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I came across an article by X and Y that is a nearly 100% self-plagiarised from an article by X several years earlier. A couple of words were changed, but that is it. The figures and tables are the same and so is the list of references. The titles are different. The publishers of the two journals are different.

To put it mildly, I am disappointed by the authors' unethical behavior, by the failure of referees to uncover the earlier work when reviewing relevant literature to assess novelty, and by the editor/publisher for apparently not bothering to use plagiarism detection software.

My first reaction was that I should report this case to the journal editor. Based on what I've heard from colleagues, however, they appear to not always take self-plagiarism seriously, presumably because it's a lot of unpleasant work. Should I therefore report this to PubPeer instead? Or to the editor and PubPeer?

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My purely personal 2 cents: falsification of results or plagiarism are the two capital crimes of science - the first, because it wastes everybody's time, the second because it takes away credit from someone else. Self-plagiarism is a nuisance because it assigns undeserved credit to oneself, but, frankly, it only has a real effect in publication-counting institutions/evaluations, and I am tempted to say that, if that's what they do, they deserve it. The evaluations I am involved in permit to list only a very limited number of publications, which makes self-plagiarism pointless. – Captain Emacs Feb 28 at 14:38
I personally find it disturbing that you suggest an editor should by default put all authors under suspicion by using "plagiarism detection software". A good peer review should easily uncover such a case anyway. – Zulan Feb 28 at 14:50
@Zulan: It seems to me that this is simply an insurance policy on the part of an editor to guard against referees not doing their job properly. If I were a journal editor, I would use plagiarism detection software as a matter of course. I would rather find out myself and reject an article prior to review than having to investigate and perhaps retract a published article. – G. L. Feb 28 at 15:10
@Zulan: Most referees do not have access to plagiarism-detection software and can only detect it by either manually searching the Internet for sentences, performing an intensive literature research or knowing the plagiarised texts sufficiently well. All of this is not their job, and can be easily performed by a software that should be the standard for publishers. As a referee, I would feel insulted and complain if a journal wasted my time by letting me review an article that a software could have easily detected to be plagiarised. – Wrzlprmft Feb 28 at 15:18
@Captain Emacs: Of course I agree that self-plagiarism is not equal to falsification of results or plagiarism. Nevertheless I feel that as reviewers and readers of articles, we cannot let self-plagiarism slide. I submit that as readers of the scientific literature, we have a duty to report such abuses. – G. L. Feb 28 at 15:19
up vote 60 down vote accepted

Taking the complaint public shames both the author and the journal, which may be counterproductive if the journal is responsible and willing to act promptly (mistakes do happen, even for very good journals).

I would thus recommend starting by reporting to the journal, which should have a procedure for dealing with such things. If the journal does not take you seriously or refuses to act, then take it public and shame both the author and the journal.

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I suggest that you report this to the journal or editor first. If they fail to properly react to it, you can still escalate this by making it public. While the journal is likely to blame for not using proper plagiarism detection mechanisms, they are also likely the victim here, not the culprit.

Also, keep in mind that there may be reasons for this duplicate publication, e.g., one of the papers being published at a predatory publisher (see also this question which is essentially the same situation happening to a peer-reviewer).

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Good point about predatory publishers. This is not the case here, however. The two journals have been published since the late 70's/early 80's. The publishers have reputable names. – G. L. Feb 28 at 15:27
@G.L.: The predatory publishers are only an example for some bizarre reason for this that you did not think of. Always give the accused a chance to explain. – Wrzlprmft Feb 28 at 15:42
You mean to say that if I have mistakenly published a paper in a predatory journal, then it is acceptable for me to republish it somewhere more reputable? Because that would not be ok in my book. – Federico Poloni Feb 28 at 21:48
While the journal is likely to blame for not using proper plagiarism detection mechanisms - In my field, I don't think we have any systemized mechanisms. The mechanism would be either the editor or referee realizes this, or someone else notices it later and reports it. – Kimball Feb 29 at 0:21
@Kimball You have got some standard solution to this that the publisher simply buys. No need to re-invent the wheel in your field. Many scientists are not ever aware these things exist. – yo' Feb 29 at 7:37

The case sounds serious. I have reported in a blog post (Plagiarism: everything but the title) an almost carbon-copy of a paper, but not by the same authors, which was withdrawn soon afterward.

First, check it is a regular peer-reviewed paper. Some "tutorial" or editorial papers may appear more than once: in Imperfect impact, the author provides a case of such a paper published 9 times, and the outcomes on terms of citations, with respect to journal impact factors.

Then, I would suggest you to first report to the (area) editor responsible for publication (generally mentioned on the published paper page). (S)he should get in touch with the corresponding author, or hand it over to higher authorities.

If you have no feeback (say in one month), copy the same letter to the journal editors in chief, copy to the publisher.

If you see no action, a last mail to X and Y before making stuff public would be fair. They would have the option to withdraw the paper by themselves.

