Self plagiarism

Some scientists have enormous publication records, a notorious case being one who claimed personal discovery of the HIV virus. During the 1980s, this person managed to figure as an author in up to 90 papers a year, despite mainly travelling back and forth to conferences. If the same name appears again and again in publications – it makes little difference where it figures in the list of authors – it is that name that is remembered as an “authority”. In some cases such an accolade is deserved, in others it is engineered by a variety of devices: the same data can be used over and over (most blatantly if those data are ‘engineered in the first place); a place in an authors’ list can result from being a ‘guest’, in the manner of a faded star, ‘down on their luck’, who pops up with a one-line cameo in a film (I rule out Alfred Hithcock’s appearance as a bystander in every film that he made); by nicking the ideas and words of others; through the device of self plagiarism. The last is an especially cunning ploy, as it also saves time crafting text. The italicized sentence above is an example self-plagiarised from the March 2002 issue of EPN (Credit where credit is due?), but as a blogger I can do that with a clear conscience; Earth Pages News is highly unlikely to get me into the ‘Professoriat’, especially my inability to resist occasional items such as this! Having provided the original source reference, I am safe from universal condemnation.

Potentially the game is up for plagiarists and pot-boilers in peer-reviewed journals through scanning software (e.g. Turnitin) that checks text against web-available journals. Self-plagiarism may well be an oxymoron, but it serves as CV fodder as well as creating academic redundancy. It hit the news (Reich, E.S. 2010. Self-plagiarism case prompts calls for agencies to tighten rules. Nature, v. 468, p. 745) because of a case in Canada where an author’s peer-reviewed portfolio was found to contain 20 instances. No academic censure ensued, but three of his papers were retracted. Using the Déjà Vu facility to check biomedical literature has resulted in 79 thousand cases of duplicated wording in abstracts and titles alone, and the eventual retraction of almost 100 articles. Seemingly, journal editors are allowing repeated use of text in the ‘methods’ sections of papers, so a geochemist minor co-author, who gets a ride for a small contribution based on use of a particular piece of equipment might be safe in that regard, there being safety in numbers. Yet as the use of anti-plagiarism software spreads into the wider on-line literature its original targets, undergraduate and graduate students, may decide that the biter ought to be bit and turn the cyber searchlight on their ‘betters’…

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