Worse than Plagiarism: False Firstness Claims and Dismissive Literature Reviews

Recent revelations of suspicious, unattributed text borrowings at academe’s pinnacle of prestige—the president’s office at Harvard University—once again draws attention to the pestilence of plagiarism. Plagiarism scandals among elites are nothing new, of course, and pop up frequently in the news both here and abroad, often with serious negative consequences for the accused.[1]

Of course, plagiarism is unethical—it misdirects credit for the work and misrepresents the accomplishments of the perpetrator. But I will argue it is not the worst sin scholars commit in reference to the wider research literature, though it is more likely to be punished.

Plagiarism stands out among the pantheon of unethical scholarly shortcuts in part because it is relatively easy to catch, and with improving internet textual search tools, it is getting even easier. To catch a plagiarist, one only needs to find the original copied source.

Though malevolent, each incidence of plagiarism misrepresents only one piece of work in the wider research literature. Other, rarely punished research behaviors can misrepresent several other works, even entire research literature.

With a dismissive literature review, an author declares at the outset of an article that previous research on the topic is either nonexistent or no good. Typically, no evidence supports the claim, such as where or how—or even if—the author looked for previous work.

Authors making a firstness claim boldly declare themselves to be the first in history to study a particular topic—as in “this is the first study of …”

How can they get away with it? Apparently, many editors and reviewers—and probably most in my field of education—don’t consider dismissive reviews wrong or harmful and do not try to verify them. Unless a reviewer or editor can recall a previous work offhand, typically, nothing is said or done. In some cases, previous works can be found with simple internet searches on a few keywords. But usually, no one—reviewer or editor—makes that effort.

You can see for yourself how common dismissive reviews have become. Provide an internet search engine with such phrases as “few studies,” “this is the first study,” “little research,” or “paucity of research.”

Perhaps the massive size of the ever-expanding pool of information intimidates editors and reviewers from wading beyond the shallows. There’s now just too much to sift through. Or they are simply too strapped for time to do anything beyond reading what’s inside the manuscript immediately before them.

False dismissive reviews inflict more harm to society’s collective working memory than does plagiarism by eliminating sometimes large swathes of knowledge from consideration. Whereas proof of plagiarism simply requires discovery of a single original source text, proving false dismissive reviews require more effort. That’s because most dismissive reviewers hedge their bets with qualifying phrases such as: “few studies have addressed,” “little research has focused on,” or “previous research was flawed ….”

So, simply finding one earlier study won’t do. One must find a substantial body of previous research that cannot be so easily dismissed and, even then, few may care. Dismissive reviews can be incredibly harmful to society’s understanding of its world, but one wouldn’t know it given how little, if any, shame attaches to its perpetrators.

Given no negative consequences for falsely dismissing previous research, why wouldn’t anyone with flexible ethical standards do it? At the very least, skipping the literature search and review phase of a research project saves a ton of time.

Most alarming, dismissive reviews can be found aplenty among elite, self-proclaimed “top” researchers. Indeed, some of the most celebrated researchers skip from topic to topic, dismissing the value or existence of extant research literature at each step. They get more accomplished personally that way but leave behind a scorched earth of abandoned knowledge.[2]

It is insidious when the most elite researchers dismiss previous research because they can too easily get away with the no-previous-research-is-any-good claim. Naive policymakers and journalists will believe them when they speak from tenured chairs at Harvard or Stanford. Those responsible for the earlier, dismissed research typically are not identified, but even if they were aware of the slight and spoke up and tried to defend their work, it would just be their word against that of someone with more prestige. Few policymakers or journalists have the time or expertise to examine the details of the relevant studies. Thusly, “top” researchers stay on top.


[1] See, for example, Associated Press. (2021a, October 20). West Virginia college to discipline president accused of plagiarism. Author.

Associated Press. (2021b, December 15). Romanian minister resigns following plagiarism reports. Author.

Associated Press. (2022, May 5). Peru prosecutors to probe plagiarism claim against president. Author.

Daily Star. (2021, January 29). Three DU teachers demoted for plagiarism. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Diehl, J., & Trenkamp, O. (2013, February 6). Merkel’s Education Minister Has Ph.D. Title Revoked. Spiegel International.

Hamel, P. (2021, February 28). Editorial Board member fired for plagiarism. Iowa State Daily.

Retraction Watch. (2011). German defense minister Guttenberg resigns after losing his PhD for a plagiarized thesis. Author.

Retraction Watch. (2022, March 14). UNC-Chapel Hill vice chancellor resigns post after admitting to plagiarism. Author

[2] See, for example, Richard P. Phelps, “Dismissive reviews in education policy research: A list,” Nonpartisan Education Review, March 2016.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image 

Author

  • Richard P. Phelps

    Richard P. Phelps is founder and editor of the Nonpartisan Education Group. He holds a PhD in Public Policy from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "The Malfunction of US Education Policy: Elite Misinformation, Disinformation, and Selfishness."

7 thoughts on “Worse than Plagiarism: False Firstness Claims and Dismissive Literature Reviews

  1. Exactly, objective scholarship can minimize (place in objective context) the significance of a new contribution, a contribution that may be incremental.

    There is, however, the worry that suggesting relevant citations can be see as coercive (an abusive practice by reviewers).

    I have discovered that new AI driven search engines, such as perplexity.ai (https://www.perplexity.ai) can, with the appropriate query, uncover key contributions and accurate citations.

    1. I fully agree with the stated.

      I think the problem is that journals actually fancy “novelty” at least in claim, and they won’t take any blame if a first-time claim is not substantiated – the authors would. Further, it is sometimes miniscule details in the methodology that are indeed done first time, and while that does not warrant relevance of the detail necessarily, it means the first-time claim is factually not wrong in itself.

      Some journals do not permit first-time claims anywhere in the text, and I think this is the only way to go.

  2. And even worse than dismissive literature reviews are taboos. Nowhere is this more consequential than in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A peer-reviewed literature has been studiously ignored in a half-dozen commissioned studies by the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Conferences of the Parties to the CBD. Reified is the 2015 placeholder “digital sequence information on genetic resources”, which is an egregious misnomer; suppressed is any discussion of the alternative term “natural information”, for which rigorous analysis has been continuously published since the early 1990s. Studied ignorance of the economics of information explains how a preposterous scheme to achieve the third objective of the CBD became embedded in Decision 15/9.

  3. Good point. Perhaps editors should ask authors for evidence of the lack of studies. Whilst it’s difficult to provide evidence of absence, we can draw from systematic review methodology and ask for evidence of where and how authors sought for literature. This info can be provided to editors if not published in some way. Publishing the evidence would be best – someone might spot why that search failed, and provide an updated review.

  4. What’s worse is yesterday’s decision in DC Superior Court.
    Michael Mann was suing Mark Stein for libel — and he actually won. Got $1 in actual damages but $1,000,000 in punitive damages. It hopefully will be reduced, but I fear this is the other thing we are going to start seeing.

    Criticize the lofty elite researcher and get sued….

    https://portal-dc.tylertech.cloud/Portal/DocumentViewer/Embedded/03A73D1DA5119701F232CE66511C3DBCCC7C0FE5D0942F2B0011B78BF860D6C805F55C0843F22E84B871C6E95B7642A41F4A5B9C08C36601EF9D1DDFCA99B2CA?caseNum=2012-CA-008263-B&p=0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *