Academic Publishing Uncategorized

Academic self-plagiarism: misconduct or a literary art form?

Plagiarism, the misappropriation of the (usually written) work of others in order to present it as one’s own, is universally regarding as academic misconduct. A number of German politicians and even government ministers saw their stellar careers damaged (sometimes beyond repair), and their beloved doctorate degrees occasionally taken away, after they were discovered to have plagiarized large sections of their dissertations.

But what about self-plagiarism, where scientists recycle their own texts and data for new papers, and occasionally even re-publish entire articles (with minor changes)? Most journals, keen to publish original works only, do not allow self-plagiarism. But the science publisher and Open Access pioneer Jan Velterop even suggests that self-plagiarism should be an acceptable or even welcome thing in academic publishing.

Debora Weber-Wulff, professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and THE specialist for plagiarism detection, disagrees. She is one of the contributors of the anti-plagiarism platform VroniPlag Wiki where the above-mentioned German politicians and many medical doctors were exposed for stealing texts for their own dissertations. Here is what Weber-Wulff told me:

Researchers who understand plagiarism as the misuse of the words or ideas of others sometimes blithely believe that they can reproduce their *own* words as often as they like, since the words “belong” to them.

This is referred to as self-plagiarism, and is indeed an unethical writing practice, as noted by Miguel Roig, who has written extensively on the topic. I find self-plagiarism problematic because the readers are being cheated. They expect every paper they read to be new material, not a rehash of a previous article. Even methodology sections, which some authors feel ought to be self-plagiarized, should at least include a short notice as to where the method was first published. If the reader is familiar with that already, she can skip this section entirely. But as is so often, there have often been minor changes made (or even a different methodology used but by mistake the wrong one was copied in) and these differences are now not obvious to the reader.

Duplicate publications, for example when authors submit the same text to a conference and a journal, or to two different journals, are also a form of self-plagiarism. This practice can be dangerous in sciences where meta-reviews count the number of investigations in a particular area. This can accidentally inflate the number papers demonstrating this or that outcome. It most certainly inflates the number of publications a person has, especially if the papers have different titles but the same contents. One can always quote one’s own previous work, but if there ends up being too much self-quotation, perhaps there is not enough original material here to warrant a new publication.

Roig has also pointed out that there may be copyright issues in self-plagiarism. Many traditional journals obtain the copyright to your words and are highly displeased to find them also published in a competitor’s publication”.

Below I present three cases where self-plagiarism was nevertheless willfully tolerated by respectable academic publishers. It is probably not a coincidence that the worst two of those are from the field of medicine, where the sheer numerical quantity of publications is traditionally the most important academic evaluation criteria.


The sloppy Italian professor

The first case is rather straightforward: an Italian geneticist and highly decorated retired professor Giorgio Bernardi has published as single author simultaneously two remarkably similar works, in PLOS One and in Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. The titles are however slightly different: the former paper was named “Chromosome Architecture and Genome Organization” and the latter “Genome Organization and Chromosome Architecture”. I contacted the publishers of both journals and learned that Bernardi was invited by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL) Press to submit a paper, for which he apparently self-plagiarised his most recent PLOS One manuscript.   According to Matt Hodgkinson, Senior Editor at PLOS One:

There is some overlap in content between the two articles but also some differences in focus and scope between the publications. While the submission to PLOS ONE was under consideration, Prof. Bernardi informed PLOS of his intention to publish another manuscript in a CSHLP symposium book that put the work in a larger perspective. Prof. Bernardi informed the editors of the symposium of the article submitted to PLOS ONE, he cited the PLOS ONE article, and he attributed the reproduced figures to the PLOS ONE article in the figure legends. We will post a comment on the articles to note the related publication”.

John Inglis, Executive Director of CSHL Press, declared to me in an email:

Inquiries and correspondence with Giorgio Bernardi about the papers you drew attention to have not borne out the suggestion that Bernardi did anything wrong. The two articles overlap in content but have differences in focus and scope. Furthermore Bernardi disclosed to each publisher the existence of the other manuscript.  In my experience, it is not uncommon for authors to place related and similar articles in both a widely read, indexed journal and a proceedings volume with a much smaller audience and more limited discoverability. PLOS and Cold Spring Harbor have agreed to place comments on the articles in question that point to the related publication”.