P.S. the impact for authors is one more paper on their list, and potential more citations on careless databases, as shown in this figure from the above blog post (same paper published in different journals):

Effects of multiple publication

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As far as I can tell, the later paper is a regular paper, not an invited paper that may have been afforded special privileges. (Even if it were, it should have cited the earlier paper....) You make a good point about contacting the authors if I don't hear back from the editor/editor-in-chief. – G. L. Feb 28 at 19:27
One of the authors might be aware of the issue. I have seen stories where one author adds other famous ones (without their consent) to help acceptance. One option, if you fell confident enough: start the process by a letter to the author. My opinion: it is better to start with the person in charge of the publication, the area editor – Laurent Duval Feb 28 at 19:39

There is no such thing as self-plagiarism.

If you have written something and the journals allow it and are aware of it, it is neither illegal nor prohibited by academic standards to publish and recycle it in 100 journals if it is your work.

I think you mean some other problems by the term "self-plagiarism":

  • The author tries to sell his old work as new results obtained by paid work. That is fraud, pure and simple, especially if the author was funded to get new results.
  • The author has published the work under the copyright terms of the journal. Normally the journal gets exclusive rights for publication and violating this terms is illegal.

Even if it is not forbidden, people do not try it except for a very good reason.

You are aggravating your academic colleagues because place for publishing is precious and you are wasting this space (There is nothing against trying several publishers as long as you retract the other submissions). You are also indicating that you are past your zenith in your academic career if you need to fall back on old work (In fact, I think of it more as terminal illness) or you come off as having a massive ego problem if you try to push your invaluable contributions into several journals. So your indignation is justifiable, especially because Journals will normally not allow duplicate publication and your suspicion is legitimate.

So contact the journal editor of the first publication and clear that up. It may be perfectly explainable what the author is doing, so take no action until you know what is going on.

ADDITION: Just for curiosity: PLL's "But it’s well-established now with the meaning of “re-using one’s own old work and presenting it as novel”" convinced me to ask Goggle's Ngram because I was curious about its usage.

Occurence of "self-plagiarism"

So the current usage in books is 45/100 000 000 instances. If we compare that the usage of the domain-specific, non-English word "Camellia"

Occurence of "Camellia"

Camellia occurs (at maximum) in 40/1 000 000 instances. Which means that "Camellia" is used approximately 100 times more than the "self-plagiarism" term. For fun, "Camellia" is comparable in usage to "trichloride".

It was used sporadically during the 1990s ("Duplicate publication" is definitly preferred) and only after the 2000s it became more prevalent and also used in titles and abstracts. The Wikipedia entry defined "self-plagiarism" 2005 and there it was specified later that this word was used mainly by biomedicine to summarize four categories: duplicate publication, copyright infringement, salami-slicing and use of own text modules. It must also be said that its usage is controversial for exactly this reasons,because it tries to subsume salami-slicing and the use of own text modules under a term which contains much more serious violations like duplicate publication or copyright infringement. So "self-plagiarism" is according to the "Committee on Publication Ethics" not equivalent to duplicate publication.

Sorry, but "self-plagiarism" seems to be neither as widespread or well-accepted as claimed nor is its usage uncontroversial.

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I could not disagree more with two of your statements. First, if there is no such thing as self-plagiarism, why are there several posts and a tag in this forum? And why would it be discussed on Wikipedia and many other webpages? Second, you say that it is neither illegal nor prohibited by academic standards to publish and recycle something you've written in 100 journals. Any journal (I have published in) has required me to state that the work being submitted is original and has not been published or submitted elsewhere. – G. L. Feb 28 at 20:13
@G. L. Citation Wikipedia: "The concept of "self-plagiarism" has been challenged as being self-contradictory, an oxymoron and on other grounds." The reason is simple: Plagiarism is defined as using works of other people without consent or appropiation. The pink invisible unicorn has also a Wikipedia page, that does not mean that it exists or makes sense. And your second objection misses completely the cursive and the journals allow it and are aware of it statement and more comments below it. – Thorsten S. Feb 28 at 20:32
@ThorstenS.: your (and Wikipedia’s) argument that self-plagiarism is self-contradictory seems like saying that chamomile tea can’t exist because tea is defined as the species Camellia sinensis. Self-plagiarism is indeed different from plain plagiarism — so maybe it’s a badly-chosen term. But it’s well-established now with the meaning of “re-using one’s own old work and presenting it as novel”, and this meaning certainly makes sense and occurs all too often in practice. – PLL Feb 28 at 21:07
@PLL Sigh, not again a slidshod misnomer which becomes a standard word. I will at least not accept it as long as possible. I am afraid I am getting old. – Thorsten S. Feb 28 at 21:17
@ThorstenS. As the old joke goes: "Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?" Language is a messy affair and we don't get to dictate which words our culture assigns to concepts. – jakebeal Feb 29 at 3:40

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