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I found an engineering-related academic paper from a number of years ago that was published in an obscure journal, likely not peer-reviewed. The English writing is very bad, like it went through three languages in google translate, and many key parts are nearly incomprehensible with awful grammar and incorrect word usage all over. Organizationally it's rather a mess too. While it took me quite a long time to decipher it all, I recognized the value and importance in it, and I think should be more widely seen, as there is really nothing else published on this specific topic.

I was interested in potentially redoing the paper to better present and explain the ideas in it. I would want to add my own ideas of interpretation and application too. I wrote to the original author and they responded, and I think they'd be ok with the project? I couldn't discern a clear answer from them yet.

In the sense of academic standards, what is appropriate in this situation? Is it acceptable in the first place to redo and republish someone else's full work? Do I become a new co-author, or simply an "editor", or new main author while at the start somehow noting it's a rewrite? Or where is the threshold between plagiarism and a newly written paper if I redo it from scratch, but following and using all the original author's ideas and data, and then add my own thoughts? I really can't maintain any of the original written content as-is, because it's just so badly done.

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    Freeman Dyson wrote up Feyman's proof of Maxwell's equations. So you can probably take the same strategy. signallake.com/innovation/DysonMaxwell041989.pdf – Prof. Santa Claus Dec 13 '19 at 23:48
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    I think we need much more of this kind of expository writing. Many important papers aren't written very clearly. – littleO Dec 14 '19 at 0:42
  • As for you are already in contact with the authors of the badly written paper and continuing in this approach would rule out plagiarism except the self-plagiarism one. You can't simply rewrite that paper. It will be a duplicate at least. However, in practice, if the original is indeed that poorly composed and has appeared in an obscure journal, I think that you together with the original authors have plenty of way to bring a new look to that content. – Alchimista Dec 14 '19 at 8:03
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    It's certainly not unheard of to write papers that explain the key ideas in an important paper in a way that is more accessible, for whatever reason. The key is to not claim credit where credit is not due (an when in doubt I would strongly advise to claim too little rather than too much). Here is an example where a paper was rewritten for the benefit of a different audience (in this case, computer scientists as opposed to mathematicians). theoryofcomputing.org/articles/gs006/gs006.pdf – Jakub Konieczny Dec 14 '19 at 21:40
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    There are lots of answers below, so I won't add to them, but I have done this sort of thing twice without issue. Once we added the original author as first author. Another time I reformulated an existing algorithm and described and implemented new variants. The reviewers debated how to weigh pedagogical improvements, and eventually they were deemed a contribution of the paper, raising it above the bar for acceptance. – Nathan S. Dec 14 '19 at 21:43
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Personally, I would be very happy to read an abstract along the lines of

ABC is an important problem because of XYZ. A solution to this problem was presented already by UWV et al., but is not widely known, partly because of the technical nature of their presentation. Here we give a readable presentation of UVW et al.'s ideas, showing that they can be interpreted in terms of PQR, and we give applications in the field of JKL.

If the paper is mostly a reinterpretation of existing work it might not get into a top journal, but if the problem is important and the solution is a good one, your paper will be a valuable contribution and is likely to be widely cited anyway, since most people implementing it will be working from your paper and will cite it along with the original.

There is no danger of it being seen as plagiarism if you are presenting their ideas in your own words, and state at the start that this is your goal. The other authors will likely be happy as well, because their work will become more widely known as a result of yours. There is no need to involve them directly at all, although of course this is possible as well.

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Improving the exposition of good ideas in a poorly-written paper is valuable. As long as you clearly give credit, you should be OK.

Plagiarism means presenting the contribution of someone else as your own. As long as you are clear that the ideas come from the previous paper and you are just giving an exposition, you are not plagiarizing.

However, you also need to be diplomatic because your implicit criticism of the original exposition could be taken the wrong way.

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    But most journals require some novelty in the research papers they publish. Wouldn't a copy-edited prior paper risk being rejected by high ranking journals due to lack of novelty? – user000001 Dec 14 '19 at 12:05
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    I am reminded of a story in Quanta Magazine of a long-awaited proof found by a German retiree that was nearly lost to obscurity. Basically, the proof was exactly what folks had been hoping for for decades, but because it was published in a weaker journal, written in the style/point-of-view of a Statistician, and generalized a step beyond what all were looking for, it was mostly overlooked - at least until a few others found the result and championed it in the terms of their wider fields. – SomeRandomMastersGuy Dec 14 '19 at 20:18
  • @SomeRandomMastersGuy the proof was exactly what folks had been hoping for for decades - My impression is it was much more elementary than what people were expecting. – Kimball Dec 14 '19 at 23:17
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    user000001 - It shouldn't be a copy-edited paper, but a new presentation of the ideas in the old paper, with proper attribution. You are still right that lack of novelty is an issue, but if the service to the community of clearly explaining the ideas is great enough, I think it's at least worthy of a middling journal. Better still, of course, would be to extend the results in some way. – Mark Foskey Dec 15 '19 at 2:47
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    @user000001 High ranking journals reject all kinds of valuable papers, this is a known problem with the system and is a factor in the ongoing replication crisis. Just because it may not be published in an A* journal doesn't mean it isn't a valuable and important contribution to the body of knowledge. – user115829 Dec 17 '19 at 4:52
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In general, with appropriate attribution and care in the writing process, you should be able to rewrite a paper without violating academic norms. This becomes even easier if the original author is involved in the process. That said, getting the rewritten manuscript published in a more visible and respected journal will be difficult, if not impossible. The key to me is:

While it took me quite a long time to decipher it all, I recognized the value and importance in it, and I think should be more widely seen, as there is really nothing else published on this specific topic.