The PLOS One editorial note appeared shortly afterwards, CSHL Press is probably still working on it. However, why didn’t the editors of the two journals place the notes of “related publication” under each article straight away, if this was all a very normal and fully acceptable process? Are other participants of CSHL symposia actually just as welcome as Bernardi to reprint their earlier papers under the guise of novel and original CSHL Press publications? Inglis chose not to comment on this supposition.

The bigshot US radiologist from Croatia

The second case I present is much more serious. There, Hedvig Hricak, Chair of the Department of Radiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, copied large swathes of text from her own collaborative papers (which had other co-authors!) and even re-used figures, in a somewhat different context. Yet neither the affected journal, nor her institute, nor her co-authors or even COPE saw this as wrong.

Hricak already had to retract a paper in the Springer journal Abdominal Imaging (Hricak , 2006). It was for plagiarism, or as the retraction note put it: “This review article has been retracted upon the request of the author as it contains similar text and illustrations to previously published articles”.

For her paper in British Journal of Radiology (BJR, Hricak, 2005), titled “MR imaging and MR spectroscopic imaging in the pre-treatment evaluation of prostate cancer”, Hricak generously used text from an earlier publication in RadioGraphics (Claus et al 2004) which she merely co-authored: “Pretreatment Evaluation of Prostate Cancer: Role of MR Imaging and 1H MR Spectroscopy”.

The extensive textual overlap is highlighted in the attachments available here and here. A PlagScan analysis determined that 83% of the text was plagiarised, according to the whistle-blower who alerted me to this case and shared the associated evidence I now present. Yet all the journal BJR did was to issue in 2014 an Addendum, stating:

Some material published in this review article was discussed previously in the review article listed under reference 37: Pretreatment evaluation of prostate cancer: Role of MR imaging and 1H MR spectroscopy. RadioGraphics 2004; 24: S167–S180. The Editors of BJR were not aware of the earlier publication and were informed of the overlap only after the submission, peer review and publication of Br J Radiol 2005; 78: S103–S111”.

The editors of BJR chose not to retract this obviously duplicated paper. Sophia Anderton, Head of Publishing at the British Institute of Radiology (BIR, which publishes BJR), told me:

We are aware of these allegations and have thoroughly investigated them, following the guidelines of the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE). We have also sought the advice of COPE, an outside and independent body, which is satisfied with the way in which the BIR’s investigation was carried out. We consider the matter closed“.

In fact, I have received some of these communications, where the whistle-blower was politely asked to shut up and go away.

The president of BIR, Andrew Jones, declared in September 2013 why despite the 83% textual overlap

we don’t think there is compelling reason to warrant retraction because: 

  • while the papers are undoubtedly on the same topic, there really is not the direct overlap of wording that you claim. There are areas of paraphrased material but also the second paper goes beyond what the first paper covers, with additional material;

  • the Radiographics paper is cited in the BJR paper so the referees of the BJR submission would have had the information about the existence of the Radiographics paper – the authors were not hiding this;

  • both articles are reviews, published some time ago, and neither is claiming to be reporting new data;

  • by having this paper published and not retracted, it doesn’t pose any danger to health and the author doesn’t appear to be unethical in their intent”.

The Complaints Officer Iratxe Puebla of COPE was also involved into these discussions (on behalf of Chair Virginia Barbour) in October 2013. Anderton explained to Puebla that according to Hricak the paper was not really plagiarised and that the whistleblower had no grounds to keep complaining to BJR and COPE:

Following the COPE flowchart on suspected plagiarism, the first thing we did was to contact the corresponding author of the paper, Hedvig Hricak. I brought the matter to her attention and asked her to explain her point of view. In her response, Dr Hricak pointed out that whilst “the substantive content of the BJR review paper is similar to that of the RadioGraphics paper”… “the core of each article is different: The figures, abstract, introduction and conclusion/summary sections are distinct and reflect the different readerships at which the manuscripts were aimed”. She also highlighted the sentences which have direct overlap in an attachment; this is far fewer than claimed by [whistleblower]”.

