A common issue encountered by editors is overlap of text with an author’s own previously published work, particularly with the increasing use of plagiarism detection software. This practice is known as ‘text recycling’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘self-plagiarism’). Opinions on the acceptability of text recycling vary greatly and it can be a challenge for editors to know how to deal with it once it has been identified.
What to do if you suspect redundant (duplicate) publication in a published manuscript.
The instructions to authors should state the journal’s policy on redundant publication.
Asking authors to sign a statement or tick a box may be helpful in subsequent investigations.
ICMJE advises that translations are acceptable but MUST reference the original. Editors may consider publishing a correction (i.e. the link to the original article) rather than a retraction/notice of duplicate publication in such cases.
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A case report was received at the journal. A covering letter was supplied by the two authors stating “Our work has not been published elsewhere and we have been actively involved in the preparation of the paper. No conflict of interest. Not published elsewhere. Patient consent obtained for case report and images to be published”.
Originality is very highly graded in the referee’s marking sheets for case reports, so the editor entered the title of the manuscript into Google, prior to sending out to referees. An exact match for the manuscript, including identical images, was found in an internet only pay per publish journal.
The editor contacted the corresponding author to inform him that the journal was rejecting the article as it had already been published. The author asked if the article would be considered if the publication was withdrawn from the internet journal. The editor replied that it would not. The matter was discussed at the journal editorial board meeting and a decision taken to refer the issue to COPE.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Has the journal handled the case correctly? • Are there other actions the editor should take?
The Forum agreed that the journal had handled the case correctly and no further action is needed. The editor was correct in rejecting the paper and not considering publication if the article was withdrawn from the internet journal. The authors should be told that internet only journals are the same as printed journals, and hence the paper is considered published. The editor could consider alerting the author’s institution.
The editor thanked the Forum for their comments and considers the case closed.
Our journal recently approved a commentary article for publication, after the manuscript had been substantially revised during the editorial process. In the course of preparing the text for the article proof, the copy editor discovered that the authors had published the revised manuscript on an external public website, just prior to receiving notification from our system of our formal acceptance for publication. Although formally accepted, the article has not yet be been published (neither online nor in print).
In our journal, authors are required, at the time of submission of a manuscript, to confirm that the manuscript has not previously been published in other media, that they consent to giving our journal exclusive rights to represent, duplicate and publish the manuscript, and that written consent for subsequent use of the manuscript must be obtained from the Journal.
Immediately after submission of a manuscript, all authors receive a confirmation email in which we repeat that the content/manuscript must not be discussed in any form of media until the manuscript is published by the journal, without a specific exception from us. This message is repeated in several subsequent communications, including at the time of acceptance for publication.
The timing of the publication of this manuscript on an external website falls at an unusual intersection between submission of a revised manuscript, acceptance of a final version of the manuscript and publication of the final manuscript. We judge the situation as somewhat different from the COPE flowcharts for redundant publication. We have informed the authors that we have postponed publication until we receive the COPE Forum's recommendation. In the meantime, we have asked the authors to remove the content of the manuscript from the external website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it acceptable to permanently withhold publication of this otherwise accepted manuscript?
The editor updated the Forum that the author has now removed the manuscript from the external public website, stating that it was a technical error.
The Forum suggested that this case highlights the lack of knowledge of some authors with regard to the consequences of posting on blogs, websites, etc, and that education is needed around these issues to reinforce the message that this constitutes publishing.
The Forum noted that this was not redundant publication but could have been a breach of copyright, if the paper had not been taken down from the website. With so many publishing models available, is it conceivable that the authors were confused? Editors should ensure their journal policies on permissible duplicate publication are up to date. For some journals, publication of manuscripts on preprint servers, for example, is permissible, but this should be clearly indicated on the journal website. In the present case, the journal does not have an open access policy and at the time of submission the journal assumes copyright of the article.
The Forum agreed that the authors were in the wrong here, but the right thing to do now is for the journal to publish the paper. If the editor feels she would like to do more, she could consider contacting the authors’ institution as a way of educating the authors and providing a gentle reminder of the appropriate behaviour in such instances, and the contract and copyright issues involved when authors submit a paper for publication.
The authors were understanding of the journal's concerns and removed the content from the external website. The journal proceeded to publish the manuscript.
An author submitted a redundant publication to one of our journals. After reviewing the report from the anti-plagiarism software, we followed the COPE flowchart up to and including contacting the author's institution. We have not received a response from the author or the author's institution. Shortly afterwards, the same author submitted a (different) redundant publication to one of our other journals. We followed the same steps and have not received a response.
