On Campus

Self-plagiarism debate at Queen's

Prof found to have duplicated his own research

A Queen’s University professor is at the centre of a controversy over “self-plagiarism.” The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences recently retracted three papers from Reginald Smith, a professor emeritus of mechanical and materials engineering at Queen’s over concerns of academic misconduct. In particular, Smith is alleged to have recycled research from articles published earlier in his career. A fourth article in another journal by Smith was also pulled.

“Titles and authors’ names on the papers change, but large chunks were duplicated in papers co-authored” by the 80-year-old scientist, Postmedia reported after an extensive investigation into the matter including the retrieval of several documents from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) through freedom of information requests.

According to the report, Queen’s professors Mort Shirkhanzadeh and Chris Pickles “found evidence of recycled text and data in about 20 scientific publications that Smith had co-authored with others.” The two colleagues filed complaints first with Queen’s and later with NSERC in 2004 and 2005.

A Queen’s investigation, that NSERC requested, found “minor amendments to title or abstract, and wholesale reproduction of previously published boilerplate, grammatical warts and all,” in some of Smith’s publications. The university told NSERC that  Smith “has recognized the seriousness of the findings regarding the reuse of materials and has implemented policies in his research group to prevent further issues arising with new work.” The Queen’s investigation did not find that Smith’s actions constituted scientific misconduct.

The research council, that distributes over $1billion annually to Canadian scientists, found the Queen’s investigation lacking and threatened to cut Smith’s funding in 2006.  Smith’s lawyer, Ken Clark, responded with a letter to NSERC. “A more egregious violation of our client’s rights and of due process can hardly be imagined,” Clark wrote demanding that documents supporting the allegations be produced.

NSERC eventually reneged in part because privacy rules prevented certain documents from being provided to Clark, and in part because regulations require that allegations of academic misconduct be investigated by individual universities. Queen’s is not reopening the case, and Clark told Postmedia that the process lacked transparency, alleging that his client was not given sufficient recourse to defend himself.

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