Times Higher Education recently reported about an online survey on research integrity of British scientists. The study was performed and evaluated by Joanna Williams and David Roberts, two scientists at the University of Kent (their full report here). Interestingly, they not only assessed scientists’ own self-reported research misconduct (this being a topic where scientists tend to be less than perfectly honest), but also the so-called “unmatched count”, which “allows respondents to indicate malpractice without specifically implicating themselves”. The sad, but hardly surprising results: one fifth of the respondents acknowledged having fabricated their research data, one out of seven admitted committing plagiarism, and more than a third “reported having published extracts from the same piece in more than one location”.
Self-plagiarism is a convenient tool to boost one’s publication record without doing any proper additional research. This is why many academics see extensive copy-pasting of one’s previously published text as a form of misconduct. Of note, this behaviour has nothing to do with occasional repetition of standard formulations or methods descriptions. However, when I reported in April 2016 about certain excessive cases of self-plagiarism, some of my readers strongly disagreed these were anywhere near research misconduct. They showed a more relaxed attitude to self-plagiarism, especially where literature reviews were concerned. Many even reject the term, and prefer to speak of ‘text re-use’, for the purpose of spreading own knowledge and ideas to reach wider masses. From this perspective, which many journal editors seem to share, exact double-publishing of the same review or opinion paper is still frowned upon, but it is enough to introduce some additional paragraphs or a slightest modification of focus to avoid a retraction.
“In that case, I’m a serial offender. I don’t recall having used intro/disc sections in research papers, but I get invited to write more review papers or book chapters than I have material for or am motivated to. I try to decline as many of them as I can, but if I’m invited by a friend or mentor, it’s not that easy to decline. As the audience is different for each journal (and I suspect almost non-existent for book chapters), I recycle much of my previous chapters/reviews in the new ones, maybe updating them with new references. One of the persons inviting me even recommended doing just that in order to coax me into accepting their invitation.
I see nothing whatsoever wrong with that approach (neither do, apparently, the editors). In fact, in one case, it is specifically mentioned at the end of the PDF that large parts of the article were c&p from three previous articles of mine on the topic: http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/iwp-2015-0027 (in German)”
I like Brembs’ comment, because it helps to understand why scientists feel the need to self-plagiarise in the first place. Part of it is surely personal vanity. However, academics are evaluated after their publication output (often in purely quantitative manner), also literature reviews and anything else with any semblance to the ‘peer-reviewed’ stamp of approval counts (hence the ongoing popularity of the Swiss publisher Frontiers). Book chapters look very smart on an academic CV, and since no one according to Brembs reads those anyway, they can probably be safely self-plagiarised ad infinitum. The general attitude is that self-plagiarism hurts no one, but nicely aids one’s own academic career.
One could ask, if someone would really be excited to keep discovering any even the most informative and mind-blowingly clever review or opinion piece published again and again in different journals, especially given that scientific literature is already chocking on those. Every scientist in dire need of first- or last-author publications writes a review or a “perspective” article, while certain editors relentlessly invite their publishing colleagues to submit yet another review on their research topic, just so the journal gains some big names. Finally, reviews are often more often cited than original research, which makes publishing them very lucrative if an editor wishes to game the journal’s impact factor. Self-plagiarism therefore benefits both the authors and unscrupulous journal editors, but is it really that harmless to science?
Same self-plagiarising authors would surely be upset about their own money wasted if a paperback novel they bought to read on a conference trip were to turn out to be very similar to what that same author published only last year. They might even demand their €10 back from the bookseller. Yet these very scientists do not at all mind spending hundreds and thousands in public money to publish their self-plagiarised works repeatedly, simply because it is for a good cause: their own self-promotion. And this self-promotion pushes aside all their honest colleagues, whose self-plagiarism-free publication records may look less impressive when jobs and funding are distributed.
It is the task of the journal editors to spot and reject self-plagiarism, while demanding of authors to submit original texts only. Many journal editors shy away from such editorial actions, and certainly are reluctant to retract copy-pasted papers from their journals, especially when big names or personal friends are concerned. Some don’t even screen submitted texts for plagiarism, and if they do, they often do not mind the re-use of own texts.
Luckily, some journal editors see it differently.
