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.
A sixth year medical student, with expected year of graduation of 2013 (Mr X), submitted 29 original articles and 17 letters to the editor in the period February 2012 to October 2012 to our journal. This amounted to an average of five submissions per month. Mr X is an author and corresponding author in every article. Of these, he is the first author of eight original research articles and 12 letters. In the remaining one he is a co-author. The articles are on very diverse subjects.
This set us thinking that, apart from his clinical work and studies, how he had time to conduct research, analyse the results and write the articles.
The journal first wrote to Mr X for the necessary justification. He responded promptly, “I am one of the best researchers of my country and have multiple publications in every field of medicine and have won multiple prizes”. He provided a list of 72 publications to his credit. He also provided the name and email of the chief of the research committee of the university.
We wrote to the concerned parties asking them to endorse the submissions as being ethical and valid for the purpose of publication. The chief replied that Mr X was a member of the student research committee with some research background in medicine which led to multiple awards and publications. He confirmed the research background in a vague manner and there were no more comments or endorsements of the submitted articles.
We then wrote to the vice chancellor of the university asking for verification and endorsement of the articles according to the ICMJE guidelines. The director of research affairs was also approached, who asked for details of all the articles submitted. These were duly sent.
In the meantime, Mr X contacted us stating that his e-mail had been hacked and someone else had sent letters and articles with his name. This was incorrect, as all mails had the same e-mail address. We also sent an email to the Publication Commission in our country on 6 March 2013. There has been no response.
We face a dilemma. The articles are lying unprocessed. It is a mystery as to why the higher authorities are not taking any action or replying to our emails.
Question What would the COPE Forum suggest we do?
The Forum suggested that it may be useful in this case to help rather than punish the author. As an initial approach, the Forum asked if there was any pastoral care available to the student, or whether the medical school has anyone who could talk to the student in a confidential manner. This may be more of a problem with the student, rather than research integrity concerns. The institution has a responsibility to its students and they need to ensure that students are sufficiently supported. So the editor should consider contacting someone in this role at the author’s university.
However, that still leaves the dilemma of the unprocessed articles and what to do with them. The Forum advised that the editor needs to be certain that the articles are all from the author and that he takes responsibility for them. If there is any doubt, then the articles should not be processed. However, if the articles are genuine and have scientific merit, then they should be processed in the normal way, as there are no grounds for rejection.
The Forum also suggested contacting any co-authors on the papers for an explanation and to confirm that the papers have all been written by the author. The editor should make it clear to the author that the papers are on hold while the issue is satisfactorily resolved.
Another suggestion was for the editor to consider contacting some higher authority or regulatory body, or ministry of research, and asking them to investigate the case.
As suggested by the Forum members, we did some investigations ourselves as the higher authorities, including the Vice Chancellor of the University to which the author belonged, were unresponsive.
As a sample, an Internet search was made for three of the articles. One was found to be copied in full from a similar article in another online journal.
A search was made for the correct names and email addresses of the coauthors, as those stated in the articles submitted to us were wrong. We spoke to two coauthors by telephone— one knew nothing about the concerned author or about his name being included as a coauthor. He also knew nothing about the article. Another senior coauthor spoke in favour of the author. He said, “ Mr X is a very intelligent and knowledgeable researcher and writes very well”. He could not justify how Mr X could write on such diverse topics.
We received only one email reply from a senior professor. He wrote : “I was really shocked to see the paper published without my knowledge. I do not know Mr X (author). I have never met him. He has never worked with me. He has stolen my published data. I am going to forward this message to the ethics department and make a complaint on the concerned person at the university”.
We have had no comment or reply to our queries from the officials of the university. From the Internet searches made by us, we can conclude that Mr X, the medical student (author) is: • Not only good at writing in English but is also excellent in fabricating and stealing data. • He has the support of one or two senior faculty members of his university. • He has been committing these unethical acts for quite a few years as there are a number of articles with his name. • The articles submitted to our journal had fake email addresses and names, even with incorrect spellings, making contact difficult. • The signatures of all authors were forged.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should we just close all the files and bury the case? (2) If not, what steps should be taken?
Advice on follow up:
One view from the Forum was that, as suggested before, the editor should contact a higher authority, regulatory body, or ministry of research, and ask them to investigate the case, given the institution’s unwillingness or inability to engage with the editor on this issue.
However, others argued that it is the responsibility of the institution to deal with this student. Institutions not responding to editors’ requests is a common problem, and the advice was to contact the institution every 3 months, requesting a reply and including copies of the information on the case. The editor should say that he/she does not consider the matter closed and request that the institution investigate the case. If the institution does agree to an investigation, the editor should publish the findings of the investigation in the journal, using the text from the institution’s report.
