Unwanted re-use of data

Plagiarism in academia is defined as passing of someone else's work as your own. Depending on the case, plagiarism can also violate laws (e.g. copyright laws when failing to identify citations as such) [1]. The sciences endorse a strict code of conduct which means that systematic use of plagiarism can result in loss of recognition for a work and all claims related to it.

How to avoid committing plagiarism

Every academic discipline has its own rules regarding the citation of scientific works. These rules can usually be found in the associated literature [2]. Students can also seek help with their academic supervisors. Keeping to these discipline-specific rules can help avoid  any suspicion of plagiarism and similar issues (see related article Citing Data). Self-plagiarism should also be avoided. To claim a discovery that was already published elsewhere can already be seen as (self-) plagiarism.

What to do if you discover plagiarism

If you suspect you have discovered a case of plagiarism, the further course of action depend son whether it has already been published and if so, in what medium. If there is suspicion of plagiarism, the author should be contacted. If a publication cannot be prevented, there is the possibility of involving the Ombusdsman for the Sciences at DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft).[3] In difficult cases they can serve as neutral arbitrators and  advisors.

If the data are already published in a journal, the associated publisher should be contacted. A journal has the option of printing a statement and/or officially retracting the publication.

Many universities ahave established a commission on responsible research which can be contacted in case of a suspicion of plagiarism and take further steps, if necessary. 

To ensure the best possible outcome, it is recommended to engage all involved parties from the start. If despite of all efforts a resolution of the situation is not possible, legal steps can be taken.

Protecting your data from plagiarism

• Preventative contractual agreements: by recording in writing how research data have to be handled misunderstandings and conflic situations can be avoided
• Access to data: it is recommended to limit the access to research data to relevant personnel as long as they are not yet published
• Persistente identificationn: identification systems such as DOI (Digital Object Identifiers) and URN (Uniform Resource Names) reference research data online and have to be cited in case of third-party re-use. They facilitate proper attribution and citation and can serve as proof for the date of creation of a data set.
• Citation suggestions: providing suggestions for proper attribution and citation can help avoid  cases of "lazy plagiarism"
• Electronic fingerprint: using tools like OriginStamp reserach data can be connected with a digital fingerprint which can serve as a proof of authorship.
• Documentation: using a data curation profile can remove doubt as to when, how and by whom a data set was created
• Data security: only store your most important data in a protected/encrypted form


The previously well-respected psychologist had claimed to have found evidence in his data for inherited intelligence in identical twins. Doubts arose after his death in 1971. In 2006 an essay deal with Burt's problematic data.  

Fölsing A.: Der Mogelfaktor. Hamburg 1984, 31ff.


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The Austrian biologist successfully cloned mice for the first time in 1981. There were allegations that his results had been doctored. An investigative commission determined that the experiments were poorly documented and classified them as scientifically worthless. Illmensee subsequently left the University of Geneva

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Several cancer researchers falsified results for years. In 1994 manipulations were found in the data associated with 94 publications. Have abused their function as reviewers to claim other scientists' results as their own. Herrmann is a member of the senate committee of the DFG, received 800.000 Euros of research funds and is now suspended from his professorial chair at the University of Ulm.

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The ethics professor at the University of Geneva plagiarized two publications. He managed to hold on to his position by using the excuse of having "forgotten" to use citation marks, but was put on probation.

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In 2005, this biomedicine specialist published an article ostensibly containing proof that anti-inflammatory drugs inhibited the occurrence of oral cancer. However, the database he referenced, was not related to the publication and the study sample turned out to have been entirely fictional.

The Lancet 2005; 366:1359-1366

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The South Korean veterinarian claimed to have successfully cloned human embryos and to have grown stem cells from them. The news spread around the globe. However, the data were forged and the egg cells had come from a lab employee.

Science 2004; 303: 1669 ff. und 2005, 2308: 1777ff.

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  1.  See UrhG § 51.
  2.  Roig, M. (2010): Plagiarism and self-plagiarism: What every author should know. Biochemia Medica, 20 (3), 295-300.
  3. Ombudsmann für die Wissenschaft (webpage of the DFG).