This is Not Self-Plagiarism(?)

A little while back I wrote a post asking if something was an example of self-plagiarism. A person had had written a media article about a year ago. I noticed the text of that article had been copied near verbatim into a larger paper published in a scientific journal. I was uncertain if this would be considered self-plagiarism since the text originated in a non-journal article.

The obvious solution to me was to see what the journal had to say on self-plagiarism. I tried looking online to see what their policy was, but I couldn't find a clear answer. As such, I Contacted the journal to ask what their policy on self-plagiarism is in regard to matters like this. Today I'd like to review their ruling on the matter.

My initial e-mail said this:

Dear Editor,

I was recently reading a paper published in the Synthese journal you're listed as editor for, and I realized I had read a significant portion of its text before. It turns out the lead author of the paper had previously published a media article which has been copied into this paper published in your journal, almost verbatim.

Additional text was added to the article published in your journal. As a result, perhaps as much as 50% of the paper is new. This still raises a concern as your guidelines for authors says:

"The manuscript has not been published previously (partly or in full), unless the new work concerns an expansion of previous work (please provide transparency on the re-use of material to avoid the hint of text-recycling (“self-plagiarism”))."

And there is nothing in the paper to alert readers much of its text has been recycled. Could you tell me if what I describe is something your journal would consider normal?

If you need additional details to judge the situation or would like to know which paper and media article have been involved, I am happy to share. I just don't want to cause problems for anyone so I'm hesitant to "name names" in case this is something you'd consider completely normal.

Brandon Shollenberger

As you can see, this is not a complaint about anyone's behavior or a request for investigation. All I asked is for information about the journal's policy on recycling text. Despite that, the editor responded:

Synthese is a member of COPE and follows their guidelines:

In cases like this, when a reader makes a complaint, we need to have the details in order to investigate. Can you therefore please send me a) the Synthese article details and b) the previous published media article that has that has raised your concern?

I chose not to make an issue of the editor saying I had made a complaint. That may have been unwise. I focused on the substantive topics, writing:

Thanks for your response.

I took a look at the COPE standards for authors, and I see it makes the same point your journal makes in its instruction to authors:

4.1 Authors should adhere to publication requirements that submitted work is
original and has not been published elsewhere in any language. Work should not be
submitted concurrently to more than one publication unless the editors have agreed to
co-publication. If articles are co-published this fact should be made clear to readers.

As well as saying:

4.3 Relevant previous work and publications, both by other researchers and the
authors’ own, should be properly acknowledged and referenced. The primary
literature should be cited where possible

The language isn't restricted to publications in scientific journals, so I suppose it would be worth considering the case at hand. The paper I refer to is titled "The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism." It was written by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook and Elisabeth Lloyd. It's DOI number is 10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6.

The article a significant amount of text was copied from was titled "'Alice through the Looking Glass' mechanics: the rejection of (climate) science." It was published at openDemocracy on October 23rd, 2015, by Stephan Lewandowsky. Links to web pages for each of these sources will be provided at the end of this e-mail.

I think it should be easy to recognize the large amount of copied text, but in case it might help, I am attaching a document I created. When comparing these sources, I copied the full text of the paper published in your journal (sans references and tables) into a document in one column and and placed corresponding text from the earlier article in another. I found it useful to have a side-by-side comparison so perhaps it will be of some use to you as well.

Thank you for time,
Brandon Shollenberger

Reference URLS:

Again, take note of the fact I made no complaint and alleged no wrongdoing. All I said is it appeared this was a case worth consideration. The result of such consideration could have been any number of things, including, "We do not consider media articles to be 'previous work' for the purposes of self-plagiarims." I have since discovered that is the view of a number of journals. It's an interesting topic. To demonstrate, one case study COPE has examined:

In October 2014 it came to our attention via one of the reviewers of a manuscript submitted to our journal that an identical article (100% identical) had been previously published on the website of the author. The submitting author had not made us aware in their submission documentation that the article had been publicly available on their website at the point of submission. Two different but related issues arise from this.

Firstly, as it is the journal’s policy to conduct blind peer reviews of each submission received, it is impossible to uphold this policy where submissions already exist, as does the present one, in an identical form in the public domain. Secondly, there is an issue of self-plagiarism. In academic contexts, it is not permissible to re-use identical copy for multiple submissions, and would in all likelihood be regarded as a case of academic misconduct.

We have consulted the COPE website for advice but there does not appear to be a comparable case whereby the original identical article is in the public domain but not previously published in another journal. We are also aware of the various definitions and types of plagiarism and self-plagiarism which render the details of this case a grey area (COPE Discussion Document: How should editors respond to plagiarism, and that copyright and rights of author issues may apply.