The Forum advised the editor not to accept any more papers from this author. The editor should write to all of the authors of the submitted manuscripts to say that no further papers will be considered from this student.
Regarding the published papers, the editor should consider contacting the editors of the other journals that published papers by this author.
Update (December 2013): The Secretary National Ethics Committee updated the editor that the university was conducting an investigation. The Committee have confirmed that more misconducts had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. The Committee suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles in the journal’s office. The journal plans to make a final decision on the pending articles very soon.
Update (February 2014):
The Secretary National Ethics Committee told the editor that more misconduct cases had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. He suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles. We will make a final decision on the pending articles shortly.
Update (June 2014):
The decision of the editorial board of our journal was to close all 27 pending files on the grounds of fraud. The decision was also taken to debar the author. The Secretary National Research Ethics Committee of the author’s university was informed.
Ten years ago, the author published a paper on the same subject in his country’s specialty journal. The first report was short and the product of the author’s graduate work. The publication was in their country’s language. (Recently, the journal has been translating the abstracts of their previous publications into English, but the body of the text is still in their language.) Subsequently, the author submitted to our journal a more extensive article on the same subject, which included more data. This went through our peer review process and was published last year.
We were made aware of this problem several months ago. We consulted with the editor-in-chief of the original journal and he feels that it is a double publication and should be withdrawn. At the same time, we contacted the President of their country’s specialty organization, who thinks that this is a new publication and the author has done nothing wrong.
Initially, my feeling was that if the original journal felt that this was an infringement on their copyright, then the paper should be withdrawn. However, the comments from the President of their specialty association have left me and our editorial staff in a quandary. We are unsure how to proceed.
The author has been contacted and feels his more extensive publication should stand. He feels that the original publication is a more abbreviated version and received only regional exposure.
We would welcome the Forum’s opinion.
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. The main issue here is one of transparency and disclosure. It is acceptable to publish a longer version of a paper that was published previously as an abstract, as long as the original abstract is cited. If there are significant new data, then duplicate publication may not be an issue, but the original material must be cited. Hence, in principal, this is not duplicate publication but the problem here is the transparency issue and the lack of disclosure by the author.
There may also be a copyright issue, which the editor needs to discuss with the editor of the first journal. A suggestion was that if the editor is confident that this is not duplicate publication, he could publish a correction.
The editor is preparing a correction that acknowledges the previous publication. The correction will indicate that it is a more extensive presentation of the data, but there is some redundancy. This will make the issue transparent to the reader.
This case involves four manuscripts. Three of the manuscripts were originally published in another language and then published in our English language journal. There is overlap in the authors who were involved in all four manuscripts.
The first and second manuscripts were duplicated publications from another journal. The evidence is very clear. The papers were published in another country in another language, and then in English. A native speaker of the other language was able to read both versions and found only minor differences, and the editor of the foreign language journal also did this, and recommended that our journal retract the papers. The authors checked the box on our submission form that indicated that the submissions had not been published elsewhere, and they made no mention of any previous publication in their covering letter.
For the third paper, which shares authors, we had no evidence of duplicate publication until we heard from the editor of the foreign language journal who said that it came from two other articles. However, the editor did not say in which journals these were published. Again, the authors checked the box indicating that the paper was original and had not been previously published.
For the fourth manuscript there is no evidence of duplicate publication, but it shares one author and is therefore included. The editor of the foreign language journal did not find a duplicate publication.
Two authors are in common on the three duplicated papers. The paper for which we do not have evidence of duplication has different authors for the most part, but one of its authors is also an author of two of the duplicated papers. To try to make this clear, the authorship of the four papers is as follows, where each letter indicates an author: 1) A, B, C, D 2) A, B, C, E 3) A, B, F, G, H 4) C, I, J, K, L
The editor in chief of our journal wrote to the authors (A, B, and C) telling them that they had violated international standards against duplicate publishing and received an email in reply from a supervisor at their institution, apologising for this. We seek guidance from COPE on how to publish a retraction in our journal concerning these four manuscripts, or is another course of action more appropriate?
The Forum noted that publication of a translation of a paper is permissible if the process is transparent and the original paper is cited in the translation. In this case, the authors failed to inform the editor of the previous versions of papers 1 and 2, and checked the box on the submission form saying the papers had not been published previously. One option suggested by the Forum was to publish a notice of duplicate publication, as then readers would not be deprived of reading the translated version of the paper. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and asking them for an explanation. If the editor is satisfied with the evidence of duplicate publication, he should retract both papers. There should be one retraction notice per paper so that the notice can be linked to the original paper. The retraction notice should clearly identify the original paper.