The institution listed in the author's submission form is not an academic one. We cannot find the author on the staff list and the only email address the author has provided is a Gmail account.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What additional steps can/should we should take if the author/institution is unresponsive?
The editor provided additional information to the Forum that the two submissions contained plagiarised material and were replications of two already published articles. The editor has written to the author and the institution but has received no response.
In such cases the Forum would normally advise approaching a higher authority than the institution if that is possible. Is there a professional body that the author belongs to or a funder that could be contacted? In the UK, for example, you might contact the General Medical Council (GMC) if the author was a registered doctor.
However, the Forum acknowledged that there is only so much the editor can do, and it may be the case that the editor has to accept that there is nothing more he can do. The Forum advised making all the journal editors aware of this person in case future submissions are received but advised against blacklisting, especially if the true identity of the author is in doubt.
The editor attempted to contact the author/institution again but to no avail. Both papers were rejected (and the journal’s concerns about the high level of textual overlap were included in that letter, following COPE sample letters). The journal considers the case closed.
The editor of journal A was alerted to the fact that an article published in journal A had been previously published in journal B and constituted a duplicate publication. The editor contacted the authors who explained that they had tried to withdraw the article from journal B but their request was ignored and the article was published against their wishes.
The authors contacted journal B with a request to retract the article. Journal B removed the article from its website but did not publish a retraction notice or any explanation as to why the article had been removed. The article published in journal B was not indexed in any indexing services, but the title can still be found by a search in Google Scholar.
The editor of journal A wonders if they need to alert the readership to the fact that a reference to the same article in journal B can be found. They feel that retraction of the article from journal A is not the correct course of action in this case because the article is scientifically sound, and currently only the version published in journal A is available. However, readers may still be misled by references to journal B that can be found on the internet.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should journal A publish an ‘Expression of concern’ to highlight the duplicate publication in the past. However, the article in journal B is no longer available. Perhaps a comment in the comments system of journal A would suffice?
COPE does not seem to have clear guidelines in one place on how and when to use Expressions of concern (although we appreciate they are referred to in various Cases and in the Retraction Guidelines). It is also not clear whether they should be used as temporary notes or permanent publications (or can be both?). Different publishers use them on a case-by-case basis in an inconsistent way. PubMed recognizes an Expression of concern as a type of comment. We thought that it may be useful to discuss Expressions of concern in one of the future COPE discussion Forums to gather opinions from different publishers with a view to develop a more detailed set of guidelines for editors.
The Forum discussed issues relating to punishing the author and correcting the literature. Retractions or corrections should only be used to correct the literature—not for “punishment” In the first instance a notice needs to go on the article in journal A, which could be an expression of concern. Under normal circumstances, the article in journal B should be the one that remains, but the article is currently only available in journal A. Hence the only way of having transparency around this case is for a formal note to be added to journal A. It is essential that the formal note is a form that can be indexed and is citable. It could be an addendum, if that is linked to the article or an expression of concern.
The Forum also noted that the authors should be made aware that simultaneous submissions then withdrawing an article from one journal because you wish to publish it in another journal is not acceptable behaviour, if that is what happened in this case.
COPE agreed to consider the topic of expressions of concern for a Forum discussion.
The editor of journal A followed COPE advice and published a permanent notice in journal A (an expression of concern that is indexed and citable) explaining the duplicate publication that was removed from journal B and linking the note to the original publication in journal A. The editor considers the case now closed.
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.
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.
A manuscript was submitted to our journal describing a study of a new drug. The manuscript had only one author who gave their affiliation as a company that we can find no record of online. It describes a study in which they appear to have developed a new drug, carried out a toxicology study in mice and then, because no adverse effects were seen, tested it on one patient and five healthy volunteers. There appear to have be no stages in between. There is no statement of informed consent in the manuscript. There is a statement that says the study was reviewed by the institution’s human subjects committee but we cannot find a record of the institution.
We had ethical concerns about the study so we asked the authors for more information, specifically: the details of the ethics committee that approved the study; whether they had informed consent from the patient and healthy volunteers; whether the trial had been registered before it commenced; how the patient and controls were recruited; what information the patient and controls were given before they agreed to participate; where the study took place; what safety/monitoring was in place in case of any adverse effects; what approval was obtained (eg, from the country’s drug regulatory body) before this drug was injected into a human for the first time; and what other research had already been carried out on this new drug? The author responded to our email asking to withdraw the manuscript but did not answer any of our questions. We responded that we had serious ethical concerns and therefore would not be withdrawing the manuscript at this time. We informed the author that we would be investigating the potential ethical issues and asked again for answers to our questions. We have heard nothing from the author since.
