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I'm reviewing an article where the authors are kind of experts of a particular subject and published several similar studies in the field, some even in the same journal.

This apparently leads them to reuse part of their own content between articles, sometimes self-citing sometimes not.

E.g. there are a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction that are a copied almost verbatim from a study from the same authors (which they don't cite). They maybe changed some comma or a word here and there.

What's the best practice in peer-review about this scenario? Is this ethical? Can this be considered a reason for rejection?

It's mostly in introduction and material and methods sections and the study overall is novel enough, so I'd be inclined to suggest a self-citation. But I'm curious if there is a consensus about how to handle such cases.

  • Does the journal have a policy forbidding self-citations? – Joel Reyes Noche May 7 at 9:08
  • Can you ask the editor for guidance? I mean..there seems to be no ethical problem in reusing the introduction (only a beaurocratical problem if it is forbidden to do this). – user111388 May 7 at 12:29
  • no policy that I know of, but I'll definitely talk about this with the editor and won't base my recommendation around this aspect alone, it was more a personal curiosity about how this practice is perceived – filippo May 7 at 14:11
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On the level of research ethics, this is a gray area. While self-plagiarism is generally frowned upon as a breach of academic integrity, the degree of the violation in this case seems very mild. Unlike in the much more severe case of claiming double credit for the same results, the only double-credit taken is for coming up with the precise formulations in the manuscript.

On the level of style, copying entire paragraphs within an introduction seems lazy, an impression one wants to avoid -- if the authors took such short-cuts already on the first pages of their paper, what other short-cuts did they take? Rejecting an entire paper on the grounds of copied paragraphs might be a bit too harsh; requesting a revision might be justified.

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There seems to be no risk of getting credit twice for the same work here, as the papers are fundamentally different. It is possible that more modifications to these paragraphs would make them better suited for their role in the new paper, in which case suggesting that the authors do so is appropriate for the referee. However, rewriting the paragraphs just for the sake of it seems like a pointless endeavour. As a referee, you should not suggest that the authors waste their time on this.

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  • in this case beside being lazy the authors failed to account for recent evolutions within the field because their introduction was copied from a study pre-dating them, so a revision was definitely needed, but I agree that it would have been pointless just for the sake of using different words for the same concept – filippo May 12 at 16:57
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This sounds like a clear case of self-plagiarism, and self-plagiarism is a violation of academic integrity.

Definitely a sufficient reason to reject a paper without considering any merits of the paper.

Possibly a sufficient reason to contact the institute of the authors and inform them about questionable research ethics of their employees.

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  • 7
    One might quantify that the ethics violation in this case would be a very mild one. The point of self-plagarism policies is to avoid a misleading portrayal of old contents as new, which would lead to unfair credit. In the case of contents that remain essentially the same over articles (parts of motivation, related work discussion, methodology descriptions), it's unclear if there's a practical benefit arising when authors are forced to rewrite their developed material. – lighthouse keeper May 7 at 9:23
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    Seems a bit harsh. Ask for a fix in your report to the editor/authors. Point out the issue. – Buffy May 7 at 12:42

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