The Case of the Intellectual Magpie. A Cautionary Tale

You hear it a lot from the open access doubters: “what if I put my work online and someone steals it?” – to which the advocate answers: “Unless you choose a CC-0 license and thus voluntarily give your work to the commons to do with as it wishes, all CC-BY licenses ensure you are credited as the author of the work. The choice is always yours.” The trouble is, Creative Commons is based on an honour system. So what happens when the covenant of the CC-license is broken and someone ignores it? The easy reply is: we fall back on copyright infringement and move on legal grounds.  But in the messy world of mushrooming open access journals, many of them with questionable peer review processes, fake impact factors, and suspect APC practices, a case of plagiarism can become tricky to unravel.

Early last week we received an email from a local editor who manages a well-established, international open access journal. One of their authors had become the victim of a brazen case of plagiarism that left all of us – author, editor and us – speechless. A former colleague of this author copied and pasted almost all of an article and published the plagiarised piece in a journal without as much as a hint of the original author’s identity.

The editor had already attempted to get in touch with the journal that published the plagiarised piece to no avail. Nor had a letter from their head of department to the magpie’s head of department helped in any way. Since none of us had any hands-on experience with a case like this, some research was required.

The first place we looked for guidance was COPE, since this case was a serious ethical breach in scholarly publishing. COPE offers a helpful flowchart which we used as a map for our next steps.

We decided on a strategy of relatively steep escalation: our editor would get in touch with the magpie. In case of no reply, the idea was to get our university leadership to directly contact their colleagues at the institution where the magpie works.

Verifying the plagiarist’s identity involved a bit of detective work because there was little information on the journal page and the name is relatively common, but with a bit of online sleuthing the culprit was tracked down. In fact, it took less than an hour to find a CV, publication record, and affiliations. Even a home address popped up.

We discussed our strategy and findings with the editor, who then unleashed their wrathful pen. Here are some of the phrases hurled at the magpie: “blatant and unacceptable breach of scholarly ethics”, “a breach of the license and therefore illicit”, not to forget the threat of exposure to the current employer as well as to the international scholarly community (which in this case is, as with most disciplines, rather small).

Lo and behold, a couple of days later the editor received a crushed and pleading reply: it was a “silly mistake”, “never before and never again” and “I promise” to organize the immediate removal of the plagiarised article from the (complicit?) journal website. The editor’s wrath was not entirely assuaged yet and another salvo was fired: “the apologies should be addressed to [the original author] personally as well, as this a very, very serious offence against [their] rights and interests as an author and scholar” and “if the journal to which you submitted your article refuses to withdraw the article from their website, we will have to react”.

It worked. On Friday we received a note that the magpie’s loot has been removed from the internet. And just in case the magpie is reading this (we may have sent a link to this blogpost their way): names are quickly inserted. So behave.