This is the second in our series of recent blog posts on publishing ethics to mark the launch this month of Wiley’s Best Practice Guidelines on Publishing Ethics: A Publisher’s Perspective, 2ed..
Where should one start a blog entry about publication ethics? It’s such a wide-ranging topic and, given that this isn’t supposed to be a book length entry, I will just pick on a couple of issues that I have seen occur over the years, either in one of the journals that I co-edit or that I have come across during conversations with fellow editors.
Over the years you begin to delude yourself into thinking that you have seen the full range of ethics infringements. It’s particularly ironic, I guess, when you edit bioethics journals: you would hope that your authors would be clued in to publication ethics issues.
We have seen quite a bit of plagiarism over the years. We do subject manuscripts to Crosscheck, both randomly as well as when we have reason to be suspicious of the provenance of some of the content claimed as original by an author. Now, given that we process hundreds of manuscripts each year, what does raise suspicion? Obvious stuff really: if an author whose first language isn’t English submits a manuscript that suffers fairly consistently from low quality English language expression, and suddenly there are a few pages of impeccable English, you would probably wonder how those impeccable bits came about. Sometimes there are perfectly innocent explanations, such as authors having had a friend copy-edit parts of their manuscript, but not all of it. On other occasions you discover that some material has indeed been plagiarized.
You might also come across content that looks a little bit too familiar. Journal editors probably pick up on plagiarism for no other reason than that they send submitted papers out for review by true subject experts. More often than not they give you a heads-up on possibly plagiarized content. Funnily enough, this is how I came across a plagiarized paper for the first time in my academic life. The former editors of the journal that I now edit asked me to review a manuscript on a topic that I had just published a paper on. True enough, the paper they asked me to review was identical (to the title of the article) to my previously published piece. Go figure.
I don’t think, courtesy of legal restraints, we do a good job these days of dealing with obvious cases of plagiarism. We do a good job flagging a duplicate publication, as that is fairly easy to show. Plagiarism is becoming an endangered category. The reason, probably, is that to call something plagiarized content you’d need to prove intent if an accused author ever decided to sue you for libel. So, it seems to me that these days most instances of plagiarism are labeled as incidents of duplicate publication. The thing is, duplicate publication didn’t historically refer to duplicating other people’s content and pretending that it’s your own, but to duplicating your own content. The former would have been called plagiarism. The latter would have been called duplicate publication. Today both cases are most often referred to as duplicate publication due to fear of litigation.
Let me give you two examples, both from journals that I edit. We had large parts of an article we had published plagiarized in a medical journal. The author of the plagiarized content also happened to be a senior editorial board member of the medical journal that published said piece, and a senior bioethicist in the region. The medical journal’s editor investigated the matter and decided to publish an erratum regretting the inadvertent duplicate publication. And that was that. No professional sanction occurred, everyone happily pretended that the blatant verbatim copying of large parts of our original content was inadvertent. Nonsense. In addition, some academic institutions have been known to ignore information showing that their faculty were caught plagiarizing other people’s work.
The other example happened just a week or two ago. Academics submitted a paper to us that we accepted after peer review. They duly signed the standard disclosure form in which they assured us in writing that their content was original, and that it hadn’t been submitted or published elsewhere. We received a tip-off that the empirical component of the article we accepted (including a number of tables) had actually already been published in a local medical journal – and that indeed turned out to be the case. We emailed the authors of said document to ‘please explain’ and have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgment of receipt of our message. Either way, we caught this one. In many documents this kind of duplicate publication would be referred to as self-plagiarism. That’s a misnomer. You can’t plagiarize your own content; plagiarism by definition involves the theft of someone else’s intellectual property and it involves the thief pretending that it is his or her own. Clearly you cannot steal your own intellectual content, hence there is no such a thing as self-plagiarism.
I have great difficulty understanding why anyone would even try to publish plagiarized content. In this day and age, whole computer programs trawl academic publications non-stop, searching automatically for plagiarized content. Incidentally, one of the cases mentioned above came to my attention via this route. Why anyone would wish to subject themselves to the risk of getting caught is truly beyond me. Perhaps academics engaging in misconduct are banking on a lack of enforceable regulations. Unless their employer punishes their misconduct, the worst that can happen to them is that a particular journal bans them from submitting (for a while). Perhaps publishers and groups such as COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) should come together and discuss whether more significant punitive measures could deter more authors from engaging in forms of academic misconduct.
The website Retraction Watch keeps track of many academic journal retractions. Check it out when you have a minute. And COPE has developed a number of really useful flowcharts on what we as Editors should do if we come across cases of suspected plagiarism or duplicate publication. I recommend them to your attention. You might find them helpful whether you are an author or a journal editor.