Is similar to the case at hand. Input from COPE said:

The Forum advised that it is up to the editor and the journal to decide what they regard as prior publication. Journals should provide guidance on their website, detailing what they do and do not consider prior publication. Many journals provide lists of what they consider prior publication, and these lists vary greatly from journal to journal, and between different disciplines.

It is crucial that every journal discusses this at the editorial level and decide what they consider to be prior publication and then puts this information on their website and on the online submission system. There is no general guidance on what is considered prior publication—it has to be an individual journal decision. In some areas prepublication posting is encouraged, and may be required eg for clinical trials. This is a rapidly changing area and journals should be prepared to modify their policies over time, with the increasing number of prior publication options becoming available (eg, blogs, preprint servers). This does raise issues in relation to blind peer review.

Meaning the COPE standards this editor referred me to don't provide any guidance on the issue I raised. Some journals might allow authors to copy 1,500+ words from a media article into a paper published in their journal. Some journals might not. It's up to each individual journal to decide for itself. That makes directing people who asks about this issue to the COPE guidelines is unhelpful.

A while after I informed the editor what paper I was referring to, I received a response stating:

In my capacity as publishing editor of Synthese I am contacting you as you expressed concerns regarding possible text-recycling in a published Synthese article.

We have investigated the matter thoroughly by following the Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines on redundant publication. Our research shows that compared to the article in Open Democracy, the article published in Synthese has expanded on its content significantly. This means the Synthese article is not a duplicate or redundant publication, authors have the right to build upon their previous articles and expand their research.

Our conclusion is that the allegation is not founded. We will therefore consider the matter closed.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Notice, there is still no answer as to what the journal's policy on this matter is. Recycling text like was done here is wrong and considered self-plagiarism if the previous text was part of a "previous work" or "prior publication." The central question is, do articles written for the media count as such?

The editor made no effort to discuss that issue. Instead, he wrote:

Our research shows that compared to the article in Open Democracy, the article published in Synthese has expanded on its content significantly. This means the Synthese article is not a duplicate or redundant publication...

The journal's view is you can copy text (near) verbatim from previous works as long as you significantly expand upon that work. I think that is wrong. I don't think it is correct to say, "He copied all 1,500 words from his earlier paper, but he wrote 3,000 new words so that's okay." That appears to be this journal's view though, because they feel:

authors have the right to build upon their previous articles and expand their research.

But as I pointed out in my response:

Authors certainly have the right to build upon previous articles. That does not inherently mean they have the right to copy thousands of words near verbatim from those articles. I understand you may consider this matter closed, but I am afraid I do not believe this communication addresses the issue I raised.

I don't plan to pursue this matter any further as the journal seems disinclined to actually provide any information about what its policies are. Remember, the entire reason I contacted the journal was to get information. Instead of providing that information, it said things like:

Our conclusion is that the allegation is not founded. We will therefore consider the matter closed.

Even though I made it abundantly clear I didn't know if anything wrong had been done. The journal decided simply asking for information was filing a complaint and making allegations. I don't get that.

What I do get is it is apparently okay to recycle thousands of words in papers published in the Synthese journal. That's great news for anyone feeling lazy about writing their next paper.

And oh, don't worry about the double blind peer review Synthese uses. It's not like the journal really enforces it.


  1. The journal editor's response looks like he's only worried about litigation and not exploring the philosophy or ethics of publication. Maybe you can get them to publish some of your blog posts, provided of course you add to the word count by 50% and substantially elaborate on content. I'm only being half sarcastic here, it might be an interesting, if uncomfortable, topic for them to confront. Just what are the boundaries of self-plagerization? Apparently, others are concerned about it.

  2. Perhaps your response should have said 'I am not making a complaint.'

    Then they might have stopped treating your question as a complaint.

  3. MikeN, there's a level of obtuseness you cannot hope to overcome. Perhaps it would have been better for me to explicitly point out I had not filed any complaint, but I doubt it would have changed how they handled the matter in the slightest.

    Gary, it seems to me like a typical obstructionist response. The editor didn't even attempt to address anything I said. He just made generic remarks, exaggerated what issues were raised then said, "Move along, nothing to see here." It's a shame because it turns out the issue I raised is an important one. Different journals have different standards on what constitutes "previous work" and thus self-plagiarism, yet at least some journals don't state what their standards are.

    It's bad if authors submitting papers cannot hope to now what standards will be applied when considering whether or not to review those papers. It's also bad if readers of a journal cannot hope to know what ethical standards the journal holds its authors to. Then again, the journal claims to use double-blinded peer review even while excusing things which make that impossible.

    By the way, I've stopped getting e-mail alerts for new comments on this site. I'm not sure why. I'm going to look into it in a little bit. I apologize if my responses are slower than normal.

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