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Plagiarism and Government Research Grants

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Although private industry conducts the majority of scientific and medical research in the United States, universities also conduct a significant share. Government research grants are the lifeblood of university research initiatives and the competition for scarce government funding is intense. In recent years, the competition has grown increasingly more complicated by the introduction of plagiarism detection software. Now, with the click of a mouse, research grant proposals and research papers can be analyzed electronically for instances of plagiarism and when plagiarism is suspected a lengthy administrative process can ensue. These investigations are often conducted by university offices of research integrity to comply with federal regulations governing the receipt of government funds.

Example: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

While there are many agencies distributing federal grant monies, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) is probably the most organized in its guidance of how to avoid plagiarism in grant applications. The Office of Research Integrity (“ORI”) provides many tips on avoiding plagiarism, self plagiarism, and other ethical writing tips here. Unfortunately, many would-be-grant-recipients and researchers do not find these tips until after they have been accused of plagiarism.

According to the HHS, there are many species of plagiarism:

  • Plagiarism of ideas
  • Plagiarism of text
  • Inappropriate paraphrasing
  • Self plagiarism
In the “lesser crimes” of plagiarism, HHS also lists:
  • Carelessness in citing sources
  • Relying on an abstract or a preliminary version of a paper while citing the published version
  • Citing sources that were not read or thoroughly understood
  • Borrowing extensively from a source but only acknowledging a small portion of what is borrowed

Complete discussions of these topics can be viewed on the ORI website.

Sanctions for Plagiarism in Research

Depending on the nature of the offense, the agency to which a grant application is submitted might take action barring future research proposals for a number of years. Where the plagiarism is in the research itself, there can be additional sanctions. The ORI provides all of its prior adjudicated cases online and some of them make for interesting reads. The case of Dr. J (I’ve abbreviated the name so as not to cause further harm to this researcher, but the full case and name is available here). Dr. J, a Physician, was found to have committed research misconduct by plagiarizing research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. J’s research was found to contain plagiarized material from several sources. The sanction imposed by ORI is illustrative. Dr. J was ordered for a period of four (4) years:

  1. To have all of his research supervised;
  2. That any institution supporting his research submit a certification that the research is original (i.e. that it has not been plagiarized);
  3. To submit a letter to the journal requesting retraction of his published research article; and
  4. To exclude himself from serving in any advisory capacity or consultant in future research.

While this 4 year sanction may seem like a slap on the wrist for plagiarizing research, this type of finding is usually just the beginning of further problems. Dr. J’s institution may decide to conduct its own investigation and impose additional sanctions, including termination. Further, having the restrictions imposed by ORI for 4 years effectively precludes any meaningful research.

While it is not possible to know exactly what defenses may have been available to Dr. J had he decided to dispute the allegations, it is important that any researcher facing similar allegations consult with an attorney early in the process. Putting the allegations to rest early can often prevent the inevitable snowball of consequences that follows a seemingly minor initial infraction.

To read additional case studies, visit the ORI case study website here.

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Hamid Jabbar

Hamid Jabbar

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