I am looking at these two papers in the field of astrophysics. One is this journal paper and the other is a proceedings notes from a conference.

It almost looks like these two papers are copied word-for-word, with the exception of Equation 4.24 in paper 1 (although I guess considering the flow of things, it should maybe correspond go Equation 61 in the second paper). Is this plagiarism? I understand that it varies from field to field. How does one go about determining whether it is?

Two issues:

  1. The latter journal article does not cite the proceedings notes.

  2. The latter journal includes two authors (the proceedings notes has only one author), and the newly appearing person is listed as the first author.

I guess this highlights the ethics issues which aren't brought up often enough.

  • 6
    Some fields consider conference proceedings to not be "published," so that publishing that same content in a journal is generally allowed (and not considered duplicate publication or self-plagiarism.) Ultimately, this question comes down to "In physics, is a conference publication considered a "real" publication for purposes of later publication in a journal?"
    – ff524
    Nov 19, 2015 at 18:58
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    @ff524 I guess I missed one important detail, namely that the latter article in a journal includes another person as the first author. I will edit the question to reflect these facts. Nov 19, 2015 at 18:59
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    It's worth noting that the first article is from "Proceedings of the Sixth APCTP Winter School." These types of educational events often have unrefereed publication associated with them; depending on how loosely it was organized, the original author may not have even known that the article was being published and archived online.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 19, 2015 at 20:12
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    If @jakebeal is right and the first "publication" was really just something distributed to the students at that winter school, then that might also explain the discrepancy in authorship. Perhaps what looks like an author name is just the name of the speaker who conducted this winter school course and distributed the notes; it might not constitute a claim of (sole) authorship at all. Nov 19, 2015 at 22:03
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    Following up, an article on its retraction for duplication. The prior paper was not in fact considered part of the peer-reviewed literature; it still needed to be cited, however. It will be interesting to see what else comes out about the case over time.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 29, 2015 at 12:47

1 Answer 1


It's hard to give a precise minimum amount of copying that constitutes plagiarism, and there are always various subjective mitigating and aggravating circumstances to consider. Ultimately, though, any official response to plagiarism should come from an organization that has a statement about what they consider to be such.

In this case, the latter article is published in The Astrophysical Journal. The publisher's ethics policy has the following points to make (all emphasis mine):

Plagiarism is the act of reproducing text or other materials from other papers without properly crediting the source. Such material is regarded as being plagiarized regardless of whether it is cited literally or has been modified or paraphrased.

Thus here the standards are pretty loose; even inexact copying counts. Certainly a change in one equation does not make this non-plagiarism.

Deliberate refusal to credit or cite prior or corroborating results, while not regarded technically as constituting plagiarism, represents a comparable breach of professional ethics, and can result in summary rejection of a manuscript.

Even if there was no overlap in text, loose or exact, omitting something you know to be relevant is just as problematic.

Strictly speaking, authors are not formally required to cite unpublished or unrefereed materials, especially in cases where the veracity of the unpublished work may be in question. However, when principles of common professional courtesy dictate that such attribution is appropriate, authors are expected to honor these conventions.

Here's where that subjectivity comes into play. It's not clear how refereed the earlier work is, nor what level of "professional courtesy" is considered "common." Conference proceedings are rather rare in astrophysics, especially in the US (where the latter article is published). Most conferences are for oral talks and posters, not written papers. To the extent conferences do catalog what happened in a permanent way, one still looks to cite "real" articles rather than proceedings.

Does a proceeding count as prior work? Does it matter (with regard to professional courtesy) that the first article's intended audience was probably largely confined to Korea? These are questions that ultimately the publisher must answer, and I could find no statement of theirs addressing them.

The community or its practitioners are also free to develop their own opinions and take whatever action suites them. For example, a tendency for self-plagiarism will get a researcher noticed as producing water-down rehashings of old work and will thus lead to people not paying much attention to that researcher in the future.

The issue of authorship is only loosely related. In astrophysics, authorship is understood to be in order of significance of contribution, where in cases of large author lists people at an equivalent tier of contribution will be ordered alphabetically. At some level, there's no way to reliably tell who really did what, and so unsurprisingly I could find no official statement from ApJ about author order.

The fact that the bulk of the content of the latter paper was written by the second author years ago would seem to be strong evidence that the authorship norms of the community are not being followed here. A journal has every right to object to this (or any other feature of a submission), and maybe they would take action if notified, but I cannot be sure. The practice of gifting authorship, either to help students' careers or to help one's own, is thankfully not so common that strict guidelines have been set up to deal with it.

Finally, an update on this particular case. The journal was notified of the earlier article, and it has indeed issued a retraction for plagiarism. There does not seem to be any mention of gift authorship one way or the other.

  • That is helpful. So, to summarize, you are saying that 1. Proceedings articles may or may not count as published work (presumably this proceedings book comes with a copyright statement, but that should not matter since it was not refereed?) and hence the authors have no obligations to cite it, and 2. The journal may object in terms of authorship, but probably not, since it was already published. Am I getting the right idea? Nov 19, 2015 at 20:18
  • That's a fair summary. Though I caution I didn't at all address the issue of copyright in the answer, as it is orthogonal to plagiarism. The journal has a real, legal interest in not publishing something that the author's can't give copyright to, so if the author surrendered copyright to the proceedings, the journal will retract the paper.
    – user4512
    Nov 19, 2015 at 20:33
  • Interesting. So it seems to me that the second author has not done anything strictly unethical, since all he has done is take a previously unpublished work and publish it (modulo some copyright issues, which I concede is quite serious). But the first author is probably getting into all sorts of ethical problems, am I right? Nov 19, 2015 at 20:46
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    The conference paper was in 2002, while the journal paper is dated 2015. I think the more likely problem here is that if the papers are essentially the same, the new author on the journal paper had minimal contributions to it (he was apparently about 4 years old in 2002, when the conference paper was written.)
    – ff524
    Nov 22, 2015 at 0:36
  • @ff524 Very interesting find, and it's good to know this has shown up now in multiple channels. I had missed the link between one of the authors and the editor in chief, though I shouldn't have -- they copublished an even earlier work that did much of the same research (though was entirely different textually).
    – user4512
    Nov 22, 2015 at 4:45

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