Scientific Sin and Self Plagiarism

Scientific sins

One of the seven deadly sins for scientists I came up with in a previous post on Sciencebase touches on the whole issue of trust. I used the term self-plagiarism, I was alluding to the growing problem of scientists publishing essentially the same paper in two or more journals. Essentially, self-plagiarism is duplication, it’s a kind of cheating. A paper in Nature in January highlighted the problem and explained that it is much more common in China and Japan for whatever reason.

The term – self-plagiarism – caused a little confusion in the comments on my seven sins item, so I asked Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today whether he considered it a useful term.

“I read the article and found the idea interesting,” he told me, “It’s a problem that exists not only in the science arena, but also in the literary and photography one as well. It seems that every field where you can submit multiple copies of a work to different publishers have their own issue with this.”

Bailey added that, “Typically, self-plagiarism refers to the reusing of old writing in new works. For example, an author reusing passages in a new book or a scientist rehashing previously published research as if it were brand new. I’m not sure what the name for this type of problem is, I’ve heard it referred to as “shotgun submissions” or “duplicate submissions” but not really self plagiarism.” So maybe I had coined a quite original phrase but it does not quite fit the crime in question.

However, Bailey’s next comment was quite encouraging, “The term is expanding, it could be a sign of a broader definition of plagiarism,” he told me.

He pointed out that given the inclination of some people to self-plagiarise, the issue is effectively an editorial problem. “Most publications and publishers have rules about these things and, if authors are caught disobeying them, they are reprimanded,” he added, “The problem, of course, is getting caught. Since the majority of
papers are not accepted, the odds of someone being published in two journals are still fairly slim and the odds of it being discovered are even slimmer. Still, much like with traditional plagiarism, the stigma of getting caught is pretty severe and it should deter the good scientists from engaging in this behavior.”

Bailey suggests that probably what is needed is better community policing and enforcement. “That can do far more than anything else,” he says. Perhaps a new form of peer review will enable such policing. How often do physicists see self-plagiarism in the arXiv.org preprint system, for instance.

After this brief email interview, I followed up with Bailey on the Oriental question mentioned in the Nature paper and he had this to say, “I realize that publishing in an English journal and, say, a Japanese journal simultaneously is a faux pas and I can see why, but how serious of an issue is it? How common is it and how major of a slight is it viewed?”

Bailey then pointed out that it might be argued that the scientific community could actually benefit from research that would otherwise be lost in a foreign language journal becoming more accessible because it also gets published in another language. “I don’t agree with that for the same reason I don’t agree with doing it in the literary world,” he emphasises, but it does raise an interesting point not necessarily related to language – Could duplicate publication, self-plagiarism, actually be a good thing, after all?

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8 thoughts on “Scientific Sin and Self Plagiarism

  1. Camilla, yes, you’re right the phrase has been used elsewhere with various meanings, so although I’d thought of it off the cuff, it’s not such an original phrase as I’d assumed.

    db

  2. Adam, preliminary communications get special dispensation. Speaking from RSC experience, the comms journals (like Chem Comm for which I was deputy editor) had rules about how much information was allowable without such a “paper” being regarded as a “full paper”

    db

  3. How do you handle an organic research group publishing a communication outlining their total synthesis of some natural product, then later going back and writing up a full paper on the same total synthesis. This is quite common and accepted in organic chemistry, but would it technically fall under self-plagiarism? Aside from embellishing with interesting observations and failed routes, how many ways can you word a synthetic scheme?

    See here for example:
    Communication
    Full Paper

    (I am in no way trying to single out this particular research group – it just happened to be in the current JACS ASAPs and I didn’t search any harder than that.)

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