KOBE – A growing number of universities in Japan are introducing software systems to detect plagiarism in academic papers amid the evolving controversy over the “STAP cell” papers produced by Riken, the state-backed research institute.
Under an ordinance that took effect in April 2013, the education ministry has made it mandatory for all doctoral theses to be published on the Internet, replacing its decades-old rule requiring publication in print.
An official at a company selling plagiarism-checking systems said, “I believe more and more universities are introducing the system because if plagiarism comes to light after the theses are published, the credibility of the university’s oversight will be called into question.”
One popular product is iThenticate, which was developed by a U.S. company. It uses a database containing 130 million theses published on about 45 billion websites or in academic journals including the U.S. magazine Science and the British journal Nature, which published the papers at the center of the Riken incident.
The program reveals, for instance, the percentage of descriptions in papers tested that match those found in papers in the database.
Tokyo-based iGroup Japan, which markets the software, said nine universities including Waseda University, Nagoya University and Kanazawa University are already using the software, while Kobe University and the University of Fukui are considering it.
The company said it has seen a surge in inquiries since the Riken controversy erupted after Nature published findings by one of its researchers, Haruko Obokata, in January.
Obokata was hit by a number of allegations, including that she quoted a passage from another paper about a laboratory experiment method without identifying the source.
Riken, in its final investigation earlier this month, said Obokata had not engaged in willful misconduct concerning the passage, noting the quote was the only one of 41 where Obokata did not give attribution, and that the method in question is a common procedure used in many laboratories.
Obokata’s doctoral thesis for the degree she received in 2011, however, has been investigated by Waseda University after allegations she copied passages from at least one other paper.
The top private university also announced it has started checking all doctoral papers — around 280 of them — at its science and engineering school set up in 2007, citing possible retractions. Plagiarism has been alleged in at least one other paper so far.
A Nagoya University professor affiliated with a scientific research department said he checked papers to be submitted to academic journals by two of his students, using the plagiarism checker. He said he found minor similarities with other papers but determined there was no plagiarism.
“It’s convenient because academic instructors aren’t aware of all the writing in the world,” he said, adding that one defect with the software is that it cannot check plagiarism in images.
Seiichi Fujita, an executive director in charge of education at Kobe University, said, “Once the students know that we have introduced the system, we can also expect a deterrence effect.”
At least 30 universities across Japan have introduced a similar program called Turnitin, which uses almost the same database as iThenticate and allows registered students as well as instructors to check theses.
Another product named Copypelna launched in 2009 has been introduced at over 300 universities across Japan. It combs the Internet to see if there are any passages similar to those found in the paper in question.
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has been reviewing guidelines on research misconduct and is planning to encourage universities and research institutions to hammer out their own programs to raise awareness of ethics among researchers.
Shigeaki Yamazaki, professor of scientific communication at Aichi Shukutoku University, said, “If universities introduce (a plagiarism checker) abruptly, it may create distrust between instructors and students.”
He suggested that schools try various approaches slowly to increase ethical awareness such as by asking students to consider how they would feel if others stole their theses.