Human embryo CRISPR pub includes plagiarism: the victim’s unique account

PlagiarismCut, modify, paste…

It’s kind of a CRISPR mantra for those of us using gene editing in the lab. But it’s supposed to be happening just on DNA, right?

Now it appears that someone on a team of human embryo CRISPR researchers possibly got carried away with the cutting-modifying-pasting mindset to take it beyond DNA to also do so with passages of another researcher’s published work that they apparently slightly modified and put into their own paper without any acknowledgement.

The 2016 article in question containing plagiarized passages was published by the lab of senior author Yong Fan with first author Xiangjin Kang, and was entitled, “Introducing precise genetic modifications into human 3PN embryos by CRISPR/Cas-mediated genome editing”. I blogged about the science and bigger picture policy issues of the Kang, et al. article last year here including the technical challenges of CRISPR’ing human embryos. Now the Erratum to the Kang piece in the journal JARG indicates that text plagiarism took place. I’ve included the entire Erratum near the bottom of this blog post.

Who got plagiarized?

At least 3 passages from an earlier article by Professor Tetsuya Ishii published in 2015 ended up in various forms in the Kang 2016 paper’s Discussion section. Dr. Ishii tweeted his reaction to the Erratum yesterday (see below), which is what first brought my attention to this situation. I know Dr. Ishii from his highly-regarded, scholarly work in bioethics and policy including on human gene editing.

Despite the content of the apology in the Kang paper Erratum suggesting this was just an inadvertent mistake, in my opinion this does not appear to be a simple case of “oops” we accidentally failed to quote another scientist verbatim. For instance, the three lifted passages of text in question were also in some instances slightly modified, which is a red flag.

I emailed Dr. Ishii to ask for his take on this situation and below is his response yesterday, which interestingly includes a timeline of events in dealing with the author of the paper containing the plagiarism and the journal.

“Hi, Paul,

It is not bioethics, but an issue on research moral.
But, it is important to share it with research community.

Last year, I found the plagiarism, but I had no time to respond.
This February, I sent letter to JARG to investigate it, although I know a plagiarism does not always lead to a retraction.
I just wanted apology with sincere from both JARG and Fan.

But, it was not easy.

2.06…Dr Iishi requests investigation of plagiarism charge for JARG paper by Kang et al.,
2.08…Dr Iishi notified formal investigation initiated
2.10…Dr Albertini sends request for explanation of claims from Dr. Fan
2.13…Dr. Albertini receives an inadequate response from Dr. Fan
2.14…Dr. Fan receives second query requesting more information
2.15…Dr Fan apologizes, recognizing the seriousness of this matter and will respond quickly
2.20…Dr Fan apologizes for first response and provides a detailed account
2.27…Dr Albertini concludes his investigation, submitted to Springer
3.03…Dr Albertini was informed that Springer ethics board will be delayed
3.09…Springer ethics team approves investigation, concur with proceeding with correction
3.13…Report and decision submitted to Prof. Iishi (typo!)

I was amazed to have been one-sidedly informed of decision to treat this as erratum by JARG editor and Springer.

I contended that I also have right to decide it whether it should be treated as erratum or retraction.
I requested JARG editor to explain why plagiarism detector software did not work during editorial process and urge Fan to express apology.
I also asked him to publish erratum directly attached to the original paper (otherwise, the paper will be cited without the erratum).

But, the editor  answered that they did not know why the software had not worked.
Meanwhile, he promised me to urge Fan.

But, no mail from Fan over one month.
So, I asked the editor again.
At last, I got apology email from Fan May 9.

Last night, a twitter informed me of  the erratum published.
I was not informed prior to publication by the journal.

I read it, but found it was not attached to the original paper…sigh.

You remember that the human embryo editing paper is the manuscript type of TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS in JARG. But, it included lengthy ethical consideration in Discussion, despite technique paper.
I do not know whether Fan originally included it or editor asked him to include it.

Anyway, I met a big trouble due to mistakes in both the author and the journal.
And, the 2nd human embryo editing paper lost trust in a broad sense.


Dr. Ishii, the victim of the plagiarism, really had to go through a lot to get some kind of action in response to the plagiarism of his work and in the end it seems that it wasn’t resolved satisfactorily for him. I can see why he’s upset. I thank Dr. Ishii for sharing his experience even if it was a bad one.

Here’s the Erratum (sadly at present not attached to the original paper containing the plagiarism) and below that I have a few more thoughts and questions:

“The authors acknowledge that portions of the text of their article were similar to several statements made in Professor Tetsuya Ishii’s Opinion article entitled “Germline genome-editing research and its socioethical implications”. (Trends Mol Med. 2015 Aug;21(8):473–81).

The three statements in question below appeared in the Discussion section of the Kang et al. paper and appear identical or modified with respect to wording or references used in the Opinion piece published by Professor Ishii, which should have been credited with a reference citation.

  1. On page 585: Liang et al. showed that the efficiency of HDR of the β-globin gene was 4.7% (per injected zygote) and that the modified embryos displayed mosaicism in which wild-type cells and genetically modified cells coexisted [12].

  2. On page 586: However, considering that the off-target effect is site dependent and that more specific strategies using more sophisticated enzymes and meticulous design of the guiding molecule have already been established [33–35], off-target mutagenesis may be minimized by optimizing the procedure [36]. Furthermore

  3. On page 587: Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has already been used clinically in some countries to screen out human embryos with mutations responsible for genetic conditions such as thalassemia and spinal muscular atrophy. The clinical use of PGD appears to justify germline genome editing research because only embryos that contain no suspected mutations, but have undergone the physical intervention of embryonic cell biopsy for genetic testing, are used for embryo transfer

The authors sincerely apologize for these errors of omission in failing to cite the above statements as taken or modified from the publication in Trends Mol Med. (2015 Aug;21(8):473–81).”

Are “errors of omission” synonymous with plagiarism? I don’t think so.

More broadly in science we might be witnessing a trend where plagiarism is a moving target that is handled in very different ways by various journals ranging from no action to corrections/errata to retraction.

How do you think text plagiarism should be handled?

Should the researcher whose work was plagiarized have some say in the fate of the paper containing plagiarized material?

To flip things around, if you were an author on a published paper that unbeknownst to you had included plagiarized text that was added by one of your co-authors and then later you were notified of this, what would you do?

These can be tough questions, but this is an important area for discussion.

5 thoughts on “Human embryo CRISPR pub includes plagiarism: the victim’s unique account”

  1. Katrina Lawson

    I really think this is an editorial failure. Plagiarised text from published works is easy to detect using text-matching software. No publisher should be publishing papers without doing this first step of checking for text matches, and on finding un-cited references they should be either allowing the authors an opportunity to rectify attribution errors prior to publishing, or rejecting the paper.

    I don’t think they whole baby should be thrown out with the bathwater – once published the paper should be corrected rather than retracted if there are other useful and novel results in the paper. The standard of what constitutes plagiarism needs to be high. Intention is irrelevant – as any author will argue that they didn’t intend to plagiarise. It is easy to use quotation marks and references, and any author who isn’t doing that is simply not working at the standard the research community should expect and deserves censure. But equally, any publisher that is publishing plagiarised works deserves censure. Both are to blame for such sloppy, preventable messes.

  2. Brian Sanderson

    The MLA go too far, by far. An autodidact is not a plagiarist and yet blind adherents to the MLA program could never know the difference…

    1. Not sure I agree. In order to comply with the MLA rules all you have to do is use quotation marks where you quote. That seems easy enough to do. But there should be a clear consensus on this point one way or the other.

  3. The standard definition of research misconduct is “FFP” (Fabrication, Falsification, Plagiarism). However, this case suggests that the scientific community doesn’t have a clear consensus on the definition of plagiarism or on how seriously it should be sanctioned when it is found to have occurred.

    Perhaps we can learn from the humanities. The major professional society in that field in the U.S. is the Modern Language Association (MLA) Here’s a link to their discussion of plagiarism.

    The MLA says “Even borrowing just a few words from an author without clearly indicating that you did so constitutes plagiarism.” If the scientific community bought into this standard then there would be no doubt that the case in question constituted plagiarism.

    One the other hand, we seem to be living on a slippery slope. For example, in the STAP flap in 2014 there was no question that a paragraph or so in the methods section was copied almost verbatim from another work without being cited or put between quotation marks but the view that this wasn’t such a serious offense because “it was only the methods section” seemed to be widely held (I’m not sure what the percentage of the people holding this view was). Since the STAP case featured clear misconduct issues involving fabrication and falsification the plagiarism issue faded out without being resolved.

    In my view the MLA plagiarism definition should be adopted by the scientific community but many people may think this is too stringent. In any case, the major scientific journals should get together and adopt some common standard definition of plagiarism and also some common standard for how it will be dealt with.

    Also, at the moment there may be differences between various nations about the definition of plagiarism and its seriousness. It’s important that the leading scientists in all major research-producing countries not only sign on to a common definition of plagiarism and guidelines for how to deal with it when it is found to have occurred, but also buy in, and help convince their younger colleagues to strictly follow these standards.

    1. @Bob,
      Excellent points and suggestions. The STAP case is an interesting one for comparison as are others out there. Journals seem (and I don’t have data on this) inclined to not retract for plagiarism.

      I found this an interesting read on this topic as well: and this passage from it:

      “the COPE retraction guidelines state that ‘if only a small section of an article (e.g. a few sentences in the discussion) is plagiarised, editors should consider whether readers (and the plagiarised author) would be best served by a correction (which could note the fact that text was used without appropriate acknowledgement) rather than retracting the entire article which may contain sound, original data in other parts’.”

      I don’t see how a correction rather than a retraction could best serve a plagiarized author. Rather, it seems more likely to serve the journal and the plagiarist’s interests.

      My feeling, as I hinted at in my blog post, is that papers containing plagiarism should be retracted rather than corrected, but I can see how there are likely many different views on this and different contexts such as perhaps in some cases one author of many on a paper being responsible for the plagiarism so it may not always be a black-and-white situation that can be governed by binary kind of rules.

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