Plagiarism, along with data fabrication and data falsification, is considered a cardinal sin in academic publishing.
By Dr Ng Heok Hee
Senior Executive, Publications
Heok Hee received his PhD in Biology from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has extensive experience in research and scientific writing. He has published more than 180 papers in scientific journals, six chapters in five books, and 25 articles for popular magazines. He has also reviewed papers for more than 20 scientific journals.
"Many authors fail to realise the legal implications of self-plagiarism."
Plagiarism, along with data fabrication and data falsification, is considered a cardinal sin in academic publishing. Put simply, plagiarism is defined as the theft of words or ideas and is used to deceive readers as to their origins. The issue of plagiarism inevitably features in any consideration of academic misconduct, if only because the advent of word processing technology and the proliferation of fulltext databases on the internet have made verbatim text-copying more prevalent.
Although it is deemed professionally unethical to steal ideas and words from other authors and deceive readers as to their origins, copying text from one’s own published work (“self-plagiarism”) is sometimes considered less egregious and leeway is granted for such reuse of text.Some have argued that the term “self plagiarism” is oxymoronic, and that the seeming absurdity of stealing from one’s self does not constitute intellectual theft.
Self-plagiarism is divided into four forms:
1) duplicate publication, where the same results are published in a different paper
2) segmented publication (also known as “salami-slice” publication), where the results of a large (usually complex) study are sliced up and published as multiple smaller papers
3) augmented publication, where new data is added to previously published data, reanalysed, and the manuscript submitted as a new study with adjusted study aims, often under a different title
4) text recycling, where large portions of previously published text are reused in another manuscript. The first three forms portray data that are likely to mislead other researchers, while the last is attributable to intellectual laziness.
Many authors fail to realise the legal implications of self-plagiarism. Authors generally transfer copyright of a paper to the journal upon publication, making it necessary to seek reproduction rights from the publisher. That said, there might be little grounds for litigation by publishers against self-plagiarising authors because of factors such as the potential defendant not being a third-party plagiarist, the absence of financial compensation for the original work, the transfer of copyright being procedural for publication of the work, and fair use laws.
A self-plagiarised manuscript was submitted to the Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare for consideration. Fortunately, it was detected before publication. In the light of the preceding discussion and our experience with self-plagiarism, what is the journal’s policy when it occurs? Like other journals, we regard duplicate publication as a clear breach of academic ethics. Both segmented and augmented publication are undesirable, but may be considered if it includes relevant new data and contributes to the existing body of knowledge. The issue of text recycling is less clear-cut. Although the practice is highly discouraged, we recognise that there may be instances where there is no better way of expressing an idea than the ones already published (e.g. for complex methods). In such cases, recycling verbiage at acceptable levels might be considered less unfavourably.
Although self-plagiarism is an unfortunate side effect of the “publish or perish” mentality, it is still ethically bankrupt. The editorial board holds the journal to the highest standards of research integrity, and it is our fundamental obligation to readers to report accurate research that meets these standards. We hope that all present and future authors check not only their manuscripts, but also their moral compass in this regard.
This article was first published in Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Vol 23 No. 3 2014. For references, go to http://bit.ly/14fmfIs