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(Context: theoretical computer science.)

I just received a review request; I have previously reviewed three previous versions of the same submission (twice for conferences, once for a journal), recommending rejection each time. For one of the conferences, there was discussion between reviewers and PC members; all reviewers agreed that the paper was “strong reject”.

Between each iteration, the paper has been lightly revised, but never addressing two fundamental problems: the novel content is very insubstantial, and the write-up contains substantial self-plagiarism.

The author(s) have/has extensive publication records, containing some genuinely significant work, but also a very large amount of repetition, often to the extent of self-plagiarism.

My current response is: accept to do the review (first letting the editor know that I have reviewed earlier versions and recommended rejection); then see what significant changes have been made, and if the major problems haven't been addressed, re-reject with essentially the same criticisms as before.

A generous referee might reasonably judge the work substantial enough for a third-tier conference, and not notice the self-plagiarism; so I guess the paper will probably strike it lucky and get published sooner or later. Is there anything else I can or should be doing to forestall this? Or should I accept that bad papers do get published, and that the damage the authors are causing to their reputation with referees/editors along the way is enough censure?

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    "Self-plagiarism"? That sounds exactly as heinous as "robbing your own house." – Mason Wheeler Sep 18 '15 at 17:20
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    @MasonWheeler self-plagiarism is taken just as seriously in most academic institutions as normal plagiarism. The theory is that you aren't supposed to take credit for the same research, and publish it multiple times without citing that the entire study, or portions thereof were previously published elsewhere. It isn't the same as robbing your own house, it would be like photocopying a $100 bill and passing it all over town. – Jason Hutchinson Sep 18 '15 at 18:24
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    i think your current approach is about the best you can do. just to give you some hope, i have seen moves to share reviews. The most recent paper I did had some box to tick to say whether my review could be provided to future editors if the paper was resubmitted to a new journal with the same publisher. – JenB Sep 18 '15 at 20:03
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    Been there. Done that. The only thing I would add is an explicit note to the author that you have already reviewed the paper N times, and that your essential criticisms have not changed since version N-1. That way the author might actually realize that you're likely to review version N+1. – JeffE Sep 19 '15 at 21:26
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This type of repeated submission of junk is something that I truly hate, but also don't know any good way of dealing with. The problem is that the same freedom that supports novel science also leaves room for this type of "publication-shopping." In essence: any more unified method of "disapproving" junk papers, to prevent them from wasting everybody's time, will also work against highly novel papers that are meeting resistance from entrenched communities---see, for example, the decades-long fight Barbara McClintock faced in getting her work on gene regulation accepted.

We are thus left with the current and default system, in which each publication judges independently, and in which reviewers face frustrating situations like the one you describe. My recommendation, then, is simply to judge the paper on its merits, of which it has little. The biggest key strike is the self-plagiarism: once you've discovered that, the rest doesn't really matter, because self-plagiarism is an offense worth rejecting a paper over in and of itself.

I would recommend informing the editor, along with informing the editor about the history of the paper. They may then either judge whether to speedily reject the paper (and possibly initiate proceedings against the authors for the self-plagiarism), or whether to ask you to formally write this assessment as a review.

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    Reminds me of a quote by Václav Havel that seems relevant: It's a natural disadvantage of democracy that it ties hands of people who take it seriously, while it allows people who don't take it seriously to do almost whatever they want. – yo' Sep 18 '15 at 22:44
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If it still doesn't cut it, reject, again. In your comments say that you saw the paper before, and have rejected it.

Let the editor know in more detail what you think.

That the paper has been lightly revised a dozen times doesn't make it good, according to what you state.

5

Your question raises two issues, one of which is merely annoying, but the other concerns a possible breach of ethics. I think it's helpful to consider those two issues separately.

Regarding the fact that the paper is of subpar quality, there is nothing you can or need to do other than to reject the paper. The author is within his/her rights to write a junk paper and submit it to as many journals or conferences as he or she wishes. If he/she eventually finds a venue that will accept it, that is probably not a reputable venue and no one will pay it any attention, so I don't see it as anything to lose sleep over.

