Editors often find themselves trying to determine how much overlap with an author’s own previous work is acceptable. To help them to deal with this tricky issue, the Biology and Medical Editors at BioMed Central have developed guidelines in conjunction with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the Editors-in-Chief of Arthritis Research & Therapy, Peter Lipsky and Ravinder Maini.
As overlapping text has become easier to detect, both due to increased use of plagiarism detection software and online publication, editors frequently discover overlap with authors’ previous work, and struggle to know what to do. Currently there is little guidance on where to draw the line, and when (if ever) overlap is acceptable. While there is little dispute that plagiarising another’s work constitutes serious misconduct, the line is far less defined when it comes to overlap with the authors’ own work. Opinions are divided, with some strongly believing that previously published text should never be repeated, and others feeling that it is allowable, even inevitable, under certain circumstances.
The new guidelines were discussed among COPE members online, and at the most recent COPE forum. The key issues discussed are summarised below.
The first point that divided opinions was whether using one’s own previously published text should be referred to as ‘text-recycling’ or ‘self-plagiarism’. Proponents of the term ‘text-recycling’, included Liz Wager, former Chair of COPE, who felt that this term helps distinguish it from ‘true plagiarism’, therefore differentiating the gravity of the issues. However, others felt that it should be called ‘self-plagiarism’, as they felt it describes it well and it is also a serious issue.
Difficulties with naming aside, a major consideration was the amount of overlap. Some suggested defining an acceptable overlap percentage. Issues raised with this are that, as with ‘true plagiarism’, the overall percentage can be misleading. Many editors felt that where the overlap occurs is the more important issue. The consensus was that overlap in the methods can be acceptable, in the introduction section may be acceptable, but overlap in the results, discussion and conclusions sections of a manuscript is rarely acceptable. This reflects the different information these sections contain. Editors therefore need to consider the location and amount, a view supported by Michael Wise, Editor-in-Chief of Microbial Informatics and Experimentation.
There was consensus that overlap in publication of data is not acceptable. The new text-recycling guidelines do not aim to deal with this so called ‘redundant’, or ‘duplicate’ publication, as this is already covered by COPE’s own guidance.
Overlap in the methods was considered less egregious. Some argued that there is little point in paraphrasing the authors’ previously published methods and suggested that doing so results in a poorer version of the previous description. As with many issues in publication ethics, the key to this is transparency. Where overlap occurs authors should be open with the editor and transparent in the manuscript, making sure they cite the original source.
Our guidelines use the arbitrary cut off date of 2004 for published articles after which they recommend editors take action for text recycling. Although arbitrary, we believe this cut off reflects changes in attitudes to text recycling during the last 10 years. Arguably, an editor’s time is better spent dealing with publication ethics relating to current manuscripts, rather than those over 10 years old, a view supported by Liz Wager.
We are very grateful to all those who have offered their comments on this tricky and topical issue. We are especially grateful to Ginny Barbour and COPE for their help in publicising and facilitating the discussion of these guidelines and to Peter Lipsky and Sir Ravinder Maini for raising the issue, and for their valuable input into the drafts. We welcome ongoing feedback and comments from editors, authors, reviewers, and readers on this issue.
Peter Lipsky and Ravinder Maini, long standing Editors-in-Chief of Arthritis Research & Therapy, explain the need for these guidelines and share their perspectives on some of the issues surrounding text-recycling:
The idea of developing guidelines relates to the issue of transparency in this contentious field. If editors and publishers expect transparency from the authors, authors have a legitimate right to expect transparency and clarity from us. Armed with the latest software sleuthing techniques, we can detect even minimal degrees of identity in published and submitted manuscripts. We will refrain from taking sides in the “self-plagiarism” versus “text recycling” debate, although we should point out that the latter phraseology seems to make this activity seem virtuous. (Why waste extra words or ideas in a world with a limited number of novel ideas or catchy ways to describe them, when one can just recycle?) In any event, this activity is all too frequent, and a means is necessary to determine objectively when the degree of repetition exceeds some threshold that moves it from innocent to possibly less innocent. The Biology and Medicine Editors have taken on this challenge and have developed initial guidelines to help us all make wise judgments when these matters arise and to be objective and fair in decision making when dealing with these issues. Publication of such guidelines, we believe will alert authors about this problem and help them to avoid exceeding a threshold that might stimulate a response. Still largely unaddressed, however, is the problem of similarity in Review articles. In such Reviews, new ideas are rarely conveyed and prominent scientists may be requested to write many Reviews on the same or closely related topics. In this context, how much similarity in writing and in graphics should be tolerated? When does a review article that references the source of graphics and Tables of published work ( usually of the author) which has already been published in a previous review become ‘ self- plagiarism’ if the text is new, i.e. it is not a ‘cut and paste job’ but the concept/topic is arising from the authors original work? In an environment in which publishers and editors often inveigle scientists to write Reviews, how much similarity is acceptable? This is obviously a topic that will generate ongoing debate and much revision in thinking as publishing becomes more open and social media begin to play a larger role in scientific publication.