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Pardon Me for Repeating Myself

Elizabeth Wager
Publications Consultant
Sideview, Princes Risborough, UK

[This article is a commentary on the cover story of the Fall 2014 Professional Ethics Report, "A Fresh Look at Plagiarism," by Michele Garfinkel.]

When approaching the question of "self-plagiarism" it is helpful to consider the ethical aspects. True plagiarism may be considered a form of theft, always involves deception, and has clear victims (i.e., authors who are denied credit) and is therefore clearly unethical. However, stating something more than once is not considered a crime in any situation other than academic journal publishing. I can see three possible explanations for this (which are not mutually exclusive). One is that repetitive or redundant publication (terms I prefer to self-plagiarism) wastes the resources of the research community in terms of peer reviewer time, journal effort and space [1]. Second, redundant publication may be viewed as giving unfair academic credit to authors for minimal effort. Third, covert redundant publication may skew the results of meta-analyses that are the basis for many medical guidelines [2].

The first potential harm of redundant publication requires the exercise of judgement by journal editors. While it may be inefficient to publish the same information in two journals, this may make it accessible to a wider audience and may therefore be justified. Guidelines are often published simultaneously in several journals. So long as this is done transparently, this seems helpful. In fact, some of the most widely used guidelines on publication ethics (from the International Committee on Medical Journal Editors) are routinely published in several journals [3]. Editors may also agree to publish translations of published material to ensure it reaches a wider audience.

The second objection to redundancy reflects, in my view, failings in the academic reward system rather than underlying ethical issues. This problem would probably disappear if we were to devise a better system for academic recognition than simply counting the number of articles on which a researcher is named. Several other ethical problems such as guest authorship and plagiarism might also be reduced or abolished by such a change.

The third potential harm of covert redundant publication, while undoubtedly real, could be prevented, at least in the field of medicine where its effects can be so damaging, if all clinical trials were registered and the unique registration number required for all publications.

Setting aside these three aspects, it is hard to argue that repetitive publication is harmful and, in fact, one can argue that it may even be beneficial. Given that the purpose of publication is to transmit information or ideas to readers, clear and unambiguous expression is surely desirable. As Strunk & White so perfectly express it, "Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue" [4]. If journals adopt an extreme position on self-plagiarism, authors could be forced to reword descriptions of standard methods and, in doing so, might make these descriptions less clear than the original. An alternative solution would be to demand the use of quotation marks as well as clear citation for any repeated passages, but I am not convinced this would provide substantial benefit to readers and would cost authors time. While I am skeptical about many claims of inadvertent plagiarism due to perfect recall of other people’s texts, most writers are probably guilty of some degree of inadvertent self-plagiarism, and requirements to check for any reuse of wording strike me as both excessive and obsessive. If authors are invited to write articles, commentaries, and book chapters on their area of expertise, they cannot guarantee that they will not repeat any shred of previous publications and, so long as they respect copyright and publishing etiquette (e.g., by informing editors of previous work and discussing the degree of overlap they consider acceptable), I do not believe this is a problem.

Another reason why I believe we should rethink some hardline attitudes to "self-plagiarism" is that new methods of disseminating research findings offer considerable potential benefits and it would be tragic if these opportunities were denied because of outmoded thinking. While peer-reviewed journals have served, and are likely to continue to serve, an important function in the communication of research, they are not the only medium. For example, preprint servers are widely used by physicists, enabling rapid communication and discussion of results without delays caused by peer review. For medical research, clinical trial registers provide information about trial methods, and in some cases also results summaries, that may be more complete than journal articles [5-7]. Public posting of full clinical study reports (which will occur routinely for medicines licensed in Europe from January 2015 [8] also offers considerable potential benefits but will undoubtedly include material identical to that appearing in journals.

As Garfinkel suggests [9], it would be helpful if stakeholders including research institutions, journal editors and publishers would reach a consensus on what forms of redundant publication are harmful and how such harms can be minimized. On the basis of this, guidelines for authors and researchers could be developed. My hope is that we might develop clear, practical and pragmatic guidelines so I could stop having to write, sometimes repetitively, about redundant publication.


[1] Wager E (2010) Why you should not submit your work to more than one journal at a time. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines 7:160-1

[2] Tramèr MR, Reynolds  DJ, Moore RA, McQuay HJ (1997). Impact of covert duplicate publication on meta-analysis: a case study. BMJ 315:635-40

[3] Rosenberg J, Bauchner H, Backus J, De Leeuw P, Drazen J, Frizelle F, Godlee F, Haug C, James A, Laine C, Reyes H, Sahni P, Zhaori G, International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (2013). The new ICMJE recommendations. National Medical Journal of India 26:258-9

[4] W. Strunk & E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Longman,New York, 4e 1999 (p.79)

[5] Hartung DM, zarin DA, Guise JM, McSonah M, Paynter r, Helfand M (2014) Reporting discrepancies between the results database and peer-reviewed publications. Annals of Internal Medicine 160:477-83

[6] Wieseler B, Kerekes MF, Vervoelgyi, McGauran N, Kaiser T (2011) Impact of document type on reporting quality of clinical drug trials: a comparison of registry reports, clinical study reports, and journal publications. BMJ 344:d8141

[7] Tharyan P, George AT, Kirubakaran R, Barnabas JP(2013) Reporting of methods was better in the Clinical Trials Registry-India than in Indian journal publications. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 66:10-22

[8] Anon (Press release, European Medicines Agency, 2nd October 2014) Publication of clinical reports: EMA adopts landmark policy to take effect on 1 January 2015.

[9] Garfinkel, Michele (2014) A fresh look at self-plagiarism. Professional Ethics Report 27:4 (p.1-2).

This article is part of the Fall 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.