Possible self-plagiarism and/or prior publication

Case number: 

Case text (Anonymised)

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 http://publicationethics.org/files/Discussion%20document.pdf), and that copyright and rights of author issues may apply.

In summary, both co-editors of the journal consider that this case constitutes self-plagiarism and possibly redundant/duplicate publication according to the COPE Case Taxonomy (http://publicationethics.org/cope-case-taxonomy). The two COPE case taxonomy areas we refer to in this case are:
o ‘Self-plagiarism’ (submitted article)—reusing one’s own previous writing without being transparent about this or appropriately referencing/quoting from the original” and
o ‘Prior Publication’—The publication, or attempted publication, of whole or substantial parts of the work/data/analysis that have already been published, or have been submitted elsewhere, without transparency or appropriate declaration/referencing.

We have contacted the author, forwarding the two peer reviewers’ comments which both contained major revisions to the manuscript, also pointing out that we are aware of the existence of the article on the author’s website.

Question(s) for the COPE Forum
We would be grateful for the Forum’s advice on:

  • Whether to pursue this as we would a case of self-plagiarism of a previously published journal article (ie, reject the paper) or whether it would suggest an alternative course of action(s).
  • The other related issue is the publication of ‘green copies’. While many journals, including our own, now encourage authors to make their own author copy available on public forums (eg, researchgate, institutional fora), such publication would normally take place after the publication of an article in a journal and not before. It is our concern that better policies need to be developed around prior publication.

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.

Regarding the present case, if the journal has not been explicit about what it considers prior publication, it may be difficult to accuse the author of self-plagiarism or duplicate publication. The author may reasonably state that he was unaware of the journal policy. Some members of the Forum noted that they would normally allow this form of prior publication but there should be a link to the previous version, and the author should have made the journal aware of the previous publication.

Other members of the Forum stated that they would definitely consider this prior publication, and would reject the paper.

So the editors needs to decide for themselves what they consider to be appropriate for their journal and their discipline.

There is an initiative called CrossMark, available for publishers, which provides a “version of record”, making it very clear which is the published version with linking to any other versions.

Follow up: 

The editorial decision was to reject the manuscript in its current form, but offering the author the option of resubmitting the article following a substantial and complete reworking of the manuscript to include all of the feedback from the reviewers. The editors confirmed that they would require every one of the reviewers’ suggestions to be addressed in any resubmission, and that they did not guarantee acceptance of the resubmitted manuscript, which would be subject to further review by the same reviewers as previously. To date the journal has not received a reworked new version of the manuscript.

Case Closed