Regarding the third paper, the editor should obtain full details from the other editor about where the paper was published previously. When the editor has definite evidence and the names of the other journals, he can then decide on whether or not to retract the third paper.
For the fourth paper, as there is no evidence of duplicate publication, the editor should not retract this paper. COPE advises against punishing authors or imposing bans because of the risk of litigation. However, the editor can contact the authors and ask them questions about the paper, but he needs to have evidence before taking any further action.
After the editor contacted all of the authors, and received all of the information with regard to the third paper, the journal decided to retract the three papers.
The authors submitted a paper to our journal which went through the review process and was accepted for publication. It was then placed online in corrected proof. While online we were informed by a reader that the paper appeared to have been published in a journal local to the authors, although only an abstract was available in English. We requested that the authors submit an English language version of the original paper so that we could assess whether this was a case of dual publication. In the meantime, we removed the online version.
Following this, the authors withdrew the paper. The question now is, should we pursue this further by reporting the authors to the regulators in their country for an apparent attempt at dual publication and, if so, to whom should we report?
The Forum reiterated the fact (raised in case 10-14) that if something is published online, then it should be considered published. Hence, an editor cannot simply remove a paper from their website. In this case, the author cannot withdraw his paper as it has been published. A paper should only be removed from on online site if it has been formally retracted. If the editor has clear evidence of duplicate publication (ie, if he can review the translated published paper and determine the degree of overlap between the two papers), then he should re-instate the paper on the website along with a notice of duplicate publication. The editor should follow the flowchart on ‘Suspected redundant publication in a published article’. He should contact the authors for an explanation. If no response or an unsatisfactory response is obtained, he should consider contacting the authors’ institution.
The authors formally retracted the paper. Therefore, the paper was not re-instated. The reason given by the authors was that they did not want to go to the expense of providing an English translation of their original paper. At this stage my inclination is to do nothing further.
Two authors submitted a case report which was interesting but not written in the style of the journal. The editor therefore invited the authors to rewrite the case report, and resubmit it. They did so within a week. The case report was sent out for peer review, accepted and published.
The head of department of one of the authors then wrote to the journal, stating that the case report had previously been published in a non-English language journal. Moreover, in that version of the case report, but not in the more recent version, the head of department had been listed as an author. The head of department had not been asked or informed about the submission to the British journal. The head of department gave the reference of the previous publication. The editor obtained the paper: it did indeed appear to be the same case, since it had essentially the same story and identical figures. The head of department was listed as an author, together with the two authors who had submitted the case report to the editor.
The authors had written a cover letter for each submission. Both cover letters stated that the case report had not been submitted to any other journal. They had been sent after the case report was published in the non-English language journal. The authors were contacted separately by email, and asked to explain the discrepancy. They were warned that if no satisfactory explanation was provided, the journal would have to retract the case report. At the time of writing, they have both written to say that they will provide an explanation, but have not yet done so.
The majority of the members of the Forum agreed that there were grounds for retraction of the paper. However, others argued that as the papers were in different languages, a “notice of duplicate publication” would be more appropriate. All agreed that this was a definite case of misconduct. There are two issues here: (1) the author issue in relation to the names on the two papers and (2) the duplicate publication issue. There may also be copyright issues with the first journal. The advice was to write to the author’s institution, but not in this case to the head of department as he may be unable to remain unbiased. It was suggested to write to the Dean of the university and ask him to investigate.
The authors wrote to us to say that the previous publication was not a scientific publication (ie, in a magazine rather than a journal). They said that the magazine had no editor, no peer reviewers and no signed author agreement. They sent us a photocopy of the instructions to authors, and highlighted a sentence saying “bear in mind that you are not writing a scientific publication”, from which they inferred that the magazine was not a scientific publication.
However, the publication is quite a well known journal in their country of origin. It does have an editor. It is indexed on PUBMED, as indeed was their original publication. The statement about “not writing a scientific publication” appeared to refer to the section, rather than to the journal as a whole: moreover, it was in the section “guide to style”, and hence appeared to be intended to encourage lucid writing.
We therefore retracted the publication.
We also wrote to the professor who had let us know about the duplicate publication, to thank him.
We received a case report from one of the authors of this paper, and the professor who had told us about the duplicate publication. We rejected it on the grounds that it was good, but not exceptional.
Paper A appeared in a foreign language journal, together with an English abstract. Paper B was submitted to us, and one of our referees alerted us to the similar content.
Closer inspection, including retrieval of the original foreign language manuscript and review by a deputy editor with a working knowledge of that language, and inspection of the tables by the editor and another editor, indicated that the two papers contained largely identical data and had a similar content. The foreign language version included slightly more detail on the research setting, methods, and results compared with the English version, while in the English version there were some additional analyses and minor changes in the title and organisation of the content. Despite these differences, the text of the two versions was similar and the main messages and conclusions were the same.