The self-plagiarism issue is more serious. From your question it sounds like you are starting to ask yourself whether additional action is warranted beyond merely rejecting the paper, on account of what you perceive as unethical behavior by the paper's author. Indeed, I can see that being the case based on your description, though it's hard to know for sure without knowing the extent of the self-plagiarism. One natural idea in this case is to contact someone from the author's institution (department chair, colleagues, ethics committee...) to alert them of his/her behavior. A complication here is that as a reviewer you are likely bound by confidentiality to the journals that asked you to do the reviews. (Although arguably the unethical behavior may be cause for rescinding that promise of confidentiality, but that's a tricky argument that I would try to refrain from making.) So, if I were considering such a step I would first of all contact the editors of all four journals/conferences, tell them what I am contemplating doing and explicitly ask their permission to contact the author's institution.

Alternatively, if you prefer not to get so involved in the story by taking such action (which would possibly involve you losing your anonymity and making yourself an enemy, who despite being in an unproductive stage of his/her career may still exert some influence over your field), you can email the four editors together, tell them the details of the story and put in their hands the decision whether to contact the author's institution or take further action. Of course, they may decide to do nothing.

Finally, I'll add that the sort of self-plagiarism you're describing sounds more pathetic than outrageous to me, and would probably be perceived by most people as a minor ethical infraction at worst. Trying to do something to prevent such behavior may be more trouble than it's worth, but that's for you to decide.

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    I strongly advise against contacting somebody from the author's department. You will only make enemies and not get anywhere with this. The home institution will protect/hide plagiarists in order to maintain their facade. You may want to highlight the case with the national or international professional body of academics in the related field. – Walter Sep 18 '15 at 21:49
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    @Walter, what you are suggesting is a lot more aggressive as it could lead to public shaming and censure of the researcher, with potentially catastrophic results to his/her career. I don't think such measures are warranted in this situation. A discreet email to the department chair, leading them to invite the person for a chat and make clear to him/her that this is unacceptable behavior, could be the least drastic (and hence, IMO, most preferable) way to address the situation. One can always try other things later if that doesn't work. – Dan Romik Sep 18 '15 at 22:01
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    @Walter, and as for your automatic assumption that the complaint will be ignored by the home institution, that reflects a very cynical outlook on academia on your part. Not necessary incorrect, but very cynical, and I am sorry if that is what your experience leads you to expect. I for one, as a current department chair, would take such a complaint very seriously if it landed in my inbox. I guess it all depends on whether the institution is a respectable one that cares about its reputation. Certainly the scenario you describe is possible, so the OP is well-advised to consider that. – Dan Romik Sep 18 '15 at 22:06
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    Did you follow the case in Birmingham University (UK) of a plagiarist in the sociology (I think) department a few years ago (was only covered in THE)? In the end, the HoD who wanted their plagiarising colleague disciplined was sacked, because he didn't keep the affair internal (the institution was arespectable one and cared about its reputation: they wanted no publicity, but, I think, the HoD was frustrated by nothing being done and went public), and not the plagiarist. There may be little you can do as HoD, in particular if the institution cares about its reputation. – Walter Sep 18 '15 at 22:11
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    I was not aware of that case. You certainly make a good point that all sorts of things can happen and one should not assume that things will go smoothly. – Dan Romik Sep 18 '15 at 22:57
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I don't think you should review it. Tell the editor that you have seen it 3 times before and each time you recommended reject and paper was. But don't spend your time on this thing once more. It's not up to you to set yourself up as some gatekeeper of all science.

If you were reviewing, sure hit the reject button. But you shouldn't be spending your time looking at the thing four times. If it gets in the literature, so be it. Again it is not your job to worry about things so globally. Purge it from your consideration.

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You could do the following; review the paper and make the review available on-line on Publons. This would also allow for a discussion where also the author could share her/his point of view.

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