On behalf of Hricak’s institution MSKCC, Eric Cottington told the relentless whistleblower in January 2016:

As the Research Integrity Officer at MSKCC, I conducted an assessment of these concerns and have not found any issues that have not already been satisfactorily addressed, e.g., through communication with and review by the journals and independent bodies, follow-up discussions with the MSKCC investigators, a retraction, published errata and Editor’s Note”.

Thing is, there was even more than “just” plagiarised text. The whistleblower found that the BJR publication has been re-using an image (see here) from a 2005 publication in Radiology (Zakian et al, 2005), where Hricak also was one of the co-authors. Same image appeared also in the now retracted Hricak 2006 paper in Abdominal Imaging. At the same time, the clinical cancer stage which the image was supposed to show, changed. The patient’s prostate tumour was first defined as clinical stage T1c in Fig 1 of Hricak, BJR, 2005 and then as clinical stage T2a in Fig 4 of Hricak, Abdom. Imaging, 2006. It then re-appeared as Fig. 3A and 3B in Zakian et al, Radiology, 2005.  Kristen Zakian, who also works at MSKCC, did not reply to my email inquiry.

Anderton explained to the whistleblower in her email from February 2016, that those different stages of cancer are not so different after all:

I have spoken to experts on this matter and the conclusion reached is that the difference between stage T1c (clinically nonpalpapble) and stage T2a (clinically palpable) bears no consequence on the teaching point being made in the figure. The point being made is that it was pathologic stage pT2b, which is stated clearly in the figure legend. I understand that assignment of stages T1c and T2a can vary between different urologists and even more between faculty members and fellows. As such, this is a minor point and not one over which retraction should be made”.

So, under certain conditions doctors are not only free to self-plagiarise, but also to re-use figures and even re-defined what these were showing. At least at the BIR, where Anderton argued: “this is a review article where one would expect to see previous work discussed”.

But what with the copyright issues of the plagiarised image, Anderton informed the whistleblower and the COPE complaints officer Puebla on February 29th 2016 that:

we intend to publish a Correction statement against the article in question (Br. J. Radiol., 78, (2005), S103–S111) to indicate that figure 4 in this paper was previously published in Radiology 2005, 234:804-814 as figure 3. I have been in touch with the publishers of Radiology, RSNA, and have now heard that they have granted retrospective permission to reproduce the figure”.

There is however a tiny, really insignificant snag to this “retrospective permission” from Radiology. Herbert Kressel was appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Radiology in 2007 by none other than Hricak herself, in her function as (former) member of the Board of Directors of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA, where she in 2010 even acted as Chairman), which publishes Kressel’s journal.

There was also another image apparently duplicated (see here): Fig. 6 of Hricak, BJR, 2005 was highly similar to Fig. 18 from Hricak et al, Radiology, 2007. We can probably rest assured Radiology’s EiC Knessel will firmly confront Hricak and deal with the image duplication soonest. Probably right after a flock of pigs flies past his office window, oinking about conflicts of interest.

first retraction

Nevertheless, Puebla expressed COPE’s full approval to this resolution:

In this case it appears that the journal has undertaken a thorough follow up and we consider that the publication of a public notification in the form of a Correction to alert readers to the duplication of the figure is appropriate“.

Hricak is indeed a highly influential and respected radiologist. Maybe MSKCC, BIR and RSNA all fear that due medical care for US east coast patients might collapse were Dr. Hricak’s work and career to take a dent from her academic self-plagiarism.  However, it seems even those self-plagiarising doctors, whose medical actions on patients were found to be rather questionable, are still protected from editorial scrutiny.

