Self plagiarism

June 8, 2018

A journal has recently retracted an article for self-plagiarism:

Just going by the titles this may appear to be the case where review or theory material is published over and over in multiple venues.

I may have complained on the blog once or twice about people in my fields of interest that publish review after thinly updated review year after year.

I’ve seen one or two people use this strategy, in addition to a high rate of primary research articles, to blanket the world with their theoretical orientations.

I’ve seen a small cottage industry do the “more reviews than data articles” strategy for decades in an attempt to budge the needle on a therapeutic modality that shows promise but lacks full financial support from, eg NIH.

I still don’t believe “self-plagiarism” is a thing. To me plagiarism is stealing someone else’s ideas or work and passing them off as one’s own. When art critics see themes from prior work being perfected or included or echoed in the masterpiece, do they scream “plagiarism”? No. But if someone else does it, that is viewed as copying. And lesser. I see academic theoretical and even interpretive work in this vein*.

To my mind the publishing industry has a financial interest in this conflation because they are interested in novel contributions that will presumably garner attention and citations. Work that is duplicative may be seen as lesser because it divides up citation to the core ideas across multiple reviews. Given how the scientific publishing industry leeches off content providers, my sympathies are…..limited.

The complaint from within the house of science, I suspect, derives from a position of publishing fairness? That some dude shouldn’t benefit from constantly recycling the same arguments over and over? I’m sort of sympathetic to this.

But I think it is a mistake to give in to the slippery slope of letting the publishing industry establish this concept of “self-plagiarism”. The risk for normal science pubs that repeat methods are too high. The risks for “replication crisis” solutions are too high- after all, a substantial replication study would require duplicative Introductory and interpretive comment, would it not?

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*although “copying” is perhaps unfair and inaccurate when it comes to the incremental building of scientific knowledge as a collaborative endeavor.

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