The author is based in a country that does not appear to have a national medical board and is not affiliated to an academic institution or hospital. The affiliation given is the company that we can find no record of. The author’s email address is not an institutional or company email address. We have contacted the professional society for the medical specialty of the author but they have informed us that the author is not a member and therefore they cannot investigate. We have also searched for the author on the registry of the regional medical board for the region in which the author is based, and they are not registered with them either. We do not want to reject the manuscript until an appropriate body has agreed to investigate but we are struggling as to how else to report this.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Does the Forum agree that we should continue to try and find someone to investigate this before we reject? (2) Does the Forum have any suggestions on how we can report this?
The Forum agreed that the editor had made a tremendous effort in trying to resolve this case. The Forum reiterated that in instances where a paper is rejected or withdrawn, there is still a responsibility to pursue any suspicions of misconduct. In this case, where the author wishes to withdraw the paper, it was agreed that the editor had probably done as much as he could. In some countries, this type of behaviour might be considered criminal, and a last resort might be to inform the legal authorities in that country.
The Forum advised that there is always the possibility that the paper is a hoax, but the editor has to assume, until otherwise proven, that the author has submitted the paper in good faith and should investigate this as far as possible. This is a particularly difficult case as it is a single author paper. If there had been more than one author on the paper, the journal could have applied the revised criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The fourth criterion states that all authors are accountable for all aspects of the work and are responsible for ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. However, this is not applicable in this case as there is only one author.
The only other suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this topic, emphasizing that this type of behaviour is unacceptable.
After the case was discussed at the forum, the journal made one further attempt to report the unethical research. This was successful and the case is now being investigated by the relevant governmental department in the country where the research was carried out. The editor also discovered that while he had been trying to resolve this case, the article had been published in another journal. He informed the editor of that journal of the duplicate submission and his concerns.
Follow up (June 2014):
After the relevant governmental department agreed to investigate, the manuscript was rejected by the journal. The journal did not receive a response from the editor of the other journal in which the article had been published.
A reviewer of our journal noticed similarity between a published paper (P1) and a manuscript under review (P2). At the same time, a member of the editorial team noticed similarity between another accepted manuscript for publication (P3) and both paper P1 and manuscript P2. All three papers were submitted by the same authors based on the same trial, reporting three different endpoints measuring the same effect. The earlier paper P1 reported the results on the most accepted and validated efficacy measures. The latter manuscripts reiterated the findings of the published paper but did not cite the same.
The editor-in-chief decided to hold P2 and P3 and follow the COPE guidelines. The editorial team asked clarifications from the authors, who in reply stated their ignorance about publication practices and argued that the two other efficacy measures will substantiate the results of P1. The results of the papers were contradictory to current practices and hence the editorial team decided to be lenient with the authors. The editors suggested combining the two manuscripts under review (P2 and P3) into one short communication and asked the authors for appropriate modifications (eg, reporting ancillary data).
The authors modified the manuscript but quoted a guideline for analysis, which had not used before, was not present when the authors completed their study and was not related to the topic. This raised questions about the overall integrity and reliability of the authors. The editorial team decided to hold the manuscript and refer to the COPE Forum for consultation.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) What should be the stand of the editorial board, especially if authors want to withdraw the paper? (2) Should the editors share the review information with editors of other related journals? (3) Should we disclose the names of the authors to other journal editors in the sector? (4) Should we have an alert list of such authors?
The Forum agreed that even if the authors wish to withdraw the paper, and they have every right to do so, this does not mean that the issue is gone away or is resolved. If the editor has concerns, he/she retains the right to follow-up with the author and/or the institution. The editor can still contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate. COPE always advises that even if a paper is rejected or withdrawn, the editor has a duty to follow-up any issues relating to suspected misconduct. The editor may like to explain this to the authors.
It may be necessary to share the information with related journals, but the editor may need to assess the scale of the problem first by doing a search for other articles by the same authors and determining what other journals are involved.
Regarding an alert list, COPE always advises against blacklisting authors or sharing alert lists with other editors because of the risk of litigation and the danger of harming other innocent associated authors.
The editor asked the authors for clarification, but did not get a reply even after several reminders. The editor also contacted the author’s institution and asked them to investigate the case but received no reply. The article was rejected on the grounds of compromised publication ethics.
The case was discussed by the editorial team members. The journal has improved the editorial review methods of the journal to filter out possible cases of plagiarism and salami slicing. The editor discussed the case (without revealing any of the author's details) with editors of related journals who said that they also experienced similar cases and expressed the need for efforts to create awareness to avoid publication misconduct. The editor acknowledges the guidance from the COPE website in strengthening the journal's editorial processes.