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Exploring the impact of research misconduct in light of Kyoto University’s PhD revocation

It’s a dreaded scenario for any institution, and on 25th May 2021, for the first time in its 124-year history, Kyoto University took decisive action against research misconduct by revoking the PhD of one of its students. It followed a tip off and subsequent investigation of their 2012 doctoral thesis, which was found to contain plagiarised material.

The Turnitin Team
The Turnitin Team

It’s a dreaded scenario for any institution, and on 25th May 2021, for the first time in its 124-year history, Kyoto University took decisive action against research misconduct by revoking the PhD of one of its students. It followed a tip off and subsequent investigation of their 2012 doctoral thesis, which was found to contain plagiarised material.

In a public statement released by Kyoto University, it confirmed 11 instances of dishonesty in the published paper by PhD recipient Jin Jing, including a failure to cite sources in nine instances, and the appropriation of others' ideas that met the criteria of plagiarism.

At the time the cheating was discovered, Jin Jing was working as a lecturer at The Shanghai University of Electric Power’s College of Foreign Languages. That is, until news of her PhD revocation surfaced. Demonstrating the far-reaching effects of poor decisions in one’s academic career, the university announced its decision to terminate Jing’s employment as a result.

In a concurrent case of research ethics being breached in Japan, Tokyo Medical and Dental University also rescinded the doctorate of a 2019 graduate in April, for the infraction of cell line contamination in her thesis work.

Japan’s latest academic misconduct cases are a lesson to all that there is no room for complacency when it comes to research integrity, so let’s take a look at the mechanisms of research misconduct with a focus on plagiarism, and how the academic community can overcome it.

How prevalent is research misconduct?

To grasp the magnitude of the problem, it’s helpful to first define research misconduct. The World Health Organisation defines research misconduct as “intentional, knowing or reckless fraudulent behavior such as fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, misrepresentation or other practices that deviate from the principles of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Research.” For a more specific explanation of the different types of research misconduct, check out Turnitin’s infographic.

Plagiarism is a particularly insidious form of research misconduct - sprouting in a ‘copy and paste’ culture, where misappropriating ideas is only a digital ‘click’ away. While publishers generally remain tight-lipped about submission data, one leading journal reported that they reject a sizeable 23% of submissions due to identified plagiarism, so the problem is bigger than you might think.

High-profile cases of research misconduct abound, as evidenced by a 2017 case which saw a Tsinghua University PhD student and his doctoral advisor have their respective degree and job title revoked. At least 11 published papers authored by the pair were retracted from international academic journals for various misconduct including self-plagiarism including content duplication, image manipulation, data fabrication

Another worthy mention is the rampant misconduct of Japanese anesthesiologist Hironobu Ueshima who has been found guilty of research misconduct across a whopping 142 articles, involving fabricated data and improper authorship, leading to his employment termination and penalties for several of his co-authors.

Both cases suggest that the lack of early detection only emboldens researchers to repeat their misconduct.

Why do students (and postgraduate students in particular) plagiarise in research?

With such severe consequences attached to research misconduct if caught, one might wonder what drives students to risk submitting work that violates research standards. Although accountability and the penalty may remain the same, determining students’ motivation and whether the misconduct was intentional or negligent, is important in guiding corrective measures by institutions while bolstering their research culture.

Problematically, plagiarism in research is typically perceived as an ‘undergraduate issue’, involving students who haven’t yet mastered the techniques of academic writing to present one’s own ideas in conjunction with source material. That is, until a postgraduate case of plagiarism emerges, confounding the institution which laments how the student ‘should have known better’ . Of course, it’s not that simple.

Towards unpacking the motivations for research misconduct. The Office of Research Integrity offers 5 key drivers for research misconduct.

  • Poor supervision
  • Inadequate training
  • Competitive pressures
  • Personal circumstances
  • Individual psychology

Unfortunately, the fact that postgraduate students face higher stakes than undergraduates, is not a sufficient deterrent for deliberate or inadvertent ‘shortcuts’ in the research process that can quickly become cheating. Individual pathology aside, the research environment that students inhabit holds considerable sway.

