Self plagiarism

A journal has recently retracted an article for self-plagiarism:

Just going by the titles this may appear to be the case where review or theory material is published over and over in multiple venues.

I may have complained on the blog once or twice about people in my fields of interest that publish review after thinly updated review year after year.

I've seen one or two people use this strategy, in addition to a high rate of primary research articles, to blanket the world with their theoretical orientations.

I've seen a small cottage industry do the "more reviews than data articles" strategy for decades in an attempt to budge the needle on a therapeutic modality that shows promise but lacks full financial support from, eg NIH.

I still don't believe "self-plagiarism" is a thing. To me plagiarism is stealing someone else's ideas or work and passing them off as one's own. When art critics see themes from prior work being perfected or included or echoed in the masterpiece, do they scream "plagiarism"? No. But if someone else does it, that is viewed as copying. And lesser. I see academic theoretical and even interpretive work in this vein*.

To my mind the publishing industry has a financial interest in this conflation because they are interested in novel contributions that will presumably garner attention and citations. Work that is duplicative may be seen as lesser because it divides up citation to the core ideas across multiple reviews. Given how the scientific publishing industry leeches off content providers, my sympathies are.....limited.

The complaint from within the house of science, I suspect, derives from a position of publishing fairness? That some dude shouldn't benefit from constantly recycling the same arguments over and over? I'm sort of sympathetic to this.

But I think it is a mistake to give in to the slippery slope of letting the publishing industry establish this concept of "self-plagiarism". The risk for normal science pubs that repeat methods are too high. The risks for "replication crisis" solutions are too high- after all, a substantial replication study would require duplicative Introductory and interpretive comment, would it not?

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*although "copying" is perhaps unfair and inaccurate when it comes to the incremental building of scientific knowledge as a collaborative endeavor.

8 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    There are two interesting issues here -

    one is whether one simply reusing text - why would you rephrase a methods description once you got it right? (which publishers don't like because they think in terms of copyrights). I have also seen this happen when people have an example data session or maze diagram figure that gets reused over and over again.

    the other is people who put the same paper and/or data in two places. The problem with this, of course, is that it inflates number-of-pubs counts. But given that journals have "audiences" and we all know that the molecular biologists don't read the evolutionary behavior journals, there is some potential arguments that could be made in favor of publishing the same data in two places. (I've never done it because of the inflate-pubs-count problem, but it is an issue that a better publication system would address.)

    I suppose there is a third issue which is that you have data that can be analyzed in multiple ways. Given that publications are not "lab reports" but rather are "discoveries", it is absolutely possible that two discoveries can come from the same data. In my opinion these belong in different papers. Especially because, in my experience, readers cannot get more than one idea out of a paper. (Every time I've tried to put two discoveries into a paper, it only gets cited for one of them - ever - and the other gets lost. People decide that the paper is about discovery 1 and no one ever remembers that discovery 2 was also in there.)

    I agree completely that these are different issues that plagiarism - which is stealing someone else's work.

  • Morgan Price says:

    The sad reality is that the number of articles on a CV matters. So repeatedly republishing that review article or theoretical piece is cheating. Also, if a review article is an update of a previous review, the article should say so.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I wasn’t necessarily thinking of reusing data, but more along the lines of the context and interpretation. How many ways can we say “substance abuse is a significant problem for health and public policy and we suck at treating it”? This type of observation is very common in Intros that I read. And when you have multiple papers which all support your theory, big or small, how many ways can you say that in the Discussion?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why is it “cheating”, MP? Is it cheating to replicate a study and publish that, claiming the value of addressing the replication crisis?

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    why would you rephrase a methods description once you got it right?

    Exactly right. In fact, unless you substantially change the way you describe a method, you are engaging in "patchwork paraphrasing." Nobody really cares about this for a methods section, but this can be construed as plagiarism. But why the need to go through this anyway? We risk affecting the meaning and clarity of the methods.

    it is absolutely possible that two discoveries can come from the same data.

    This is certainly true for many genomic data sets. And I strongly agree with you the negative effects of having multiple "stories" in a paper. Our papers already are becoming quite "idea dense." No need to make them even denser.

  • becca says:

    Copyrighting recipes has always been kind of difficult, and I think it'd be better for all involved if methods had a similar legal standing. Though we do also underrate the contributions of people who "just" pilot methods, so that's a concern.

    But scientific figures and writing where there is a real intellectual contribution in the same sense any scholarly creation has? That should be another ball of wax for copyright law (although there is a grey zone- a particularly nice diagram of an experimental set up is really hard to classify, for example).

    The intellectual property framework the journals are operating from is simple to understand, if difficult to care about. If you developed a drug to treat a condition, and you sold the IP for it to Big Pharma A and then you also sold the same drug to Big Pharma B, you'd get into legal trouble.

    Self-plagiarism doesn't bother me a whit, morally, but I see why it's seen as double-crossing a deal from the journal's perspective. And yeah, I don't really care about double-crossing those dirty SOBs, but ditto for pharma companies. I'm just way too afraid of the pharma company's IP lawyers to try to sell the same drug to two companies. I'd do it in a heartbeat if I could get away with it and it'd result in no increased price to consumers. But my moral compass on this is definitely not the moral high ground.

  • Jaws says:

    Just a note on the potential "copyright" issues, from a copyright litigator (who actually does have a core science background, and could tell you Evil Stories about the effect that judges and lawyers who don't but are deciding these things has):

    Not all literal copying of text infringes copyright, especially when the asserted copy has the same legal author as the source. There are two issues here:

    (1) Copyright extends only to original expression. There are many, MANY cases holding that just repeating a factual statement in the same words is NOT a copyright infringement because the facts are uncopyrightable, and if there is a limited range of possible ways to clearly state those facts the DESCRIPTION of those facts isn't original either. ("Original" is a word with constitutional dimension, and I could bore you for hours with what it means... and how it's more alike in patent and copyright law than either the patent or the copyright bar comprehends.)

    (2) Even if what was copied is "original," the copying may nonetheless be fair use... especially with a scholarly purpose.

    Of course, the commercial journal vendors do their very best to avoid ever acknowledging either of these principles, let alone apply them to the particular pieces at issue. It's sort of like the Pope denying "Eppur si muove." And even though they're fundamentally wrong, they've got the equivalent of the College of Cardinals on their side (it's called "money to hire really expensive lawyers").

    So whatever other problems this practice "really" raises, copyright infringement is highly unlikely to be "really" one of them.

  • ecologist says:

    I tracked down the two articles in question. It is truly amazing. This is not a case of simply repeating a description of methods, or of a discussion of background and theory. It's hard to imagine what the author was thinking.

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