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Computer-based tool aids research, helps thwart questionable publication practices

DALLAS Jan. 23, 2008 A new computer-based text-searching tool developed by UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers automatically and quickly compares multiple documents in a database for similarities, providing a more efficient method to carry out literature searches, as well as offering scientific journal editors a new tool to thwart questionable publication practices.

The eTBLAST computer program is efficient at flagging publications that are highly similar, said Dr. Harold Skip Garner, a professor of biochemistry and internal medicine at UT Southwestern who developed the computer code along with his colleagues. Not only does the code identify duplication of key words, but it also compares word proximity and order, among other variables.

The tool is especially useful for investigators who wish to analyze an unpublished abstract or project idea in order to find previous publications on the topic or identify possible collaborators working in the same field.

Another application of eTBLAST is to aid journal editors in detecting potentially plagiarized or duplicate articles submitted for publication. Dr. Garner and his colleagues explored that application in two recent articles: in a scientific paper in the Jan. 15 issue of Bioinformatics and in a commentary in the Jan. 24 issue of Nature.

In the first phase of the study, published in Bioinformatics, researchers used eTBLAST to analyze more than 62,000 abstracts from the past 12 years, randomly selected from Medline, one of the largest databases of biomedical research articles. They found that 0.04 percent of papers with no shared authors were highly similar and cases representing potential plagiarism. The small percentage found in the sample may appear insignificant, but when extrapolated to the 17 million scientific papers currently cited in the database, the number of potential plagiarism cases grows to nearly 7,000.

The researchers also found that 1.35 percent of papers with shared authors were sufficiently similar to be considered duplicate publications of the same data, another questionable practice.

In the second phase of the study, outlined in the Nature commentary, Dr. Garner and Dr. Mounir Errami, an instructor in internal medicine, refined their electronic search process so that is was thousands of times faster. An analysis of more than seven million Medline abstracts turned up nearly 70,000 highly similar papers.

Plagiarism may be the most extreme and nefarious form of unethical publication, Dr. Garner said, but simultaneously submitting the same research results to multiple journals or repeated publication of the same data may also be considered unacceptable in many circumstances.

When it comes to duplicate or repeated publications, however, there are some forms that are not only completely ethical, but also valuable to the scientific community. For example, long-term studies such as clinical trial updates and longitudinal surveys require annual or bi-annual publication of progress, and these updates often contain verbatim reproductions of much of the original text.

We can identify near-duplicate publications using our search engine, said Dr. Garner, who is a faculty member in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development at UT Southwestern. But neither the computer nor we can make judgment calls as to whether an article is plagiarized or otherwise unethical. That task must be left to human reviewers, such as university ethics committees and journal editors, the groups ultimately responsible for determining legitimacy.

Dr. Garner said eTBLAST not only detects the prevalence of duplicate publications, but also offers a possible solution to help prevent future unethical behavior.

Our objective in this research is to make a significant impact on how scientific publications may be handled in the future, Dr. Garner said. As it becomes more widely known that there are tools such as eTBLAST available, and that journal editors and others can use it to look at papers during the submission process, we hope to see the numbers of potentially unethical duplications diminish considerably.


Contact: Amanda Siegfried
UT Southwestern Medical Center

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