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NSF Audit of Successful Proposals Finds Numerous Cases of Alleged Plagiarism

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investigating nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism drawn from a single year's worth of proposals funded by the agency.

The cases grow out of an internal examination by NSF's Office of Inspector General (IG) of every proposal that NSF funded in fiscal year 2011. James Kroll, head of administrative investigations within the IG's office, tells ScienceInsider that applying plagiarism software to NSF's entire portfolio of some 8000 awards made that year resulted in a "hit rate" of 1% to 1.5%. "My group is now swamped," he says about his staff of six investigators.

Plagiarism is one of three categories, along with fabrication and falsification, recognized as research misconduct by federal research agencies. (NSF labels the latter two categories "problematic data.") Last week, NSF IG Allison Lerner told a congressional panel that the number of "substantive allegations of misconduct associated with NSF proposals and awards … has more than tripled in the past 10 years, as has the number of findings of research misconduct." She said her office has issued 120 findings of research misconduct since 2003, and that "more than 80%" involved plagiarism.

By law, 73 federal agencies have an Inspector General -- an independent, internal watchdog. In 2005, the NSF IG conducted a pilot study of nearly 1000 pending proposals and found that roughly 2.5% contained "significant amounts of unattributed text," NSF code words for plagiarism. Subsequent smaller studies have largely replicated those findings, Kroll says.

Testifying before the House of Representatives science committee during a 28 February hearing on management challenges facing NSF and other science agencies under the committee's jurisdiction, Lerner said that "extrapolating across the 45,000 proposals NSF receives annually suggests 1300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 could contain problematic data."
Kroll says that pursuing so many cases would overwhelm his office, which must also respond to outside tips and follow up on investigations by universities into allegations of misconduct involving federally funded research. The IG's office has an agreement with a contractor that sets a limit on the number of cases of alleged plagiarism that can be run through its software, he says, and, "I don't want to burn everything" on cases generated by such internal audits. "We also have to respond to allegations that come in the door," he notes.

Asked for his reaction to the rate of suspected plagiarism in NSF proposals found by the IG's office, NSF Director Subra Suresh tells Science Insider that "the acceptable rate for me should be zero. The IG's results indicate that it's very important to train everybody [on the responsible conduct of research], especially young people, to the fullest extent possible with the resources that we have, so we can bring that rate down."