24 July 2020

How bad is self-plagiarism? A case study

One of the recurring topics in this blog over the last couple of years has been self-plagiarism, also known as duplicate publication or text recycling. I've shown that a number of senior scholars appear to have used this method to boost their number of publications without having to go to the effort of producing new research, or rewriting existing knowledge substantially for a new audience.

However, there has been some discussion online suggesting that quite a few people do not consider that self-plagiarism is a problem at all. For example, Dr Adriano Aguzzi of the University of Z├╝rich sees no harm in it:
That said, Dr Aguzzi does attach a couple of conditions to his support for authors recycling their own text:
[[ Update 2020-07-25 10:28 UTC: Dr Aguzzi seems to have deleted the above tweets, along with the rest of the thread in which they appeared. I had taken a screenshot of the first one, and @deadinsideg1 kindly hunted down the second.


I opened Dr Aguzzi's Google Scholar page and looked for the most-cited article for which he was the lead author, which was this:

Aguzzi, A., & Polymenidou, M. (2004). Mammalian prion biology: One century of evolving concepts. Cell116(2), 313–327. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0092-8674(03)01031-6

A little searching online revealed that this was the starting point for a succession of examples of self-plagiairism, or "republication", or what Dr Aguzzi prefers to call it. In fact, as we will see, Dr Aguzzi takes a very liberal approach to recycling—or perhaps, in the modern parlance, upcycling—his previous publications.

Let's start with the 2004 Aguzzi & Polymenidou article:

The text highlighted in yellow here(*) appears to have been copied, verbatim and without attribution, to this 2006 article by the same author:

Aguzzi, A. (2006). Prion diseases of humans and farm animals: Epidemiology, genetics, and pathogenesis. Journal of Neurochemistry, 97(6), 1726–1739. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-4159.2006.03909.x

In the second of Dr Aguzzi's tweets that I quoted earlier, he made a point that republication should be labelled, and copyright respected. Strangely, however, not only does the 2006 article not mention that parts of the text were previously published; the later article does not even include the 2004 article in its References section. (For completeness, in case the publication pipeline had gone slightly awry, I checked the References section of the 2004 article, but it didn't mention the 2006 article as being "in preparation" or anything like that.) Furthermore, the 2004 article is copyrighted by Cell Press, a division of Elsevier, while the 2006 article is copyrighted by the International Society for Neurochemistry (and the journal is published by Wiley). So it seems that neither of Dr Aguzzi's constraints are met here.

Some parts of the text in the above image are highlighted in green. That brings us to another article, this time with Dr Aguzzi as second author:

Weissmann, C., & Aguzzi, A. (2005). Approaches to therapy of prion diseases. Annual Review of Medicine56, 321–344. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.med.56.062404.172936

Again, the text highlighted in yellow here appears to have been copied, verbatim and without attribution, from the 2004 article mentioned above. The text highlighted in green appears to have been copied, verbatim and without attribution, from the 2006 article. The 2005 article does not include the 2006 or the 2004 article in its References section, or vice versa. Copyright for the 2005 article is owned by Annual Reviews.

Another new highlight colour (pink) appears here, especially in the second half. The more astute reader may be able to work out where we are going here. Adding the yellow, green, and pink text together, we arrive at close to 95% of the content of this book chapter:

Aguzzi, A. (2007). Prions. In J. H. Growdon and M. N. Rossor (Eds.), The Dementias 2 (pp. 250275).  Butterworth-Heinemann.

If you look hard at the third page in the top row, you can perhaps make out half a page of white text. With the exception of couple of sentences elsewhere in the chapter, that half-page represents the entire original content of this article. Again, this chapter does not cite any of the three articles from which the text has been apparently copied (all together now, 1, 2, 3) verbatim and without attribution. Still, on the bright side, the book's publisher is, like Cell Press, also a division of Elsevier, so presumably there is no risk of any legal issues with the text in yellow that was copied from the 2004 article.

So, back to the question in the title. Is self-plagiarism a bad thing? Dr Aguzzi clearly doesn't think so, and one can only admire the consistency of his position relative to his actions (although he might want to consider addressing the issues around labelling and copyright). I happen to think that this sort of thing is extremely bad for science, but it appears to be sufficiently common that maybe we are going to have to just live with it, and accept that some people think that churning out the same material over and over is perfectly acceptable.

[[ Update 2020-07-23 23:55 UTC: Thanks to Brendan O'Connor for this link to the Association for Psychological Science's policy on self-plagiarism. Spoiler: They are not too keen on it. ]]

(*) I have made the full-sized images and the annotated PDF files available for download here. I hope that this counts as fair use for the purposes of this blog post. If the owners of the copyright want to object to this, I hope that they will realise the irony that would be involved if they decided to enforce their rights now.

16 July 2020

An expression of concern about Expressions of Concern

In academic publishing, what is the purpose of a journal issuing an "Expression of Concern" (EoC)?

When I first came across the concept, I was told that an EoC was a sort of preliminary step on the way to retraction. The journal acknowledges that it has received information that suggests that an article may not be reliable. This information seems, on the face of it, to be quite convincing. The journal is still investigating exactly what happened, but in the meantime, here is an early warning that people who are thinking of citing this article might want to think twice. We could see it as the equivalent of locking up someone who is accused of a serious crime: They have not yet been found guilty, their detention is only preventive (and often under better conditions than those who have been convicted), but the prima facie case is such that on balance, we probably don't want to have that person walking around unchecked.

An example of this came in the Brian Wansink case. After retracting, republishing, and re-retracting one of Wansink's articles, JAMA placed EoCs on six other articles with Wansink as an author that had been published in its family of journals. A few months later, with no satisfactory response having being received to explain the problems in those articles, all six were retracted.

However, it appears that many journals or editors are using the term "Expression of Concern" to mean something else. This article has had an EoC on it for six years now. The editors of Psychology of Music just issued this EoC, but according to Samuel Mehr they have no plans to escalate to a retraction. The author of that last paper has also had five EoCs in place at another journal for over a year.

This type of EoC basically comes down to the following statement from the editors: "We have good reason to believe that this article is garbage, and you should not trust it. But we're not going to do anything about it that might hurt our impact factor, or embarrass us by getting us into Retraction Watch." It's like a restaurant menu with a small sticker saying "Pssst: The fish is terrible, please don't order it". (Plus, the sticker is permanent. It's inside the laminated cover of the menu.)

It has been suggestedmore than once (albeit with some pushback) that we need different words for different types of retraction (say, "obvious fraud" versus "honest error"). It seems that we also need two different words to describe these two different usages of "Expression of Concern". One journal editor posted what he called an "Editorial Note" on a Wansink article; while this was frustrating for those of us who wanted that article to be retracted, at least it was very clear from that "Editorial Note" that the editor was not remotely interested in doing anything else about the problem. Perhaps that's the way "forward", although it doesn't feel like progress. Correcting the scientific record continues to feel like pulling teeth.