If you see value and importance in the previous research, you should be able to build on that and do something that could not be done, or done as well or efficiently, without the previous work. Once you have built on the previous work, you should be able to publish the new work with an extended introduction that recreates the original work in a more accessible manner. Again proper attribution and care is needed to not violate academic norms, but this should not be a problem. The ratio of new to old will depend on the journal, how bad/inaccessible the old work is, and how important the work is (either the old work or the new extension).

6

A very simple, dumbed down definition of plagiarism is: claiming someone else's work as if you did it. So rewriting with yourself as sole author is just right out.

When considering "who should be (co-)author of a paper", there is no simple rule. The simplest you could get would be: anyone who contributed significantly gets to be listed as author. But that leaves a lot of possible situations:

  • The person who did the original research. Clearly the paper couldn't exist without this person.
  • Someone you had a discussion with who came up with a key idea that was used later in on the paper. Without them the paper wouldn't be like this, so this person has a claim to be an author.
  • Someone who did significant editing and writing on the paper, making it much better and possibly making the difference between success and failure (in publication/impact).
  • Someone who made a lab available, supplied key datasets, used their academic influence to secure funding - but maybe never actually did anything in the lab themselves? But without this person perhaps the research wouldn't have been possible in the first place. Some academic institutions reserve the last author listed spot for these people. In other institutions they might just get a spot in the acknowledgements. There's no one rule here that's used across the whole world.

So there's no simple rule that clearly says who should be author. When someone begins to make a big contribution to a publication, you should quickly have a discussion to agree on expectations. In any case, and also this particular case, the original researcher certainly should be one of the authors.

The ethical thing to do would be to have an open discussion, along the lines of "I think your ideas are good, I think I can contribute with my writing skill. Let's collaborate to together publish a more impactful paper."


An alternative would be to do original research of your own, inspired by the original author; and then cite the original author in your (better) publication. Science after all is about building on others' work (but giving due credit).

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    Note that co-authorship requires the permission of all participants. – Buffy Dec 13 '19 at 23:59
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    Yes. When someone starts becoming involved in a project to the degree that they should be offered authorship, you need to also have a talk with the current authors: do we want another member? If not, we may need to tell this interested person to basically, cool off. What is altogether wrong is leading people on, taking their ideas but not being ready to take them on board. – ObscureOwl Dec 14 '19 at 0:01
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I think this would be pretty hard to do ethically unless you can form a collaboration with the author. I wonder, though, if the paper also exists in an original language, in which case you could probably do a translation, but listing yourself only as translator, not author. But, again, getting authorization would be appropriate if possible.

So, keep after the author, and suggest a collaboration. Especially if you have ideas that extend the original. You can work on it, of course, but publishing without permission might raise issues.

If you are having trouble communicating with the author because of language difficulties, try to find a native (or fluent) speaker who also speaks English to act as an intermediary.

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I would want to add my own ideas of interpretation and application too. I wrote to the original author and they responded, and I think they'd be ok with the project? I couldn't discern a clear answer from them yet.

To me this suggests that you plan to write an elaboration of a previous paper in collaboration with the authors of the previous paper. As a reviewer I would have no objection to such a research plan: incremental research is perfectly fine, so please give the appropriate slant to your manuscript. As a reviewer I would also feel obliged at a minimum to browse the literature you cite -- is it workable to add a link to the obscure source? I would then soon realize that your work is all the more valuable to the community.

The Vancouver recommendations, primarily intended for biomedical publications but easily to generalize to any field based on common sense, suggest that

authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or de-sign of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged -- see Section II.A.3below. These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not in-tended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #2 or 3.Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review,drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.

...

So, if the potential coworkers are not clear-cut in the intention of co-authoring this work (that is, doing something), you may resort to simply citing their previous work. A note of practical wisdom: if the obscurity in writing reflects obscurity in thinking rather than merely poor command of language, you should consider whether your effort will be mutually collaborative. It would be unethical on their part doing nothing and exploit your good intentions. In the perspective of an editor/reviewer I am interested that there are no ghost/ guest/gift authors -- please have a look at this decision chart of Publicationethics.org and its references.

Last but not least: ask for an opinion to the editor of a/the journal you intend to publish in. You may do it at two different times: before getting started, speculatively; when you approach the near-final state, for you might find other interesting corollaries along the ways. In the second case, I imagine, you will afford being more assertive about the cutting edge in your manuscript.

Good research hinges around merit and credit. From your words I feel you are doing well.

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Other answers have focused on authorship, claiming and giving credit and further angles. So that's covered.

What about novelty?

In a comment to another answer, the question was posed, whether a journal would reject a re-written paper due to it being already published. Well, some journals might do, however, if you are convinced that the scientific community will benefit from the re-written paper, then you might consider publishing in some open-access publication, arXiv comes to mind.

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Depending on the context of the paper and a new contribution you can make, I would say that you have options - like Andrew B. Painter wrote - write the whole new paper by yourself and have this paper as a building stone and inspiration reference - find the way to collaborate with these authors, so you could create a review paper, where all concepts and ideas of them, yours and from literature can be nicely organized, described and discussed. Maybe now they are able to add something brand-new as well.

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