Academic mefites: is this plagiarism?
October 3, 2012 3:16 PM   Subscribe

What to do when, as a peer reviewer, you figure out an author self-plagiarized?

I was asked to evaluate an article for a journal. The study is good enough, but the use of the relevant literature is somewhat spotty. Namely, my own research is completely misrepresented. This is fine, as part of it can be debated in the usual means of academia and another part can be rectified through the review process.

But here is where things get complicated. The editors hadn't done a really good job editing out the identity of the author, so I was able to look up her other published work. And yes, I checked - namely to see if I should start writing a response article ASAP. In reading this already published article, I found one paragraph which is identical in both articles.

What do I do? Do I signal this to the editors? Does it qualify as academic fraud or is it common practice in academia to "reuse" text?
posted by Milau to Education (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Could you signal it to the authors by saying you "spot googled" some phrases of the article and found this whole paragraph?

Because then it doesn't matter who she is or whom she plagiarized, you found it by googling her words and they've already been published.....
posted by bilabial at 3:24 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Officially you don't know the identity of the author, right? Just report that a paragraph from anonymous author A's paper appears to have originated from another paper by author B, even if you have strong reason to suspect that A and B are the same person. Let the journal's editors deal with it from that point.
posted by RichardP at 3:27 PM on October 3, 2012 [16 favorites]

You can't plagiarise yourself, since plagiarism is stealing someone else's ideas. However, if part of the paper has been published in another journal or book then there may be a copyright issue, since the contents of the publication will basically belong to the first publishing journal. If the initial published work is in some other format though, (for example, I write reports for research projects and if they are good enough convert them to academic papers - the people who commissioned the reports want me to get published since it makes the research more relevant and gives it more impact) then there's a good chance it is not really a problem. (So, while it may not be totally common to reuse text, it is not necessarily a huge foul.)

So anyway, what you do is (a) make suggestions in the anonymous comments to the submitting writer that they might consider x, y and z, where these are your publications and anything else that might improve their quality and (b) make it clear to the journal editor in the box marked 'Comments for editor, not to go to submitting author' (or some such) that a paragraph appears as is somewhere else, naming the publication, author, year, URL, etc. If its the author's own previous work then it may not be a problem, but the journal editor can decide on that (both as regards plagiarism and as regards original work). These boxes will be on the journal's reviewers pages when you come to submit your review.
posted by biffa at 3:35 PM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you know who the author is, it probably needs to be assigned to another reviewer. Your checking, to essentially further your own self-interests, is a breach of the system. Sorry! Apologize to the reviewers and move on.

Self-plagiarism is tricky and I honestly believe in giving one's peers the benefit of the doubt. If I were the editor, I'd simply flag that paragraph and ask that it be reworded. You might want to mention it to them.
posted by lalalana at 3:36 PM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Self-plagiarism (or text-recycling, if you want to use gentler language) is not universally considered unethical in academic fields I'm familiar with. Here's a nice overview of some recent cases.

In my personal opinion if the language is in the introduction or methods sections I wouldn't think twice about it. The researcher probably has a text file of descriptions of their experiment and copy-pastes in the language. Maybe not optimal, but hardly unethical. If it's in results/discussion/conclusion I'd be a bit more concerned.

I think this is a journal policy question, not a research ethics question. I agree with RichardP that you should tell the editors of the journal that you noticed language similar to this other article, and let them deal with it.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:40 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It could be self-plagiarism.

If so, some disciplines/conferences/journals are less picky if it is a piece of boilerplate that generally describes e.g. the overall scope of the work, the overall experimental approach, the framing of the lit review, etc. They are more picky if it is specific research questions, research findings, etc.

You could mention this anyway, and then let the Eds decide.

Some journals allow you to address comments to both the author(s) and the Eds., you could definitely address comments to the Eds. if you want to, and then say that you do not want to review this further, for confidentiality reasons.
posted by carter at 3:43 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came across this very issue this week. One of our collaborators - the first author - used very similar intro paragraphs for complementary papers (they come from the same dataset and the same project, but address different aspects of the study question). The author and co-authors are the same for both papers. The PI asked that the intro for the second one be changed. The PI worded it something like this: Though the paper is our intellectual product, it is not our intellectual property, as once paper 1 gets published it is the property of the journal. The PI also told us that someone at our institution had been fired recently (within the last year) for something similar.

I don't know the details of the firing. I work at a university in Canada.
posted by lulu68 at 3:43 PM on October 3, 2012

This recently came up for a colleague who had recycled some of the text of a methods section from previous work the lab had published. Some journals do consider this plagiarism, and this should be outlined in the publication requirements for the specific journal. Typically it just means rewriting the text in question or citing the previous work, and isn't really considered "plagiarism" in the same ethical sense as taking someone else's work as one's own. I agree with the above posters, signal it to the editors and they can sort it out with the authors.
posted by goggie at 3:50 PM on October 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks! It helps to have a different vocabulary to speak about it (recycling, for instance).

To be clear, I did not know this author before reviewing the article. The identity of the author was left quite clear in the article itself, where, for instance, the author refers, several times, to her/"my" previous research on the topic of xyz (author 2011). The fact this information was left in the article by the editors raises a whole other level of concerns. But yes, perhaps I shouldn't have checked previous work, but curiosity killed this cat. FYI, I had finished a first draft of the review before I checked the article and was planning on revising it tomorrow.
posted by Milau at 4:03 PM on October 3, 2012

Searching "self-plagiarism" at Retraction Watch nets 10 articles.
posted by jamjam at 4:11 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second several of the others in this thread. Flag the duplicated paragraph to the editors and let them deal with it. Whether or not it is a problem is highly dependent on several factors including the field, the journal, and the content of the paragraph. Frankly, a single duplicated paragraph wouldn't bother me too much by itself, but it does send up a red flag about how much more may be duplicated. If I were the editor I would ask for a clarification from the author and at minimum ask for reassurances that the rest of the paper is above reproach.
posted by Tallguy at 4:20 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's your duty to let the editors about it. That's all.
posted by grouse at 4:46 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exactly: tell the editors what you've found, but it's not really a crime: they're recycling something, which is lazy, but if they're under the tenure gun then they're probably firing off as much stuff as they can.

More important is the fact that the article has ignored or misrepresented your research: the person does not have to agree with you, but they cannot misrepresent your argument in order to refute it. And the fact that the journal sent it to you, rather than someone else, means that they want you to catch this.

I've had this happen to me, too, and it's annoying. You feel like such a putz demanding that this person engage with your work honestly -- but it's probably the reason that the paper was sent to you for review, and not someone else.

In other words, write up what you've told us and tell them that you think it needs work.
posted by jrochest at 4:55 PM on October 3, 2012

I am an editor for one academic journal, and we use ithenticate routinely for all submissions that might be accepted. I think that's probably routine for all Wiley journals, and likely also for other big publishers too. As explained above we do this both for ethical reasons, and to prevent IP issues.

We routinely ask authors to rework any substantial self-plagiarism. However, a small amount of text, particularly if it explains something technical about the methods for the paper is usually fine. The editors will appreciate you flagging up this problem. As an aside, editors are just people, you can ask them this kind of stuff too.
posted by roofus at 5:15 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, we all recycle bits of our stuff, it's unavoidable. Examples:

- You give a conference paper based on a book script, it's requested for and reprinted in the conference proceedings and appears as such in print. Your book comes out a year later; some passages will be the same.
- You re-write and correct a paper from your studies that has earlier appeared in an anthology, and publish it as a book chapter; some passages will be the same.
- You prepare a book script and while working on it, you create a spin-off article for a peer-reviewed journal. Although your later book will present a more refined version, and will have benefitted from a more professional editing routine, some passages will still be the same.

The point is, unless it's about core arguments, one rarely self-footnotes. Footnotes to own work typically appear for one of the following (legitimate) reasons:

- Positioning. One wants the reader to understand that one has a good publishing record and is well-established in the field.
- Shortcutting. One refers to a discussion one has held in greater detail elsewhere.
- Fine-tuning or withdrawing an argument. One refers to what one has said earlier, and where, and discusses a change of position.
- Engaging in debate. Someone has attacked one's argument x in article y, and in order to counter this criticism, one has to refer to the source.
- indicating that a book chapter is an elaboration of an earlier published article. Typically one puts a footnote about this at the beginning of the chapter.

So, if we're talking about only one paragraph, you should point out that this one paragraph has been found in article x by author y (not engaging in discussing whether this is the same author as the one of the article you're reviewing), and ask for a "missing reference". If the author has her wits about her, she'll be able to make that work - easily.

I would nevertheless recommend to run the article through some type of plagiarism software. If you come up with substantially more, that's when you need to pull the alarm.

Another recommendation: hide your irritation about the misrepresentation of your work well.
posted by Namlit at 6:01 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some publications will allow authors to reuse parts of previously published material by including a caveat to this effect. For example, "Portions of this work have been previously published in the Dec 2010 edition of the Journal of Cthulhu Knitting Patterns." It may be as simple as adding this to the end of the article.
posted by blurker at 8:43 PM on October 3, 2012

Hi, I'm the administrative support to our Associate VP for research integrity.

Self-plagiarism is plagiarism. And we cover it in our Responsible Conduct of Research course. We'd be very interested to hear about this.

Notify the other editors, yes. But you may also wish to notify the Research Integrity Officer at the author's institution. That will prompt a review of the issue. Even if "research misconduct" is not found, it is likely to result in remedial education concerning appropriate publication practices - which it sounds like this person could use.

When you notify anyone of this issue, please be sure to cite your complaint specifically. I don't think people realize quite how many research integrity allegations are thrown out on technicalities because they're not properly phrased. You need to be as specific as possible. "Something fishy with this paragraph" isn't going to cut it. You need to specifically state the type of research misconduct you are alleging (in this case, plagiarism), and you need to provide specific examples from the publications in question.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions.
posted by jph at 8:54 PM on October 3, 2012

It doesn't need to be quite that drastic. I encountered this earlier this year in an article I peer-reviewed. Again it was one paragraph, which I recognised from a book chapter by the same author in an edited collection I'd happened to read a few months previously. I figured both pieces had emerged out of the same piece of writing and the disjunction had been incomplete: Siamese twin articles, if you will.

In my reader's report, I flagged the issue, advising publication on the proviso that the offending paragraph be either cut altogether or pared down, with a footnote to be added referring to the earlier book chapter. On the cover sheet, I marked the essay down on the "originality" scale, noting that the reason for this was the repetition issue. The journal editor got back to me a few weeks later saying the article had been approved for publication, with revisions based on the readers' reports.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:06 AM on October 4, 2012

There are two distinct reasons why we damn copying. We disapprove of copying from another author because it is disrespectful not to evidence the source of the material. We disapprove of reproducing a previously published article or large chunk from an article because it is wasteful of resources—libraries have to buy the material a second time, researchers have to plough through the article a second time before realising that it is the same material.

This latter argument doesn't apply to a single paragraph of duplication. Indeed, there are good arguments that a standard method or idea should be described consistently in the same language to save researchers's time trying to pick apart seemingly different descriptions of the same idea in different papers. We seem to have adopted a half-understood notion from primary-school creative writing about "not repeating yourself" and applied it to a completely different situation.

If this still bothers you, I'd suggest that you flag it in your comments to the author or editor—the paper wasn't masked as well as it should have been (not uncommon) and you noticed a common paragraph with another paper by the same authors. But, in the end, you should ask yourself the question as to whether the communication of the ideas in the paper would be improved by changing it—that is ultimately what matters.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:03 AM on October 4, 2012

Response by poster: Update.

I reread both articles and apart from one paragraph, meant to establish context, found both pieces are distinct enough. I flagged the paragraph to the editor. But the main reason I had noticed it in the first place was that it misrepresents the context. So I also flagged it to the author as potentially erroneous. (Too bad no one noticed it in the article that was published).

I also told the editor my work and that of another scholar had been misrepresented and provided supporting evidence.

It was my first experience having my work misrepresented and I'm sure it won't be the last. The good news is that the experience prompted me to start writing an article where I clarify my understanding of the concepts the author misused. In the end, the whole experience ended up being productive. Thank you all for your advice!
posted by Milau at 8:05 AM on October 7, 2012

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