The journal Cancer and Metastasis Reviews has retracted in May 2016 a publication for self-plagiarism. The peculiarity of this case: the responsible guilty parties were not some developing world university scientists, outside of all western clinical and publishing networks, but US-American faculty member Keith Knutson and his colleagues from the elite Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The retraction note for their Knutson et al 2014 paper“Targeted immune therapy of ovarian cancer” went:
“This article has been retracted at the request of the authors and in agreement with the Editors in Chief. The article contains large portions of text that have been duplicated from the articles:
- Immunity and immune suppression in human ovarian cancer Claudia C Preston, Ellen L Goode, Lynn C Hartmann, Kimberly R Kalli, and Keith L Knutson Immunotherapy. 2011 Apr. 3(4): 539–556, DOI 10.2217/imt.11.20
- The Immune System in the Pathogenesis of Ovarian Cancer Bridget Charbonneau, Ellen L. Goode, Kimberly R. Kalli, Keith L. Knutson, and Melissa S. DeRycke Crit Rev Immunol. 2013; 33(2): 137–164, DOI: 10.1615/CritRevImmunol.2013006813
The authors would like to express their most sincere apology to the editors and readers of the journal”.
I asked Melania Ruiz, Senior Publishing Editor at Springer Science+Business Media, if the authors really initiated the retraction themselves. To this Ruiz admitted:
“We were alerted about the similarity of the article with other publications from the same authors. After a thorough investigation and following the COPE guidelines the Editors in Chief made the decision to retract the article”.
One of the two journal’s Editors-in-Chief, Avraham Raz, explained about his rationale to retract that Knutson et al paper:
“Self- plagiarism is nothing but a reflection of the author laziness, and a breach of contract with whomever holds the original copyright”.
How to deal with self-plagiarism is apparently up to the individual journal editor or institutional responsible and their individual understandings of research integrity.
The research integrity activist Jaime Teixeira da Silva had an interesting experience when he found widespread text re-use in the publications of the Canadian agricultural scientist Samir Debnath. After Teixeira da Silva compiled his analysis (available here from my site) and submitted it to Debnath’s employer, the Agricultural Ministry of Canada, he received this reply from the Assistant Deputy Minister, Brian Gray (highlight mine):
“Dear Mr. Teixeira da Silva:
This letter is in response to your email to Minister MacAulay regarding your complaint against an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientist. The Minister has asked me to respond on his behalf.
All AAFC employees are subject to the AAFC Code of Values and Ethics. Given the specific nature of their work, our scientists also hold themselves to the highest scientific ethics and integrity standards set out by AAFC Science Ethics Policy Framework. The Framework implementation is overseen by the Science and Technology Branch’s Science Ethics Committee.
AAFC does not take allegations of scientific misconduct lightly. All AAFC science publications are reviewed both individually by AAFC management, and by the journals in which they are published, and from time to time as a body of a scientist’s individual work. No issues with Dr. Debnath’s work have ever been found by such reviews. We also have an obligation to our employees to protect them, and the Department from unsubstantiated claims of misconduct. As you have given us no cause to further investigate Dr. Debrath’s publications at this time, we ask that you desist from spreading innuendo regarding his work”.
I contacted Gray about this email and asked him to share some details about the Canadian Ministry’s alleged ‘reviews’ and their methodology, as well as their general guidelines on self-plagiarism. Gray eventually replied to me on June 23rd as follows:
“I can assure you that I am treating this very seriously and I hope to be able to respond to your questions soon”.
I am still waiting for his answer. Good thing I was at least not accused of “spreading innuendo”!
Update 5.08.2016: Brian Gray of AAFC finally replied, after several reminders. His message to me is below, which I summarise and interpret as such: Samir Debnath will not be investigated for his self-plagiarism and data re-use. AAFC sees the integrity of Debnath’s papers sufficiently established by their peer review process, and will possibly consider self-plagiarism as concern issue only for the future. Now quote Gray:
“AAFC takes allegations of scientific misconduct seriously. I can assure you that we expect all Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) employees to adhere to the Government of Canada’s Values and Ethics Code and the AAFC Values and Ethics Code. You can review these policies at:
In addition, AAFC has a Science Ethics Policy Framework that guides and supports our employees working in the science field. I have included a copy of this 2013 framework which is due to be updated this year. We agree that self-plagiarism is an emerging topic in the science world; as such, we will be mindful of this subject while reviewing the framework.
You will also note that within the framework there is a section that addresses investigations when non-compliance has been reported. As part of the investigative process, recommendations are suggested and actions may be taken.
AAFC is a scientific organisation that believes strongly in the internationally accepted peer-review process. As such, we rely on the in-depth review processes that are set out by scientific journals, and AAFC directors work extensively with researchers under their supervision to ensure their work aligns with AAFC’s mission and mandate”.