The stem cell trickster of Düsseldorf

The highly respectable Nature Reviews Cardiology has issued in February 2016 an Addendum to a 2006 paper by Michael Brehm and Bodo Strauer, “Stem cell therapy in postinfarction chronic coronary heart disease” (Nat. Clin. Pract. Cardiovasc. Med. 3 (Suppl. 1)). The Addendum mentions that that work

has been published in part elsewhere: Strauer, B. E. et al. Regeneration of human infarcted heart muscle by intracoronary autologous bone marrow cell transplantation in chronic coronary artery disease: the IACT study. J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 46, 1651–1658 (2005). This publication was cited in the Nat. Clin. Pract. Cardiovasc. Med. Article”.

That these two papers are actually highly similar did not seem as a problem to Nature Publishing Group (or CSHL press, or BIR).  Therefore, an important lesson to all plagiators: always cite the papers you were self-plagiarising! Journals will reward this as evidence of your disarming honesty, and you will simultaneously boost your own citation index! So, if you self-plagiarise your paper 10 times consecutively, and cite yourself each time… Can we get a mathematician to calculate the resulting citation index here?

But now comes the pièce de résistance of this case: the German cardiologist Strauer was accused of fraud and patient abuse because of his bone marrow cell therapy on heart attack patients at the University Clinic Düsseldorf, exactly what the now corrected paper was about.

The stem cell researcher and blogger Alexey Bersenev provided an overview of the Düsseldorf debacle here, there is also a useful article by Larry Husten in Forbes. Strauer’s stem cell-pseudoscience has been disproven by peers like Darrel Francis from the Imperial College London, who also found evidence of excessive data manipulation and re-use:

Amongst 48 reports from the group, there appeared to be 5 actual clinical studies (“families” of reports). Duplicate or overlapping reports were common, with contradictory experimental design, recruitment and results. Readers cannot always tell whether a study is randomised versus not, open-controlled or blinded placebo-controlled, or lacking a control group. There were conflicts in recruitment dates, criteria, sample sizes, million-fold differences in cell counts, sex reclassification, fractional numbers of patients and conflation of competitors’ studies with authors’ own. Contradictory results were also common. These included arithmetical miscalculations, statistical errors, suppression of significant changes, exaggerated description of own findings, possible silent patient deletions, fractional numbers of coronary arteries, identical results with contradictory sample sizes, contradictory results with identical sample sizes, misrepresented survival graphs and a patient with a negative NYHA class [categories of heart failure, -LS)”.

The University Clinic Düsseldorf ended this “stem cell” experimenting on patients in 2009, Strauer himself had to retire from his position as head of cardiology (incidentally, I was concluding my PhD studies at this very clinic just as the Strauer scandal began to unfold). Yet in 2010, Strauer was awarded the highest German state award, the Bundesverdienskreuz., for his “clinical and scientific therapy innovations”. In 2012, the University of Düsseldorf found „evidence of possible scientific misconduct” and engaged the state prosecutor’s office (which repeatedly refused to pick up the case). In February 2014, a disciplinary procedure was finally initiated at University of Düsseldorf against their cardiology professor (without any results so far).

Regardless of the pathetically bogged-down investigation in Düsseldorf, the evidence against Strauer as doctor and scientist is clear and overwhelming. Why did Nature Reviews Cardiology saw it fit to save his old self-plagiarised paper about phoney  stem cell therapies? For whose benefit was it, if surely not for the patients’? In all truth, I didn’t even bother to ask. What would be the point?

One can only hope that what is left of editorial ethics these days is more than those editorial guidelines of COPE, which even they themselves do not seem to be taking seriously.

33 comments on “Academic self-plagiarism: misconduct or a literary art form?

  1. Pingback: Self-Plagiarism: helps careers, hurts noone? – For Better Science

  2. Pingback: The infectious self-plagiarism of radiologist Hedvig Hricak – For Better Science

  3. I’m always afraid of unintentionally plagiarizing someone, even myself. That’s why I use tools like this to check text I’ve written. Though, things like this don’t stop us from plagiarizing ideas.
    Interesting post as always. Especially examples. Thanks for researching and writing about this issue.


  4. Pingback: COPE, the publishers’ Trojan horse, calls to abolish retractions – For Better Science

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  6. Pingback: Steven Houser and the Temple of Fraud – For Better Science

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