Publisher Retracts Chemistry Textbook over Allegations of Extensive Wikipedia Plagiarism

Textbooks on shelf
Kiran Foster/FLickr

Academic publisher Elsevier has retracted an entire chemistry textbook about the periodic table of elements this year after learning of allegations that significant portions were copied from Wikipedia uncredited, at times including near-verbatim text. The apparent plagiarism was uncovered by a Wikipedia editor who attempted and failed to get the book’s authors to address the issue before contacting the publisher.

Such plagiarism has been identified previously in other textbooks and the use of Wikipedia content, particularly uncredited use, by scientific papers is understood to be a widespread phenemonon. This has occasionally caused the spread of false information originating on the online encyclopedia.

The retracted textbook is titled: The Periodic Table: Nature’s Building Blocks: An Introduction to the Naturally Occurring Elements, Their Origins and Their Uses and was authored by J. Theo Kloprogge, Concepcion P. Ponce, and Tom A. Loomis. Published last year, the book’s description stated it was “Ideal for students and researchers working in inorganic chemistry, minerology and geology,” and that “this book provides the foundational knowledge needed for successful study and work in this exciting area.”

Concerns about plagiarism were first raised on December 26, 2020, to chemistry professor Thomas Rauchfuss on Wikipedia, where he occasionally edits, according to Chemistry World. The concerns were raised by a Finnish editor who noted similarities between the book’s entries on certain chloride compounds and the site’s pages on them. Stating the book entries were either a “direct copy from Wikipedia or with slight tweaks” to the material, the editor suggested Rauchfuss contact Elsevier about the matter.

In comments at Chemistry World, Rauchfuss stated he “rapidly checked the book and it was loaded with stuff from Wikipedia,” and “agreed that there was pretty serious plagiarism.” Rauchfuss stated he reached out to the main author Kloprogge, but said he “basically blew me off” with Kloprogge saying he was not aware of concerns and that a plagiarism-identification tool did not find matches to Wikipedia. Rauchfuss stated he then contacted another of the book’s authors noting numerous instances of copied or closely paraphrased text only to be ignored. The last author claimed to have only supplied photos for the book.

Parts of the book can still be viewed at Google Books. In the opening chapter on the periodic table’s history, several entries can be immediately identified as being almost verbatim from Wikipedia. The section on Hennig Brand, credited with discovering phosphorous, was copied almost verbatim from a section on the site’s page about the history of the periodic table. In the book’s next section on chemist Antoine Lavoisier, portions are copied from the same Wikipedia page as well as the intro of Lavoisier’s page. Following right after that, the book’s section on William Prout closely copies parts of Prout’s page. Similar copying can be found in subsequent entries.

Having no success talking to the book’s authors about the allegations of plagiarism, Rauchfuss reached out to Elsevier who he states responded almost immediately to agree the plagiarism concerns were valid and serious. They stated they were “making the book unavailable on all of our platforms and withdrawing it for sale from all of our resellers.” Kloprogge told Retraction Watch, a blog that monitors such incidents, in response to the retraction that “it is too painful what happened to talk about.” However, he did agree with the retraction, while suggesting they “may publish an updated version in the future.”

Rauchfuss questioned in Chemistry World how Elsevier could allow such plagiarism to go undetected. While noting “lots of Wikipedia content is showing up in student essays, and . . . scientific presentations” with credit usually provided, Rauchfuss suggested it was unusual for it to occur with a textbook. Instances of textbooks plagiarizing Wikipedia are not unprecedented, however. James Heilman, an emergency room doctor who contributes to Wikipedia, previously identified a medical textbook with content plagiarized from the online encyclopedia. Breitbart reported in 2019 that several textbooks, as well as news articles, extensively copied material from Wikipedia’s biased page on the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming.

A 2017 study titled “Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial” found that Wikipedia helped shape scientific literature. The study specifically focused on chemistry content with researchers having articles created on various chemistry topics and found as many as 250 subsequent articles in chemistry journals showed similarities to Wikipedia content. It also found studies cited on Wikipedia were cited nearly twice as many times in scientific literature, suggesting researchers used the site to gather sources.

While corporate media in recent years have praised Wikipedia as reliable, even on medical topics, prior history has shown the site is frequently a source of misinformation in academia. Hoaxes originating on the site have often shown up in scientific studies. This has included instances such as a fake medical condition claimed to be linked to diabetes and a false claim about the invention of a term in healthcare economics, which made its way into a nursing textbook.

Despite known issues with relying on Wikipedia, media have presented the site as a model for addressing “fake news” online, including regarding the coronavirus pandemic with the World Health Organization even forming a collaboration with Wikipedia’s owners, the Wikimedia Foundation, to address the “infodemic” of “misinformation” on the pandemic. This narrative about the site’s reliability has been promoted by the Foundation following the recommendation of a public relations firm run by the Head of Communications at the Clinton Foundation. It has contributed to Big Tech’s increasing reliance on Wikipedia, which the Foundation has capitalized on by establishing a special commercial service targeting major corporate users of Wikipedia content.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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