Advice to a Self-Plagiarist

2. September 2011

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his own popular blog, in which he fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear professor, I am a Ph.D. student who would like to have as many published papers as possible. I do not care if I repeat or manipulate something. I am not worried about what some old guys feel is or is not ethical; it is easy to talk about ethics when your salary is good and secure forever. This is my research; if I can have 7 papers, that would be better than 5. Can you help me to maximize the number of my published papers? I am prepared to do a lot of extra work on data and camouflage writing. –Name withheld.  

This is a bizarre question I received some time ago. My first reaction was that it must be a joke. My second reaction was that this person was stupid to talk so openly about taking actions that are so clearly unethical. Then I basically forgot about it until I recently became involved in several real cases involving OSA journals, in which some young (and sometimes not-so-young) authors were purposefully trying to act in the way described in the question. So I decided to devote this post to the complex problem of self-plagiarism.

I already dedicated a post some time ago to the topic of plagiarism. Mostly everyone recognizes that as an unethical practice that should be punished. However, the situation of self-plagiarism is not so clear. Many people do not even consider the publication of duplicative manuscripts—which is sometimes referred to as “salami” publications (I prefer “chorizo slices”)—to be bad behavior, arguing that they can do what they want with their results. They may also rationalize that duplicative publication helps disseminate their results to different communities.

But the bigger picture is that self-plagiarism impedes scientific progress by flooding the system with weak and redundant information. It can also hurt your career. Sure, it seems to benefit you if you merely count the number of papers you’ve published. But whenever someone assesses your body of work more closely, they will notice the redundancy. The proof of your fault will be there forever! Some other points for the self-plagiarist to remember:

Beware of anti-plagiarism software. Although every scientific journal faces this problem in one way or another, not many openly address it. So I liked it when I recently read an editorial in the journal Anaesthesia in which the editor recognized that the editorial team had detected an increased number of duplicate submissions. He was not sure if this was by chance or simply because the journal (like many others, including OSA journals) had recently started to use a software called Cross Check.

When Cross Check or similar software becomes the norm, life will become more complicated for folks such as my correspondent. Still, a refined self-plagiarist is typically not so naïve that he or she will simply copy and paste parts of an existing paper into other multiple ones. A clever person will do something more sophisticated.

For example, rather than exactly replicating text or figures, he or she will write a different introduction that expresses the same basic ideas, or include one paper with more details on methodology and another with more mathematical descriptions. He or she will also be careful to make minor adjustments to the titles and names of sections. For example:

Title paper 1: Facial tissues: A study on relative comfort
Title paper 2: Subjects’ responses on soft paper in contact to facial skin

If you know an area well, you can write lots of different titles while evading automatic software detectors.

Even if you bypass software, you will not be safe from your colleagues. At least one reviewer is likely to notice similarities among duplicative manuscripts. The same reviewer could receive your manuscripts from different journals nearly simultaneously, for example. And playing with submission times won’t necessarily work, since it is possible that the reviewer will remember. This has happened to me several times, and it is a joy for reviewers to say to the editor: Here you have a clearly duplicated paper. We all love that! Most editors will follow the reviewer's advice in these cases.

Mind your supervisor. For graduate students and post-docs, your supervisor’s role is to ensure that the papers you submit are all truly independent, so he or she should be monitoring your submissions. If you were to submit a duplicative article that included the names of the supervisor and others without telling them, your colleagues would likely find out very quickly, since most journals inform all the authors on the submission quickly. It is nevertheless possible that, in some cases, a supervisor will not contact the journal and agree to the submission, possibly to avoid other problems. If, on the other hand, you choose to submit a paper in your name alone and you are caught, you will embark on a solitary and difficult adventure.

Quality is better than quantity. Another common practice—which is not technically unethical but is inadvisable—is to publish papers showing countless minor variations on addressing a problem. In other words, you produce different results that are of just enough interest to merit another paper in a not-very-good but peer-reviewed publication. It may feel great to rack up the publications, but remember that, in the long run, your career will be judged more on the impact of your research (citations, invited talks…) than on the actual amount of what you produced.

Be a refined scientist instead of a refined self-plagiarist. So, dear friend… I believe you have the full capability to become a refined self-plagiarist; I have now told you all the ways that you can multiply your results. But my real advice is: Use your skills to produce a few good, solid papers. And instead of applying your cleverness to duplicating your work in many publications, use it to do original and interesting research.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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