A reader flagged up that a review article originally published in a journal X in April 2003 had subsequently appeared with a few minor additions and deletions in journal Y (our journal) in July 2004 and then in journal Z (of which the author is an editor) in September 2006. The authors on the paper are all from the same institute although with some minor differences between the publications: journal X has three authors; journal Y has two of these authors plus a further two; and journal Z has all three authors from the first paper, plus one from the second journal and a further two new authors.
The editor-in-chief and the publisher reviewed the two review articles from journal X and journal Y side by side and identified that significant portions of the text from the 2003 journal X publication were used verbatim in 2004 in journal Y. Specifically:
(1) The title of the paper is identical.
(2) Three out of seven headings are identical.
(3) The abstracts are identical except for a couple of minor amendments.
(4) Three out of the seven sections within the review article are identical barring a few minor changes (eg, dropping single words like ‘other’ and an abbreviation is described in full instead).
(5) In the remaining four sections, the majority of the text is identical except for a few similar minor changes, but has the occasional new sentence(s) and/or paragraph(s).
(6) Four of the five images that appear in journal Y already appeared in journal X’s review article. Journal Y had no other images.
Journal X’s paper is only cited once in journal Y and this is only in reference to permission to reproduce an image. No other citation or reference is given to the paper in journal X.
The editor-in-chief of journal Y followed our standard procedures and wrote to the corresponding author seeking an explanation. They responded promptly and indicated that they “object (to) the use of the term plagiarism in this context”. Although the “stated facts are correct (the author has) copied and pasted sentences and whole paragraphs from (journal X) 2003 papers in (journal Y’s) 2004 paper and (Journal Z’s) 2006 paper… all three papers were no (sic) original articles, but invited reviews”. The author also noted that “(journal Y’s) paper duly cited the prior (journal X) paper… so that nothing was ever concealed”. The author goes on to say that “as an author I have the factual and intellectual responsibility for the content of my papers, and if I want to express the same thoughts and say the same things, I am almost obliged to use the same words, unless I find better ones, and this is exactly what I have done in good faith without plagiarizing anyone… I have been invited for updated reviews, and therefore I have updated what needed to be updated and left what was still true. I am not aware that I have violated anyone’s rights or rules. I have never signed a copyright release form that would prevent me from using my very own words again”. He copied in the Dean of Research Affairs at his institution, who we have not approached for a response, and who has also not commented on the situation.
We would be grateful for the Forum’s advice on whether to pursue this as we would an original article case of self-plagiarism (ie, retract the paper) or whether it would suggest an alternative course of action(s). We have not investigated the allegation made about journal Z as it is outside of our remit.
The view of Forum was that this was a case of duplicate publication and the paper should be retracted. The editor had been deceived, and if he had known about the previous publication he would not have published the paper. However, some members of the Forum thought that this response was too rigid as the paper was a review article and not original research. Some argued that if we take a hard line on self-plagiarism there will be no new reviews. It can be difficult for authors to produce new reviews without repeating previous work. The Forum suggested that the term “self-plagiarism” is unhelpful and we should use the term “text recycling” or “redundant publication” instead, to clearly distinguish this from true plagiarism.
The Forum agreed that this type of behaviour may have been widespread when the paper was originally published several years ago, but since that time ethical standards have improved. Perhaps the editor should write an editorial on this issue. A suggestion was for the editor to look at the instructions to authors and commissioning letter that the journal sends out and make sure that it clearly states that the journal should be informed of any previous publications on the same topic. Another suggestion was to issue a notice of duplicate publication rather than retract the paper, and in doing so it would make the point that reviewers should not publish the same review more than once.
The journal is looking at taking the path suggested by the majority of the COPE Forum (ie, a notice of duplicate publication (not retraction)) and changes to their review article invitation letter. The editor is awaiting confirmed wording from the journal’s legal department before proceeding.