenter obviously did not. Thanks to two or three acute, and honest people in the audience, the game was up. The perpetrator of the burglary was, in the most polite (and legal) fashion, academically savaged with not inconsiderable relish. In a way, justice was done, but not entirely.

Anyone who attempts to build a career by theft needs to be stopped in their tracks, but in the ‘halls of academe’ only con-artists who are caught have the book thrown at them. So, keep your eyes and ears open in 2008, on behalf of others as well as yourself, for that is the only way metaphorically to give burglars a touch of the old Black and Decker about the knee caps.

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