Most institutions will be familiar with the term ‘publish or perish’, which refers to the pressure to publish research in order to advance one’s academic career. It’s an expectation that applies to both individual researchers as well as institutions in producing candidates that contribute to knowledge sharing in the academic community. Now consider the growing competition in the research space. Internal research by Turnitin predicts that by 2030, the number of researchers will expand from 20 million to an estimated 30 million worldwide. Problematically, the opportunity to publish is not increasing as rapidly, with only 1.2 million more articles estimated to be published in 2030 (5.2 million total).

In such an environment, it’s not altogether surprising that researchers may start to test the boundaries in the race to get published. In comparison to fabricating data, half-hearted paraphrasing may seem relatively harmless to a stressed or exhausted researcher working to a deadline. The recent PhD revocations in Japan are not the first, and aren’t likely to be the last.

The true cost of research misconduct

Research misconduct rocks the foundations of truth and legitimacy that we hold dear in the academic community, and indeed, society at large. Naturally, the personal and professional costs of research misconduct are significant, especially when you consider the ecosystem that implicates the researcher, their affiliated institution, and the publisher itself, who must investigate the claim and retract the offending content.

Broadly speaking, the consequences of research misconduct can be categorised as follows:

  • Individual costs - research candidates found guilty of misconduct face the prospect of being stripped of their title/status, expulsion from their institution, not to mention a tarnished reputation and damaged employment prospects.
  • Capital costs - depending on the severity of the misconduct, it may trigger litigation proceedings which can incur significant financial cost for all parties involved.
  • Brand/reputation costs - A university affiliated with the research candidate faces negative publicity, a loss of credibility and questions of negligence, and even a potential drop in student enrollment rates.
  • Human costs - in the case of falsification and where the research is designed to inform provision of public services such as medical care or civic infrastructure, human welfare is also at stake.

(source: iThenticate)

In the case of Kyoto University, Jin Jing presumably managed to avoid detection due to some form of oversight in the peer review process, but the moral of the story is that the misconduct was eventually discovered, triggering a lengthy investigation and retraction process and culminating in her employment termination.

Likewise, the repercussions are also far-reaching for Kyoto University, who are in damage control to restore confidence in their research and PhD program and take a zero tolerance approach to ethical breaches. A public apology was issued by Takao Hirajima, executive vice-president for education, information infrastructure and library services at Kyoto University, along with a pledge: "We will thoroughly ensure further enhancement of research ethics and research integrity education."

Of course delays in detection also present a cost. A recent study found that 457 days was the median time lapsed, between a paper’s publication and its retraction for misconduct, meaning there is ample time for the paper to be cited in other work, thereby spreading the misconduct even further within the community.

Simply put, without comprehensive measures to detect plagiarism and other forms of misconduct across all levels of the sector, higher education institutions expose themselves to risk.

How to deter research plagiarism by building a culture of integrity

As we have witnessed in the case of Kyoto University, research misconduct can slip through the cracks of even the most prestigious institutions. There are a number of potentially intersecting motivations to engage in academic misconduct, fuelled by increasing competition in the research and publishing landscape. How can we successfully deter researchers from falling into this trap?

Visibility of the issue and resulting discourse is key, yet a recent study investigating whether the research community and public at large are kept sufficiently informed about misconduct that yields retractions, found the level of media attention it receives is inconsistent. Despite this, empowering researchers to follow best practice needn’t be such a reactive affair.

Academic integrity guidelines and research policies must remain the foundation of a healthy research culture, but this idealism does not always reflect the practical realities - both in perpetuating research misconduct, and in identifying it. Pursuant to stopping research plagiarism in its tracks, as opposed to correcting it after the fact, universities and publishers are increasingly adopting technological tools to enforce greater accountability.

In the last decade - in response to higher retraction rates - we have seen a dramatic rise in publishers taking back control through similarity checking software. Scanning and flagging submitted work for replicated content against a database, this technology overcomes human limitations related to time and accuracy in the detection of plagiarism. Furthermore, universities are encouraging academics and students to take advantage of these tools to avoid unconscious plagiarism and self-plagiarism in their paper that would result in the rejection of their submission to a journal.

And tapping into the same tools publishers use is highly beneficial for universities and researchers looking for the best chance of getting their manuscripts approved for publication. Furthermore, if used throughout the research-writing process, such tools go beyond detection or ‘policing’. They become a formative measure - a legitimate ‘helping hand’ if you will - for researchers to self-correct work and reduce the temptation to deviate from research best practice.

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