On submission to us, paper B did not make reference to, acknowledge, or cite the previous foreign language publication. The covering letter to the journal stated: “Please note that neither the entire paper nor any part of its content has been published or accepted by another journal. The paper is not being submitted to any other journal”. When asked to supply the earlier paper, the authors included a covering note pointing to some differences (which we believe to be minor) and acknowledged “the possibility of an overlap between the foreign language paper and the submitted manuscript”.
We believe that parallel publication is quite common and acceptable when the purpose is to disseminate data from a foreign language-only paper more widely, but wonder whether the authors should have been more forthcoming or accurate in their citations and covering letter.
We would be grateful if COPE could advise us on the correct course of action in this case, and also provide more general guidance about the acceptability of publishing similar material in multiple languages.
The committee agreed that it was entirely acceptable to publish a paper in a foreign language journal and then in an English journal provided the first paper is cited in the second journal, and it is made clear to the editor at submission. Both journals should give consent as the first journal has copyright. Although in the case of this particular journal there was no explicit advice on this subject in the instructions to authors, it was felt that this advice is freely available and widely acknowledged.
The committee felt that the authors had deliberately misled the editor. One piece of advice was to write a strongly worded letter to the authors saying that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. Some members of the committee thought that stronger action was required to reflect the seriousness of the matter, and that the authors’ institutions should be informed.
It was suggested that the instructions to authors of the journal should be updated to explicitly state that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. The could be further highlighted in an accompanying editorial.
A paper was published in an Italian language journal, together with an English abstract. A second paper was submitted to a UK journal, one of whose referees spotted the similar content.
Closer inspection indicates that both papers contain identical data and had an almost identical abstract and conclusions. The second paper does not reference, acknowledge, or cite the previous Italian publication. The covering letter to the journal confirms that the submitted material had not been published before.
The editors considered that parallel publication is quite common and acceptable when the purpose is to disseminate data from a foreign language only paper more widely, but wondered whether the authors should have been more forthcoming or accurate in their citations and covering letter.
This is a clear cut case of duplicate publication.
The editors should write to the authors and their institution.
An English language journal received a study describing a randomised controlled trial. The paper was accepted and published several months later. Five months after its publication the editors were informed that a similar study had been published in a German language journal two years earlier. Three of the four authors were involved. It had been carried out over the same time period, using the same methods, and had arrived at the same conclusion. The only difference was that the earlier publication involved 168 cases and the later one 200. The second article did not reference the earlier publication nor had the editors been made aware of its existence. Had the editors known about the earlier publication the chances of publication of the second paper would have been significantly weakened. The lead author was contacted to explain. He apologised for the oversight, acknowledging that the second article should have referenced the first, but arguing that the first article would not have been generally accessible to most of the journal’s readership. He continued that the second publication expanded on the earlier pilot study of 32 patients, while the discussion considered other countries. The tables and text were original and not copied from any previous article, he said. He added that the authors would be pleased to acknowledge in an erratum that this was an unintentional oversight. - Does this constitute dual publication? - Should the authors’ apology be accepted or should the matter be taken further?
- This case should really be called redundant publication. - The explanation that this was an oversight is simply not credible. - The question is how will other people know that this is an expansion of the first study? - The editors should write to the authors’ institutions and post a notice of redundant publication.
A published article was subsequently republished in a foreign language journal, with exactly the same results and text. Just a few extra references were added. The senior author had written to apologise for the foreign language publication, but argued that the second publication was a different paper.
But the editor disagreed: the foreign language publication had not referenced the original English language version, and he banned the author from publishing in the journal. The society publisher’s council subsequently decided that this ban should apply to all of the society’s journals, and for a period of 10 years.
How long should the ban apply—is there any precedent that could serve as guidance for such cases?
What is the usual practice when duplicate publication in another language has occurred?
A ban should not be imposed without an investigation.
The journal does not have a contract with the author so is not in a position to investigate the background evidence of the duplicate publication.
There is no precedent for an “appropriate” length of a ban. But 10 years is excessive.
The difficulty with bans is that they are often imposed without due process and it is difficult to ensure that they are applied consistently and fairly.
To avoid risk of litigation journals need clear evidence of misconduct.
If an editor is seriously concerned about an author’s actions s/he should ask the institution to carry out an investigation.
The republication of articles in foreign language journals is quite common.
This is only acceptable if the authors make this very clear to the journals involved and clearly reference the first publication.
The editor should contact the authors’ institution and request an investigation, and inform the authors of his intention to do so.
Both journals should publish a notice of duplicate publication, preferably at the same time. - The length of the ban should be reconsidered.