Results of our research on plagiarism moved to media: A CEON/CEES announcement

On the occasion of appearance of several articles in media dealing with CEON/CEES's findings on plagiarism in Serbian journals, starting with an interview of Professor Tibor Sabo, Serbian Deputy Minister of Education and Science given to the daily Danas, followed by the comment to this article by Professor Pero Šipka, President of CEON/CEES in the same daily, continued by a post at Retraction Watch by Mićo Tatalović, short info on CEON/CEES case study at iTheticate blog, containing a short interview with Dr. Šipka at the same blog, and finally ending with numerous comments to all above at numerous different internet blogs, in order to help resolving confusions we want to state the following:

  1. Our study is not about incidence of plagiarism in Serbia but about incidence of plagiarism in journals covered by SCIndeks: the Serbian Citation Index. Many of the SCIndeks journals are purely international. In some of them, Serbian researchers appear as authors only sporadically. The proportion of articles classified in our study as plagiarized which are published by the authors from some other countries was found to be higher than reported for the Serbian authors. The title by Tatalović saying "A tsunami of plagiarism in Serbia, but hardly any retractions" obviously misled some commentators. Also, tsunami is definitely a strong word. Our criteria isolated also cases of "mild self-plagiarism" and were not intended for cross-national and cross-cultural comparisons, which is seemingly assumed by the author and some commentators.
  2. Our report on plagiarism prepared for the Ministry of Science of Serbia is a preliminary report only. Its purpose was, as it is customary for this publication form, to communicate results of an (action) research which ask for immediate action. The most important action we initiated was an official verification of articles classified as plagiarized by our implemented criteria. In some of such cases, plagiarism is undisputable and agreed upon between journal editors and CEON/CEES analysts, while in the other cases two independent assessments disagreed. We handed the results to the Ministry of Science as funding institution to decide who is the one to perform verification and how. As pointed out in the iThenticate interview, we are still waiting for the Ministry to decide and for journals editors to retract papers that are evidently plagiarized. Only after that one can see to what extent journals really publish their retractions. Only after that we will be able to complete our study and the report itself. In a report about an action research, a section on outcomes is an essential part.
  3. Waiting for the outcome of our research does not mean that we sit idle. We firstly decided to deselect two journals from SCIndeks due to the excessive number of evident plagiarized articles. Removing journals and all their articles from the database was both painful and doubtful decision. This option prevailed because inclusion of the two journals itself, which means recognition of their scientific status, can be regarded as wrong decision. Plagiarism and duplication is regrettably a common practice in non-professional journals. Hence, by deselecting the two journals we only admitted our error in the past. More importantly, in the meantime we also developed a service (SCIndeks e-Ur) that allows SCIndeks journals to check submitted papers in order to prevent plagiarism. More than two dozens of journals have already joined this project. We equally intend to fulfill other commitments stated in our Action plan.
  4. We call other actors in this process to do their part of job. Now, after about one-year time we have to admit that the expected response by journal editors is still missing. On the other side, the Ministry announced to take some measures against plagiarism in the future, which is a good news, but as to the cases discovered in our study they have opened so far only the case of deselected journals, since this was dictated by the need of regulating their official status (so called journal categorization). The Ministry decided to solve the problem by asking its Board for Social Sciences to verify CEON/CEES findings. Accordingly, this board did not confirm the existence of plagiarized articles in journals in question. Dr. Šipka bluntly rejected this "finding" by showing that no check whatsoever was made at all. Our concerns about the sincerity of the Board's intention are great, knowing that its President, professor Jovan Babić, expressed the opinion that the only place to decide on plagiarism was the regular court. He even lamented over our use of the term "deselection" in this context (as if it implies genetic engineering), as well as over the "sad destiny of publishers of deselected journals who were forced by CEON/CEES actions to subscribe to an expensive service for plagiarism detection". Instead of facing up to his obligation as a chairman of a regulatory academic body, Professor Babić asked the Ministry to investigate legality of CEON/CEES activities, supporting this request with some naively fabricated accusations. Almost certainly, such behavior encouraged some journal editors not to retract even articles they admitted in the previous procedure to be plagiarized. This is not surprising in view of the constellation where the editor of one of the deselected journal is the member of professor Babić's board. We want to let all the actors in this process know that denying is not solution to the problem of plagiarism and that intimidating good-intended individuals and organizations as whistleblowers is a pitiful practice that has to be publicly denounced. The later is also a futile attempt. Today, when science moved to Internet and nothing can be swept under the rug, there is no use of killing the messenger.

To summarize, qualifying our findings on plagiarism in Serbian journals before they pass official verification is premature and unjustified. Verification of plagiarism is a slow process, even in fully structured academic environments. We also understand that it implies delicate and uneasy decisions. However, we appeal that resolving the problem of plagiarism cases discovered is in the best interest of Serbian academic community and society in general. As to CEON/CEES, it is inevitable, since we have to decide between either to mark the plagiarized articled in SCIndeks, which is the international obligation of journal aggregators, or to accept the blame for disseminating and promoting unacceptable contents internationally.

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