Quality control isn’t only a scientific priority; editorial QC, proofreading, and knowing when and what to question is becoming more and more complicated, even as (ironically) the Internet facilitates research and information sharing. Plagiarism can be entirely unintentional. Most accomplished editors notice when a paper seems pieced together and styles clash — one reason that we copyedit fairly rigorously in BPI. But you have to work harder to infringe a copyright. Editors worry whether authors have acquired proper permissions to use graphics submitted with their manuscripts. I would like to say that we at BPI always err on the side of caution; but, sadly, everyone is forced to work faster than we would like these days on too many projects at a time, with accelerated timelines and conflicting priorities. That can make it hard to proceed with caution.
No longer do you have to physically type an infringing passage or hard-code a link — both actions seeming somehow more “intentional” than simply copying and pasting. But if you don’t know that an “innocent” link can end up embedding an image in a second publication, you may violate a copyright despite your better intentions. Authors can now draw from electronic-only publications and newsletters. Such publications can seem less formal — less permanent, I suppose. As social networking confounds our assumptions of personal privacy, so too does the Internet blur these distinctions. I have more than once been surprised when an author told me that he or she didn’t think something needed to be cited because it was published “only electronically, not in print.“ Material from a company site or emailed to a few hundred clients does, indeed, constitute a previous publication — a fact that must be acknowledged. And I won’t even get into the problems that “preprints” can cause an editor who is trying to make sense of a reference list.
I wonder whether any publication can get it totally right all the time — no matter how rigorous its peer-review and editorial due diligence may be. When authors sign their copyright assignment forms for us, we have to assume (trust) that they do have the rights to assign that permission to us. If we make a mistake, we do what we can to correct it — even correcting an article in our online archives so as not to perpetuate errors. It can be embarrassing, but it is necessary.
When most anyone can set up a website and hold forth on any topic, rules governing both plagiarism and copyright infringement remain as rigorous as always — but are harder to apply. The sobering lesson (see page 12) is that a good quality system relies on human beings and necessary documentation, source identification, and proper tracking. Manuscripts and data constitute our editorial “raw materials,” and at least our (thankfully rare) tracking slip-ups don’t end up jeopardizing human health. All we can do is own up to them and assure our authors that we do, indeed, have good systems in place to protect their valuable intellectual property.